With the introduction of the four vascelli or third rates in 1705, commissioned four years earlier by Grand Master Perellos, the Order’s fleet became an even more formidable power in the Mediterranean. The capitana or flagship was heavily armed with a total of 60 guns (24-pounders and 18-pounders) arrayed on two gun decks. Guns of a smaller calibre were positioned in other parts of the vessel. The other three Third Rates carried 56 guns on two decks. The vascelli carried a crew of between 300-400 men besides the Knights and their attendants.
A fifth Third galleon, the San Giorgio, was launched in 1719 and frigates and corvettes, smaller than the Third Rates, were also introduced in the Order’s fleet. The purpose of the new vascelli was to counteract similar Barbary warships which were becoming a serious threat to the Order’s naval supremacy by the turn of the century.
Furthermore, the vascelli were capable of sailing in adverse weather conditions and were thus able to operate during the winter months in order to protect Christian merchant shipping from the Barbary corsairs.
This formidable naval power was augmented by the many privateers which were licensed to undertake corsairing activities, so that it can truly be said that these combined Maltese forces were considered the scourge of Ottoman and Barbary vessels, not to mention ships flying certain other flags which crossed their paths and provoked their wrath. The activities of this motley but highly efficient fleet resulted in a steady supply of captives, the majority of whom were condemned as galley slaves.
The more notable captives of course commanded a hefty ransom, thus augmenting the Order’s coffers. Goods captured from victorious naval encounters included the vessels themselves, if still in good condition, as well as timber, iron, lead, guns, arms, munitions and foodstuffs.
Jean Francois Chevestre de Cintray, who was the main protagonist in the capture of the Capitana d’Algier in 1710, had been promoted to Commander of the “Third Rates” squadron a year later, when he achieved another notable exploit. The incident had its origin in an encounter between a Venetian vessel and a squadron of six Algerian vessels in Italian waters. The outnumbered Venetian vessel was quickly overcome and captured.
Fifteen days later the squadron of the Order, under the command of Lieutenant General de Cintray, came across the captured Venetian vessel in the Canale di Ferro on August 11, 1711. The Venetian ship was retaken by the Santa Caterina which was now under the command of Adriano de Langon and 38 Turks were taken prisoner.
The painting at Palazzo Falson which depicts this exploit shows four of the ships in de Cintray’s squadron with the Santa Caterina in the foreground. To the left a boat from the Santa Caterina carrying a boarding party approaches the captured Venetian vessel which had been forced to surrender. A hilly landscape with some hilltop towers appears in the background at right, presumably representing the Italian coast.
The activities of this motley but highly efficient fleet resulted in a steady supply of captives
Adriano de Langon, Commander of the Santa Caterina, was a prominent Captain in the Order’s navy, continuing in the tradition of his brother Giuseppe de Langon, who had died a year earlier during the capture of the Capitana d’Algier. Many of his exploits are recorded by Abbé Rene de Vertot in his History of the Knights of Malta, including the capture of a number of enemy vessels, though this particular incident is not mentioned.
Another naval engagement which involved Adriano de Langon took place two years after the recapture of the Venetian vessel by Chevestre de Cintray. This incident is also recorded in a painting at Palazzo Falson. On April 12, 1713, the Third Rates Squadron, under the command of Jean Francois Chevestre de Cintray was cruising off Alicante on the Spanish coast when an Algerian vessel hove into view. It was the Padrona d’Algier, which carried a complement of 320 turks and was armed with 36 cannon.
The Santa Caterina, still commanded by Adriano de Langon, immediately engaged the Algerian vessel and soon forced it to yield. Of the Padrona d’Algiers’ complement of 320, 125 survived and were taken as slaves. The painting shows the Algerian vessel at right foreground with the Santa Caterina at rear firing a broadside. A hilly coast in the background represents the Spanish coast.
The naval encounter depicted in the last of the four oil paintings on wood at Palazzo Falson took place 16 years later on March 24, 1729 during the reign of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. The Gazzella d’Algeri was sailing in the waters between the islands of Lampedusa and Linosa to the West of Sicily when it was intercepted by the Order’s galleon the San Vincenzo under the command of Fra Scipione Deaulx.
The Algerian vessel was armed with 48 cannon and had on board 250 men, including Christian slaves. The San Vincenzo immediately attacked the Gazzella d’Algeri which, although dismasted and on fire, fought back bravely but eventually had to succumb to the San Vincenzo’s superior fire power. Most of its complement abandoned ship and a total of 178 Moors and 28 Christians were rescued by the Order’s vessel.
