1565: The Ottomans Take Malta

The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 was a turning point in history, as it marked the limits of Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and the first real victory of the Catholic forces of Spain and the Italian states in defeating the force of the Ottoman navy. Malta was a strategic island sitting at almost the midpoint of the Mediterranean Sea. While the Ottomans controlled the eastern Mediterranean after their conquests of Rhodes, Cyprus, and especially the destruction of a Catholic fleet at the Battle of Djerba in 1560, the ability of the Ottomans to expand into the western Mediterranean was hindered by the Catholic outpost in Malta. Controlled by the Knights Hospitalier, a combined force of Knights, Spanish, and others successfully repelled the Ottoman assault on the island in 1565 over several months and stemmed the tide of Ottoman naval expansion. However, there were several points where the Ottomans could have attained victory at Malta and taken the island. The following presents a potential history if they had.

In 1565, the Ottoman Empire took full control of the eastern Mediterranean with the capture of the island of Malta against a group of defenders formed from several Catholic nations. Malta served as another launching point for the Barbary pirates to prey on Spanish and Italian shipping. Many pirates became bolder with their attacks, including the coastal attacks on Palermo, Agrigento, and Catania the 1570s.

The capture of Malta als marked the final phase of Ottoman expansion under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who died in 1566. After Sultan Selim II secured the throne, he began thinking about wars of expansion of his own. In order to strengthen the Ottoman position, Selim further extended the alliance between the Ottomans and France to potentially bring an ally in Christian Europe into war with the Habsburgs in the event of another Habsburg-Ottoman war. With this alliance secured, Selim began plans to expand the Ottoman hegemony over the Mediterranean. After winning a war with Venice and other Italian states between 1570 and 1574, the Ottomans took control of Cyprus and all Venetian islands in the Aegean. Now only Crete and the Ionian islands remained as Venetian possessions outside the Adriatic Sea, and Venice was forced to pay a tribute to the Sultan to keep the islands. At the end of the war with Venice, Selim II died and was succeeded by Sultan Murad III.

During the regime of Murad III, the Ottoman Empire continued to focus on reigning in the Catholic powers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. As the pressure from the Safavids in Persia to the east had subsided while the dynasty was going through a succession crisis, Murad could focus on dealing with the situation in Europe. Ottoman diplomats continued to strengthen their ties with France as France was the main rival of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. However, new develompents arose within the Catholic Church in the 1580s. The civil war in France had ended, and Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, had achieved victory and was now king of France. Furthermore, relations between Spain and England had been worsening every year and the two countries were now on the brink of war.

Murad and his advisors managed to exploit these two events by drawing similarities between the Islamic faith and the practices of the Huguenots and others who had rebelled against the authority of the Pope in Europe. One major similarities noted by Murad III in correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I of England was that both the Protestant faiths and Islam rejected the worship of idols in their practices. Using these pretenses, the Ottomans became friendlier with both the French and the English, signing a trade agreement with England in 1587 for the importation of tin and lead to be used in Ottoman cannons.

These ties quickly developed into a military alliance as in 1588, Murad received an envoy from England stating that England had been attacked by a large armada sailing from Spain. Sir Francis Walsingham in England had requested military intervention by the Ottoman Empire to divert some of Spain’s naval forces. The Ottomans entered the war months later in early 1589 and began raiding Sicily and other Spanish islands in the Mediterranean. The war escalated quickly as Austria joined in against the Ottomans, France and the rebellious Low Countries declared war on Spain, and the German and Italian states sorted out their loyalties and entered the fray. By the end of 1590, virtually the entire European continent was at war. This war was like nothing the world had seen before and lasted for decades, with countries entering and exiting the war as the tides of the conflict constantly shifted.

Countries involved at the beginning of the war

Habsburg/Catholic side:
Spain
Austria
Bavaria
Electorate of Mainz
Electorate of Cologne
Electorate of Trier
Papal States
Venice
Savoy

French/Protestant side:
France
England
Ottoman Empire
Netherlands
Electorate of Saxony
Electoral Palatinate
Electorate of Brandenburg

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