Magazine article The Spectator

Brave Little Island

Magazine article The Spectator

Brave Little Island

Article excerpt

High life

Taki

Valetta

To Malta, where St Paul was shipwrecked in 60AD on his way to Rome under arrest, to be judged before Caesar as was his right as a Roman citizen. Although a prisoner, the Apostle spread his message, performed many miraculous cures and converted the unbelievers. Three months were enough. The Maltese people are to this day overwhelmingly Christian, and devoutly so.

Unlike St Paul, I flew there of my own free will, by private jet, in the company of William Buckley, John Radziwill and Sebastian Taylor. The reason for the trip was to inspect a classic sailing boat, with Bill, an experienced and intrepid sailor, acting as adviser (I dreamed that Rene Zellweger would have me if I owned that particular boat, so off we went). But my old friend Bill let me down. `You must be mad to buy this, you need a hurricane to do six knots . . . '

Valetta, of course, was a pleasant surprise (even without Rene). Especially the people. They're friendly, helpful and extremely polite. The dialect they speak is a cross between Italian and Arabic, and is pleasant to the ear. Malta's finest hour was in 1565, when 48,000 Turks attacked the island. Facing them were 540 Knights and 4,000 Maltese. Also some Spanish and Italian mercenaries. La Valette, the Grand Master, wisely chose not to meet the invaders on the beaches, but to face them behind fortified positions. Against all odds, and behind crumbling walls, the Christian forces kept the infidels at bay despite ferocious bombardments, losing only one fort, St Elmo. Demoralised by disease, fire and steel, the vastly superior Turkish forces withdrew, never again to attempt another invasion in that part of the Mediterranean. In saving themselves, the Knights, the mercenaries and the entire Maltese population had saved Europe from the dreaded Turk. Two hundred years after the event, Voltaire wrote that nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.

The walled city of Valetta resisted the corsairs and the Turks until the Turkish Crescent waned. The fall of the Order did not come about from attack, but from lack of it. As the might of the Ottoman Empire weakened, the fleet of the Order lay idly at anchor in the Grand Harbour, and the Knights, especially the young ones, whiled away their time in activities far removed from their monastic vows. …

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