Malta Diary The controversial death by hanging of the unfortunate Private Thomas McSweeney – Royal Marine
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Pre-dawn at 5.15 am on 8th June, 1837, that is 180 years and six months ago, a tender from HMS Ceylon drew up alongside HMS Rodney with prisoner Private Thomas McSweeney from the Royal Marines on board. He was heavily clapped in irons and hooded.
Anchored in Malta’s Grand Harbour just off Senglea Point, the Rodney was surrounded by most of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, including His Majesty King William IV’s Ships, Caledonia, Asia, Vanguard, Russell, Rapid, Nautilus and Ceylon, the steam vessels Meder, Firefly and Spitfire, as well as the cutter HMS Hind.
Just 12 days after the event I am about to relate took place, King William IV passed away on 20th June, 1837 and was succeeded by 18-year-old Queen Victoria.
McSweeney was made to board the Rodney and stood hooded at the foot of the main mast.
Although still early in the morning a vast Maltese crowd had amassed around the Grand Harbour’s bastions particularly on the Valletta side as well as the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – this despite the cholera epidemic at the time with the population strongly advised to remain in their homes and not to assemble in crowds. An array of fishing boats and other small craft surrounded the Rodney.
The gloomy silence all round was deafening, absolute silence from the massed crowd and the Rodney’s crew all mustered on deck, as well as the crews of the other ships. The Rodney’s master, RN Captain Hyde Parker took to the deck ceremoniously dressed in a full frock coat, sword and a tricorn hat. In the silence, his voice boomed over the Grand Harbour announcing the execution by hanging until his death of Private Thomas McSweeney.
The hangman was Maltese, a Michele Prestigiacono (of Sicilian extraction). He adjusted the rope around McSweeney’s neck through a block, the rope-end held by a selection of sailors and marines from the anchored fleet.
At exactly 6 am a cannot shot signalled the execution, the rope pulled and the unfortunate Private rapidly hauled 60 feet up the yard-arm. He died instantly and his corpse was left to swing in the breeze for 30 minutes before it was taken down and transported to a chapel in Vittoriosa and later interred in the St Lawrence Cemetery at Vittoriosa itself.
Thus ended a brief saga wrought with deep controversy and scarred by the legal shortcomings at the time.
HMS Rodney had been commissioned into His Majesty’s Fleet in September of 1835 under the command of Captain Hyde Parker with a crew of 677, that is 484 adult sailors, 47 boys and 146 Royal Marines.
Among the crew in 1837 was Thomas McSweeney, a 23-year-old Royal Marine who hailed from County Cork in Ireland, a Roman Catholic and in fact the only Roman Catholic among the crew of entire Protestants. His immediate superior was Lance Sergeant James T. Allen from Kent. The relationship of the English – Irish duo was bristly, sharpened further by their religious differences.
McSweeney was no bright spark and although courteous and obedient, he was mainly illiterate and humble and by all accounts was constantly picked on and goaded by Allen who constantly mocked and belittled him.
In late July of 1836 the Rodney was anchored in Barcelona Harbour and the Marines were ordered on the main deck to perform various tasks. Allen noticed that McSweeney was absent and went looking for him below deck and found him preparing his billet. Allen ordered his immediate arrest and detention was confirmed by the Executive Officer until proper charges were levelled.
Allen and McSweeney had an angry exchange of words with McSweeney maintaining his innocence. Later, their paths crossed with the Irishman still fuming and in a fit of temper he pushed Allen who slipped and fell to the deck below with a thud. Allen was taken to Sick Bay and found to be suffering from violent brain concussion and died a few days later.
McSweeney was immediately arrested and clapped in irons, later Court Marshalled and found guilty of the murder of a superior officer, a hanging offence. McSweeney was not allowed any legal aid but defended himself by saying he had had no intent to kill Allen but was angered by Allen’s constant harassment of him.
In those days, manslaughter was not recognised and the sentence of hanging by the neck until pronounced dead stood, the execution to take place in Malta’s Grand Harbour.
The story of the chain of events quickly spread throughout Malta’s entire Roman Catholic population and drew enormous resentment towards the Protestant British among accusations that today would be classed as “constant bullying” and “religious discrimination”.
The body was handed over to the Rosarianti Confraternity (The Confraternity of the Holy Rosary) as McSweeney was a fellow Roman Catholic and the funeral was attended by hundreds of people from around the Cottonera area.
However, the story did not end there and today, 180 years later McSweeney’s grave is still tended, maintained and venerated at the St Lawrence Cemetery in Vittoriosa.
Indeed, down through the years some people have recounted haunting stories when visiting the cemetery of being spoken to in English by “a youth dressed in military uniform”.
His grave is still looked upon as being a commemoration of the “atrocities” vested by English Protestants on Irish Roman Catholics, even though so far away from the shores of both countries and even though 180 years have passed.
The grave is still visited today and decked in candles and flowers and some claim that after praying to McSweeney and through his divine intercession they have had their vows granted!
On a weekly basis I am inserting a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche.
“What I am wearing is my entire clothing chest”
I am so hard up, the clothes I’m wearing are the only clothes I have.