Posts Tagged ‘1798’

  • A sea of profits

    A search through historical notarial deeds reveals how Maltese businesses exploited the cruel reality of war and slavery, maritime historian Dr Joan Abela tells Fiona Vella.

     

    joan abela“Even though there are people who might think that the human tragedy which we are experiencing today in the Mediterranean Sea may be something contemporary, in reality, the human element has always been an issue in this region,” Dr Joan Abela says as she refers me to some thick manuscripts that she had set aside at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.

    We had agreed to discuss the dreadful reality of slavery in the old days and these manuscripts are witness to this phenomenon which took place even in our islands.

    “Before the Knights of St John came to Malta in 1530, the Maltese Islands were already involved in the enslavement business and this was quite a legitimate affair at the time. People captured as slaves or captives were considered as commodities and their negotiations were regarded as valuable transactions, which when necessary, were also recorded in notarial deeds.”

    Dr Abela continued to inform me that in that era, the traffic of slaves occupied a prime place in the economic activity of maritime trade in the southern Mediterranean since it allowed the profitable exchange of monies and commodities.

    “Well aware of the strategic geographical location of Malta in the slave trade business, the Knights of St John established a strong infrastructure in order to attract more merchants and agents. Those who stopped at our islands would have been able to replenish their ships and to make use of the excellent and accomodating financial services which included the availability of notaries, agents, and money changers. Indeed, Braudel stated that Malta together with Livorno acted as a central hub for the slave trade.”

    One needed to have a special license to work as a corsair, otherwise he would be regarded as a pirate and could be hanged for capturing ships, cargo or people illegally.

    a sea of profits 1b“Since corsairing could render ample returns, people invested in it and received their respective shares from the bounty that the corsairs brought with them after they seized a ship. Investors consisted mainly of businessmen and knights. However, one would also find the Jerosolimitan Nuns of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John which were located in St Ursula Street, Valletta, forming part of these investors. Their share was due to them for their role in praying for the safe return of the corsairs.”

    As Dr Abela began to indicate various episodes from the displayed manuscripts, she admitted that she was often very touched by what she read in those pages.

    “Obviously when one looks at history in a collective manner, one would say that there was this particular circumstance taking place during that period and that is it. Yet when one looks into these documents and starts reading a deed about an individual life, one starts empathizing with that person and many questions will come to mind. For example, I came upon a deed wherein a priest was selling a slave together with her son to a Genovese merchant on condition that the latter would baptise the child on that same day. The merchant agreed and the deal was made. When you read something like this, how can you help not wonder who this woman was and from where she had come?”

    Corsairing was a high risk job but if all went well, those involved could become rich overnight.

    “Men craved for the opportunity to become corsairs and at one point, there were so many men leaving their jobs to join corsair ships that the Maltese Universitas requested the King of Spain to restrain this because the island was at a loss with the local workforce.”

    “Not all the captured ships delivered the same profits. A galley of the Sultan which would have been filled with riches and fine cloth, would be precious but not without issues and trouble. Other ships would be carrying worthy cargo such as sugar or wheat. Nonetheless, it was the human cargo which was considered the most profitable.”

    Captured people could be sold as slaves or held as captives until they were ransomed.

    “The whole process for redemption was very complicated. These contracts unravel all this system including how the involved parties went about to assure the best positive outcome from their deal. An agent would be requested to act as an intermediary between one party and the other, taking responsibility to collect a deposit from the captive and then to take him to an agreed destination in order to collect the rest of the money from his relatives and then release him.”

    “In April 1558, a slave, Busert Bin Hahmet de Casar concluded the following agreement with his master Giuseppe Baldagno. Busert was transferred to Antonio de Banda from Messina who was a patrone of a ship belonging to Marco Antonio Delixandro, also from Messina. The ship was equipped to undertake a voyage to the Tripolitan fortress of Barbaria. Antonio was to conduct the slave to Tripoli, and from there retrieve 80 gold ducats which was the stipulated price for redemption. This amount was to be remitted either in their value in dinars or in oil, wool or leather goods which the Arabs sold inside the Tripolitan fortress, which goods would be exempt from duty. Busert promised to pay Giuseppe within twenty days of his arrival at the fortress, on condition that the patrone was not to let him disembark unless he received the said payment or its value in goods. Once arrived at destination, the slave would need to make the necessary connection with an intermediary in his own country who would be in a position to acquire the redemption money or goods for him. Once the sum was settled, the slave would become a free man, but if the sum was not paid, he was to return with the same ship and consigned back to his master Giuseppe.”

    a sea of profits 2bAt times, the Grand Master had to issue a safe conduct certificate to enemy ships so that they might transfer the captives to the Tripoli port.

