Malta Diary Sirens on a rock enticing sailors to their doom? The history of prostitution in Malta
Slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea (which incidentally means the sea in the middle of land), Malta’s marine history is replete with history and historical incidents endemic to lands – albeit small ones – at a confluence point surrounded by a mass of water.
Sea is for sailors, sailors are for ports and ports of call mean commerce and trade and the general hustle and bustle of life. Mediterranean voyages under sail or oar could last for days and at the first foreign disembarkation point sailors sought homely comforts and naturally, paramount among the homely comforts were women.
Malta’s first brothel was probably built about 1,000 BC in the locality today known as Marsaxlokk, a fishing port in the south of the island. Nothing of it exists today and neither can the place be exactly pinpointed, but Phoenician texts have a record of it as a place of relaxation for sailors, the first landmark that galleys from Tyre and Sidon (Lebanon) first approached in Malta’s coast.
When the Romans occupied Malta they renamed it The Temple of Juno, and frequently mentioned it in scripts. Whether the women providing the entertainment were actually local or were transported with galleys is not known but for a good 3,000 years prostitution in Malta and Gozo was certainly alive and kicking.
Sardonically enough, it was probably at its most active times during the reigns of the Grandmasters and the Knights (between 1530 and 1789) who were supposedly sworn to be celibate but easily succumbed to female charms. When the Knights first landed in Malta mid-16th Century they settled in the Borgo area later renamed Vittoriosa, a Grand Harbour city where prostitution was rampant. When they were expelled by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th Century it was still very active.
Perhaps the most amusing story is that of Alof de Wignacourt, later to be appointed Grandmaster of the Order of St John. He first came to Malta as a young Knight and soon found the charms of female company irresistible and hence, bye bye to celibacy.
He hitched up with a Maltese housewife whose husband was a sailor on the galleys and hence frequently away from home and of course when the cat is away….One evening he was enjoying homely comforts when the husband returned unexpectedly having arrived a day earlier than scheduled. Alof legged it sharply, but he never forgot his lesson.
On appointment as Grandmaster he immediately issued an edict that sailors on ships returning to port must not be allowed to disembark until sunrise on the day after arrival. The disembarkation time must be marked by a cannon firing three times and therefore in those days audible all over Malta. After that, all could disembark. Risk and liability were thus prevented with these exclusion clauses which put everybody’s minds at rest.
Most Grandmasters and Knights had their lovers and courtesans and by all accounts some were very active. Grandmaster Ramon Perellos still had liaisons with women at the age of 80 and Grandmaster Emanuel Pinto (founder of the town of Qormi) is alleged to have died from a heart attack aged 92 whilst enjoying sexual intercourse!
The Inquisitors of the period were supposed to be the guardians of faith and morality and were equally sworn to celibacy. However, Inquisitor Leonetto della Cordoba was found to be consorting with prostitutes and was instantly expelled after having been in the position for only two years.
Street-walking prostitutes had various means of identification for clients to recognise, in Malta even in the Middle Ages. Street walkers in London and Paris were up to recent years recognised for strolling in the evening with a toy poodle in tow. In Roman times a thin gold or silver bracelet was worn around the ankle. In Malta at the time of the Knights they wore a white blouse knotted under their breasts (over another garment naturally) and a white shawl over their shoulders. Others hung around in doorways or wine taverns.
These and other fascinating episodes and chronicles have been put together by the author Edward Attard in his book “Il-Prostituzzjoni f’Malta” (Prostitution in Malta) published by Book Distributors Limited (BDL) earlier this year and deals with its history from the time of the Knights onwards.
Attard is a well-known historian and author and has written a number of well-researched books dealing with Police history, high-profile criminal cases and general criminality in Malta in the past. He is also the established historian of Police history in Malta.
The book has become even more topical in the light of current discussions as to whether prostitution should be fully legalised and whether brothels should be licensed and made subject to health and safety regulations. A newspaper straw poll amongst prostitutes clearly established they were against such legalisation and they made their reasons financially obvious because they would be obliged to pay VAT, income tax, national insurance and the like!
Yet again, prostitution is not actually illegal – it becomes illegal if sexual acts take place in public places. Even loitering with intent is not illegal.
In a famous landmark decision in the Malta Courts, Judge William Harding in 1953 ruled that having intercourse in a parked car was public and thus illegal but having intercourse on a boat at sea was not because this was not public!
When Napoleon ousted the Knights in 1798, prostitution had become somewhat hazardous because of the spread of venereal disease, yet the French actively encouraged it as a ruse to spread the disease and weaken local opposition. In their short two-year reign the French opened two hospitals, one in the St Scholastica Monastry and the other at the Auberge de Baviere in Valletta to deal with infected soldiers. Later the British designated the Central Hospital in Floriana to deal with sexually transmitted diseases.
When the British replaced the French and stationed or transited thousands of sailors and soldiers in Malta, prostitution boomed sky high, mostly around the Valletta area and hence the ill-fame of notorious Strait Street with its many bars and clubs. The Gzira and Marsa waterfronts were other ill-reputed localities.
The prostitutes were not only Maltese and Gozitans but, as with the time of the Knights there were also scores of women from Italy, Greece, Spain and Arab prostitutes from North Africa.
Things were getting out of hand so in 1861 the British authorities decreed that every woman who worked as a prostitute had to undergo a medical inspection by a Police doctor three times a month and by 1920 this was increased to four. If a woman was declared free from any disease she would be given a metal tag and clients could ask for and inspect the date of the tag.
By 1898 however, things were really getting out of hand and the British Governor General Gaspard La Marchant ordered the prohibition of brothels and decreed that only one prostitute per house was allowed and that Police permission had to be obtained for more than one. A 1900 document shows that 198 British Navy sailors had venereal disease much of which had been brought in from other ports around the Mediterranean.
A 1904 Police report shows that there were 152 registered prostitutes, which was far below the actual number.
In 1933 a popular newspaper “Il-Hamra” lamented that prostitution had become widespread and that this was unhealthy and unwholesome and violated the Roman Catholic religion.
With thousands of British and NATO servicemen regularly visiting Malta right up to the mid-1960s prostitution maintained its steady pace but by 1979, the notoriety of Strait Street had lost its charm and many bars and places had closed down, and much the same could be said for the Gzira waterfront.
Naturally, it still exists today catering both for local and tourist trade but on a much less manifest basis. Recent years has seen the spread of so-called “Gentlemen’s Clubs” with lap dancers and pole dancers (almost exclusively foreign and mainly Russians and Bulgarians) and occasionally the media reports a prosecution for “immoral acts”.
There is also a fresh dimension to the general sex trade with the current Government intending to legalise pornography as long as this is not on public exhibition, as long as it does not portray violent sex, child sex or what is being termed as “revenge porno” where a person displays website pictures of an ex-lover in an “immoral dimension”.
My personal conclusion – like it or not – and I am Maltese, the country has for hundreds of years been economically boosted by this “under-the-counter” (perhaps an inappropriate pun) trade and our nation has a lot for which to thank all those women who throughout the centuries stood (or whatever) and served!