Thursday, May 22, 2014

The good old days (human heads as cannonballs)

History was always a favorite topic till we reached adult-hood and realized that everyone was spinning a story from a particular angle (mostly Marxist). Every detail was emphasized (or de-emphasised) as per the ideological requirement.

Eventually one gets habituated to the little tricks and place filters to sift out the propaganda. That said even propaganda is enjoyable if done well and good historians are inevitably superb story tellers. One may declare that the text is all false yet the yarn is beautiful. Yes, sometimes the story is just that good that you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the story.
A hot and fetid June night on the small Mediterranean island of Malta, and a Christian sentry patrolling at the foot of a fort on the Grand Harbour had spotted something drifting in the water.

The alarm was raised. More of these strange objects drifted into view, and men waded into the shallows to drag them to the shore. What they found horrified even these battle-weary veterans: wooden crosses pushed out by the enemy to float in the harbour, and crucified on each was the headless body of a Christian knight. 

This was psychological warfare at its most brutal, a message sent by the Turkish Muslim commander whose invading army had just vanquished the small outpost of Fort St Elmo - a thousand yards distant across the water.

Now the target was the one remaining fort on the harbour front where the beleaguered, outnumbered and overwhelmed Christians were still holding out: the Fort St Angelo. The Turkish commander wished its defenders to know that they would be next, that a horrible death was the only outcome of continued resistance.

But the commander had not counted on the mettle of his enemy - the Knights of St John. Nor on the determination of their leader Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, who vowed that the fort would not be taken while one last Christian lived in Malta.

On news of the grotesque discovery of the headless knights - many of them his personal friends - Grand Master Valette quickly ordered that captured Turks imprisoned deep in the vaulted dungeons of the fort be taken from their cells, and beheaded one by one.

Then he returned a communiquè of his own: the heads of his Turkish captives were fired from his most powerful cannon direct into the Muslim lines. There would be no negotiation, no compromise, no surrender, no retreat.

We Christians, the Grand Master was saying, will fight to the death and take you with us.

The Siege of Malta in 1565 was a clash of unimaginable brutality, one of the bloodiest - yet most overlooked - battles ever fought. It was also an event that determined the course of history, for at stake was the very survival of Christianity.

If vitally strategic Malta fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire would soon dominate the Mediterranean. Even Rome would be in peril.

The Muslims had hundreds of ships and an army tens of thousands strong. The Christians were a ragtag bunch of just a few hundred hardbitten knights and some local peasant soldiers with a few thousand Spanish infantry. Malta looked doomed.

That the Hospitaller Knights of St John existed at all was a minor miracle. They were a medieval relic, an order established originally to look after ailing pilgrims to the Holy Lands during the Crusades 300 years earlier - other orders of the Crusades, such as the Knights Templar, had been extinct for two-and-a-half centuries.

They came from countries all over Europe: Germany, Portugal, France, Spain. All that united them was a burning desire to defend Christendom against what they perceived as the ever-encroaching tide of Islam. Yet by the 16th century, an age of the increasing power of nation states, these trans-national zealots were viewed as an embarrassing anachronism by much of Europe.

Already the Turks had forced them from their earlier home, the island of Rhodes. Now the knights had moved to Malta - and were threatened once more.

So savage was the fighting, so mismatched the two sides and so important the moment, that I chose the Siege of Malta as the subject of my latest novel, Blood Rock. It was the stage, as we thriller writers say, for epic and mind-blowing history.

But as I researched for my book, I came to realise that what happened on Malta more than 400 years ago is salutary in today's context. For as we know only too well, religious extremism, terror tactics and barbarism still exist.

Malta was no mere siege. It teaches us many things: the need for courage and steadfastness by an entire populace in the face of threat; the fragility of peace; and the destructiveness of religious hate.

Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of Turkey and pitiless ruler of the Ottoman Empire, stared out upon the glittering waters of the Golden Horn estuary of Istanbul. He was the most powerful figure on the planet - his titles included Vice-Regent of God on Earth, Lord of the Lords of East and West - and Possessor of Men's Necks on account of his habit of beheading servants who displeased him.

