Slavery and the Maltese
Looking at the history of a number of wayside churches and chapels in the Maltese countryside, one inadvertly meets with stories about the attacks of Muslim pirates, and the subsequent enslavement of the captured Maltese.(1)
These are not, however, the only indicators of the subjection of the Maltese to slavery. In fact, one finds a number of other historical events that occurred in Malta, which relate to the time when large enemy forces landed in Malta, and managed to carry off people to slavery (2). This is an unfortunate heritage that is common to all Mediterranean lands. Pirates attacked and landed in Malta, mirroring what Maltese corsairs were doing to Muslims on the shores of North Africa. During the time of the Order of St John slave auctions were held in Malta, and it is recorded that auctions were still being held in 1797 (Fontenay 2001: 391-414), just a few months before they were ousted from the islands by Napoleon Bonaparte. Although slaves were an important part of the Order’s set up, especially within the fleet, with the passage of time the numbers available were not enough to sustain even basic needs.
Throughout the same period, while Maltese corsairs were being licensed to carry out this activity, there were a number of Maltese who lost rather than gained. Corsairing raids on the islands were still registered, and sometimes there would be the occasional loss of ships with a number of their sailors ending up as slaves. Conscious of the situation and the difficulty of life as a slave, in 1606 a charitable foundation was set up with the sole aim of providing money for the redemption of Christian slaves. Money was collected for this noble aim, and certain rich individuals even willed property to the institution. Caterina Vitale was to donate a substantial piece of property, which included the Selmun area, to the Monte della Redentione degli Schiavi (AOM 210, fols. 157 v et seq.).
Research in various archives has provided us with names of the Maltese who had been captured and taken into slavery. Some of these never returned to Malta, while others were redeemed and travelled back to their island home. The following is just an indication of the type of information that is available.
In 1495 there are records that a certain Petrus de Armenia paid the ransom of a Maltese national held captive as a slave, although he later found it difficult to be re-paid by this freed local or his relatives (Wettinger 2002: 8) (3).
As already mentioned, a charitable institution was established which worked towards the redemption of Maltese slaves, yet this redeeming aspect was something that was conducted previous to the setting up of any institution. In 1560 a Muslim slave held in Malta agreed that he would obtain the freedom of a Maltese slave, Simone Grima, who was kept in Gerba in the service of his brother. The agreement was that besides the exchange of the two persons, there would also be sixty cafisa of oil sent over to Malta, as part of the exchange agreement (Wettinger 2002: 279-280). It is known, for example, that a certain Petrus Farvella, another national, was held as a slave in Algiers in 1571. Sometimes a ship would need to get closer to land, in order to refit or carry out the necessary repairs. Gregorio Cassar from Cospicua, together with another companion of his, was captured while they were on shore, carrying out the necessary repairs (Ciappara 2001: 226).
Throughout the centuries there would have been quite a number of Maltese locals who ended up as slaves in Ottoman held territories until they died. Yet, it is also interesting to note that there does not seem to have been that many when compared to other nationalities. In 1717 there were 84 Maltese nationals held as slaves, while in 1722 there were 106 Maltese who were held captive by Muslims (4). From the various documents it is also possible to understand another facet of the life of a Christian slave. There were occasions when these were treated very well, and in fact allowed to carry out other work in which they earned some money. Matteo Scolaro kept a tavern in Algiers. Gregorio Cassar was allowed to practice his trade – that of a tailor – while still a captive in Tripoli. There were occasions when the captives were made to work very hard, as in the cases of Michel’Angelo Cachia of Cospicua and Gioacchino Mercieca, who both worked in a bakery (Ciappara 2001: 232-233). Giuseppe Farrugia was captured and taken as a slave to Tunis in 1688. He managed to work hard, and even got permission to run a tavern. Through the money that he saved, he managed to buy his freedom. He returned back to Luqa, his native village, in 1715 (Micallef 1975: 165).
Slaves were redeemed, escaped or else set free by their owners. This situation was common to all slaves, whether they were held by Christians or Muslims. Giuseppe Barbara of Valletta was set free after his master died. Others managed to pay for their own freedom as they could afford to do so. Meanwhile, there were others who needed the help of some charities (5), or else individuals (6), in order to return to their families.
