Malta Diary “The dghajsa man” – The first and last for Royal Navy sailors
In the days when the sun never set on the British Empire and the British Royal Navy ruled the Five Oceans and the Seven Seas – and continued to do so for many years after that – all British sailors who were at sea as opposed to being on shore administrative Admiralty duties must have touched Malta at some time during their career.
The link had been forged by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson in the late 18th Century when the Maltese revolted against the French and Napoleon and “invited” Nelson – cannily anchored in nearby Sicily – to take over the administration of the Maltese Islands and the rest became part of history.
Nelson made Malta his Mediterranean base and resided here with his lover Lady Emma Hamilton where they shared a residence in Pieta’ – handily near Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
At the time it appeared a shrewd move by Nelson and Britain because control of the Central Mediterranean was a three-way tussle between Britain, France and Imperialist Russia. The islands held the key to Mediterranean shipping and commerce, were a mere stone’s throw away from North African and Sicilian/Italian shores and handily placed to reach France, Spain and Portugal in the west and the Balkans, Greece and Turkey in the east and at a stretch, the Middle East.
The move became even shrewder 70 years or so further along the line, long after Nelson had died at Trafalgar and Napoleon in St Helena, when the Suez Canal was inaugurated, providing a quick-fix route to the Arabian Gulf and the whole of the Middle East and hence the Indian Ocean and of course – the Indian sub-continent.
Malta’s fate was forever after sealed as an invaluable Mediterranean base without which Britain could not do without and the British dominance looked on with envy by other imperial aspirants.
All Mediterranean patrols were centred around the Maltese Islands and every single troopship on its way to India and back had perforce to stop and replenish in Malta and its two main harbours, the Valletta Grand Harbour and Sliema Creek.
As soon as a vessel entered harbour, dropped anchor and tied to the buoys, it would be surrounded by droves of ‘dghajsa men’ in gondola-like boats, plying their living and waiting patiently to take thirsty and bereft-of-female-company sailors to shore where they immediately invaded the nearest bars or went further afield to Valletta’s Strait Street for the women and to squander their pay packets. In Sliema Creek, the sailors landed on the Gzira shore, bristling with bars, restaurants and of course, droves of ‘hostesses’!
The ‘dghajsa’ is a traditional Maltese boat, based on the Venetian gondola, a light craft, easy to manoeuvre, painted in striking colours and in which the ‘dghajsa man’ would have to stand and ply the oars forwards as it skimmed through the water. The sailor’s called it ‘the Maltese water-taxi’.
For the sake of convenience all the sailors were addressed as ‘Johnny’ by the ‘dghajsa men’ and the sailors reciprocated by calling them all ‘Charlie’.
They had of course been in operation long before the arrival of the British and tied to the arrival of every ship in harbour, whether military or civil.
The trade was two-way, landing the sailors on the nearest jetty and later taking drunken loads back to their ship in time for sailing or in time for them to hang-over and do their duty shift. Just as the ‘dghajsa man’ was the first and last Maltese face that sailors would see there was invariably a “First and Last” named bar for that welcome first drink and later for the ‘one for the road’ back to ship.
That all represents a past era now and although the ‘dghajsa men’ are still there today in much reduced numbers, they are more a tourist decoration while all the ‘First and Last’ bars have disappeared.
Being a ‘dghajsa man’ was no easy task. It called for toughness and grit and an ability to work all hours to make hay while the going was good with sailors paying to be ferried. Returning to ship, most of the sailors would be well inebriated and often quarrelsome and invariably rowdy and squabbles and fist-fights were common and claims for compensation from the RN Admiralty frequent.
There were also frequent instances when if a ‘dghajsa’ was not present, sailors would scuttle a boat nearest to shore and make off it with, causing the chagrin of local residents and boat owners.
This trend of thought came back to me a couple of weeks ago when Lyn Funnell sent me a recording of a song “Sammy’s Bar” which I confess I had never heard before. There is even a version by Lonnie Donegan and several other versions – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DfrUtRFZX4
It’s a sad guitar ditty written by the late Cyril Tawney and relates the tale of a sailor having his last drink in “Sammy’s Bar” at Pieta’ before taking the ‘dghajsa’ back to ship. He sees the girl he fell in love with but she is with ‘Johnny’ who has a flash ‘Yankee car’. Two weeks later he reads of her death in a newspaper while in Paola, a car-crash victim because ‘Johnny’ took a hair-pin bend at speed.
The fist-fights and drunken squabbles have long gone, but some ‘dghajsa men’ are still there, less rough and more keyed to attracting the tourist trade. The ‘First and Last Bars’ disappeared long ago…