    “One such case was when Turgut Reis captured the ship Catharinet and took all her load to Djerba in 1548. Following this unfortunate capture for the Christian side, the Knight Augustino Spagno was sent as an envoy to negotiate redemption of the captives and once prices were fixed, a Muslim ship carrying these captives was to sail to the Order’s port in Tripoli.”

    Interestingly, although being amid a Holy War against each other, this flourishing trade saw the collaboration and interaction between Christian and Muslim merchants.

    “The capture of slaves did not only translate itself into financial rewards but acted also as a means to strengthen commercial ties between the various ethnic subjects of the cross and the crescent. Both Muslim and Christian merchants exploited this cruel reality and at times, this exploitation was so excessive that appeals were made to the local authorities to annul what plaintiffs described as usurious agreements which desperate souls had been forced to endorse in return for their freedom.”

    “The Catholic Church strongly prohibited any compensation on loans, whether being related to business or not. Interest was regarded as usury and was not allowed. Often, this situation created shortages of cash money, especially after the Jewish community was expelled from the Maltese Islands in 1492. Nevertheless, there were numerous ways of circumventing this prohibition, such as through the difference quoted in the rate of exchange which would incorporate an agreed rate of interest or by paying the value in other goods.”

    Besides ransom agents, there were also those agents who were summoned in order to make arrangements for the purchase of slaves to be delivered to Malta. Gender, age, ethnicity and price were agreed beforehand to eliminate any possible claims for additional payment.

    “Although prices of slaves varied considerably, various studies indicate that the average selling price for a slave during the sixtenth century was in the region of 46 scudi. The acquisition of infidel slaves from Tripoli as a commodity for re-sale was one of the most profitable economic activities through which Malta registered a boom in her commerce.”

    The arrival of Napoleon in 1798 abolished slavery in Malta and yet from litigation cases found in the Tribunal proceedings, during the early British Period, it is clear that the island’s association with slavery would not be terminated by a simple legislative enactment.

    “And yet, back in the eighteenth century, people had already realized that the raiding system was over and that it was not feasible anymore. A new system based on lawful commerce and trade began to emerge; the Pinto stores being evidence of such change.”

    (This article was published in the Family Business Supplement issued with The Times of Malta dated 24 February 2017)

    2017.02.26 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK

    450 years ago, the Maltese Islands were in the spotlight of several European sovereigns after they had succeeded to come out victorious from the massive siege that was laid upon them by the powerful Ottoman Empire. Fort St Elmo lay in ruins and the other fortifications and houses which had been targeted by the enemy were in no better shape. The land still seeped in the blood of the thousands who had lost their lives during the fighting, whilst many others remained maimed.

    Amid this devastation, the eminence of the surviving Knights of the Order of St John surged, and their fame reached legendary proportions. Letters of congratulations which they received from all over Europe, uplifted their spirits, whilst generous donations eventually helped them to build the new city of Valletta.

    The Knights of St John continued to rule the Maltese Islands until 1798, when they were ousted by French Military General, Napoleon Bonaparte. Although, some might believe that at this time, the Order was obliterated, in reality, these mythical Hospitallers are still present amongst us, and are as real as ever.

    The Russian Grand Priory of Malta

    Saviour Garcia (photo - Fiona Vella)Since the early years of the Hospitallers’ foundation by Blessed Gerard, the Order protected the faithful and provided aid to the sick and poor. These elements have always remained deeply rooted in the mission of the knights who followed throughout the centuries.

    “Even today, as Knights and Dames of the Russian Grand Priory of Malta who form part of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitallers, under the constitution of the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, we strive to continue to live up to our motto “Pro Fide, Pro Utilitate Hominum,” declared Chev. Saviour Garcia as we stood in front of a large painting of Blessed Gerard at Palazzino Sapienti in Valletta.

    “Today, the Order’s mission still incorporates the duty to profess the Christian faith. However, its present members are not fighters but humanitarians who swear to act for the common good of all people without distinction of race or religion.”

    Garcia outlined a number of philantropic projects which the Russian Grand Priory of Malta have been taking care of without much pomposity. Amongst these he mentioned St Joseph’s Residential Home for children in Żabbar, Dar Nazareth’s Residential Home for people with disability in Żejtun, and the construction of a hospital and a hostel in Thailand which caters for the needs of dying children with AIDS.

    “The first investiture and the official institution of The Malta Priory took place on March 8, 1964. A few days after, His Majesty King Peter II of Yugoslavia legitimized the Order by giving it a new Constitution to meet 20th century demands. Within the first decades of its existence, The Malta Priory made several notable achievements which ultimately led it to be elevated to Grand Priory by Royal Warrant from King Peter II on Feb 22, 1970. This Royal Warrant gave our Grand Priory the name of Russian Grand Priory of Malta.”

