Re­vis­it­ing Ot­toman his­tory in ‘Storja’ 2015

Malta Independent - - BOOKS - Dr Si­mon Mer­cieca

This year’s edi­tion of Storja, the Jour­nal of the His­tory Stu­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion at the Univer­sity of Malta has un­der­taken to an­a­lyze what can be de­fined as a num­ber of so­cial, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal con­cerns, all re­lated to two dif­fer­ent but ho­moge­nous themes. The first se­ries of ar­ti­cles tackle what, un­til re­cently, was con­sid­ered the tri­umph of the Knights of St John over the Ot­toman Turks in 1565. The se­cond theme is more con­tem­po­rary and deals with the his­tory of Mal­tese drama and the fate of an English sub­ma­rine.

The ar­ti­cles about the Great Siege seek ei­ther to re-in­ter­pret the avail­able his­tor­i­cal data or to shed new light on the sit­u­a­tion in Malta at the time. On­to­log­i­cally, th­ese ar­ti­cles ex­plic­itly ques­tion the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that was built around this event over the years or give a his­tor­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion about such process.

There is no doubt that one of the first per­sons to start ques­tion­ing the tri­umphal­ist nar­ra­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Great Siege was Vic­tor Mal­lia-Mi­lanes. Fol­low­ing his ex­ten­sive re­search, our at­ti­tude to­wards the Siege is no longer as stan­dard­ized as it once was. He has con­vinc­ingly re­for­mu­lated our per­cep­tion of the Ot­toman Turks. To­day, there is a his­tor­i­cal con­sen­sus that the Siege of Malta did not mark the be­gin­ning of the end of the Ot­toman Em­pire nor did it stop its ex­pan­sion.

For this rea­son, Mal­lia-Mi­lanes goes into the geo-pol­i­tics of the time and, in a truly Braudelian fash­ion, places Malta and the Ot­toman Siege within their true Mediter­ranean con­text. In the process, he draws a num­ber of valid con­clu­sions that are all based on 16th-cen­tury his­tor­i­cal truths. This has led him to even chal­lenge the au­then­tic­ity of some of the po­lit­i­cal re­marks made by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers, such as Balbi da Cor­reg­gio, about the Ot­toman Em­pire.

While Mal­lia-Mi­lanes prefers, as the ti­tle of his pa­per states, to “re­visit” the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive about the Siege, Kate Fleet writes an ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cle about the ex­pan­sion­ist po­lices of Mehmed II (1441-1446, 1451-1481). Mehmed II is con­sid­ered the true founder of the Ot­toman Em­pire, which his­tor­i­cally is con­sid­ered to have taken place with the fall of Con­stantino­ple in 1453. As a re­sult of this con­quest, Mehmed was nick­named the Con­queror.

Fleet dis­cusses why this Sul­tan was suc­cess­ful in his Mediter­ranean mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion. Po­lit­i­cal divi­sion in the West gave Mehmed am­ple po­lit­i­cal space to move his army west­wards. Yet, mil­i­tary con­quest on its own was not enough. Fleet ex­plains how Mehmed’s mil­i­tary strate­gic ma­chine needed to be ac­com­pa­nied by a solid and co­her­ent eco­nomic pol­icy.

For Mehmed to suc­ceed, he needed also to over­come in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion. He achieved this by pre­vent­ing the op­po­si­tion from unit­ing against him. He kept his Mus­lim and Arab sub­jects at bay and di­vided among them­selves. Fur­ther­more, he granted re­li­gious lib­erty to the var­i­ous mi­nori­ties within his Em­pire. It is a his­tor­i­cal fact that the Chris­tian Ortho­dox were bet­ter off un­der Mehmed than they had been un­der the Latin rulers. In other words, Mehmed bal­anced strong lead­er­ship with po­lit­i­cal flu­id­ity.

Fed­er­ica Formiga ti­tled her pa­per “Melita ob­sid­ione lib­er­a­tor: Il Grande asse­dio at­traverso le Cin­que­cen­tine”. She un­der­took the task of an­a­lyz­ing a num­ber of texts about the Great Siege that were pub­lished in the last 35 years of the XVIth cen­tury. The pub­li­ca­tions var­ied from his­tor­i­cal to po­lit­i­cal trea­tises as well as works of lit­er­a­ture, pri­mar­ily po­ems about the Siege. The lan­guage used var­ied from Latin to one of the many ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages of Europe.

