Posts Tagged ‘Maltese Islands’

  • Safety at sea

    Although the sea may be perceived as a barrier, in ancient times, when no infrastructure existed on land, it was actually the medium which connected one country to another. Travelling on the sea had its own risks and so eventually the idea of insuring a ship and its cargo developed. Traces of the first arrangements between merchants date back to the Roman Period, starting from contracts of sea loans and evolving through the centuries into more complex marine insurances.

    Along their history, the Maltese Islands often formed part of important trade routes and therefore local merchants were soon involved in this sector of underwriting risks. A wealth of information related to this aspect is available in old documents which show the development of insurance that was offered against particular risks on the sea. Nonetheless, till now, the origins and progress of marine insurance in Malta have been given little attention.

    Dr Joan Abela with the Notarial Archives' manuscripts (Photo - Fiona Vella)A visit to the Notarial Archives in Valletta where I met historian Dr Joan Abela introduced me to this interesting theme. Always ready to divulge enticing narratives from the valuable sources of these archives, Abela prepared for me a distinguished selection of thick manuscripts in order to help me explore the fine details available within.

    “In antiquity, before marine insurance originated, a sea loan was the only means of transferring risks in maritime transport from the shipper to another person. This consisted of two partners, a traveling and a sedentary one, who pooled their capital in order to invest and share the risk together. With such an agreement, the travelling partner would have more money in hand to work with, whereas the sedentary one would be able to make a profit while staying on land to continue with his work and at the same time avoid the perils that existed out at sea,” explained Abela.

    By the Late Middle Ages, as Italian merchants, particularly from Genoa, continued to experiment on these issues of securing vessels and their cargo, marine insurance gradually began to replace this type of agreement.

    Sources in Notarial Archives related to local history of marine insurance (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Since marine insurance was still in its early stages of development, contracts did not adopt a uniform pattern, but varied considerably according to the exigencies of the contractors. Insurance contracts were usually categorized as Securitas by the notary, and were generally divided into two parts.”

    “The first section listed the insurers’ names and the guaranteed premium which was calculated according to the routes, the prevailing conditions along these routes, the type of cargo, and also the type of ship being used. It also covered the kind of information which was regarded as essential for such a contract, that is, the name of the persons insured, specific details regarding the ship which was to undertake the venture, and other specifications regarding the merchandise and its destination. The second part of the contract usually listed the obligations of the insurers, the rights of those insured, and the method of payment.”

    An invocation of God’s blessing (Photo - Fiona Vella)Abela guided me through the Latin elegant black ink scripture which dated to centuries ago. Interestingly, at the beginning of some contracts, prior to the insertion of the usual stereotyped clauses, notaries included an invocation of God’s blessing for a safe trip.

    Al nome De Dio bon viaggio et salvamento Amen’ started a contract dated May 1558.

    “Divinity was also cited in other parts of the contracts,” revealed Abela. “In fact, the listing of the perils was often preceded by the phrase che Dio non voglia.

    Abela noted also that although at the time, mariners had a great devotion for the Virgin Mary which is evident from ex-voto paintings, Her name and also the names of saints were not usually mentioned when appealing for such spiritual protection in between legal phrases. This contrasted with the names given to ships that were often named after the Madonna and various saints.

    “Indeed these manuscripts can shed light on various subject matters. Amongst the wide data available, one can note the different vessels that were used during the different periods, the names of these ships, the ports to which they travelled, the type of cargo that was carried, and the amount of money which was being insured on it.”

    Malta Insurance Company (Photo - Fiona Vella)“An insurance contract which was concluded on 4 April 1536 stated that the insurance policy covered a shipment of 18 cantari of spun cotton that was going to be loaded from Birgu and shipped to Licata on the fusta of Giacomo Bonnichi. This fusta was to be captained by Paolo Xuejl or by any other captain appointed in his stead, and was secured to travel to any port which may have been deemed necessary for the purpose of the expedition.”

    Interestingly, a clause in the above contract stated that although being insured, the captain was expected to act prudently and to behave as if he was not being offered this protection, in order not to compromise the safety of the merchandise.

    “Should any damage or loss occur to the insured goods, the insurers were usually expected to pay the amount insured without any objection within four months from the incident. Yet as we can see from some documents, such as the petition that was put forward by Nob. Giacomo Bonichi against Mag. Pietro Ros and Giovanni Exatopolo in relation to a contract enrolled in the acts of notary Vincenzo Bonaventura de Bonetiis in 1560, the clients were not always satisfied with the way in which claims were met.”

    Abela pointed out to a most interesting contract which referred to an insurance of a consigment of apothecary products for the Order’s Infirmary. The list of products acted almost as a showcase of those ingredients which the Hospitallers used in order to produce the required medicine for their patients.

    Document with signatures of Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Those who succeeded to establish themselves in this sector had to have great entrepreneurial skills since this business was still in its infancy and there were lots of risks which one had to deal with. Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo were two of the earliest local entrepreneurs who besides being merchants and traders, they also offered marine insurance services, as may be noted in an insurance contract which they endorsed in respect of the safe consignment of a shipment of timber from Licata in 1558.”

    Abela lead me to the book Trade and Port Activity in Malta 1750-1800 (2000) by John Debono where one can find detailed research related to aspects of marine insurance.

    “As Debono elucidates, marine risks involved were numerous and included: inconsistency in the weather, the questionable conduct of a crew which was generally poorly and irregularly paid and usually comprised men who could not find work ashore, plundering or being taken as a slave by pirates, the unreliability of basic sea charts and portolani which only showed the depth of the water, and the perils that war brought with it.”

