Revisiting Ottoman history in ‘Storja’ 2015
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.