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The Fougasses


By Dr Stephen C Spiteri

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One of the most interesting adjuncts of coastal defence employed by the knights for the coastal defence of the Maltese Islands was the fougasse, a kind of rock-hewn mortar designed to fire large quantities of stone onto approaching enemy ships.

Although not an altogether Maltese invention as claimed by many authors, this weapon was, nonetheless, a unique adaptation of the fougasse, particularly in its method of construction and unorthodox application in a coastal defence role.

Various sources have claimed that the fougasses of Malta are not fougasses at all, the word being a misnomer, but simply singular mortars cut in rock. This statement, however, is not entirely correct since the Maltese type of weapon has features which belong both to the fougasse and mortar. In actual fact, it is a combination of three kinds of weapons, the fougasse, the explosive mine, and the mortar. The best word used to describe it is fougasse-pierrier, the pierrier being a stone-firing cannon. In contemporary documents it is more popularly referred to as the fougasse a cailloux, fogazza, or fornello a selci. Pontleroy , in 1761, referred to them simply as ‘les puits’. The fundamental uniqueness of the Maltese fougasse stems primarily from the nature of the Maltese terrain which dictated that the fougasse had to be cut into solid rock.

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The local method of construction gave the weapon a permanence, solidity, and form not enjoyed elsewhere, especially since most fougasses were generally employed in field defences and earthworks thus earning in the process an ephemeral quality. In Malta, the fougasse was a product of the eighteenth century. It is known that in the first decades of the 1700s, when the Order, under the influence of French engineers, decided to implement a coast defence scheme, the fougasse was proposed to complement the coastal defences. In 1715 the council ordered 60 stone mortars to be cut at vulnerable points around the coasts of the island but no action appears to have been taken. Of these, 48 were to have been excavated in Malta. The early attempts to introduce the weapon under the direction of the military engineer Mondion seem to have failed and it was not until 1741, under the direction of Marandon, that the weapon was adopted successfully. Marandon fired his first experimental foggazza a selci on 28 September 1740.

This was cut into the rocky foreshore below the ‘bastione delle forbici’ at the foot of the Valletta bastions facing Dragut point. On the day of its baptism of fire, Marandon filled the fougasse with 306 stone boulders of various sizes, totalling in weight to 3,575 cantara. A charge of 83 rotuli of ordinary gunpowder was placed in the chamber and when fired this proved powerful enough to propel the said mass of stone over a distance of some 300m (160 canne), raising it, in the process, to a maximum height of 60 to 80m. The effect, in Marandon’s own words, was that ‘la pioggia delle selci si stese sin alla ponta Dragut lontana cento sessanta canne, e che salirono a 30 in 40 canne, e non ne resto’ ne pur una ne dentro la Fogazza ne inanti.’ Marandon was quite pleased with the result and in the following years he was ordered by the congregation of war to excavate a network of fougasses first in Malta and then in Gozo. In all around 50 were built in Malta and 14 in Gozo. In shape the Maltese fougasse resembled a large inclined tumbler with the lower side prolonged to meet the horizontal line from the top of the brim. As a result, the mouth of the fougasse was elliptical. The bore was circular but the shaft of the pit was conical, tapering from 2.13m at the mouth to 1.52m at the bottom where it curved towards the powder chamber. This measured around 0.76m in diameter and was 4.5m deep.

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Arming a fougasse was a lengthy task that took about an hour. The procedure involved first the placing of the gunpowder charge of ‘100 au 120 livres de poudre’ inside its flat barrel within the powder chamber at the bottom of the pit. A long cord-like fuse was then secured to the powder casket and passed through a narrow channel cut in the side of the fougasse. The gunpowder chamber was then covered with a circular wooden lid, or Ruota, and the pit then filled in with a large number of stones, or selci, with the larger stones placed at the bottom. It appears that the stone projectiles for use with the fougasse were collected beforehand and stockpiled in the vicinity of the fougasse, if not within the pit itself, ready for use. Various custodians were also employed to ensure that these selci were not carried away. The cone-shaped pit was so designed to allow the projectiles, once fired, to spread out and cover as wide an area of ground, or sea, as possible. The stones, to quote Louis de Boisgelin, had the effect of hail and were not only capable of killing men but of sinking boats.

