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Malta: The Small Island That Defied the Mighty Ottoman Empire

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

The Early Encounter of the Knights and the Ottomans

During the early modern period, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Historians now regard the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as the apogee of the Ottoman Empire, the period when the empire reached its absolute zenith.

Nonetheless, Suleiman had to face many difficult challenges throughout this four-decade-long reign, and one of the most difficult adversaries the Sultan encountered was the Knights Hospitaller.

At the time of Suleiman’s ascension, the knights had their headquarters at Rhodes and, using their island fortress, they constantly harassed Muslim shipping in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Mehmed the Conqueror already tried to get rid of the knights in 1480, but his siege of Rhodes failed.

In the following decades, the Ottomans put up with the extortions of the knights, but finally, Mehmed’s grandson Selim, following his victories against the Safavids and Mamluks, decided to dispose of the threat of Rhodes once and for all. He ordered the construction of ships and preparations for a large naval campaign, but his early death in 1520 left the task to be finished by Selim’s successor Suleiman.

In 1520 Suleiman first tried to impose his authority in the capital, while the next year, he led a campaign against the Kingdom of Hungary, whose young ruler rashly rejected the peace proposals of the Sultan. Suleiman was finally able to lead his troops against Rhodes in the summer of 1522. His army greatly outnumbered the defenders, but the knights did an excellent job of building up the defences of Rhodes, which succeeded in defying the Ottoman attacks until December 1522.

Despite their heroic defence, the Sultan was adamant about continuing the siege, and by December, the defenders had lost many soldiers. They understood that no reinforcement was coming until the spring, as travelling in winter was a real nightmare, so the Grand Master agreed to the generous proposals of the Sultan, who agreed to allow the knights to depart from the island unhindered, in possession of their arms and banners.

The defeated knights were left without a home for the next eight years and wandered the Mediterranean. Emperor Charles offered the Grand Master garrison on the islands of Malta and Gozo, plus the Spanish port Tripoli in modern-day Libya, but initially, the Grand Master was less than impressed with the offer, considering barren Malta a large downgrade from the prosperous Rhodes.

With no better offer coming up in the following years, in 1530, the Grand Master of the Order finally accepted the offer, and the knights set themselves up in Malta, Gozo and Tripoli. Using their new bases, the knights quickly returned to their old habits. They began harassing Muslim shipping in the western and eastern Mediterranean Sea, serving as a bit of a counterweight against the activity of the Barbary corsairs, who were in league with the Ottomans.

The knights participated in the Spanish conquest of Tunis in 1535, but they were also present in the defeat of the Emperor at Algiers a few years later. It is also fair to say that overall the Ottomans had the better of the Christians in the fighting, and the knights lost Tripoli in 1551. After another Christian defeat at Djerba in 1560 (the attacking forcing was aiming to retake Tripoli), Grand Master La Valette was convinced that the Ottomans would launch an invasion against the island of Malta itself sooner or later.

The Ottoman Attack Against Malta

The final cassus beli that pushed Suleiman to send an invasion force to be rid of the knights once and for all was the increased piratical activity of the order. This saw them capture the Ottoman governors of Alexandria and Cairo and the former nurse of the Sultan's daughter Mihrimah. In addition to this insult, the knights captured merchant ships that were bringing goods that belonged to the palace personnel of the Sultan, including the Chief Eunuch of the Imperial Harem.

Angered by the personal affront, Suleiman convened a Divan in the autumn of 1564 and decided to send an invasion force to capture Malta.

The Sultan named a veteran commander Mustafa Pasha as the overall commander of the army, while he put his rising naval commander Piali Pasha as the commander of the navy. In addition to these two-man, the Sultan also ordered the leader of the Barbary corsairs, Turgut Reis, otherwise known as Dragut, to join the expedition. Dragut was a veteran of 80 years old by that time and was widely regarded as the greatest sailor of his age, and the Sultan expressly told his commanders to pay close attention to his advice of Dragut.

The Sultan gave his commanders a fleet of around 200 vessels and an armed force numbered between 25,000 to 40,000 soldiers, including 6,000 Janissaries and perhaps as many as 9,000 Spahis. In addition, the initial force was joined by a few thousand Algerians brought by Dragut, who joined the force only a few weeks after landing at Malta, and Hassan, the nephew of Dragut, who arrived another month later.