His realm and absolute remit stretched from the gates of Vienna to the gardens of Babylon, from Budapest to Aden. He was one of the richest men of all time who never wore the same clothes twice, ate off solid gold plates encrusted with jewels, and took his pleasure in a harem of more than 300 women.

An octogenarian, he was utterly ruthless, employing an assassination squad of deaf mutes to strangle traitors. (The reasoning was that they could never be influenced by the pleas for mercy of their victims, nor tell any tales.)

Suleiman had used them to dispatch both his Grand Vizier (his prime minister) and his favourite sons. Less worthy subjects could be executed by pouring molten lead down their throats.

Yet by the standards of the day and his own dynastic line he was not especially violent. 

Other sultans had done worse: one, tiring of his womenfolk, had drowned his entire harem - some several hundred strong - in muslin sacks at the bottom of the Bosphorus; a second had written into the royal prerogative that he could shoot ten or more citizens a day with his bow and arrows from the roof of his palace.

Suleiman controlled the greatest fighting force in the world. Before him lay an armada of 200 ships ready to sail, an army of 40,000 troops on board. He planned to wipe the barren rock of Malta and the Knights of St John from the map.

These knights lived by raiding and disrupting his Ottoman shipping routes. The last straw had been their capture of the prized ship of his powerful courtier the Chief Black Eunuch.

Because all his "parts" had been cut off by a clean sweep of a razor - a metal tube had been inserted into his urethra and the wound cauterised in boiling oil - the eunuch was also entrusted to look after Suleiman's harem.

The Sultan did not expect undue trouble exacting his revenge. A mere 700 knights stood in his way. Such a rabble would be quickly cleared.

The Turkish fleet headed across the Mediterranean in March 1565. Aboard the ships were the elite janissary shock-troops - the "Invincible Ones" - who had carried Islam across Europe with the slashing blades of their scimitars.

Accompanying them were the blackplumed cavalry corps and the infantry as well as the drug-crazed Iayalars who wore the skins of wild beasts and whose raison d'etre was to reach paradise through death as they slit infidel Christian throats in battle.

In late May 1565, the invasion force arrived at the island. The knights awaiting them enjoyed good intelligence of their plans and had asked for assistance from the Christian armies of European nations. Every kingdom spurned their request - other than Sicily, which said that if the knights held out, help would eventually come.

You have probably never heard of Fort St Elmo. It is a small star-shaped structure sited at the tip of what is now the Maltese capital Valletta on the north shore of Grand Harbour.

In late May 1565, it was where the full might of the Turk artillery was unleashed, a hellish crucible that would forge the future course of our modern age. For days the invaders pounded the tottering and crumbling edifice, reducing its limestone walls to rubble, creating a dust cloud. The knights refused to yield.

At night, Valette sent reinforcements from St Angelo by boat across Grand Harbour, in the knowledge they were heading to their deaths.

After the artillery, the attacks went in, wave upon wave of screaming and scimitar-wielding Turks, trampling over the bodies of their own slain, laying down ships' masts to bridge the debris-filled moat into which the walls of St Elmo had slid.

Each time they were met by the ragged and diminishing band of defenders, fighting with pikes and battle-axes, firing muskets and dropping blocks of stone, throwing fire-hoops that set ablaze the flowing robes of the Muslims and sent them burning and plummeting to their deaths.

The fire-hoops - covered in flax and cotton, dipped in brandy and coated with pitch and saltpetre - were the knights' own invention. Dropped blazing over the bastion walls, they could engulf three Turks at a time.

For 30 days, cut off and doomed, the soldiers of St Elmo prevailed. The Turkish general had expected the fort to fall within three.

Late at night on Friday June 22, 1565, the few hundred survivors from an original garrison of 1,500, sang hymns, offered up prayers, defiantly tolled their chapel bell and prepared to meet their end the next day.

Those unable to stand were placed in chairs behind the shattered ramparts, crouching low with their pikes and swords to await the final assault.

When it came, and the entire Turkish army descended as a howling mass, the handful of Christians still managed to fight for several hours. Eventually the Ottomans took their prize. The crescent banners of the Grand Turk flew above the ruins, the heads of the knights were raised on spikes, and the crucified bodies of their officers were floated across to Fort St Angelo on the far side of the harbour.

The Turks had lost time and up to 8,000 of their crack troops.