Although some did manage to return to their families within a short time, there were occasions when they spent a number of years as slaves. Cesare Palumbo who was married to a woman from Luqa, spent twenty-four years as a slave in Constantinople. During the same time there was also his son Giovanni, a slave, in the same city (Micallef 1975: 165) (7). Another interesting account is that of Dionysius Fiteni. He was captured as a slave in 1713 and was taken to Constantinople. In 1732, he was working on a Muslim ship, which was attacked by one of the galleys of the Order, which was under the command of the French Knight Fra Jacques de Chambray. The skirmish ended with the capture of the Muslim galley by the Order. Fiteni was liberated after 20 years of slavery (Micallef 1975: 166).
Another way of trying to live a relatively safe life after being captured by pirates was to convert to Islam. There are many such examples, throughout the period of the Knights of Malta, of Maltese slaves accepting conversion to Islam and thus being given more freedom to roam, sometimes even managing to escape. Indri Imbroll was captured in 1685 when he was only 19 years old. The young lad was flogged for more than a week in order to convince him to convert, and he did so after he could not bare the pain any longer. This gave him the chance to move freely and in 1688 he managed to escape and find refuge in the office of the French consul in Constantinople, before he finally managed to reach Malta safely (Micallef 1975: 166-167).
Those who took the easy way out by converting to Islam would still need to tackle the Inquisitor’s Tribunal on their return to Malta. Knowing that no Christian was allowed to become an apostate, they would immediately confront the Tribunal at Vittoriosa, recounting the way their apostasy took place. Usually, the reason given would be that they were coerced under pain of death. Generally the Inquisitor’s tribunal would hand down a penance to the individual during which he would need to recite prayers and attend certain religious functions in order to be absolved of his sin.
All in all, the fear of ending one’s years as a slave was real and felt by one and all. No wonder several charitable institutions were established in order to provide the possibility of freedom; no wonder families went out of their way to buy the freedom of their loved ones. Many individuals are known to have returned to their families while hundreds of others never made it back home.
Bonnici, Alexander – Storja ta’ l-Inkwizizzjoni ta’ Malta, Malta, Reli©jon u Óajja, 1994. Ciappara, Frans – Society and the Inquisition in Early Modern Malta, Malta, Publishers Enterprises Group, 2001.
Fonetenay, Michel – “Il mercato maltese degli schiavi al tempo dei Cavalieri di San Giovanni (1530-1798)” in Quaderni Storici 2, Rome, 2001, 391-414.
Micallef, Dun Guzepp – Hal Luqa: Niesha u Grajjietha, Malta, 1975.
Wettinger, Godfrey – Slavery in the islands of Malta and Gozo: ca 1000 – 1812, Malta Publishers Enterprises Group, 2002.
1. Two of these stories are connected with places in Mosta. There is the so-called Bride of Mosta, who is said to have been abducted on the eve of her wedding, together with a number of other female guests. There is also the story of the young girl who managed to escape and hide inside a cave, managing to outwit the pirates who returned back to their ships empty handed. This is the story behind the small church of Our Lady of Hope.
2. The most famous of these attacks was that of 1551, when a large number of the Gozitan population was carried off to slavery.
3. It was customary to have certain individuals to pay the ransom money, and then expect to be paid on the safe return of the individual. Yet, there were occasions when the individual would not have the sum available, and thus the case would end up in court.
4. This is known from the records of the Monte della Redenzione that received such an amount of pleas from Maltese to be redeemed in that year.
5. This could have either been the Monte della Redenzione degli Schiavi, or else religious Orders who would fork out the initial sum of money, and they would then be repaid when the liberated Maltese would arrive home. There were other religious societies that had been set up for this particular reason. The Sodalita` della Santissima Trinita e Redenzione degli Schiavi was set up at Luqa in 1720, with the sole aim of collecting money to buy the freedom of villagers caught by pirates (Micallef 1975: 166). There was a similar Confraternity, with the same name, established at Senglea’s parish, while another confraternity, namely that of charity was established in the parish church of St Paul’s Shipwrecked in Valletta (Ciappara 2001: 240).
6. There is case of Salvatore Pircop who had his ransom paid by Salvo Falzon, and on the return of Pircop to Luqa, his native village, he gave two fields to Falzon as a settlement for the ransom paid (Micallef 1975: 48).
7. It is possible that Cesare was given his freedom because of his venerable age; it is believed that he was a hundred years old when he was sent back to Malta.