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Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, of the venerable language of Castile, Leon and Portugal, was Bailiff of Acre at the time when he was called upon to assume the reins of government on the death of Marcantonio Zondadari on the 19th June 1722. At a comparatively early age he had joined the ranks of the fraternity, and had gradually risen to occupy the most important and trustworthy positions that were in the power of the Order to bestow.
A temporary cloud threatened to disturb the early part of De Vilhena’s peaceful rule. Ali, a Turkish slave in Malta, having obtained his freedom by exchange, returned to Constantinople and persuaded the Sultan to despatch a fleet for the capture of Malta. Alleging that it was arranged for the slaves, who actually outnumbered the population of the island, to rise at the approach of the vessels and secure possession of the town. De Vilhena, who, in accordance with the practice of his predecessors, maintained spies in Constantinople, was not long in learning of the plot, and he instantly took means to place Malta in a state of defence. Fort Manoel was constructed upon an island in the Marsamuseetto harbour for the better protection of the harbour itself and of the fortifications on the town side. Every precaution was taken to secure the numerous slaves who had so confidently allied themselves to the treacherous designs of the Moslem Ali.
The hostile fleet appeared off Malta on the 28th June 1722. Finding his plans frustrated, the Turkish commander, Abdi Agà‘, contented himself with writing a threatening letter to the Grand Master demanding that he should give up all the slaves in his possession under pain of incurring the displeasure of the Sultan. The Grand Master showed his readiness to treat for the exchange of captives. The matter was placed in the hands of Monsieur de Bonnac, French Ambassador at Constantinople. Through these good offices the negotiations would have been brought to a successful close, had not the officers of the Turkish fleet, through their influence over the Sultan, frustrated all further attempts, and the subject was finally abandoned.
Naval expeditions against the Infidel corsairs continued throughout the reign of De Vilhena, and several minor successes were achieved in the waters of the Mediterranean. As a special mark of approbation of these successful exploits, Beiiedict XIII then Sovereign Pontiff, presented the Grand Master with a silver gilt sword and a velvet casque embroidered in gold and enriched with pearls, which had been specially blessed on Christmas Day 1729. The Grand Master caused a magnificent medal to be struck commemorating this important event in the annals of the Order.
During the fourteen years through which De Vilhena’s rule lasted he had rendered himself most deservedly popular, ‘both by his wise administration of office as well as by the charitable zeal which he constantly displayed for the aged poor. He died on the 10th December 1736, leaving behind him, as his epitaph tells us, “monuments of his piety, munificence, foresight, and charity.”