Malta Diary Hoist the Jolly Roger and run out the plank ….
In an era of instant news and equally instant sound bites our eyes and ears are being continually impacted by catch phrases that quickly span the globe and leave vivid impressions until they are eclipsed by something more dramatic. A couple of weeks back the world was bombarded by the atrocities of illegal immigration and blood flowing throughout the Mediterranean. In the last few days it has been the horror of the Nepal earthquake and riots in Baltimore and a number of US cities. So things move on … and on …
Humanity has always been told to profit by the lessons of history, the wars, bloodshed, plagues, slavery and deportations, the end of the First World War, the holocaust, nuclear bombs falling on Japan – all on a “never again” basis. Yet, history is ignored and its gory episodes repeated time and time again.
Many melodramatic phrases were bandied about during the horror of hundreds of deaths of poor immigrants seeking to achieve a better life. Phrases like “the Mediterranean has become a sea of blood” and “the Mediterranean Sea is now a watery grave”.
Sadly, none of this is contemporary but as old as history itself. The Mediterranean Sea has been a sea of blood and a watery grave for many, many centuries during which it was the fulcrum of western civilisation. Our mind set has now been cemented on how inhumane Libyan criminals are, herding hundreds into boats that can only hold a few scores of people, maltreating them, charging them money and leaving them to their fate.
Yes of course, they are despicable yet they are merely the latest statistic in a long list of horror statistics. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Arab traders rounded up African tribesmen, imprisoned them and sold them to British, Portuguese and French sea captains who transported their human cargoes to be sold in the United States, cargoes crushed into holds, left unfed and without water, disposing of dead bodies by unceremoniously dumping them into the Atlantic Ocean, uncaringly splitting up families.
The French seafaring adventurer and author Henry de Monfreid plied the Mediterranean and Red Sea at the turn of the 20th century, not exactly a pirate, but dealing in all sorts of illegal cargoes, stolen goods and drugs. He was pretty fearless yet however, he had one great fear – that of meeting ships crewed by Maltese sailors whom he classed as being “desperate, blasphemous, cut-throat and merciless criminals” who specialised in capturing other sea-farers and holding them to ransom, fearing the worse for himself should he fall into their hands. That was less than 100 years ago!
This brings me to relate the history of the horror of Maltese pirates who ruled the central Mediterranean Sea for 700 years between the years 1100 and 1800 BC – and often with the blessing of the islands’ administrators. They were known by the nicer sounding and more romantic name of “corsairs” and dealt in human slavery as opposed to the “Jolly Roger” gentlemen corsairs who were after gold and valuables rather than people.
The Maltese and Gozitans have always been adaptable to the decree of the day as an essence of survival. When the Arab Caliphate conquered the islands for 200 years between 1000 and 1200 and enforced the population to become Muslim, the new Maltese “Muslim corsairs” quickly turned their hand into raiding Christian ships and dragging their crews into slavery.
When the Arab Caliphate was finally expelled from Malta, they quickly turned Christian again and began raiding Muslim ships and traded in Muslim slaves.
When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in the early 15th century, they not only did not discourage this horrendous trade but they actually encouraged it and for a good 250 years Maltese corsairs did a roaring trade in capturing Muslim slaves and selling them to work on the Knights’ galleys.
Interesting to note that the activity of such corsairs was profitably administered by the Knights with a properly paid licensing system and strict regulations on what was permissible or not, their patrol areas and many other minute details as in a proper business plan.
Maltese (and many foreigners operating from Malta mainly Italian, Greek and French) corsairs thrived in a princely life laden with riches and comforts, as did their cut-throat crews mostly hailing from the Valletta and Marsa areas of Malta and were held in high esteem by the Knights and the rest of the population. They were classed as fearless heroes and their riches well-earned.
Not to be outdone, Muslim corsairs carried out sporadic raids on Malta and Gozo, carting whole villages into slavery and on one occasion rounding up the whole of the Gozitan population and making off with them.
This eventually led the Knights to build various high stone towers around the islands, keeping them manned day and night to warn of impending approaching Barbary and Ottoman vessels by lighting great fires of warning alarms or otherwise firing massive cannons. These towers are still very much preserved and treasured today as evidence of Malta’s past history.
Naturally, such a notorious profession attracted many cut-throat desperadoes, usually corsair captains, and a Captain Zelalich was one of the more notorious, a fierce hard-drinking man who was blackly renowned as a blasphemer and provokingly ate meat on Fridays when this was strictly prohibited by Roman Catholic Church decree.
Various Maltese families had a long-standing relationship with corsair pirating, one of the more famed being the Armenia family, a family surname still found in Malta today.
In general, Maltese corsairs had notorious international fame for being fierce and merciless. It was therefore no great surprise that when the Dutch East India Trading Company was formed it specifically engaged Maltese corsair personnel to man and fire ships’ guns and to generally take charge of gunpowder stores.
So yes, the Mediterranean Sea has always been a sea of blood and a watery grave and no, we have never learnt the lessons of history and we never will because money is the root of all evil, always has been and always will continue to be.