Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Knights of St. John, Reverse

The other day I reported on an historical victory the Knight's of St. John had against the Ottoman's on September 11th, 1565 on the island of Malta.

What I didn't know at that time, however, is that the Knights had kicked Jews off the island the entire time they ruled there, except for merchant Jews taken as slaves, who needed to be ransomed by the Jewish community who lived elsewhere in more freedom.

Jews were not freed from slavery on the island, nor allowed back to live there in more normal circumstances until Napolean, in turn, freed the island from the Knights in 1798.

"In 1530, Charles V made over Malta to the knights Hospitaller of the Order of ST. John, who had been driven from Rhodes nine years earlier by the Moslems. The whole raison d'etre of the body and its tenure of Malta lay in the supposition of a continual state of hostility between the Moslem world and Christendom, of which the members of the Order were, in a sense, the knights-errant. Accordingly, they waged continual maritime warfare, hardly distinguishable from piracy, against the Moslem powers. Seaports were raided and their inhabitants carried off.

Shipping was preyed on indiscriminately, captured vessels being brought to Malta, and crew and passengers sold into captivity. Throughout the rule of the Knights, which lasted until they capitulated to the French in 1798, the islands were thus a last European refuge of slave traffic and slave labour.

The victims were any persons, of whatever standing, race, age or sex, who happened to be sailing on the captured ships. Jews made up a large proportion of the Levantine merchant class and were hence peculiarly subject to capture. Because of their nomadic way of life, disproportionately large numbers were to be found in any vessel sailing the Eastern ports. Also they formed a considerable element in the population of the Moslem ports subject to raids. So, soon after the establishment of the Knights in Malta, the name of Malta begins to be found with increasing frequency in Jewish literature, and always with an evil association.

The islands became in Jewish eyes a symbol for all that was cruel and hateful in the Christian world. Whatever the truth of the contemporary rumour that the Jews financed the great Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, certainly they watched with anxious eyes and their disappointment at its failure must have been great. "The monks of Malta are still today a snare and trap for the Jews", sadly records a Jewish chronicler at the end of his account of the siege. A messianic prohecy current early in the seventeenth century further expressed the bitterness of the Jewish feeling, recounting how the Redemption would begin with the fall of the four kingdoms of ungodliness, first amongst which was Malta.

A typical capture, and one of the earliest mentioned in Jewish literature, is related in the "Vale of Tears" by Joseph ha-Cohen:
`In the year 5312 (1552), the vessels of the monks of Rhodes, of the order of Malta, cruising to find booty, encountered a ship coming from Salonica, wheron where seventy Jews. They captured it and returned to their island. These unhappy persons had to send to all quarters to collect money for the ransom exacted by these miserable monks. Only after payment were they able to continue their voyage.'

I wonder how much truth there was to that rumor that Jews helped finance the siege of Malta in 1565. Since this was how the Knights treated them, you certainly can't blame them for it.


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