restricted access 5 Naval Functions of the Order of Saint John
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5 Naval Functions of the Order of Saint John When Charles V offered Malta to the Knights in 1523, he proposed three functions for the Order: (1) to provide an additional naval base for Spanish fleets, (2) to resist Ottoman aggression, and (3) to defend its own territory against pirate attacks.1 Placing the Order at the middle of the Mediterranean was also a subtle political move in anticipation of the Franco-Ottoman naval alliance that was being negotiated in the 1520s.2 The Order was expected to meet these obligations by sending its navy on two or three cruises annually and joining the Christian navies when they were engaged in battle against the Muslims. A permanent state of holy war existed between the Order of Saint John and its Muslim opponents, the kingdoms of North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. Generally speaking, this holy war was a crusade, for Christendom, with the objective of capturing and occupying the Holy Lands. By the time the Order arrived in Malta, many years had elapsed since this mission had been carried out with success, and it was eventually abandoned. For Islam, in contrast, the holy war, or jihad, is a continuous state of war that is pursued by political entities who accept the holy book as their constitution. However, from the sixteenth century onward, the Ottoman sultans saw no harm in limiting the warfare by concluding peace treaties and trade agreements—and even alliances—with Christian states including France, Venice, and the Habsburg Empire. During the early periods of its history , the Order also became a party to peace negotiations with the Ottoman Empire and even cooperated with local Ottoman governors to suppress piracy in the Aegean that harassed both the Knights and the Ottomans, as well as agreeing to leave each others’ navigation routes unmolested.3 There was even frequent commercial interaction between the Order and the Ottomans in the late fifteenth century. However, once in Malta, the Order of Saint John began to carry out its own form of holy war and stayed in a perpetual state of war with the Ottoman forces, Muslim corsairs, and Christian states trading with the infidel. Taking sides in conflicts between Christian countries was against the neutral position adopted by the Order of Saint John. Nonetheless, the Knights occasionally took part in such encounters. For example, the Gran Galeone, built for the Order in Amsterdam in 1617, joined the forces of Louis XIII fighting the Naval Functions of the Order of Saint John 141 Protestant Huguenots at La Rochelle in 1622–23.4 On another occasion, the Knights’ galley squadron was on the side of the Papal States during the latter’s conflict with Venice over the occupation of the Duchy of Parma in 1645.5 It was common for the galley squadron or the sailing warships to escort privileged travelers such as high-ranking officers, members of royal families of Europe, or important ecclesiastical dignitaries, as well as commercial cargo ships—especially those transporting grain, other foodstuffs, shipbuilding timber , or annual shipments of responsions from the commanderies to Malta.6 The majority of these types of cruises embarked from the ports of Civitavecchia, Leghorn, Genoa, Toulon, Marseilles, Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante.7 The Order’s navy was also an institution performing the duty of naval training for aspiring Knights (see chapter 4). Many of those who completed their caravans serving the squadron of the Order returned to their countries of origin , where they joined the national navies as well-trained and seasoned warriors .8 A report by Barras de la Penne, dated 1727, mentions that at the end of the seventeenth century about a third of all the officers serving in the French galley fleet had been Knights of Saint John and former servants-at-arms of the Order.9 There were also several Knights in the Spanish, Portuguese, and Austrian navies.10 The sections below provide detailed information about how the Order performed the functions briefly described above and the specific occasions on which the Order’s naval forces were employed. The activities of the period between 1530 and 1798 will be investigated in two main sections: naval expeditions and corsair operations. In the first section, the emphasis is on the activities of the Order’s fleet in conjunction with larger Christian fleets. What differentiates these operations from those of the second group, corsair operations , is the ultimate objective of the expedition; naval expeditions were not carried out with the goal of...


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Subject Headings

  • Malta -- History.
  • Malta -- History, Naval.
  • Malta -- Commerce -- History.
  • Piracy -- Malta -- History.
  • Underwater archaeology -- Malta.
  • Malta -- Antiquities.
  • Mediterranean Region -- History.
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