    Thick manuscript with information on marine insurance in Notarial Archives (1) (Photo - Fiona Vella)This study underlines also that initially, undewriters operated on an individual basis up to circa 1771, and those notaries which succeeded did very well financially. From an examination of insurance policies between September 1754 and August 1755 drawn up by notary Agostino Marchese, who at the time was most renowned with underwriters and insured, reveals that no less than 109 marine underwiters during that period insured a total sum of 686, 385 scudi against marine risks. However, by the 1770s individual undewriters were being replaced by insurance firms and in 1771, we see the establishment of the first insurance company in Malta.

    A few years later, the Maltese Islands were in a state of turmoil as they were briefly occupied by the French and this led to a total collapse of the whole local insurance system. A new chapter in this sector initiated with the beginning of the British rule.

    (This article was published in the Shipping and Logistics Supplement which was issued with the Times of Malta on 30th March 2016)

    2016.03.30 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • AROUND THE WORLD IN 90 DAYS

    “They say that you always travel three times: the first time when you are planning your holiday,then when you actually travel, and finally when you watch the photos that you have taken whilst travelling,” Jennifer told me as she proudly showed me the pictures that she and her husband Alan took during their three month honeymoon trip around the globe.

    Since Alan Borg and Jennifer Cusba got to know each other, their life turned into an adventure. They met incidentally on a boat trip whilst they were visiting the enchanting lakeside town of Guatapé in Colombia.

    First photo together on boat trip at Guatapé“I was on holiday in Colombia with my friends, when we decided to go on this particular boat trip. At one point, I saw Jennifer walking by with her mother and I liked her immediately. So I followed her, waiting for an excuse to talk to her. The right moment came when I noticed that she needed someone to take their photo and I offered to help. Then, I made sure to take a photo with her too,” revealed Alan.

    For the following three months, they kept in contact through Facebook. During one of their communications, Jennifer who is Colombian, told Alan that she was planning to go to America to study English.

    “I lived in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, where I worked as an internal auditor of a governmental company. I had studied hard to obtain this job and in the first years, I was very satisfied that I had succeeded in this career. However, as time went by, I felt that life had become stale. I woke early each day to travel for two hours to reach work, meeting always the same people on the bus and at work, and likewise on my two hour ride back home. At 29 years, I felt as if I was stuck in a rut and I was afraid that if I continued to live this mundane life, I would lose all the essence of life. I definitely had to do something to make a change,” reminisced Jennifer.

    Once again, Alan did not fail to grab the opportunity, and as soon as he learnt that Jennifer wanted to study English, he informed her about the selection of English schools that there were in Malta. Attracted by Alan’s gentle and friendly attitude, and also by the fact that it was cheaper to study in Malta than in America, Jennifer chose the small archipelago of the Maltese Islands. Once in Malta, their friendship grew stronger, she gave up her job in Colombia, and a year later, they got married.

    Wedding photo 1“When we told our friends and relatives that we were going to get married, they all wanted to know when and where the wedding is going to take place and how many guests would be invited. However, we had no intention of spending thousands of euros for just a few hours of enjoyment. Our plans were much bigger!” claimed Alan.

    “On our wedding day we were joined by our family and closest friends. After the celebration, we shared a cake, drank some champagne, took photos, had a lot of fun, and that was that. The big moment came seven months later, when we prepared our backpacks and left for the adventure of a lifetime,” continued Jennifer.

    Alan decided to make the best of the various offers and discounts that his job with an airline company afforded him. The couple started out with an initial idea of a simple honeymoon to Santorini, fully aware that they’d need to get a connecting flight from another location. Soon, this stopover was joined by other countries until the list grew and grew. Eventually, they decided to go on a three month trip around the world, to the total tune of 15,000 euros.

    Backpacks ready to travel“We both love to travel. Yet I was the one who was more experienced in travelling to faraway countries without concerning myself too much on a fixed itinerary. In fact, at first, Jennifer was somehow incredulous whether this voyage would take place for real,” smiled Alan.

    “It’s true! I was worried whether we would have enough money to do it all and what would happen if we spent everything whilst still abroad? I was also afraid that someone could steal our cards or that unknowingly, we could end up in some dangerous country or get caught up in a terrorist attack.”

    In reality, during this amazing voyage, the couple did have their fare share of risk… In New York, they experienced a huge storm and they could not get out of their hotel room. In Colombia, whilst they were seeing a horseshow, an earthquake shook the building which they were in. In Australia, just a week after they left, the Central Coast was a complete disaster with houses being carried away  due to heavy floods and strong winds.

    “Before we left on our adventure, I left a simple message on Facebook saying that we were going on our honeymoon, never mentioning that we were going for a trip around the world, because I couldn’t believe it myself! Off we went to Amsterdam and then we started to move and move and move, until I realized that this dream was becoming true. It became very very real whilst we were on the long flight crossing from Australia to Japan, and I started to note the various countries showing on the screen in front of me. By then, we had been to many of them, changing even continents, and there it dawned on me that we were truly going around the world,” Jennifer exclaimed.

    Balloon flightAlthough they had planned an overall general itinerary of the places and sites which they wished to visit, they prebooked nothing except their first destination to Amsterdam. And yet, they managed to see and do many many things. Their travels took them to Amsterdam, New York, Las Vegas, Arizona, San Francisco, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Sydney, New South Wales, Melbourne, Queensland, Japan, and Istanbul.

    “Ultimately, this was not just a holiday but an experience. Certainly, quite a great way to start a new and exciting chapter as husband and wife,” beamed Alan as he winked at Jennifer.

    (This article was published in ‘Escape’ cultural suppliment issued with the Sunday Times of Malta dated 4 October 2015)

    2015.10.04 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • 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