Facing this mighty host, the Knights only had some 6,000 to 8,500 professional soldiers, though considering that the islanders were literally fighting for their lives, they were joined by the militiaman and even non-combatants during the sieges.

Grand Master La Valette was also a cautious man who kept up a large spy network. Thanks to the information relayed to him by his agents in Constantinople, he knew beforehand that an attack was coming against him.

The Ottoman fleet departed in early spring and was sighted by the island's defenders on May 18. The Turks did not disembark until the next day, but disputes between the commanders arose immediately after their arrival.

Though Malta was a small island, several settlements were present on it, and the knights could garrison four walled strongpoints. The capital of the island, Mdina, was located in the interior, and there were three strong points around Grand Harbour, the fort of St. Elmo, Senglia and Birgut (both of these walled towns), and had a further fort inside the town.

Mustafa Pasha wanted first to conquer Mdina, take control over the island's interior and only later attack the forts. Piali Pasha, on the other hand, was unhappy with the bay where his fleet had to anchor and urged his co-commander to relocate the fleet to Marsamxatt bay, but as fort St. Elmo defended this bay, the Ottomans needed to attack the fort first.

Piali won the argument, and the Ottomans began to besiege the fort on May 24. Unfortunately for them, the fort put up a much heavier resistance than they initially expected, and it took the Ottomans a month to overcome the defenders. Several factors played their part here, like the hard ground upon which the fort was built made it hard to dig trenches around the fort and made it outright impossible to use mines against the walls. The constant supply of new men and ammunition to the fort, as the Ottomans failed to blockade Grand Harbour, and the heroic resistance that the defenders put up during the fight were further factors.

By the time the Ottomans took fort St. Elmo, they had lost perhaps as many as 4,000 dead and as many wounded. Crucially, during the siege, the veteran Dragut was also mortally wounded when he was shot in the head while inspecting the siege lines. While he was there, Dragut alleviated the tensions between Mustafa Pasha and Piali Pasha, which resurfaced after Dragut's death.

With St. Elmo fallen, the Ottomans turned against Senglia and Birgut. Attacks against the forts began in the middle of July, but the defenders repelled all the attacks.

Once his initial tactics failed, Mustafa Pasha started to use mines (as the softer ground upon which these two forts were built allowed it) and old-style siege towers; however, all efforts were in vain, and the defenders stood their ground heroically.

By late August, the Ottoman troops were demoralized, and their supplies started to dwindle, as they did not expect the campaign to last this long. Mustafa was not yet decided how to deal with the failed attempts, so he decided to try to take Mdina and use it as his base of operations in case he decided to spend the winter in Malta. Unfortunately for him, his demoralized troops were no longer in shape to attempt another costly siege, and he quickly called off the attack.

After another failed attempt to conquer Senglia and Birgut the Ottoman commanders decided to depart and ordered their troops to prepare for embarkation. While the Ottomans were busy bringing their weapons and goods to the ships, the much-promised and awaited reinforcements from Sicily finally arrived( if nearly three months late, as the Spanish viceroy of Sicily initially promised to arrive by June 20).

Upon receiving intelligence that the relief force only numbered some 8,000 soldiers, Mustafa disembarked with 9,000 men and marched against them. The relief force took up a strong position on high ground not far away from Mdina. Their commander wanted to fight a defensive battle, but the knights who joined him urged him to attack, and when their request was denied charged without orders, forcing the commander to assist their charge with the whole army.

The battle did not last long, as the garrison from Mdina took the Ottomans from the flank and decided the battle. Only the discipline of the Janissaries led by the brave Mustafa Pasha acting as rearguards covering the fleeing troops saved the Ottomans from a very ugly defeat.

Piali Pasha was waiting for Mustafa at a pre-agreed position. Once the remaining Ottoman troops were embarked, Mustafa Pasha departed the island in one of the last boats, and the Ottoman invasion of Malta finally ended.

Against all expectations, the knights scored a famous victory and stifled Ottoman attempts to capture Malta, which could have been used as an important strong point to lead an invasion against Sicily or Naples.

Sources

Pickles, Tim. (1998). Malta 1565: The Last Battle of the Crusades. Osprey Publishing.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler