Corsairing Activities, the Order of St John and Malta

Professor Carmel Cassar

Documentary evidence for the existence of corsairing activities in Malta dates back to the High Middle Ages when the Maltese, at the time under Muslim control, preyed on Christian vessels and coastal settlements.

In later times, when the Maltese population was re-converted to Christianity, the Muslims fell victim to Maltese corsairs based in the ports of Malta and Gozo. The former continued to strengthen their role in this industry and apparently made a profitable trade from their corsairing activities.

The chronicler of the Order of St John, Giacomo Bosio, recalls how, in 1467, a Maltese corsair perished in a sea battle against the galleys of the Knights, who were then established on the island of Rhodes.(1)

However, as an integral part of the Christian Kingdom of Sicily since at least 1127, Maltese corsairs were subject to the same government regulations that were applied in Sicily. This meant, in practice, that owners of vessels were obliged to ensure that no Christian shipping was attacked or in any way molested.(2). Available evidence, quoted by Godfrey Wettinger, seems to suggest that Maltese captains of corsairing vessels made a very profitable trade from the activity. Some, like the de Armenia, had, by the early sixteenth century, even developed a family reputation as corsairs.(3) In short, corsairing, or licensed privateering, had been practised in Malta long before the advent of the Order of St John in 1530. Nonetheless, the presence of the Knights definitely boosted the trade and led to an increase in the number of vessels operating from Malta.

It is perhaps worth stressing that in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean the corso was instigated by a city that wished to serve as a commercial centre as well as developing itself into a veritable centre for mercantile activity. Valletta was certainly one such city.(4) Founded by the Knights of Malta in 1566, the harbour city of Malta; that is, Valletta, in addition to the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, Cospicua and later the suburb of Floriana, stood out, together with Leghorn and Algiers, as one of the three most important corsairing centres of the Mediterranean.(5) Corsairing centres did not only provide corsairs shelter and supplies but also catered for the much- needed skilled labour to which they could resort on return to their home base.(6) Above all, corsairing havens, like Malta, served as a market for the spoils of war that could be disposed of quickly. One drawback for such cities was their general disregard of international law, as it often meant that they were essentially worlds that thrived on the margins of their Christian or Muslim cultural spheres.


Under the Knights of St John, the corso became one of the major commercial activities of the island, which, in itself, helped to transform the socio-cultural and politico-economic atmosphere of Malta. Corsairing was practised throughout the rule of the Order of St John, (1530-1798) although documentary evidence suggests that by the last quarter of the eighteenth century it had become such an anachronistic and futile activity that corsairs began to turn to commerce as a result.(7)

Corsairing activities in Malta under the Knights of St John may be classified under three headings:

a) Corsairing as practised by private corsairs, Maltese or
foreign – often Italian, French and sometimes Spanish – who received a licence to fly the flag of the Order;
b) Corsairing as organised by rich private knights, owners of vessels or galleons, including Grand Masters like Cardinal Hugh Loubenx de Verdalle (1582-1595) and Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622);
c) The Order’s galley squadron which, accompanied by other vessels of the Order, organised its yearly corsairing campaigns against Muslim shipping and towns.

The Mediterranean and the Corso in the Early Modern Age

Mediterranean corsairing may be seen as a kind of phenomenon that emerged from the conflict between Christianity and Islam. In reality, however, corsairing dates back to times immemorial and one finds frequent reference to corsairs in antiquity. Even Julius Caesar had once fallen prey to the corsairs. In the Mediterranean, the terms “piracy” and “pirates” were hardly ever used before the early seventeenth century, so that the common expressions indicating the practice were privateering or corsairing. While use of different terms does not fundamentally change the elements of the problem, it shows that corsairing was considered to be a form of legitimate war, with the issuing of specific licences, commissions and instructions. This explains why Salvatore Bono argues that privateering had ‘its own laws, rules, living customs and traditions’.(8)

Corsairing may be seen as the result of the clash of civilisations. It enables modern man to evaluate Mediterranean culture within the limits of a sea that served as a centre for clashes over its hegemony, which came to an end with the advent of more fruitious world traffic.(9).

Intensive historical research has shown that for the Christian states, corsairing was not carried out simply for the defence of ships and the coastline but was also useful for attacks on Muslim merchant ships, as well as those carried out against the towns and villages and their populations on the coasts of Islamic states. There is no doubt that the Knights of Malta and those of St Stephen were not less able or less daring – in terms of the tactics employed in their attacks, that is – than their North African colleagues. He concludes that the war of corsairing appears to have been the dominating reality of life in the Mediterranean; while the Barbary corsairs may have played the role of protagonists, they were surely not the only ones.(10) Nevertheless, it has also been argued that the corso should not simply be considered as indicative of a clash between Christianity and Islam, nor as a contrast between different cultures, but as an instrument for the dispossession and appropriation of revenue on the opposing shores of the Mediterranean in an atmosphere of rivalry between different communities and between different classes within each community. This was due to the fact that the various types of social groups within each community shared the same interests and adopted the same corsairing methods, for which reason different social groups clashed. In essence, it was a clash that favoured the politics of expropriation and appropriation of each community, which in turn explains why attacks were carried out swiftly and without any warning. This induces us to believe that each community knew the other so well that it was able to divine the most propitious time and location for attack. (11) Such a state of affairs led to a multitude of renegades on both sides of the Mediterranean. Whether they were Christian or Muslim, the latter for some reason or another renouncing their religion and reverting to corsairing, the privateers knew full well where to land and attack, simultaneously avoiding the resistance of the local population.


