1283 – 8th July GREAT SEA BATTLE INSIDE THE GRAND HARBOUR
Since 1266, Malta had been subjugated to the adminstration of the Anjevins, ever since this French power shifted its kingdom from the region of Anjou and Provence in France, to the island of Sicily and Southern Italy. On a Monday afternoon, following Easter Sunday of 1282, this tyrannic regime was toppled by the populace of Palermo in what is known as the revolution of the Sicilian Vespers. This was triggered off when a French soldier audaciously enough teased a Sicilian woman who was in the company of her husband. The husband summarily sought to protect the family honour and so he promptly stabbed the soldier to death. As a consequence of this the people of Palermo rose up in arms and the revolt spread like wildfire. The Sicilians ousted the Anjevins aided the Spanish Aragonese soldiers who took over instead.
This Sicilian episode had its repercussions in Malta too. The French Anjevin garrison was now isolated and forced to lock itself up inside Fort St Angelo, situated as it is on the promonotory of Birgu. The Maltese too had had enough of the Angevin garrison, and soon Maltese, aided by the Aragonese besieged the fort. The fateful day arrived when on 8th July the Aragonese armada led by Admiral Ruggero Lauria entered the Grand Harbour in pursuit of Angevin vessels. The Aragonese challenged the Angevin vessels and a sea battle with crossbows and swords ensued. According to the chroniclers, the battle lasted all day long and the port ‘turned red from the blood of corpses that were thrown into the sea’. As happened in Sicily, following this battle the Aragonese took over the Maltese islands.
1551 – 26th JULY DRAGUT RAIS takes GOZITAN POPULATION into SLAVERY
Throughout the late Middle Ages and the whole span of the Order of St John’s reign in Malta, the islands were always susceptible to sudden incursions by sea raiders. These landings were more often than not carried out by various admirals of the Ottoman Empire or, North African corsairs. Sometimes these incursions were carried out in retribution to similar corsair activities that were initiated by the Knights of St John who victimised both Ottoman vessels as well as North Africa coastal towns. Perhaps the worst of these corsair raids on Malta was the one that took place on 18th July of 1551 and led by notorious Rais Turgut (better known as Dragut) and his aide the Sultan’s general, Sinam Pasha.
The corsairing vessels reached the mouth of the Grand Harbour. There they were repelled by canon fire from fort St Angelo and so they deemed the port too strong to conquer. Thus they changed plans and decided to head towards St Paul’s Bay where they landed their troops that were marched off towards Mdina. The small fortified town withstood the onslaught too. Having failed to take Mdina, Dragut’s troops boarded their ships once more and headed towards Gozo. There they disembarked without any resistance and advanced onto Rabat, and its fortified citadel where the population had scurried in in wait for the impending threat. However, the citadel walls could hardly defend the inhabitants for any long stretch, due to the state of disrepair and its weak defence system. Suffice to say that there was only one cannon and one bombardier to counter artillery fire. The siege was laid onto the town on 26th July. A few cannon shots from the Turkish armada soon breached the walls and many defenders were killed in the process. Thousands of Gozitan folk had huddled up inside the citadel and chaos and panic prevailed. According to the 18th century historian, Canon Agius Sultana, better known as De Soldanis, the defenders were soon constrained to bargain deal with Dragut to spare their lives. They implored him to take only so much of their population into slavery and save the rest from such fate. Dragut accepted the deal but did not keep his promise, because, according to De Soldanis, some 6000 inhabitants were eventually carried off onto the waiting vessels and into slavery.
1806 – 18th JULY CATASTROPHIC EXPLOSION AT BIRGU
Following the arrival of the British military forces in Malta in 1800, this new foreign naval power established its navy and arsenal in the Grand Harbour area. Whilst the seat of the temporary British government was established in Valletta, the arsenal of the British Navy was located mostly in Birgu. Inside what used to be the Inquisitors Palace, soldiers were quartered and soon Birgu was turned into a garrison town. On the peripheral fortification walls of Birgu, on the side of Bormla Creek, a gunpowder and bomb depot was established.
In the early morning hours of 18th July a huge and terrifying explosion tore through the polverista (gunpowder stores). The explosion was so powerful that the devastation caused was catastrophic. The fortifications close to the polverista crumbled into the ditch and a large thick black cloud rose and darkened the skies. Houses were rocked out of their foundations. The churches of St Lawrence and that of the Annunciation belonging to the Dominican monks were also structurally damaged. So powerful was the explosion that some people who were on boats in the Creek were flung overboard and drowned in a vortex of water that was created by the explosion. Some 160 people died on that day and at least twice that number were injured. Most of those who died were Maltese, but there were also British military personnel who perished. It seems however, that this tragedy was not the only one that occurred due to the posing danger of gunpowder stores. Some years later another explosion occurred inside the polverista located inside Fort St Angelo which also caused the death of six British military personnel.
1814 – 12th JULY THE MALTA POLICE CORPS SET UP
Immediately following the Treaty of Paris, when Britain had established once and for all that Malta was to become a Crown Colony, proclamation numbered XXII, was published on 1st July that gave authority for a national police corps to be set up on the Maltese islands. This new institution was to become part of a department that was meant to safeguard public order and at the same time be able to administer justice. The corps was to become operational as from 12th July. The Malta Police Corps was to be administered by an Inspector General who would be answerable directly to the British Governor of the Islands. Only some one 110 years later, in 1921, when the first autonomous and diarchic government of Malta was set up, did the Police Corps fall under the direct responsibility of the Maltese Government officials. Even then, as history shows, the Police Corps was to remain under the ultimate jurisdiction of the British Governor. This situation remained so until Malta obtained its independence from Britain in 1964.
1941 26th JULY E-BOATS ATTACK THE GRAND HARBOUR
For most of the 7,000 year old history of Malta, the Grand Harbour served both as the Islands’ main entrance as well as its gateway. It was also the main reason why so many different nations sought to occupy Malta.
During the Second World War, on the morning of 26th July, 1941, the Italian navy launched a covert attack onto the Grand Harbour with the aim to infiltrate it and destroy ships that were purportedly laden with cargo following the successful ‘Operation Substance’, a convoy that had reached Malta, with provisions. The boats that were used, some seventeen in all, were a mix of MT Barchini, or as they got to be known, ‘E-Boats’. These were employed to attack enemy ships by approaching them. Then there were the SCLs, known by the Italians as maiali. smaller boats, that were known to be used as ‘human torpedos’. These smaller boats were loaded with explosives that were then driven by a pilot to ram into the intended targets. In the last seconds prior to impact, the pilot would leap off these smaller boats onto a dinghy to save himself.
The attack was launched from Augusta in Sicily. It seems that through intelligence reports, the British defence had got wind of this planned incursion and so the Maltese coastal defence in the area was on full alert. On reaching the Grand Harbour area, the local defence opened fire. The first SCLs that rammed the iron grid that protected the entrance to the Grand Harbour, exploded but did not destroy its target to make way for others to penetrate the Breakwater. Instead on exploding, the boat got stuck in the iron net that crumbled onto it with the consequence that this blocked the passage into Grand Harbour.
In the rapid battle that ensued, eight E-Boats, one Motor Torpedo Boat and a SCL that carried the ‘human torpedo’ were sunk by the local defence units. Another E-Boat and a motor torpedo were soon routed and taken in by the British Navy. From the sea fifteen corpses and 18 prisoners were recovered. In praise of the Italian agressors one may say that this was one of the most heroic effortss that were conducted by the Italian Navy. Kudos went to the Maltese defence system for being on high state of alert and for acting so effectively to win the battle for the Grand Harbour.
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