On June 23, the eve of the feast of St John, my mind goes back to that fateful year of 1565 when Fort St Elmo fell to the besieging Turkish army.
The fort was expected to fall within one week but the stubborn defence by the garrison composed of about 1,000 knights and soldiers, including Maltese, withstood the assault of wave after wave of the Turkish army for a whole month, until, on this day, the few surviving defenders chose to die a heroic death rather than surrender.
In his narrative of the siege, Francesco Balbi says that the Knight De Guaras and the Spanish captain De Miranda, wounded and unable to stand, had themselves placed in chairs in the breach and there they died sword in hand fighting the Turks.
The French knight Pierre de Massues-Vercoiran (known as Colonel Mas) stood his ground and was torn to pieces. The Italian knight Paolo Avogardo was butchered by the Janissaries at the door of the chapel of the fort. The remaining soldiers were also killed, except for five who managed to swim across the harbour to Fort St Angelo. No prisoners were taken. Only a handful lay wounded or moribund among the ruins of the fort.
Even the much-maligned knight Juan De La Cerda was to die an honourable death while leading a bold charge against a company of Janissaries at Fort St Michael.
The names of the fallen knights are found in the translation of the diary of Francesco Balbi di Correggio by Major Henry Balbi and are also engraved in gold on the façade of the church of Our Lady of Victories in Senglea.
But, unfortunately, as far as I am aware, the names and exact number of the Maltese soldiers who were killed in the siege is not recorded anywhere. We need to make amends.
This prolonged defence of the fort enabled Grand Master De Valette to complete the defences at Vittoriosa and Senglea and for a relief force to muster in Sicily, paving the way for final victory.
The heroes at Fort St Elmo saved Malta and thwarted the plans that Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent surely had in mind: that of invading Europe through its underbelly. Indeed, the Agha and his Janissaries would swear annually that their next objective would be Rome itself.
Every stone of this fort is sacred. It is our duty to preserve this fort as a relic of our freedom
The Maltese, on their part, had another compelling reason to fight tooth and nail. They knew very well that should the Turks prevail, their wives, mothers and daughters would be carried away in those ominous black boats waiting in Marsamxett Harbour. These boats belonged to the slave merchants that followed the Turkish fleet in its campaigns. Our womenfolk would have ended in the slave markets of Cairo and Istanbul.
All this is, or should be, known by all Maltese schoolchildren. I hope that our youths and those who organise events in the fort keep in mind that the walls and the grounds, which were once drenched with the blood of our ancestors, are hallowed ground. Every stone of this fort is sacred. It is our duty to preserve this fort as a relic of our freedom. It therefore pains me to see that although much has been done, more restoration work and maintenance is still needed.
One way to remedy this, and at the same time honour the memory of the fallen (in addition to the monument in Great Siege Square in Valletta), is to reconstruct the lighthouse (1633) that once stood on the cavalier on the north side of the fort. This is where the Maltese most probably must have died.
Apart from historical and sentimental reasons, the reconstruction of the lighthouse is also justified from the aesthetic point of view. A watercolour painting by Giovanni Schranz (died 1882) shows how the lighthouse, which was still standing in his time, enhanced the beauty of the fort.
Encouraged by this, I have attempted a sketch showing how the fort might look like from Tigné if the lighthouse were to be rebuilt. I have indulged in a bit of artistic licence by adding a few courses at the bottom of the lighthouse to compensate for the lofty Anglican spire and the huge Carmelite church dome which were built many years after the lighthouse. Otherwise, I placed it where it was, how it was.
Our forefathers gave up their lives so that we may be free and be able to continue to hope for better times, a brave new world. It is now our turn to honour our dead; to kindle a light on the lighthouse and make sure that it is never extinguished.
A rotating laser, a ‘beacon of hope’ (raġġ ta’ tama) would shine across the Mediterranean from this small island nation, situated as Providence would have it, right in the centre of the Middle Sea.
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