To ensure the greatest tactical effect, the fougasses were employed in pairs in order that a large area of sea or foreshore in each bay could be covered by their crossfire. Initially all the fougasses were made to cover the entrances to the bays but, in 1761, the French engineers advised the knights to add others for flanking fire too. The first record of the fougasse being armed and readied for war is during the emergency of 1761. The suspicious appearance of the French Fleet in the vicinity of Malta in 1792 provided a second opportunity and indeed the congregation of war then ordered that the fougasses be armed and kept ready for eventual use, ‘…si rettano le fugacce, e si tengono pronte’. The feared invasion did not materialize but in 1798 things turned out differently and it appears that a few of fougasses were actually fired against Bonaparte’s troops as they set about invading the island. Major Ritchie quotes De la Jonquiere’s reproduction of an extract from a letter written by a knight of the Order asserting that fougasses were fired against the Città Vecchia division as it was attempting a descent at Marsaxlokk bay.

Under British rule the fougasse seems to have assumed the nature of a curiosity. Various experiments were carried out with the fougasses at St. Julian’s Bay and St. George’s Bay by the gunners of the British expeditionary Force returning from Egypt in 1801. In these experiments the fougasses were charged and fired first with 140 lbss of powder and over 10 tons of stones. When the charge was increased to 180 lbs, the resultant explosion cracked one of the fougasses along a vertical axis leaving a fissure cutting through some 14 feet of rock. It does not appear that the fougasses were kept in service during the early decades of British rule in Malta. These were probably abandoned by the 1830s, as were most of the de-militarized coastal towers and batteries that were handed over to the civil government during that period. Thereafter, the fougasses do not seem to feature at all in the Island’s defensive stategy particularly since the British gradually abandoned the idea of resisting the enemy on the coast, adopting instead a mighty fortress system conceived primarily for the defence of the Grand Harbour. The need to defend and fortify the beaches against invasion, however, was rekindled at the outbreak of the second world war when many of the Knights’ long discarded coastal defences, including the fougasses, were pressed back into service and incorporated, in conjunction with concrete pillboxes and barbed wire, into an overall War Defence Plan. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, for example, were responsible for arming and maintaining the fougasses at Salina Bay. A popular photograph in the National War Museum Collection shows the fougasse outside Ximenes redoubt, in Salina, being tested fired in the presence of HE the Governor General Sir William Dobie

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7 responses to “The Fougasses

  1. Daniel Hansson

    November 25, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Very interesting reading! I stumbled on the word “fougasse” in a post by mr. Mario Farrugia on facebook, googled it and ended up here. I go to Malta every year for freediving with my friends from Sweden and I have always wondered about this hole. We found one on Wied il Ghasri, east side.

    Usually we go in water and swin to a grand air filled cave in Ghasri valley. It’s called Cathedral cave. The last time we swam to the end of it and found a hole in the ceiling. The hole looks like a chimney stretching about ten metres straight up and ends with a wooden lid. We believe we have walked on top of it from above.

    Always wondered what this is. Is that a fougasse?

    Best regards, Daniel

     
    • vassallomalta

      November 26, 2014 at 2:29 am

      No it is not a fougasse

       
      • Daniel Hansson

        November 26, 2014 at 10:47 am

        What is it then? And why does it go down to a big cave?

         
      • vassallomalta

        November 26, 2014 at 10:49 am

        That vertical hole in the so called Cathedral Cave near Ghasri Valley (properly called Għar il-Qamħ – Wheat Cave) is not a Fougasse. It was made to fill the saltpans above easily. However it turned out to be disastrous for the surrounding vegetation and had to be closed.

        Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houl also wrote about this salt pan in 1777 in his publication, Voyage Pittoresque Des Isles De Sicile, De Lipari et De Malte. Houel was a French painter, engraver and draftsman. During his long life he witnessed the reign of Louis XV, the French Revolution, and the period of Napoleon’s First Empire. He spent the years 1776 to 1779 travelling in Sicily, Lipari, and Malta, after which he published numerous, lavishly-illustrated travel books based on his journeys.

        A Maltese clockmaker was the owner of a stretch of rock in the inner part of Wied il-Għasri in Gozo. With quite an imagination and ingenuity, he came up with the idea of cutting ‘salini’ (salt-pans) in the rocks, but with a difference from others at the time.

        The idea was to dig a well in the rock formation just above a natural cave entrance in the sea. This cave is known as Għar il-Qamħ (Wheat Cave) and popularly known by divers as Cathedral Cave. The rough waves created a fountain that would gently fill in the salt-pans and the heat of the sun would dry the water into salt. In effect, in the long run this would have cost him near to nothing, render him a hefty profit from salt production in the process.

