Busting the Myth: the Great Siege Edition

In Malta there are two pivotal historical moments that the country celebrates. We all love the public holiday we get in February thanks to Saint Paul, who conveniently landed on our shores some thousand years ago. We live for the various Saint Mary related feasts we get to enjoy throughout the year; but the reality is, they are just that, holidays. We don’t attribute much significance to them apart from the fact that they gave us a day off (not that we’re complaining).

On the 8th of September, things are different. Every Maltese person knows that on this day something amazing happened, two events in history that conquered above all odds, a true opportunity for Maltese citizens to be proud of the actions of their ancestors. On this joyous occasion, we celebrate Malta’s great victory over the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege of 1565 and the end of Italy’s attack on our country during WWII.

The myths and legends surrounding the Great Siege are numerous and most of them show the Maltese as warriors who, against all odds, managed to slay the Ottoman empire thanks to their undisputed bravery. While undoubtedly a great Victory, some things might have been exaggerated or lost in translation; perhaps it’s good to bring to light some knowledge shared by historians and take a look at how they believe things actually went down during the siege.

It was not a Surprise


First of all, the Siege did not start actually in May of 1565, but there was a lead up to it which warned de La Vallette about its imminent arrival. Following the 1551 Gozo raid that saw the capturing and slavery of more or less its entire population, the Hospitaller Knights knew what was coming; Malta was next. La Vallette did his best to build up as many defences as possible and requested extra forces from Emperor Charles V and the pope of the time, they didn’t arrive on time.

We were Greatly Outnumbered

In stories told, we are made to believe that the Maltese were greatly outnumbered, 40,000 to 9,000. We do not mean to make the Maltese’s bravery any less grand than it is; however, historian Stephen Spiteri brought to light the fact that such an exaggerated quantity was probably made to persuade allies into send help as soon as possible. In reality, it was more towards 20,000 to 9,000; half the amount, but still greatly outnumbered. It was estimated that Maltese shores were hit by 130 galleys, 30 galleons, nine barges, 10 large ships and 200 smaller ones, together with a variety of armaments and munitions.

More than a Religious Feud


Religious tactics were used throughout the duration of the war: the Ottomans crucified headless bodies of Knight prisoners and floated them across the harbour. As retaliation, Ottoman prisoners were beheaded and heads used as cannon balls; sometimes they even had their mouths stuffed with pork. However, the war was not a result of a clash of religious beliefs as much as it was about geographical position. It marked the European perception of invincibility and marked the dawn of a new age, one where a Spanish domination over the Mediterranean prospered.

Bloodier than the Red Wedding and Hardhome Put Together


The first attack on Saint Elmo took four weeks to be successful. This attempt of overtaking saw a loss of 8,000 men from the Ottoman Empire, including their commander Dragut himself. The worst was yet to come. Historians write that the bloodiest episode of all took place when the Ottomans attempted to take over Saint Angelo; try as they might, they did not succeed and they lost a great number of lives in the process.

We all know how the story ends, and this is quite accurate. Relief forces came through, leading the Ottomans to flee the country, but not before the Knights got one last stab and killed as many of their enemies as they could while they fled. We have been telling the tale for almost 500 years, and we’re not done telling it just yet. No matter how exaggerated some of the events may have become, there must be a reason why Voltaire writes that ‘Nothing is so well known as the Siege of Malta’.

© 2016 – VIDA Magazine – Thea Formosa