“A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen” is one of the many exhaustive descriptions bestowed to Valletta. Like many more titles that give too much credit to the Knights and provide less than deserved praise to those ‘’others’’, the ‘’locals’’ who also fought in the front lines – where the blood flowed thickest; and more relevant to this article ‘’SPONSORED’’ the construction of the city. The creation of such an impressive and impregnable fortress requires amongst many other variables a shitload of funds accompanied by a huge labour force. The Corsairs of Malta contributed to BOTH, a percentage of their Booty by law went straight to the order’s treasury, the most profitable commodity of the booty being their captives sold as slaves – slaves desperately needed to build the fortifications.(1) A statue dedicated to one of the greatest soldiers of his time… La Valette, (also a skilled Corsair in his time before becoming the Big Boss) proudly stands overseeing his legacy, but the knights have had more than their fair share of the spotlight in our history books… some of which perhaps should be credited to the locals who were actually ruled with an Iron fist, the same ‘locals’ who made their navy famous.
So who were these Maltese Furbani who terrorized the Mediterranean?
Maltese Corsairs – Boarding party
Theoretically, a corsair operated under a license granted by the competent authorities, thus, in the eyes of both local and international law, he was conducting a legal activity… or an ‘’Honorable Crime’’ as opinions among historians differ immensely. Pirates, on the other hand, did not operate under a license and thus did not abide to the stipulated laws and were considered outlaws and hanged. Notwithstanding it must be stated that some corsairs did at times infringe the prescribed limits and thus in essence crossed the legal boundaries… playing indiscriminately against friends and foes alike.(3) Some, though biased, saw their legitimacy as a farce and didn’t mince their words, or as the Venetian Minister of Naples Cappello said about the Maltese Privateers when he came to Malta “They call the unlawful appropriation of goods an ART, to avoid calling it theft or robbery”. (4)
The Maltese Corsairs would harass English shipping as privateers under the flag of Spain, attack French and Dutch ships on occasion, and if Barbary Corsairs or Ottoman shipping was not to be found in the Levant would revert to attack Greek Christians both onshore and at sea. Corsairing was what kept Maltese shores clear of enemy corsair vessels, the inhabitants trained for combat; a paramilitary force waiting to be unleashed at the sight of any potential threat… or an opportunity of loot! More importantly it brought food to the table, whilst also flirting with the possibility of becoming filthy rich through sea warfare, an art perfected and honed by generation after generation of islanders whose existence and survival intertwined with the sea. Make no mistake; the common adage “play on your strengths” is not a modern life coach’s invention. Finding work as sailors and sea mercenaries was never a problem for the Maltese… 1,800 Maltese sailors were recruited by the French navy to fight the British in the American war of Independence (5) (The French Navy blasting the British away in Mel Gibson’s ‘’The Patriot’’ ending scene comes to mind).The Royal Navy also welcomed the Maltese and we cannot PROUDLY fail to mention, again and again that the founder of the Argentinian Navy was a Maltese from Senglea!!! Who has schools and even a street in Buenos Aires named after him to this day!!! (6)
Successful raiding cruises resulted in a number of Maltese Corsairs becoming filthy rich…
Now let us take you on a trip and that any time now whilst you’re reading this article and perhaps judging that this privateering history has no place today’s “civilized” society and has rightfully been mostly excluded in your history lessons. A Barbary corsair kicks down your door, pistol and scimitar in hand, another raid in less than a year!! (Nothing compared to the more frequent chaos and destruction which the Maltese Corsairs at the same time were causing at sea and in the Levant) … But, this time it’s your village, it affects you directly and that’s what counts!! Slavery and hard labour awaits those who can’t run fast enough and likely forever as your family barely scrapes a living let alone come up with your ransom money… Constant Paranoia of another invasion is the Reality! Yet history showed that small raiding party (Razzia) was all it took to shatter this little vulnerable and simple life…… Simple life because poverty is the rule rather than the exception, death by starvation was only a missed shipment of grain away, death by plague not far behind either and possibilities for advancement in your position were highly unlikely, unless you had the private backing of some pompous knight who would trade a favour for your good-looking wife or daughter’s bed. What to do? You already have a good knowledge of the sea, that place where adventure and glory came hand in hand with death… and yet the chance for immeasurable wealth was there… a few successful Corsairing cruises could turn a pauper into a prince overnight if ‘Madame Fortuna’ favoured him !! Case in point Villa Francia in Lija… formerly a summer residence of the Corsair Preziosi…(7) What to do? The ‘’success stories’’ spoken in the taverns echo “Corsairing”.
You and your family escaped the “Razzia”, but your house is burnt down, and whilst your stomach aches from hunger, your former neighbor who years ago decided to give up the ‘dreary life’’ of farming under the hot scorching sun to became a Corsair comes to mind. You vividly remember his return, flashbacks of his head held high as he walked into the village square after his Corsairing’s cruise, becoming one of the “super stars” of his time. Despite his young age, he had surpassed both yourself and most others in marriage proposals as a consequence of the high rewards of this respectable profession “il-kunjatu deherlu li miegħu t-tifla tiekol żgur,” Last you heard of him he had moved to the Capital, his years as a corsair not only bought him status but better accommodation and means of living too.
Whilst in the neighboring village’s local tavern, you hear that a recently approved and licensed Captain visited the village looking for funds for arming a ship for his venture, words spread like wildfire because everyone who had an extra ‘’Scudo’’ would invest in Corsairing and hope to see a profitable return, including your local church!! (8)… and now that a crew is being assembled and your family hungers, a tough decision is at hand…Shall we head out to the Capital…and join the next ship to head out to the Levant?? Shall we dare for a chance to be somebody, for glory, the rush of boarding an enemy vessel and more importantly the desired possibility of finding one year’s mediocre wages, in just one minute plundering the passengers’ pockets??!!
So who were these local Furbani Maltin? They were just like us, put under totally different circumstances during the hard times our ancestors lived in. An era where desperate times required brave men to take desperate measures and risk it all, in an age where life’s daily headaches involved much more than a lost internet connection.
‘’In time of War you can always count on the Maltese, few sailors are as good as them’’ – French Minister Chevalier de Turgot (1763) (9)