Malta Diary The island of Comino – small but with a history during various eras Last week it had a population of three but sadly now down to two
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The Maltese Archipelago, probably one of the smallest in the world, consists of five islands, Malta, Gozo, Comino, Filfla and St Paul’s Island. The last two are minute and uninhabited. The island of Comino, 3.5 square kilometres in all, lies almost equidistantly between Malta and Gozo.
Two weeks ago it had a population of three elderly persons, two brothers and a sister from the Vella family, but sadly, last week the family was reduced to two with the passing away of Angelo Vella. The Vella family has been living on Comino for over 100 years and originally totaled 17 persons but has now been reduced to two.
Despite its minute size, Comino has a highly chequered history that has adapted to the changes of time. The name Comino itself comes from the cumin seed that abundantly thrived there. During the Roman era it was known to have been inhabited by farmers thriving off the cumin and cotton plants. However, for lengthy periods after that it was entirely uninhabited, for a time was privately owned but then abandoned.
Its location and remoteness however became popular with pirates and marauders during the Middle Ages, mainly because of a proliferation of caves which were ideal concealment for small boats that would lie there and attack passing boats and once more return to the caves.
However, before that it acquired fame between 1285 and 1290 when it became the home of the exiled Jewish prophet, Abraham Abulafia where he wrote his two books, “Sefer ha-Of” (The Book of the Sign) and “Imre Shefer” (Words of Beauty).
During the time of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, it was preserved as a hunting and recreational ground for the Knights, hunting wild boar and rabbits. The island was declared out of bounds for Maltese and Gozitans and poachers were dealt with and treated harshly, normally be being assigned as slaves on the galleys of the Knights.
However, in the 16th and 17th Century the island was used as a place of exile for Knights who erred and breached Order Regulations where they were consigned to a watch tower known as St Mary’s Tower which was built in 1416 after a plea was made to King Alfonzo V of Aragon that a lookout point was needed to watch for invasions by the Ottomans.
During the French blockade of Malta between 1798 and 1800 the tower was used as a prison for spies but then for several decades it was used as a quarantine hospital and then as a watering pen for domestic animals. The whole tower was refurbished between 2002 and 2004 and is today a main feature on the small island.
In recent years too, the island became a pig breeding centre but this has now been discontinued.
Another notable building feature is St Mary’s Chapel which was built in 1296 and dedicated to The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt and over the years enlarged. This is now undergoing restoration.
The most recent structure was the building of the Comino Hotel in the 1960s as Malta began to gear up for the tourist industry, together with a number of holiday bungalows.
From my many visits I had two personal experiences one of which was tragic. By 1958 we had returned to Malta as my RAF father was posted to the Ta’ Qali airfield. The RAF had a boat that was used by RAF families for picnics to Comino purposes in summer and we were booked on a trip. Unfortunately, a week before out picnic a Maltese scuba diver, James Chalker from Zabbar, had disappeared while swimming at Comino and despite intensive underwater searches, his corpse was not located.
Our picnic was on the following Sunday and we made an early start and as dawn began to break the boat entered the Blue Lagoon. We saw a black object floating on the water. On approaching closer, it was a body bloated out of all proportion, the body of a man in a black diving suit. It was James Chalker whose body had floated to the surface.
I was aged 12 at the time and I distinctly remember his bloated face where the ears and nose had been gnawed by fish and crabs. As we were the only Maltese on board my father felt the obligation to remain with the body until the boat sailed round to St Mary’s Bay to alert the Police Station. The body was hauled onto the sand and my father landed to watch over the body.
For many days later I had visions of the distorted face and the gnawed parts. A plaque was later erected at the Blue Lagoon commemorating his drowning.
On a later occasion I was on a day school outing by the Royal Naval School Tal-Handaq which I attended. Very foolishly I decided to climb a rock face when a crag crumbled and I fell a height of 20 feet but very luckily landed on my feet on another protruding crag and ended up with just grazed knees. Had that not happened I would have plunged at least 100 feet with God knows what result.
In summer, the Island of Cumin is plagued by a daily invasion of thousands of locals and tourists and a fleet of polluting boats clogging up the Blue Lagoon, as well as campers. Nights included mass bbq parties. The result was widespread harm to the environment and a deluge of rubbish and debris.
Fortunately, restrictions have now been placed on these.
“If you have no oil you have to sleep in the dark”
A reference to poverty and being poor – if you do not have the resources, you have to make do without.