        But, as things developed, the end result was disastrous.

        As a watchmaker turned salt manufacturer, he had built the usual skandlor – a kind of sea water reservoir that was distributed among several rectangular rock-cut salt-pans so as to facilitate evaporation. Using pulleys and buckets attached to a rope, he constructed a water well in the rock formation that brought up sea water from a height of 50 to 60 feet, after which it was channelled into the reservoir and distributed to the salt-pans.

        When he came to operate the project he found it to be very laborious especially in the summer hot months, and to overcome this he started to inspect the rock formation and noticed that the cave under the rock was situated just beyond where he had dug out the salt pans and reservoir. He came up with the idea of breaking the rock perpendicularly and to dig a well and a mule-driven mill. The well was not initially covered and this resulted in accidents and loss of life. He covered the well opening with a wooden tripod and, being a watchmaker, he designed a flat and horizontal stone sun dial, an arloġġ tax-xemx, with a pinnur solidu, solid pointer, and placed on it on top of the tripod. The sundial was an instrument that indicated apparent solar time by the shadow cast by a central projecting pointer on a surrounding calibrated dial. This helped him keep the time of when the workers were to stop for breaks and restart work.

        This well-designed project seemed sensible and was executed promptly by a sufficient number of workers, and work was carried out faster. From time to time he inspected the effect of the natural evaporation process. But to his great amazement, he discovered that the salt-pans were losing water. This was not because of natural evaporation but because the water was being absorbed by the extremely spongy and porous rock, which was also collecting mud at the bottom of the salt-pans.

        There was immense disappointment and grief in seeing his hopes of cutting costs and increasing production dashed. However as the serene sky and calm sea together with the gentle summer breezes turned into wintry and stormy skies, he made his most important observation which could have provide the positive twist to the story.

        The raging swirl of waves driven by the winds would accumulate in the cave , resulting in a rotational force that formed a waterspout, which, finding no way out except through the well he had dug, ran forcefully up into the air and formed a beautiful sea-spray that fell into the salt pans. The size of the waterspout was equal to the width of the well and rose to more than 60 feet in height.

        But this initial stroke of luck turned out to be short-lived because during extremely inclement weather the waterspout blew well beyond the salt pans, flooding the land on all sides to a distance of more than a mile. The speed with which the waterspout rose did not allow the winds to bend it downwards enough to fall into the salt pans.

        Compounded with heavy rainfall, this wrought havoc on the vegetation. This seawater ravaged the countryside that had been cultivated with so much care. The aftermath left the impression that a wildfire had blazed through the area.

        That had never happened before the well had been dug, but the complete balance of nature’s forces had been upset. The opening of the well resulted in the breaking of this balance wreaking havoc and destruction on the land and people’s livelihoods in the area.

        The nearby inhabitants filed a lawsuit against the unfortunate watchmaker and asked him to pay an enormous sum in compensation for the damage to their land and crops. But he would never be able to pay the sum, not even in a lifetime, and the constant requests to pay up resulted in such great grief that an illness struck him and led to his demise.

        The farmers tried to plug and seal the well with stones, and they succeeded, only to face yet another of Mother Nature’s unpleasant phenomena. The waves accumulated in the cave and, together with a large amount of compressed air at the bottom of the cave, caused the air to expand – turning the waves away with such terrible explosive sounds that they shook the whole rock formation and the surrounding land.

        The terrible racket created by the explosions was heard both inside and outside the cave, and also in other nearby caves. The sound was identical to that of barrage of cannons being in rapid succession and in different calibres. The sound was so terrific that it rose fear and alarm among the villagers and farmers, who thought that at any moment a total undermining and upheaval of the rock formation would happen.

        This dreadful noise carried on until the well was filled. But when the compressed waves in the cave touched upon the fragile rock at the bottom of the well, the well broke and was reduced to fragments.

        In 1777 the well was filled for a third time during very stormy weather and there was still the fear that it could continue to flood and destroy the surrounding agricultural land.

         
  2. John Farrugia

    November 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I know of a couple other towards St George’s Bay area but never realized that a total of 49 were in Malta. Pity some more were not restored. Were they ever effective? John Farrugia

     
    • vassallomalta

      November 29, 2013 at 7:32 am

      Not that I am aware of. However the British in the early 19th Century tried to experiment with their use, damaging one or two of them in the process.

       
  3. DeBono Reginald

    November 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Apart from the Salini Fougasse is it possible to obtabin information on the location of some of the others ? rdebono@maltanet.net

     

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