Many in­tel­lec­tu­als in Europe at the time were keen to say some­thing about the Siege. It was this lit­er­a­ture that built the per­cep­tion of an in­vin­ci­ble Europe ver­sus the Ot­toman Turks. The irony of it all is that many Protes­tants at the time joined and lauded the Catholic Knights for de­feat­ing the Ot­toman Turks. In this case the say­ing “the en­emy of your en­emy is my friend” failed to ap­ply. Judg­ing from the sto­ries pub­lished, and un­like what some mod­ern schol­ars are try­ing to por­tray, the Protes­tants were not as re­cip­ro­cal to­wards Ottomans and the Mus­lims as some mod­ern sec­u­lar apol­o­gists are try­ing to por­tray them.

The next two pa­pers are about Mal­tese so­cial his­tory. The au­thors draw their sources from the No­tar­ial Acts and both pa­pers are the prod­uct of two ex­tremely good dis­ser­ta­tions pre­sented to the His­tory Depart­ment. The first pa­per is about mar­riages in Malta around the pe­riod of the Great Siege. The ti­tle of the pa­per says it all: Lec­tum co­ni­u­galem, What the bed said about a mar­riage in the 16th cen­tury (c.1560-1580). The au­thor, Iona Caru­ana, takes a rather fem­i­nist ap­proach, in the sense that she is in­ter­ested to write her his­tory from the bride’s point of view rather than that of the groom. The mar­riage con­tracts of­fer a mine of in­for­ma­tion. They reg­u­lated dowry, or the do­na­tion of money and/or prop­erty and/or pos­ses­sions that the bride re­ceived from both par­ents, or one of them, be­fore her mar­riage.

The se­cond pa­per is by Mar­i­ana Grech. She also worked on the No­tar­ial Ar­chives, fo­cus­ing on the Acts of one no­tary To­maso Gauci, for the years 1566-68. What is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est about this no­tary is that he worked in Gozo. There­fore, through this study, Grech re­builds life in Gozo af­ter the Great Siege, which was, as ex­pected, pri­mar­ily agrar­ian. For­tu­nately enough, Gozo did not suffer from any di­rect on­slaught, but Grech’s stud­ies show that Gozo was still suf­fer­ing from the reper­cus­sions of the 1551 razzia, when prac­ti­cally all the Goz­i­tan in­hab­i­tants were taken into slav­ery.

The his­tor­i­cal on­tol­ogy changes in the last two ar­ti­cles. Both Ste­fan Aquilina and Timmy Gam­bin ap­proached their his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive from what can be de­fined as an im­plicit point of view. They could do this as both stud­ies cover con­tem­po­rary ground. Their nar­ra­tive does not nec­es­sar­ily need to rely only on writ­ten sources. The au­thors have the ad­van­tage of ob­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion through oc­u­lar tes­ti­mony from peo­ple who have ei­ther lived the events or heard the sto­ries di­rectly from the pro­tag­o­nists them­selves.

Aquilina uses oral his­tory, based pri­mar­ily on in­ter­views, to re­build the his­tory of The Ma­noel Theatre Academy of Dra­matic Art cov­er­ing the pe­riod be­tween 1977 and 1980. Most of its stu­dents be­came lead­ing pro­tag­o­nists in Malta’s the­atri­cal scene. He sup­ports his re­search with ar­ti­cles pub­lished in the news­pa­pers. De­spite work­ing on a pe­riod that, for many, is still part of our liv­ing mem­ory, there is still a lot to learn. More im­por­tantly, Aquilina re-pro­poses the his­tory of the theatre from a po­lit­i­cal point of view, mak­ing his study even more in­ter­est­ing. His anal­y­sis has rel­e­vance not only to theatre crit­ics but to oth­ers, like me, who are in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics.

Gam­bin re­con­structs the his­tory of a sub­ma­rine, HMS Olym­pus. It hit a mine a few miles out of Malta dur­ing the Se­cond World War. It was mainly used, dur­ing the war, for the trans­port of sup­plies, mail and pas­sen­gers. He be­gins his re­search for this sub­ma­rine from what has tran­scended through oral his­tory and suc­ceeds in lo­cat­ing, with the help of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, the rest­ing place of this ves­sel at the bot­tom of the sea.

For those in­ter­ested to get to know more about his­tory dis­ser­ta­tions and re­lated sub­jects, be­tween 2009 and 2013, Mar­i­lyn Mus­cat has gone through the painful task of com­pil­ing a list, which is to be found at the end of this jour­nal.

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