Welcome to the age of the feared crusades and the dawn of emerging empires. Empires whose wealth depended on control of the maritime flow of commerce between East and West. This need for domination over the Mediterranean trade routes would soon attract lawless elements of all nationalities and creeds all bent on profit and power. Control of Sicily was crucial, and by default – Malta. One could not allow the small island of Malta, Sicily’s underbelly to turn into a nest of enemy raiders. Ironically this would inevitably lead this lone rocky outpost to become a base for some of the most famous Pirates and Corsairs that ever plundered their way to fame.
We have been zealously taught of how empires fought for and conquered the island, discussed them and the foreign rulers in great length. Fair enough; but sadly we have left out the fun part from the equation; throughout our participation in a variety of events we have realized what matters most to the Maltese; and what would motivate them to give a damn or take further interest and it boils down to one simple question – what did their ancestors accomplish? What about their everyday struggles? One topic (as Furban Malti) that has piped our interest in particular, is the average Maltese man’s decision or necessity to take the choice to become involved in Corsairing, where our ancestors stood equal in skill, respect and bravery as any seafaring nation. The real ‘Ironborn’, Game of thrones style – “We take what is ours”, via the ‘Corso’ trade, which even by the early Medieval period had already become deeply entrenched into our daily livelihood.
Perhaps the hard truth i.e. that theft on the high seas, was what the Maltese were renowned for all over the Mediterranean, is best to be forgotten, or NOT. The Maltese ‘Furban’ would by the tip of his sword carve his name in the history books of those powers who sought to obtain and jealously retain his services. Stories of their navigational skills, savagery in armed combat and resilience would resonate all over the Mediterranean way before the Knights settled here.
As with most little islands, dabbling in a little theft for survival is inevitable. Also, with almost every newly appointed foreign ruler over the island themselves seasoned corsairs or ex-pirates and more importantly, still in the corsair business.. taking this opportunity to get rich quick or die trying for the impoverished inhabitants was a no-brainer in the medieval period. As the years passed and alliances changed, the ever entrepreneurial Maltese simply adapted and merely changed on whom they preyed upon. This depending on whom they were ‘licensed’ to attack by current rulers, some of which so gangster and non-squeamish on whom to raid that on occasion the king of Sicily himself at the head of an invasion force would personally have to visit his rocky outpost to ‘sort’ them out. (1)
Ironically, in such a Catholic country numerous historians seem to suggest, that it was during the early medieval period under Arab rule that Maltese made their ‘bones’ and are first recorded to have been initiated into corsairing. (2) Thus Maltese preyed upon Christian merchant vessels and coastal settlements bringing a number of captives to the island. Captives only freed by the Norman Invasion of Malta by Count Roger.(3) Even just by the 10th century, while the Vikings were having a blast up North, down south we had our own little party going on, so much so the Maltese were described as being the “Worst members of the fraternity of Rovers” one could come across along with the Greeks, Sardinians and Genovese. (4)
But weren’t we told that our little holier than thou of an island was mercilessly attacked and its inhabitants carried off into slavery more times than we can dare count, ‘msieken’? Perhaps the question one should be asking, is why we were attacked in the first place? Payback for doing the same thing!
During the medieval period piracy was rampant. Whilst corsairing was a legalised form of piracy (licensed by the state to attack the commerce of rivals and also act as a paramilitary naval force when needed) many corsairs nonetheless frequently attacked rival shipping even in times of peace, Maltese corsairs not excluded, or perhaps even more than others. The Motto for the time in the Mediterranean was more or less; merchant today, pirate tomorrow, corsair the next. Merchants would simply switch to piracy when it suited them to do so, attacking anyone easy enough to overpower. The carrying of weapons by “merchants” was justified for self-defense purposes in protecting their cargo. (5). Both brothers executed as pirates, himself became Pope.
The numerous conflicts for control of the Mediterranean resulted in the need of experienced sea mercenaries all the time. Therefore the middles ages was the perfect time for a pirate to suddenly turn legit and rise high in life. Some, even had greater ambitions, case in point Baldassare Cosse, the alleged ‘pirate’ that became the anti-pope John XXIII. (6) But for the less ambitious perhaps the title of admiral would be just fine. Enter the first Counts of Malta; Margerito de Brindisi, Guglielmo Grasso and the dreaded Henry ‘’Pescatore’’ all renowned pirates who all became Admirals of the Navy of the King of Sicily and by default controlled the island. The nickname “Pescatore”, Italian for Fisherman, originated due to Henry’s prowess in capturing Venetian Ships, (we learnt from the best). He is, apart from using Malta as his base of operations, also known to have recruited numerous eager Maltese youths for raids on Venetian shipping, Tripoli in Lebanon and Crete. (7)
Many Maltese Noble families and other foreign families who settled here, took to funding Corsairing expeditions and thrived, establishing dynasties and generations of corsairs of their own on the island. Not to mention acquiring a number of the fine palaces in Mdina for themselves. It was also very common under Aragonese rule for men to repay their debts by joining a corsairing expedition. (8)
Admittedly, there was also a hefty price to pay as the popularity of corsairing in Malta increased, especially under Aragonese rule. The audacity of the Maltese Corsairs and their lust for booty, attacking any vessel they could lay their hands upon had endangered numerous treaties. It also brought the above mentioned numerous reprisals on Malta’s shores from Barbary Corsairs as well as other corsairs such as the Genovese in return. The local Universita’ now began to have second thoughts on the island’s costly policy of attack being the best form of defense.
It gets better, Malta’s agricultural aspect also took a turn for the worse caused by depopulation problems due to many Maltese leaving the island to join foreign corsair vessels. Many never returning. The farmers tired of sweating if off for a mediocre living, simply called it quits, headed to sea and replaced the sickle with the sword. This resulted in laws enacted with harsh penalties forbidding Maltese joining or arming corsair vessels on numerous times during the 15th Century. (9) Yet this would never prevail for long, the livelihood of an island with limited natural resources as well as the defense of the island depended too greatly on corsairing. The Corsairs of Malta remained active in their search for plunder, continuously honing their skills..
By the late 15th century, the fame of the Maltese corsairs had reached such heights that numerous Maltese were asked by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who at the time where established in Rhodes to join them in their “Guerre di corso” against the Ottoman Empire. Records exist of Maltese corsairs assisting the Knights during a siege of Rhodes in 1480. (10)
The Maltese Blackbeard
Yet in 1467, the Knights would come to dread their partnership with one of Malta’s most renowned medieval corsairs of the time; the sea captain Michele Da Malta, the island’s medieval version of ‘Blackbeard’, who taught the knights a lesson they would rather forget.(11) (refer to Small Island, Big Balls Article).
In a nutshell Malta’s ‘underground’ history is a never ending story of rum & amp; grappa – gunpowder – cocktails, boarding vessels and licensed theft right up to the early British period. All of you have had some sword wielding, thieving Furban somewhere along the family tree, and perhaps some of you still do 😉