Reuben Pace

As recounted by Orlando Magro – A Maltese hero during the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 Part 1

As recounted by Orlando Magro – A Maltese hero during the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 Part 1

William Zammit

Events, along with the main figures in a people’s history, have a way of giving rise to myths, legends and other stories. Even though these might not be based on facts that can be historically confirmed, they play a fundamental role in the development of national culture in its broadest sense.  Every nation has these made up myths that are sometimes created from sheer imagination, and other times from historical truths which aren’t quite as exciting as the myths and legends that came to be told with time. There are plenty of reasons for this: why are certain events of national importance almost entirely forgotten whilst others gain recognition, interest and respect in such a way that they are integrated with the national identity?

The Great Siege of Malta of 1565 is one of the principal events in Maltese history where this process can be observed. The tale of the Siege and Malta’s victory over a much stronger force – the Ottomans – constituted one of the main stories in the history of a small, conquered nation determined to have its own moment of glory. On a purely historical level, historical documents of the Great Siege are quite detailed: there are plenty of contemporary legends along with visual evidence in the form of maps.

However, we have always been lacking in knowledge about those tales of courage, those brave acts of the Maltese which, although we barely have any records of them, surely did happen.  Having thousands of Maltese locked up inside fortifications for almost four months with the enemy determined to take over the Maltese islands undoubtedly led to acts of heroism both by the masses and by individuals.

This is where Maltese writers come into play. Ġan Anton Vassallo, Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi and many others have forged, out of historical records which hardly mention the bravery of the Maltese people, stories, myths, legends, novels, poems, dramas and other writings which have given the Maltese people national heroes during a time when nationalism was in its prime. Thus we find characters such as Ċejlu Tonna, Toni Bajada and others that had been given importance and gained huge popularity throughout the 19th Century. Popular Maltese novels, as well as the literature of the common people in the form of printed rhymes, often including pictures of the characters and events, spread these myths and helped them take root in the nation’s collective cultural memory. These have certainly helped the Maltese people gain a sense of identity and self-confidence.

An interesting example of this mixture of folklore and historical reality is the character of Orlando Magro. Whilst Magro wasn’t one of those characters elevated to heroic stature by Maltese writers, historically he was what one would expect a hero during the Great Siege to be: courageous, capable, determined and ready to suffer for his besieged country.

Not only was Magro a prime protagonist during the Great Siege, but also his contributions are documented in an original piece of writing that goes back to June 1565. His main duty was that of delivering Grand Master de Valette’s letters to other countries – a delicate and dangerous task, considering the Maltese countryside outside the fortifications was all controlled by the Ottomans and the sea separating Malta and Sicily was supervised by a squadron of Ottoman ships.

Among others, Magro was ordered by Grand Master de Valette to deliver a letter that he had written to Don Garcia de Toledo, the Viceroy of Sicily, as he was the only hope left that could bring Malta an army strong enough to end the siege on the Maltese Islands. Magro left Malta on the 17th June with this letter. In it, the Grand Master explained clearly the situation in Malta between the 15th and 17th June. Thanks to Magro’s courage and that of his colleagues, de Valette’s letter was handed to Don Garcia. Weeks later it was translated first into French and then into English. This English translation was published as a booklet in the city of Ghent on the 27th August 1565. This English booklet, containing only eight pages, is a rarity. It includes a few words from Orlando Magro himself. This is the only published memoir that we know of written by a Maltese person during the Great Siege, and what Magro wrote is confirmed by others, such as Francesco Balbi di Correggio, who also lived during the Great Siege and left us clear descriptions of what happened.

In next week’s blog we shall have the second part of the article about Orlando Magro.

Translated from the original published in Maltese by Prof. William Zammit in L’Imnara