Jacques Francois de Chambray
by Joseph Scicluna,
published by Kite Group, 2023
Jacques Francois de Chambray’s extraordinary life merited extraordinary celebration. Self-exile on an insignificant rock in the Mediterranean curtailed the recognition of his overseas fame in life. About 250 years after his death, Joseph Scicluna has set out to redress that injustice with this towering biography.
The young Chambray boy, barely 13 years old, was sent by his widowed mother Anne to serve as page to the first wigged grand master of the Order of Malta, Ramon Perellos. The Chambrays hailed from the Normandy nobility, moderately wealthy, but with a bizarre reputation for exasperated piety. Jacques Francois’s elder brother lived as a hermit in a small hovel he built on the grounds of his chateau.
In Europe’s age of decadence, when restraint among the knights and the aristocracy risked becoming the exception rather than the rule, never one whiff of scandal tainted the reputation of Jacques Francois. Not everyone agreed about the benevolence of his character. The Chevalier d’ Aynac formally complained to the grand master in 1735 about Chambray being ‘intolerable’.
His good friend in Malta, his co-corsair Fra Jean Francois de Chevestre-Cintray, may have been gay. Widespread gossip held that Chevestre belonged to a secret society of knights codenamed Edamus et Titamus, whose affiliates bound themselves not to have sex except with boys. The records never mention Chambray as a member, but he did pay for Chevestre’s lavish tombstone in St John’s conventual church when his friend died in 1721.
Several portraits of the Bali de Chambray survive, some in oils, others engraved. The earliest one, attributed to Antoine de Favray, shows an inordinately handsome, almost effeminate young man. Those looks did not endure long. The last portrait, botox-free, retains few or none of those charms.
Chambray can effortlessly boast of multiple and impressive claims to fame. His controlled daring, his masterly seamanship take pride of place. He shared these qualities with several other renowned French seafarers trained by the Order, like Suffren and Tourville who scoured the Mediterranean, looting in the name of God.
His corsairing skills gained him a reputation of invincibility in the many naval battles, encounters and skirmishes which he took part in throughout his active fighting life which only waned in 1735.
The author lists 55 naval war occasions which Chambray took part in, always putting his life at risk, sometimes suffering wounds, occupying various ranks, from lowly apprentice caravanista to lieutenant-general, the highest grade in active combat. He was in command of the naval fighting forces in 25 of these engagements. For his infallible strategic and tactical mariner skills alone, he would deserve remembrance.
Though the Norman bali’s prowess shone dazzlingly in hostilities at sea, the Order relied on his organisational abilities even during threats of land warfare, like when its secret services signalled the possibility of another Ottoman invasion in 1732. Chambray took charge of the preparations. From these, we discover his obsessive attention to detail, like ordering 200,000 clay tobacco pipes to serve the soldiers’ addictions to nicotine during the impending siege.
In 1755, in Chambray’s lifetime, the knight Etienne Francois Turgot planned to strike a medal in the seaman’s honour.
Compared to Malta, Gozo only counted on rudimentary and vulnerable defences. The old citadel, the solitary fortified enclave, had shown its weakness during the lethal 1551 siege. Tigné, the inspired military engineer had, as early as 1716, drawn up detailed plans for a new fortified city overlooking Mġarr harbour to make the enemy’s access to Gozo burdensome and to provide shelter to the inhabitants and their livestock during razzias or a full-blown siege.
The prohibitive costs of Tigné’s project ensured it would never take off.
That is, until Chambray became governor of Gozo in 1749 and responded to the challenge. He would build the fortified city out of his own personal purse – mostly replenished from the proceeds of corsairing, the systematic fleecing of the Islamic enemy’s trade routes.
The new fort took years to finish off, with costs regularly overrunning the budget. Chambray passed before his munificent dream had reached completion. In fact, the fort claimed his health and his life. On December 6, 1754, while supervising the works on site, he was floored by a violent stroke, and never recovered. He died in his beloved Gozo on April 8, 1756.
Since then, the Chambray structures have seen many uses – barracks, a lunatic asylum, military hospital, a leprosarium, a cemetery, and luxury resort.