The painting shows the dismasted Gazzella d’Algier on fire in the left foreground, with the San Vincenzo firing one of its cannons further to the rear of the painting. Although reduced to this sorry state, the Gazzella is still bravely returning fire. In the right foreground parts of the rigging and flags of the Algerian vessel are seen floating in the sea, as well as two lifeboats with survivors being rowed away from the stricken vessel.
Two promontories of land on the horizon are labelled Lampedusa on the left and Linosa on the right. This naval encounter is also the subject of one of the lunettes in the corridors of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.
The importance afforded to the capture of the Gazzella d’Algier is also evidenced by the fact that Scipione de Raymond Deaulx wrote an account of the episode which was registered in the Order’s Archives on April 11, 1729 by order of the Grand Master and Venerable Council. The following is an excerpt (translated from the French) from this account as quoted by Carmen Depasquale in her 2005 treatise on travellers and corsairs in the Mediterranean:
“On 24th March at 11 hours the Algerian vessel was dismasted, losing its main mast and the flagpole. Although reduced to this state, it refused to surrender and the battle continued. At half past twelve, seeing that they were on the point of destruction, the Christian slaves cried out to us, and the Rais and other officers indicated that they were surrendering. [……] Before nightfall all the slaves were on board. […] According to the delivered Christian slaves, who numbered 27, the crew totalled 357 Turks of whom we had 178 on board including 34 wounded; the remainder had perished. As for us we had only lost 4 men and 14 were wounded”.
Depasquale also mentions an interesting sequel to this naval encounter in a footnote in her 2001 paper about Bailli de Froullay, General of the Galleys. De Froullay had written to a moorish slave Khalil as follows: “I have made it known to everyone how, ignoring your own safety, you fought an unequal combat, how valourously you sustained it and how steadfastly you bore your disgrace…. I wish that you will soon return to your country”. Depasquale believes that Khalil was in fact one of the 178 moors who had been enslaved after the capture of the Gazella d’Algerie by Scipione Deaulx.
The Order’s fleet continued with its corsairing activities as the 18th century progressed. The knight Jacques de Chambray sailed on a number of expeditions, known as caravans, between 1723 and 1749, capturing no less than 11 valuable prizes. Chambray was later associated with the erection of the fortress overlooking Mġarr Harbour in Gozo which still bears his name.
The lack of Barbary targets and the French suppression of operations in the Orient marked the start of a steady decline in the Order’s naval resources
The caravans yielded valuable resources to the Order, including cargo, armaments, ransom demands, slaves and often the vanquished ships themselves. Some of the latter were repaired and made a useful addition to the fleet’s strength. Slaves constituted an important part of the booty as they had a monetary value and could be sold, or else they would become rowing slaves in the Order’s galleys, which were still active. The freeing of Christian slaves on board the vanquished enemy ships was another important consequence of these naval operations.
In the second half of the 18th century changing circumstances led to a marked decrease in the fleet’s activities. The supremacy of the Order’s navy and its many victories forced the Barbary states to drastically reduce their fleets and deploy their remaining vessels in the Western Mediterranean, as far away as possible from the Knights. At the same time France was striving to extend its commercial activities eastwards, specifically in the Ottoman Empire. This affected the Knight’s corsairing pursuits in the Levant following pressure which the French brought to bear on the Order to cease such activity and to refrain from attacking Turkish shipping.
The lack of Barbary targets and the French suppression of operations in the Orient marked the start of a steady decline in the Order’s naval resources. Lack of profitability, together with the confiscation of many of the Order’s properties in France during the revolution, forced the Order to sell a number of vessels. By 1795 the remnants of the fleet, once the undisputed rulers of the Mediterranean, consisted of an ageing third-rate battleship, the San Zaccharia, two frigates which were past their use-by date and four of the old galleys.
In an effort to remedy this sorry state, Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan commissioned the building of a new 64-gun double-decker, the San Giovanni, which was to take the place of San Zaccharia. The new vessel was laid down at the Senglea yard in 1796 and launched by Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch in 1798, a few months before the Knights were ousted from Malta by Napoleon.
The San Giovanni was left unfinished and, together with the other components of the fleet, was taken over by the French invaders. Thus came to a miserable end the era of naval supremacy of the Knights Hospitaller of St John in the Mediterranean.
The author is grateful to Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti for permission to photograph and reproduce the paintings at Palazzo Falson. Thanks are also due to Francesca Balzan, curator of Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum for her encouragement and useful suggestions and to Lisa Attard for the photograph of the Nasoni painting.
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