Summer heat was rising, disease and dysentery spread throughout the Muslim camp, and the dead lay piled around the blackened remnants of the seized fort. deserted the knights - the princes of Europe had abandoned them. But Grand Master Valette was not about to quit.

Scenes of heroism and horror abounded in the terrible days that followed. There were extraordinary characters: Fra Roberto, the priest who fought on the battlements with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other; the two English "gentlemen adventurers" who arrived belatedly from Rome to take part in the action; Valette himself, who stood unyielding in the breach and used a spear to battle hand-to-hand against the foe.

Others had led desperate sallies against the Ottoman, harrying their labour corps, sniping at commanders, spiking their guns. But the enemy, too, had their brave and vivid figures. Among them was Dragut, the most feared corsair of his day, whose skill and dash had served the Sultan well. A cannonball splinter did for him.

Yet the siege continued, the target now St Angelo, the final and fortified enclave of the knights on the southern side of Grand Harbour.

The Turks tried every twist and tactic in their military manual. They tunnelled beneath the Christian defences to bury gunpowder and blow the knights to bits. The Maltese responded with their own mines to blow up the tunnels and there were terrible skirmishes below ground.

Next the Turks drew up siege engines, giant towers designed to pour their infantry direct on to the battlements. The knights removed stones at the base of the battlement walls so that they could run out cannon through the openings they had created, and blast the siege engines apart.

On several occasions those walls were breached, the Turks rushing through eager to slaughter all in their path. Triumph seemed at hand but they found too late that the knights had improvised an ambush, creating a killing zone into which they were funnelled and slaughtered.

Success for the Turks was slipping away. The furnace temperatures of July and August sapped morale and strength; the sense of failure clung as pervasively as the surrounding stench of death.

The Turks' commander, Mustapha Pasha, marched inland to take the walled city of Mdina, only to withdraw when scouts informed him of its substantial and well-armed garrison. It was a trick. Mdina was largely undefended, its governor ordering women and children to don helmets, carry pikes and patrol the walls.

Frantic, with casualties mounting and autumn storms looming, the Turks rolled a giant bomb - a fiendish barrel-shaped object packed with gunpowder and musketballs - into the Christian positions.

The knights promptly rolled it back and it blew a devastating hole in the massed and waiting Muslim ranks. It rained. Believing the gunpowder of the knights to be damp, their muskets and cannon useless, Mustapha Pasha again sent his troops forward.

They were met by a hail of not only crossbow bolts but gunfire, for Valette had anticipated such an moment, setting aside stores of dry powder.

Finally, relief reached the knights in the form of a small army from Sicily. Believing the enemy reinforcements too weak to be of any consequence, Mustapha Pasha angrily ordered his troops - who had bolted on hearing of the new arrivals - to turn back and march towards them. It was the last of his many grave blunders.

The cavalry of the relief force charged, then the infantry, tearing into the Turkish centre, putting it to flight. Rout turned to bloodbath. The once-proud Ottoman force scrambled in disarray for its ships, pursued across the island, cut down and picked off at every step. Thousands died and the waters of St Paul's Bay ran red.

Of the 40,000 troops that had set sail in the spring from Constantinople, only some ten thousand made it home. Behind them they had left a scene of utter devastation.

Almost the entire garrison commanded by Jean Parisot de Valette - after whom the city of Valletta is named - had perished. Now, after 112 days of siege, the ragged handful of survivors limped through the blitzed wreckage of their lines.

Malta was saved, for Europe and Christianity. The Knights of St John had won.

History has moved on - the island withstood another siege which played a key role in the saving of civilisation in the 1940s, this time against Hitler's forces. Today, the hotel and apartment developers have moved in. Rarely is the 1565 Great Siege of Malta mentioned. Hardly ever do visitors to the island dwell on such an ancient and forgotten incident.

But I have stood in that tiny chapel recessed in the walls of Fort St Elmo, the very place where defenders took their last holy sacrament on a June night long ago. We owe those knights.

Their sacrifice was immense, their effect on our lives more profound than we may know. 

Yet religious fanaticism continues, and global powers will still fight over a piece of barren rock. Perhaps we never really learn.

Blood Rock by James Jackson is published by John Murray at £11.99.


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