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Malta: The Early Days
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2009

South of Sicily, west of Tunisia and north of Libya, the seven Maltese islands have had a historical impact all out of proportion to their size, population and economic output. Only three of them — Malta, Gozo and Comino — are inhabited, and of these the focus has always been on Malta herself.

The Maltese islands. From left, Gozo, Comino and Malta, as seen from space.

Malta's key position and magnificent natural harbor made it an important point from the earliest days of long-range trade in the region. It's not a very large island, only about 18 miles long, and has few natural resources. Phoenician settlers from Tyre founded a settlement there between 1000 and 650 B.C., and the port apparently saw a high volume of traffic. To the north, "Greater Greece" (the city-states of eastern Sicily and southern Italy) presented a danger to Phoenician traffic between the eastern Mediterranean ports and newer trading cities like Carthage or Gades.

In addition to trans-shipment of goods between east and west, Malta also developed a linen industry of its own. A Greek settlement appeared on the main island as well, but all of the chain (including the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino) came under Carthaginian rule in 480 BC. Its strategic position made it important during the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, and it changed hands several times before becoming a Roman possession in 218 B.C.

The Roman historian Livy claimed that the Maltese rose up against the Carthaginians and welcomed the Roman occupation, but like most Roman claims about Carthage this can't be taken too seriously. However, the Romans did treat Malta as allied rather than conquered territory with the responsibilities to pay taxes and be conscripted but not the right to vote.

Just how Romanized the Maltese became is hard to tell. By the time St. Paul was shipwrecked in St. Thomas Bay in 60 AD, inscriptions had become uniformly Latin rather than the Punic. Whether the Maltese had become assimilated by then, or indeed ever did completely give themselves over to Roman culture, is still disputed. With the division of the Roman Empire between East and West, Malta fell under Byzantine sway in 395. The Vandals conquered Malta in 440, to be expelled by the Byzantine general Belisarius a century later. The Byzantines ruled for another three centuries until Arab invaders landed in 869.

Tas-Silg, Phoenician trading post.Tas-Silg was an early Phoenician trading post on Malta.

Arab sources claim that the entire population was carried off into slavery, and undoubtedly a large number were sold in Arab markets. Modern-day genetic testing shows that the current Maltese population retains at least some of the Punic origins, so it's likely that at least some of the inhabitants hid in the island's many caves (still used as housing into the 19th century), returned later, or both. The Arabs in turn gave way to the Norman rulers of Sicily in 1127.

Malta then remained at least legally tied to Sicily for the next six hundred-odd years, though often granted as a feudal fief by Sicily's rulers of various houses. During the 13th century, all of the islands' Muslim population — probably the majority at the time, were expelled. In 1530, Malta's lord was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and by virtue of that title King of Sicily as well. Charles granted the island to the holy pirates known as the Knights of St. John Hospitaller in exchange for a yearly tribute of one falcon payable every year on November 1st.

The order had begun in Jerusalem in 1080, maintaining a large hospital in the holy city. They became a militant order following the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, and became rich and powerful with dozens of castles to their name including the imposing Krak des Chevaliers. But even the "impregnable" Krak fell to the Muslims in 1271, and the Hospitallers were on the walls when Acre, the last stronghold of the Crusder kingdoms, fell in 1291. After a sojourn on Cyprus, they seized Rhodes in 1309. The Knights spent just over two centuries on Rhodes before Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ejected them in 1522 following an epic six-month siege.

The sultan granted the surviving knights free passage to Crete in exchange for their solemn promise never to take up arms against his subjects again. The knights had surveyed Malta in 1524 and found it lacking in the timber they needed to rebuild their galley fleet, but the emperor's offer proved too good to resist. They settled alongside the huge, protected Grand Harbor and set to work building a new hospital. Once their central mission could be fulfilled, they set to work importing timber from Sicily to build new galleys and using the island's wonderful golden-yellow stone to build new fortresses.

Once again, Muslim merchant ships began to fall prey to galleys waving the knights' unique cross. In 1564, the knights seized a huge Turkish galleon carrying several high Ottoman officials and goods belonging to several members of the Sultan's family. Adding a strategic imperative, a Spanish force captured Velez ge Gomera, an important fortified port in Morocco. Infuriated by the knights' duplicity — Suleiman had famously declared "the word of a Grand Master of the Hospitallers" to be "more sure than all the armies of the world" — the Sultan ordered the island taken and the knights expelled again. Not only would a bitter enemy be driven out, the island would serve as a staging ground for the conquest of Sicily and Turkish domination of the Mediterranean.

Fort St. Angelo.Fort St. Angelo as seen today.

The Grand Master, Jean de la Valette, prepared the new fortifications and called for reinforcements from his order and its allies. The knights' vast treasury assured a plentiful supply of food and arms, but only 540 knights mustered for the island's defense along with 1,000 Spanish infantrymen and another 4,000 Maltese militia. These troops garrisoned three fortresses sited on Grand Harbor: Fort St. Elmo, Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Michael. The Turks brought 40,000 men but, fatefully, two co-equal commanders in chief.

The Great Siege lasted from May until September 1565, and the Turks chose the smaller Fort St. Elmo at the mouth of Grand Harbor as their first target. After a month of heavy bombardment and several filed attempts, thousands of assault troops went forward in waves led by the 80-year-old corsair admiral Dragut (later remembered as Torgud Reis). The garrison died at their posts, and over 8,000 Turks (including Dragut) fell in the assault.

"If so small a son has cost us so dear," wondered Turkish army commander Mustafa Pasha, "what price must we pay for the father?"

Turkish assaults on the larger Fort St. Angelo continued through July and into August, but rampant dysentery was killing hundreds of Turks every day. By September the Turks could take no more, while a large Spanish relief force finally arrive to supplement the weakening garrison. After a furious argument between the army and fleet commanders, the surviving Turks sailed away rather than wait out the winter storms on Malta.

The siege of 1567.A Venetian rendering of the siege, from 1567.

The Christian victory became a rallying point across Europe, and even Voltaire would later claim that, "Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta." The knights rebuilt their fortresses and moved their capital to a new, more easily defended location — beginning construction with a new hospital. They named the new city Valletta in honor of their fierce Grand Master, but misspelled his name in so doing.

The generations of knights that followed La Valette quickly returned to their pirate ways. Galleys of the Order fought at Lepanto in 1571, but as the struggle between Catholic and Protestant continued and Europe's Crusading spirit waned, seizure of Muslim (and often non-Muslim) merchant shipping became vital to the Order's financial health.

During the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Knights continued their "caravans," long piratical voyages around the Mediterranean, as well as shorter-ranged day trips to attack passing ships.

By the end of the 18th century, most Knights who sought naval action did so in one of the navies of Europe, usually that of France. The Knights continued to maintain a small fleet of their own, but like the Venetians the change in naval technology from oar-powered galleys to big warships powered exclusively by sail left them outmatched by the navies of northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The Knights purchased a small number of modern warships from European shipyards, but found it very difficult to assemble full, trained crews for them — galleys continued in use as Muslim slaves for their oars continued to be plentiful.

The Order's rule over Malta ended in 1798 with the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. Tasked with conquering Egypt, Napoleon added Malta to his agenda to provide a strategic base halfway between Toulon and Alexandria. The Knights had been warned of the pending French invasion, but Grand Master Ferdinand Hompsech was no La Valette. Rather than prepare for action, he met the French with brave words. When they landed and prepared to assault his fortresses he agreed to capitulate, provided he received a principality in Europe and a rich annual pension. His Knights and the Maltese would have to fend for themselves.

Malta had entered the Napoleonic Wars. The story continues in Part Two.

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