Chambray passed before his munificent dream had reached completion
Chambray stands out in the large body of knights of the Order of St John by writing his memoirs. Why so few of them did remains quite unexplainable. Many knights enjoyed the reputation of high literacy. Some published books about the most varied subjects, but almost none bothered with autobiography.
This, in an era when writing and publishing the DIY story of your life had become an accepted and respectable literary genre throughout Europe – but hardly within the confraternity of the knights of St John.
Not really surprising to a Maltese audience, when one considers that the very first local who published his life story was Sir Arturo Mercieca with his Le Mie Vicende – as late as 1947. Chambray, with faux humility, strove to downplay his literary skills. He starts his memoirs with an apology, “he prays for the indulgence of the reader and begs to be excused for his failings in the practice of the great art of literature”.
The French bali seems to have cultivated easy relations with the local Maltese population. Canon Agius de Soldanis recorded that Chambray’s command of the Maltese language put even the natives to shame. And de Soldanis’s brother, Melchior, published the praises of Chambray in the Courrier d’ Avignon.
In his absence from the island, the bali gave power of attorney to Baron Gio Pio de Piro, for various businesses, including the sale of slaves. He partnered Countess Elena Preziosi as godparent in the baptism of a converted Jew, the 18-year-old Rachele Solas.
In 1749, a certain Giuseppe Agius commissioned the Generoso Salomoni press in Rome to print a rare sonnet in praise of Chambray “per la fondazzione da lui fatta nel Gozzo di una nuova città da dirsi Chambré”. The French bali opted to spend the last years of his life far from the pomp and tinsel of the Order, an unassuming resident in rural Gozo after quitting his residence in Floriana.
Everything points to the fact that for Chambray, the habitual profession of violent action did not dim his love for the arts, music and gracious living.
When he heard that his friend, the Bali Giovan Battista Spinola, intended to export to Italy the splendid furnishings of his palazzo in St Julians “the most beautiful in Malta, consisting in paintings, velvets, damasks patterned in gold and silver of exquisite taste”, Chambray dipped into his pocket and paid 10,000 Maltese scudi to make sure these treasures would not leave the island.
During his travels on the Order’s galleys, our bali often dropped anchor in cultural centres on the Mediterranean coast. He strove not to miss musical entertainments in the courts of Europe, in which the highlights would be the singing bravura of the then fashionable castrati. Chambray heard and admired many of them.
And the visits to his vessels by the monarchs of Europe gave Chambray an uncontrollable frisson – he can’t hide his excitement at the 1724 visit to his galleys in Lisbon by Queen Maria Anna of Portugal, ruisselante de diamantes.
The Frenchman’s memoirs have survived in various manuscript texts, in Malta and abroad. Although known and appreciated by scholars, no one had come round to printing these unique documents. André Plaisse attempted the first full-blown biography of Chambray in 1991: Le Rouge de Malte, translated into Italian shortly later. A worthy effort indeed, if for no other reason, for his pioneer enterprise.
The present biography outpaces in ambition and encyclopaedic overview anything attempted before. Joseph Scicluna taps most of the known sources, published or manuscript, that enrich our knowledge of the man Chambray and his times. But he also meshes in the very colourful history of the French bali’s most lasting creation, his munificent gift to the people of Gozo, the fort that still bears his name, used, abused and misused over the last two-and-a-half centuries.
This seems to me the right occasion to welcome two new exciting discoveries. Firstly, a formidable volume, obsessively researched and produced to dizzily high standards, no expenses spared – if anything, ambitiously over-illustrated, possibly the largest and heaviest culturally-pregnant book in the annals of modern Maltese publishing. Not a coffee-table book, more of a ‘last supper’-table book, in which the ministry for Gozo laudably had an input.
And, secondly, but perhaps even more importantly, hail with me the birth of a new historian. Joseph Scicluna, an Għajnsielem graduate from the Toronto and Malta universities, so far professional practitioner in the financial services sector, has found a new voice, which he is addressing with effortless assurance to all those passionate about history. This biography is his first, and spectacular, work. It augurs bullishly for more to come.
Scicluna starts his book with some wistful words by the good Chambray: “I have spent so much money building the fort that I have neglected any bequests for the repose of my soul. I entreat the people of Malta and of Gozo to remember me in their prayers.”
Who would deny so little to one who gave so much?