    Palazzino Sapienti, Valletta

    Library at Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)Interestingly, it was the same king who donated the sum of 1000 dollars in order to open a fund for the purchase of a large house which was expected to serve as the World Head Quarters of this Order. The choice fell on the prestigious Palazzino Sapienti which today is located at 223, St Paul Street, Valletta, right opposite to the University of Malta Valletta Campus.

    An original letter held at the archives of Palazzino Sapienti that was sent to Czar Paul I by Grand Master Hompesch in 1797, indicates that at the time, the Russians had an interest to involve themselves in the Order. That is why, after the Knights of St John were expelled from Malta, some of them opted to find refuge in St Petersburg, where they elected the Russian Emperor, Paul I, as their Grand Master, thereby replacing Ferdinand von Hompesch who was then held in disgrace and had to abdicate in 1799.

    Prior to its present distinguished function, Palazzino Sapienti had its fair share of interesting history.

    “Whilst researching about the origins of this building, I discovered that its construction was commissioned in the late 16th century by the English Grand Prior of the Order of St. John, Sir Richard Shelley. However, he did not have the opportunity to enjoy his residence for long, since he got into disagreement with the Inquisitor after he failed to present to him his correspondence to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth for censorship, as was the regulation at the time. Soon, matters got worse when Shelley had also a dispute with Grand Master Peter del Monte, and in a diplomatic way, this building was taken away from him after he was offered another property. Instead, Palazzino Sapienti became the residence of Fra Nicolo Sollima, the Collegium Melitense Rector,” revealed Garcia.

    Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Stone used for the building of the house was quarried on site. Once the building was complete, the resultant small quarry was used as a water cistern and basement. This process of cutting stones directly from Monte Sciberras hurried the process of the building of the new city.”

    “The facade of the palazzino was imposing, having a main door flanked by two others. The main entrance was decorated by a barrel vaulted ceiling, typical of the 16th century. Traces of a blocked arch located under the staircase which leads up to the piano nobile points out that originally, the level of the street was lower than it is today.”

    “On 12th September 1634, a gunpowder magazine located in the whereabouts of the palazzino, blew up, killing 33 persons. The devastated site was left abandoned for thirty years until Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner established the Fondazione Cotoner in order to rebuild the houses in Strada San Paolo. The palazzino had suffered some cracks in the walls and its glass windows were shattered. Some structural changes were done to it, however, this structure was never intended to be built higher than two floors, since it would have been higher than the opposite building and would have cast a shadow on the University’s sundial.”

    “Traces of red paint on the walls show that this building was painted in this colour. Meanwhile, the limestone balcony supports, the internal courtyard and the main staircase were adorned with seashell carvings that represented St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order of St. John. The seashell is also representative of the water element, in this case creativity and knowledge, as befits the University Rector’s house.”

    It was a pleasure to explore this palazzino which I had never visited before. In the meantime, Garcia recounted some curiosities about the notable tenents who lived there.

    A room in Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)“In 1919, the tenant of Palazzino Sapienti was the lawyer Luigi Camilleri. On 7th June, 1919, Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky and Count Andrey Bobrinsky, both Russian Imperial refugees, were visiting Camilleri at his residence when suddenly the ‘Sette Guigno’ riots broke out. A large crowd made its way to the Royal Malta University and started to attack it, tearing down the English Imperial flag. These two Russian nobles who were witnessing this from the opposite palazzino were scared stiff since the remembrance of the Bolshevik revolution still haunted them. They stayed at the premises till the 12th June when they were escorted back to San Anton Palace in Balzan by Police Superintendent James Frendo Cumbo.”

    “During the Second World War, the premises were used by the British Royal Air Force for the decoding of enemy aerial operations. Palazzino Sapienti survived two enemy bombs which were dropped in the vicinity. Yet tragedy still struck this place when two children, who were attending school in this building after the Valletta school was hit, found their way down a spiral staircase which led to the city’s undergrounds and got lost there. No one ever found them and these stairs have been blocked ever since.”

    Chapel with reliquary of St John the Baptist (Photo - Fiona Vella)Today, this building is also proud to possess three saint reliquaries: a first degree bone fragment from the Order’s Patron Saint St. John the Baptist, and two third degree relics in the form of a throne chair on which St. John Paul II sat during one of his Papal visits to Italy, and a hand signed dedication by Sister Mother Theresa of Calcutta who was also a member of the Order.

    “Besides housing the Seat of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knight Hospitaller, Palazzino Sapienti has now opened its doors to the public who might be interested to visit it. Moreover lectures regarding various subjects are organized inside one of its rooms wherein we are also giving the opportunity to university students who would like to present talks about their studies or thesis.”

    Certainly, an invitation to such a prestigious, architectural, and historical gem, should not be missed.

    (This article was published in ‘Focus Valletta’ Suppliment issued with The Times of Malta dated 30 September 2015)

    2015.09.30 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

Travelogue

Archives

July 2017
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

Recent Posts

Comments