In 1565, being on the small island of Malta in the Mediterranean meant the possibility of war. The Ottoman and Christian empires were scrambling for position. Frequent raids on trade routes and territory battles were commonplace. For the Knights of Malta, war was business as usual. Little did any of them know that their preparations for war in the spring of 1565, and the way they fought through the summer, would define the outcome of one of the greatest territorial battles in medieval times. Jean Parisot de Valette, grandmaster of the Knights Hospitaller (later to be known as the Knights of Malta), was given the terrifying honor and opportunity to lead the knights.
They did their research: War took a long time to get off the ground in 1565, and Valette, a seasoned and dynamic leader, knew this. He sent his spies into Constantinople (not Istanbul) in the fall of 1564 and received intelligence well in advance that the Ottomans were amassing a force and planned to assault the Mediterranean. Although historians are unclear on the exact number, it is estimated that more than 48,000 men in 193 ships launched from Constantinople to attempt to take territory, including Malta. The Knights of Malta: 500 strong.
They prepared: Valette’s response to the intelligence was immediate and focused action. He created coastline garrisons and started recruiting fighters from the civilian population. Training commenced for the civilians while crops were harvested early or destroyed on the majority of the island, preventing the presence of easy supplies for the enemy forces. He became an active voice in his community, quickly rallying allies and uniting dissenters in the population. By May, as the Ottoman fleet made landfall on Malta, he had grown his force to over 6,000 men.
They picked their battles: As bombardment started on Malta from the Ottoman invaders, the knights patiently waited to engage the enemy. More than 100,000 cannonballs fell on Malta during the summer of 1865. Civilians and knights took refuge. At St. Elmo, a courageous force of 1,500 men would hold their positions despite overwhelming odds while under siege. St. Elmo, a strategic fort in the harbor, would hold for sufficient time to allow the knights to call for reinforcements from Europe to Malta. Although all 1,500 defenders were killed during the fight for the fort, taking St. Elmo cost the Ottomans more than 6,000 men, and nearly a month of the summer. (War was a seasonal business back then.)
They leveraged their advantages: As the Ottomans shifted their attack to St. Michael/Birgu, Valette was careful to take account of their strategic advantages. On receiving intel that the Ottomans were building siege towers, a crew of engineers and knights tunneled out under the wall of the city and destroyed the apparatus. When the Ottomans broke through the walls of the city, Valette rallied a small force of 100 men, and with focused attacks, he drove the Ottoman force through the narrow streets of Birgu and out. Valette was 70 at the time. In each case in which the Ottoman forces overextended themselves, Valette took full advantage and committed only necessary responses, eventually causing complete desperation among the Ottoman forces.
They knew when to strike: As the Ottomans loaded their artillery back onto ships in preparations to leave, reinforcements pressed the retreat, further decimating the Ottoman fighting force, pushing them onto their ships and ensuring that Malta would be uncontested in the near future. Though about a third of the knights had perished and only about 600 men able to fight remained, the knights had inflicted more than 35,000 casualties on the Ottomans. Malta would not fall until the invasion of Napoleon some 200 years later.
Courage is rewarded: Valette’s efforts during the siege of Malta were recognized widely. Money began pouring into the island to strengthen the knights. With this sudden growth in resources, Valette founded the current capitol of Valletta, and strengthened Malta as a strategic defensive position for Europe.
History teaches many lessons, and the student of history begins to see patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed. For the business owner or the business banker, defining and using these key lessons can put us in good company.
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.