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Malta Diary: The curse of the gallows and horrific tortures




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NOTE OF CAUTION – This article is NOT for the faint-hearted! Only those who can absorb reading about gore, blood and atrocious torture should read it.


There is a saying in Maltese that the gallows are for the unfortunate – taken to mean that some have the misfortune to be caught but many others who have committed greater criminal offences manage to evade the course of justice.


Quarantine was a regular event in Malta during the Middle Ages and after. The famous poet Lord Byron arrived in Malta in 1813 on his way to Greece to fight for and help the Greeks gain independence from Turkey. To his great frustration he was ordered not to disembark from his ship because of an enormous bubonic plague outbreak in the islands.


He fretted and fretted as he walked aimlessly about the ship’s deck. On his return from Greece he was allowed to land but cursed and fretted because his walkabouts in the capital city Valletta caused him great discomforts. Valletta is built on hilly terrain and its parallel streets are mostly paved and this caused a great challenge to Byron because of his gammy leg.



In anger and disdain he labelled Valletta as a city of “hells, bells and smells” which some years later was overturned by the visiting Benjamin Disraeli before he became UK Prime Minister who described Valletta as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”!


Between the 15th and 19th Century, some of the “course of justice” processes in Malta beggar belief by today’s standards.


In the 16th Century, 19-year-old Antonio Cachia from the village of Zurrieq, had been at work at sea for many months but returned to home port where he was obliged to undergo quarantine on his ship. In his eagerness to return to his home he skipped quarantine but was arrested shortly afterwards, underwent a summary trial and was hanged at Manoel Island.



His corpse was left dangling on the gallows to decay and was only taken down on orders of the Grandmaster who used to go fishing nearby and became sick and tired of seeing the corpse.


Some six decades later, another young man, Saverio Galea, played a prank and “stole” a silver crucifix from the Zebbug Parish Church. The Court sentenced him to a life on the galleys of the Order of St John but the Grandmaster deemed otherwise and ordered he be hanged.


The infliction of pain and death were common as the price of human life – unless one was titled or privileged – was totally disregarded. Torture and quartering were common as was being publicly pilloried and flogged and sentencing to death on the gallows were frequent, every day affairs. In some cases, a person about to be hanged and on the way to the gallows would be burnt with hot pincers all over the body.



Those interested in pursuing this horrific catalogue of pain, torture and horrors may be interested in a publication by William Zammit who heads the Department of Library Information at the Malta University, a university which is among the oldest in Europe at about the time when Britain instituted its universities of international fame. The book is published by BDL.


A horrific episode happened in 1749 when slaves staged a rebellion and more than 30 were arrested and cruelly tortured to death. Needless to state, slaves were the most harshly treated, followed by the common man. The two slaves judged to have been responsible for the rebellion were tied down in two separate boats. The boats were pulled away from a raft until their legs and arms were torn away from their bodies while they were still alive.


Another amazing case involved the ordained priest Don Pino Rizzo who is alleged to have had a clandestine 18-year-old relationship with a woman who later married another man. Her husband had to travel overseas and before leaving he strictly warned her that under no account is she to allow the priest into her home.



On 23rd March, 1746, the day after the man left to travel, Don Pino Rizzo knocked on her door and demanded he be allowed in. The woman refused. He drew a knife and stabbed her to death and is alleged to have licked off the blood from the knife and resorted to a chapel to demand sanctuary from justice.


He thus escaped the gallows but four years later, while in a church sanctuary prison he bumped into a stone balustrade, tumbled down the stairs and died. Fate had taken a hand instead of the gallows.


Pre-dawn at 5.15 am on 8th June, 1837, 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.


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.


Thomas McSweeney was 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 which 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.


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”.


All these years later his 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”.


A more recent episode which today is still filled with controversy was the hanging of Carmelo Borg Pisani at 7.30 am on Saturday, 28th November, 1942. He was aged 28 at the time. He was pro-Italian and pro-Fascist and escaped to Italy shortly after the start of World War II and was declared an Italian citizen.


Earlier in 1942 he had been sent to Malta by the Mussolini Government to try and convert the Maltese to Fascism and instil anti-British feeling. His loan mission ended in tragedy. He was arrested, stood trial as “a traitor” and sentenced to death.


Many still contend, even today, he was not a traitor but a Maltese citizen with a right to express his own feelings and political inclinations and the British had infringed justice by executing him.


Thankfully the days of executions and gallows are over, and although torture is still proclaimed to be rampant throughout the world, it does not approach the brutality of former years. The Death Penalty was legally terminated in 1971 in Malta.




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“At the age of 40, new desires develop”

This is mostly addressed at the male gender, a sarcastic quip that when a man reaches the age of 40 new lures and attractions develop – interpreted to mean a greater desire for younger sex fantasies and experiences!

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