Capture

On May 18, 1565, the Ottomans, having already chased the Knights Hospitaller out of the Middle East and Rhodes, went after them in Malta, partly because they were fighting against Muslim pirates raiding Christian lands in the western Mediterranean. The Ottomans were defeated and withdrew on, of all dates, September 11, helping dispel the notion of Ottoman invincibility and pointing toward Lepanto. But why are there so many such stories of a massive Ottoman onslaught on a Christian neighbor?

The Knights, with approximately 2,000 footsoldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. This victory became one of the most celebrated events in sixteenth-century Europe. Voltaire said, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” and it undoubtedly contributed to the eventual erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility and marked a new phase in Spanish domination of the Mediterranean

The siege was the climax of an escalating contest between a Christian alliance and the Islamic Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean, a contest that included the Turkish attack on Malta in 1551 and the Ottoman destruction of an allied Christian fleet at the Battle of Djerba in 1560.

Before the Turks arrived, de Valette ordered the harvesting of all the crops, including unripened grain, to deprive the enemy of any local food supplies. Furthermore, the Knights poisoned all wells with bitter herbs and dead animals.

The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday, 18 May, but did not at once make land. The first fighting broke out on 19 May.

A day later, the Ottoman fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island, turned around and finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) Bay, nearly 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Grand harbour region. According to most accounts, in particular Balbi’s, a dispute arose between the leader of the land forces, the 4th Vizier serdar Kızılahmedli Mustafa Pasha, and the supreme naval commander, Piyale Pasha, about where to anchor the fleet. Piyale wished to shelter it at Marsamxett Harbour, just north of the Grand Harbour, in order to avoid the sirocco and be nearer the action, but Mustafa disagreed, because to anchor the fleet there would require first reducing Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to the harbour. Mustafa intended, according to these accounts, to attack the poorly defended former capital Mdina, which stood in the centre of the island, then attack Forts St. Angelo and Michael by land. If so, an attack on Fort St. Elmo would have been entirely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mustafa relented, apparently believing only a few days would be necessary to destroy St. Elmo. After the Turks were able to emplace their guns, at the end of May they commenced a bombardment.

It certainly seems true that Suleiman had seriously blundered in splitting the command three ways. He not only split command between Piyale and Mustafa, but he ordered both of them to defer to Dragut when he arrived from Tripoli. Contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople, however, suggest that the plan had always been to take Fort St. Elmo first. In any case, for the Turks to concentrate their efforts on it proved a crucial mistake.
While the Ottomans were landing, the knights and Maltese made some last-minute improvements to the defences of Birgu and Senglea. The Ottomans set up their main camp in Marsa, which was close to the Knights’ fortifications. In the following days, the Ottomans set up camps and batteries on Santa Margherita Hill and the Sciberras Peninsula. The attacks on Birgu began on 21 May, while Senglea was first attacked a day later.

“The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artificial fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo… were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires.” – Francisco Balbi, Spanish relief soldier


Click here to read the second part of this series