Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 6(1975)4(453-455)

JOHN FRANCIS GUILMARTIN JR., Gunpowder and Galleys. Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Pp.xiv, 321; £8 50.

The story of the Order of St John before 1522 has usually been divided from that after 1530, while the history of the Knights at Malta has tended, understandably enough, to be kept separate from that of the Maltese people. Yet the affairs of Malta and the Order became so inextricably intermingled during the sixteenth century that they can only be understood fully when viewed together both against the background of developments in later-medieval Rhodes and later-medieval Malta and also within the broader context of conflict between Muslim and Christian, Ottoman Turk and Habsburg Spaniard. To this Mediterranean story an American helicopter pilot Major Guilmartin, hovering in the wake of Fernand Braudel, Alberto Tenenti, Carlo Cipolla and others, has made a fascinating contribution based on specialized technological expertise, on hard-headed strategic and tactical analysis, and on a remarkable breadth of vision extending to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Guilmartin’s fundamental contention is that Mediterranean naval affairs have been misinterpreted by historians thinking in terms of nineteenth-century American and British theories of oceanic sea-power — “the Mahanians’ fallacy.” Braudel has already suggested that the notions of Mahan and others cannot safely he applied to a relatively small land-locked and tideless lake such as the Mediterranean. Guilmartin argues that “control of the sea” would have been a meaningless concept in an age of galleys which could only operate at a limited distance from their [p.454] bases and for restricted periods of time. The author examines a wide variety of technical factors and demonstrates their operation in a series of major engagements: Jiddah, 1517; Prevesa, 1538; Djerba, 1560; Malta, 1565; Lepanto, 1571. It is impossible here even to summarize his provocative discussions of rowing techniques, galley construction and speeds, costs and diets, recruiting and training, cannon manufacture and velocities, firepower and rapidity of shot, battle tactics and operational command structures, weather considerations, harbour fortifications, the personal interests of fleet commanders, and numerous other matters which conditioned the potential achievements of a sixteenth-century naval force. His calculations, some presented in specialized appendices, are derived not only from contemporary written records but also from experiments made with modern racing oarsmen and from metallurgical and ballistic analyses conducted in American laboratories. It will take many years to absorb, test and elaborate the multitude of revolutionary hypotheses advanced in this book; probably no one will ever reconstruct a sixteenth-century galley and test it with real oarsmen. Suffice it to say that the general picture the book presents is largely convincing and generally most welcome.

Guilmartin devotes an interesting chapter to the amphibious assault on Malta in 1565. Local Maltese scholars will inevitably find his knowledge of the literature and sources somewhat deficient, but he does fit the siege, which — debatably perhaps — he regards above all as a “gunners’ fight,” into the broader context of Mediterranean warfare. For Guilmartin, as for Braudel, the hero is not Grand Master La Valette, the inspired leader, but Garcia de Toledo, the Spanish Viceroy in Sicily, the professional strategist who expertly predicted the attack, who calculated exactly how long the defenders could hold out, when the Turks would tire, and when it was safe to throw in the limited manpower resources which were available to him and which formed the vital piccolo soccorso of June and the decisive gran soccorso of September 1565. Though the issue was so long in doubt, Malta was just too far from the Ottoman galley bases and just too strongly defended with artillery for the Turks to be sure of success. Guilmartin’s chief unpublished sources throughout the book are the collections of transcripts in the Fernández de Navarette and other collections in the Museo Naval at Madrid. These include an important strategic report made by García de Toledo in 1564 which would probably be worth publishing. The present reviewer is undertaking an edition of Juan Páez de Castro’s unpublished account of the 1565 siege to which the author draws significant attention. Guilmartin does not explain why he considers Páez de Castro to have been present at the siege (p. 182); preliminary inspection of his account [p.455] suggests that he knew more of the strategic background than of events at Malta, so that he probably remained in Spain, in touch with Philip II and his correspondence. Reliance on transcripts is often unsatisfactory; for example, when Mr. Roger Vella Bonavita kindly pointed out that it would have been hard to mount 19 full cannon in Fort Sant’Elmo in 1565 (p. 183), consultation of the original showed that Páez de Castro actually gave “15,” a not unimportant point in view of the emphasis Guilmartin places on the number of cannon involved.

A number of particular points made by Guilmartin seem debatable, but no authoritative broad appraisal of his ideas can be attempted here; that must await detailed specialized comment and much further research. Even within the narrower Maltese context there is a great deal to be done. The Spanish documents at Simancas contain a wealth of undiscovered information while the Ottoman archives are almost completely untapped; even a published work such as Serafettin Turan, “Rodos’un Zaptindan Malta Muhasarasina [From the Conquest of Rhodes to the Siege of Malta],” in Kanunî Armagani (Ankara, 1970), is unknown and incomprehensible to this reviewer, and presumably to most scholars in Malta. Since the time of Giacomo Bosio at the end of the sixteenth century the Hospitallers’ archives in Valletta have been exploited only very superficially for the period from 1421 to 1565; the most recent survey is E. Rossi, “The Hospitallers at Rhodes, 1421-1523,” in A History of the Crusades, ed. K. Setton, iii (Madison, Wisconsin, 1975), with bibliography. The history of the Order’s navy has scarcely advanced since Rossi’s unsatisfactory book of 1926. On the important and related topics of slaves and galley oarsmen, A. Luttrell, “The Servitudo Marina at Rhodes: 1306-1462,” should be published shortly, but of the extensive thesis of G. Wettinger only a brief article has appeared: “The Galley-Convicts and Buonavoglia in Malta during the Rule of the Order,” Journal of the Faculty of Arts: Royal University of Malta, iii no. 1 (1965). Studies which have been made of the fortifications are still to be published, while many other topics require investigation. Perhaps Guilmartin’s hypotheses will provoke and condition renewed activities in the Maltese archives, and that might lead in turn to significant revisions in the history of Malta in the sixteenth century; and Maltese history in the period before 1530 demands similar treatment in a Mediterranean context.

Anthony Luttrell