­Up to the 19th century, hunting and trapping were another means of subsistence and not a sport, writes Emanuel Chetcuti

Rabbit hunting

The Antonio Lafreri map showing Comino thriving with wild rabbits.The Antonio Lafreri map showing Comino thriving with wild rabbits.

In the days of the Knights of Malta, hunting for rabbits was strictly prohibited. Anyone infringing the regulations was liable for punishment with galley-rowing (Carmel Cassar, Fenkata: an emblem of Maltese peasant resistance?, 1994). A fine was also imposed on anyone hunting and selling rabbits. Rabbit hunting, however, was allowed in privately-owned territories.

In 1775, the prohibition of rabbit hunting, among other matters, led to the uprising of the priests, clerics and laymen led by Don Gaetano Mannarino. The prohibition was levied in the following year. Notwithstanding such restrictions, Maltese peasants still pursued the illicit activity to alleviate their misery. The hunter used to go searching for rabbit with his ferret. Large numbers were caught, providing a cheap and abundant supply of meat. 

The presence of a large number of wild rabbits indicates that the rabbit was definitely eaten by the Maltese peasants. Agius de Soldanis wrote that “around a thousand rabbits are killed daily”. Wild rabbits seem to have thrived in Comino, as depicted in the map of Malta by Antonio Lafreri of 1551.

By the 19th century, wild rabbits seem to had already been significantly decimated.

“It is said that in less than seven years, Sir H. C. Ponsomby had 11,000 rabbits killed near Marfa,” wrote G.N. Godwin in The Geology, Botany, and Natural History of the Maltese Islands in 1880.

When E. Napier accompanied a cacciatore (hunter) named Francesco on a hunting spree at Gozo, he exclaimed: “And what has become of all the rabbits? For devil a one do I see; and to what purpose is the palace applied, now that the great people have no longer the good taste to patronise the sports of the field? Poverini! They have long since been poached, destroyed, annihilated; not the ghost of one of them remains” (E. Napier. Op. cit, 1846 edition).

The cacciatore in Malta

During the 19th century, Maltese hunters were already perceived with disdain.

“Almost every unhappy tired straggler from the vast flocks of migratory birds that seek the temporary resting place under British protection is immediately shot or bullied to death and comes eventually to the market,” Lord Lilford wrote in the article ‘Cruise of the Zara, RY.S. in the Mediterranean’ in the ornithological magazine The Ibis in 1875.

During the 19th century, hunters were perceived with disdain

The anonymous writer in the book St James’s Medley opined that “these same cacciatore are the dirtiest, raggedest, noisiest and most impertinent set of individuals ever let loose on society to trample down and destroy at will a poor man’s corn, barley, beans, peas, or potatoes, as the case may be”.

Soldat du Regiment des Chasseurs (soldier of the hunters’ regiment). In the background is a Maltese peasant holding a rabbit. Source: New York Public LibrarySoldat du Regiment des Chasseurs (soldier of the hunters’ regiment). In the background is a Maltese peasant holding a rabbit. Source: New York Public Library

He continued to elaborate on the subject. He wrote that hunters came from all walks of life: assistants in the different tradesmen’s shops, jewellers, blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers, etc. The caccia drove the hunters out of their senses. They forsook their work, allowed their wives and families to starve, endured any amount of privation and even gave up their situations. They could be seen in groups, as early as two hours before daybreak, marching down to the ferry at the quarantine harbour from where they took their boat for Sliema, their howling dogs and their loud voices disturbing the peaceful slumbers of the less early risers. These annoyances were calculated to drive the true sportsman to the verge of despair. They all had nicknames, generally not of the most complimentary description.

“La caccia is then the talk of the town – so-and-so having killed 60, or a 100 quail, becomes the hero, for the time, and is a very peacock of pride. These cacciatore, like others of their countrymen, are apt to become romantic in the narration of their exploits and are not at all abashed when convicted of telling two entirely different stories; should they be unable to justify themselves, or find any excuse, they resort to virulent vituperation, of which they have always a large stock at demand,” the author wrote.

Bird meat seems to have been a welcome addition to people’s diet.

Andrew Leith Adams, writing in the 1870 publication Notes of a Naturalist in the Nile Valley and Malta, remarked: “I believe I shall be within the mark in stating that about one half of the migratory species are captured or shot and, of all days, on Sunday the greatest carnage is perpetrated so that, on the following day, the poulterers’ shelves are stocked with all manner of birds, great and small.”

A watercolour painting by Francesco Zimelli showing the colonel of the Regiment de Chasseurs (hunters’ regiment) reprimanding a barefoot hunter holding a rabbit.A watercolour painting by Francesco Zimelli showing the colonel of the Regiment de Chasseurs (hunters’ regiment) reprimanding a barefoot hunter holding a rabbit.

In an 1870 edition of the British magazine The Ibis, Charles A. Wright opined that in a place where everybody had a gun, all kinds of birds were sent to the market as game.

And according to Louis De Boisgelin, the flight of birds of passage that came to Malta afforded much amusement to the sportsmen who shot them with great perseverance and beccaficos, quails and plovers were esteemed as most delicate juicy food. (Ancient and Modern Malta containing a full and accurate account of the present state of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, London, 1803)

Notwithstanding the sporting element of Maltese hunting and trapping, the evidence suggests that, up to the 19th century, they were another means of subsistence and not sport.

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