The Levant was easily the most rewarding hunting ground for Christian privateers. The former proved to be the receiving end for a stream of well-manned galleys, brigantines, galleons, frigates and swift sailing ships, well able to batter their way through the rough seas of the end of winter and the spring months. The reason was always the same: for the privateers, the eastern Mediterranean meant rich prizes to be found in the Aegean, the Dodecanese and Alexandria. The game was certainly plentiful but every year at the approach of spring the Turks sent out their galley patrols, employed far more for the defence of the ships than to guard the coast. (12) In the mid- sixteenth century only the Maltese galleys were active in the Levant together with a few Tuscan galleys and the occasional sailing vessel from Genoa or Sicily.

Indeed, Muslim corsairing was equally prosperous in the western waters. During the years 1560-1565, the Barbary corsairs ravaged the western Mediterranean. In those years, it would almost be true to say that the western Mediterranean was closed to shipping, as the chorus of Christian protests suggests, as well as the fact that the Barbary pirates were now attacking even the coasts of Languedoc and Provence. (13) What possible pickings were there off the Mediterranean shores in the mid-sixteenth century? Among other things, these could provide a few local inhabitants as slaves, a fishing boat, and the odd frigate laden with merchandise.

In the late sixteenth century the western Mediterranean was infested with Barbary corsairs, mostly from Algiers, particularly between 1560 and 1570. Some even made their way to the Adriatic and Crete. Between 1580 and 1620, Algiers entered upon a second age of prosperity that was more far-reaching than the first. This was a time when corsairing was replacing fleet warfare and the southernmost islands of Christendom were besieged without mercy. The corsairs were everywhere in these grim times. Corsairs had to be reckoned with in the straits of Gibraltar; they also plundered Andalusia, Sardinia and mainland Italy, including the Papal States. They ravaged Sicily and its small archipelagos, including Malta, at this time under the rule of the Order of St John. Braudel opines that corsairing, ‘the major industry of Algiers, was the cohesive force of the city, creating a remarkable unanimity, whether for the defence of the port or the exploitation of the sea, the hinterland or the masses of slaves’.(14)

Algiers must surely have had an abundance of slaves. A Portuguese prisoner tells us that between 1621 and 1627 there were some twenty thousand captives in Algiers, ‘a good half of whom were people “of pure Christian stock”, Portuguese, Flemish, Scottish, Hungarian, Danish, Irish, Slav, French, Spanish and Italian; the other half were heretics and idolaters – Syrians, Egyptians, even Japanese and Chinese, inhabitants of new Spain, Ethiopians. And every nation of course provided its crop of renegades… Meanwhile the corsairs swarmed all over the sea, their city now of a size to dominate the entire Mediterranean.’(15)

By the first half of the seventeenth century, corsairing activity in the Mediterranean had reached its highest peak. From the Christian part, primacy in the field most definitely belonged to the Order of Malta. It is perhaps difficult to establish where such activity was more predominant – whether it was in the Levant or in the area between Tunisia and the Aegean. As for the Muslims, Algiers predominated. Unlike its neighbour Tunisia, where corsairs were allowed to equip their own privateering vessels, the corso in Algeria was a monopoly of the state. It was also the activity upon which the prosperity of the Ujaq (the foreign, Ottoman group that ruled Algiers), as well as its religious prestige, to a great extent depended. This explains why the legendary heroes of Ottoman Algeria were captains of corsairing vessels such as Khayr al-Din ‘Barbarossa’, and later in the 1580s, Murad. (16).

These were men who distinguished themselves by audacious attacks on Christian shipping and carried back to Algiers important prizes of Christian booty, especially food and slaves.

Ultimately, corsairing was simply another form of aggression, preying on men, ships, towns, villages, flocks; it meant eating the food of others in order to remain strong. The official navies of Mediterranean states harboured corsairs, made a living from corsairing and sometimes owed their origin to it. It often had little to do with country or faith and was above all merely a means of making a living.



1. G. Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo ca.1000-1812. (Malta, 2002), pp.6-7. For the battle against the Order’s galley-squadron in 1467 Wettinger quotes I. Bosio, Dell’Istoria della Sacra Religione et illustrissima militia di San Giovanni gierosolimitano. Tome ii. (Rome, 1594), Liber 8.
2. Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo, p.10.
3. Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo, p.8.
4. C. Cassar, Society, Culture and Identity in Early Modern Malta. (Malta, 2000), esp.
5. F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II.
Eng. trans. (Glasgow, 1973), vol.ii, p.870.
6. See for example: T. Freller, Knights, Corsairs and Slaves in Malta. An eyewitness
account. (Malta, 1999), p.86.
7. Carmel Vassallo shows convincingly that in their trade with Spain ‘…the island’s
merchants used the capital and the know how accumulated during the centuries of corsairing to insert themselves between Northern European manufacturers and Southern European consumers and brought home the foreign currency which, together with the knights’ revenue, paid the food bill for the island’s bulging population…’ Corsairing to Commerce. Maltese Merchants in XVIII Century Spain. (Malta, 1997), p.117.
8. Bono, I corsari barbareschi, pp.12-13, 92.
9. G. Bonaffini, Sicilia e Tunisia nel secolo XVII, p.17, n.15; R. Guemara, ‘Genova e la
reggenza di Tunisi nel ‘600: corsa e redenzione’, p.302.
10. S. Bono, I corsari barbareschi, pp.11-12.
11. C. Manca, Il modello di sviluppo economico delle città maritime barbaresche dopo Lepanto,
12. Braudel, The Mediterranean, vol.ii, p.875
13. Braudel, The Mediterranean, vol.ii, p.872.
14. Braudel, The Mediterranean, vol.ii, p.884.
15. Braudel, The Mediterranean, vol.ii, p.885.


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