With the advent of the British presence in Malta in 1800, the number of visitors to the island increased dramatically. The Malta garrison comprised not only soldiers and officers but also doctors, architects and those in charge of the island’s administration.
British officers and their families travelling to and returning from East India sojourned in Malta temporarily before continuing their journey. Malta became a coaling station in the late 19th century when steamships powered by coal began to replace sailing ships, thus obliging vessels to stop for coaling in Malta.
The island became a favourite destination for invalids seeking milder climates to regain their health. Prominent personalities and scholars, including women, also visited the island for some reason or other.
Throughout the 19th century, accounts given by travellers were considered in Victorian Britain as a highly significant source of information on the Mediterranean. In many instances, references to the Maltese calesse were made when the travellers toured the island to visit places outside Valletta which necessitated the use of this vehicle.
The calesse appeared to visitors a ‘strange-looking vehicle’ peculiar to Malta. It was drawn by a single horse or mule. The cabin had windows on the front and on the sides with bold leather curtains. It could accommodate from two to six passengers.
The calesse had large wheels at its back without any springs. The movement made passengers uncomfortable with jolts even when the vehicle was not moving. The driver ran along the calesse barefooted, occasionally with leather sandals, and mounted on the shaft when driving in the open country. He pricked the animal in order to urge it forward “with a small piece of wood, called a niggieża, in which two short nails are fixed”.
The dress of the driver appeared that which was worn centuries ago. It consisted of a coarse shirt, a waistcoat without sleeves, studded with silver or gold buttons, a pair of loose trousers tightened with a coloured sash, his dangling cap kept ‘à la Figarò’ in which were held his cigars and meal for the day. An early observation during the advent of the British in Malta is given by Aeneas Anderson of the 40th Regiment when he accompanied the British fleet on its expedition in the Mediterranean and Egypt.
In December 1800, he observed that: “In La Valetta there are a great many two-wheeled carriages for hire, which are numbered as in London. They are of a very clumsy construction, of a square shape, and large enough to contain six persons”.
Thomas Walsh, writing in the same year, also noticed that “a long string of these vehicles, numbered, always stands in the Strada Reale for hire. Calesses could be hired from Morrell, ‘un grande stabilimento in strada Forni No. 150’.”
The calesse was not suitable to reach remote locations. There were no carriageways to allow the vehicle to travel; at most perhaps there was a pathway for walking or suitable for a horse or mule ride.
An unknown author, writing in 1801, when making references to the “ruins of a citadel built by the Arabs near the temple of Hercules” in Kasar (the old village name for Tas-Silġ), remarked that “the route described is not practicable in a calesse (a vehicle of the country drawn by a mule) and therefore must be performed on horse”.
French writer Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelen is the well-known author of Ancient and Modern Malta, which he published in 1804 when he emigrated to England. When referring to the excursion itinerary to the ruins at Tas-Silġ and the temples of Hercules to the east of Marsa Sirocco, he says “the road of which the above is an itinerary is not passable for a caleshe (sic); that is to say, if the traveller quits the direct one, which leads from one casal to another: this journey must therefore be performed on horseback, and, indeed, in some parts, on foot”.
On December 14, 1824, the Rev. Charles Swan, chaplain to HMS Cambrian, made a journey to San Antonio, prompting him to state that “in some places it is impossible for a caleche to travel”.
Visitors were impressed by the tenacity and endurance of calesse drivers. The author writing in the March 1813 edition of The Quarterly Review, said: “An Englishman sees with wonder the driver of his calesse, during the most oppressive days of summer, running by the side of his horse for miles together, and keeping up with him, whatever may be his pace.”
The velocity with which a calissieri accompanies his calisse, the favourite vehicle of Malta, has always surprised strangers
Edward Blaquiere, author and philhellene, an Irishman of Huguenot descent, joined the Royal Navy in 1794 and served chiefly in the Mediterranean. Speaking of the inhabitants of Malta, he states “the velocity with which a calissieri accompanies his calisse, the favourite vehicle of Malta, has always surprised strangers”.
Elizabeth Mary Grosvenor, Marchioness of Westminster, was rather sceptical because when she noticed how the driver of the calesse ran beside the carriage she exclaimed “though this appears no exertion to the drivers at the time, the feeling is not pleasant to oneself, and this race of people are, in fact, said to be short-lived”.
Travelling in the calesse was far from being comfortable. According to Thomas Walsh, the calesses are “very clumsy, awkward carriages, and, as they pass over the rough pavement, shake the unfortunate passenger almost to pieces”.
Anne Katherine Curteis Elwood described her travels in a series of letters. In letter XII, when referring to the Maltese calesse, she narrates how “in this machine, oft the traveller jolts, apparently to the eminent danger of dislocation either to his neck or limbs”.
Capt. Basil Hall, in his three-volume work under the title of Patchwork, embraces his travel reminiscences, including his visit to Malta. He says:
“The driver always runs by the side of his horse; and as the streets and roads are exceedingly rough, the bumping and shaking to which passengers by this rudest of vehicles are exposed, have no parallel that I know of except in an American stage on a corduroy road.
“What is even more disagreeable than the jolting of the calesse in actual progress, is the wretched period when it is said to be standing still; not only are any rough motions of the horse multiplied by the leverage of the shafts, but his smallest inclinations to the right or left jolt you from side to side: his impatience under the bite of a gnat almost pitches you out, and even his breathing is felt; in short, the slightest tremors are all transmitted by the position of the body of the carriage to the unhappy passengers.”
The English traveller and writer, Emma Roberts, speaks of the calesses as “dangerous conveyances”. Penry Williams considered the calesse unsuitable for female travellers: “A lady, for instance, goes to a party, rejoicing in luxuriant ringlets; these appendages are kept in such a perpetual saltatory motion, that unless very well got up, they will inevitably be annihilated before the conclusion of her drive.”
Two-seater calesses could not accommodate obese passengers, and generally calesses were very tiring for pregnant women. Hall Herbert Byng recollects how he had been “considerably jolted and bruised during sundry drives in the country… in order to partake of the festivities” to which he was invited.
The calesse seems to have been a favourite transport vehicle for British sailors. The Penny Magazine of August 3, 1839, captures vividly a pictorial representation of the vehicle demonstrating the delight of British sailors in its hiring for “the better to indulge their freaks”.
Travellers endeavoured to describe and compare the calesse to other vehicles intended for public transport. A uniform comparison could not be found and travellers visualised the calesse according to their own perception.
William Domeier in his guide to Malta, described it as “nearly in the shape of an English postchaise”. The Popular Overland Guide of 1861 compared the vehicle to “something like the Irish cars”. Andrew Bigelow noticed how “the body is shaped something after the form of an old-fashioned chariot”. Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine said it was “a kind of sedan chair on two wheels”. George French Angas perceived “they are constructed somewhat in the Spanish fashion… those in Valetta very neat… those of the villages of the most outlandish form and structure conceivable”. Maxime Du Champ compared the calesse “to the ancient Spanish carriages mentioned in the old editions of Don Quixote”.
In his rhetoric style, Edward Delaval Huneford Elers Napier writes: “Picture yourself, most sapient reader, a lineal descendant of the vehicle which conveyed Madame Noah and family to the ark – or one of the Phoenician ancestors at the time of the siege of Tyre by that great Conqueror, Alexander – or a cousin-German of My Lord Mayor’s coach, stuck on two wheels instead of four – and you may form some idea, though a very faint one, of these antique-looking chariots, which are nevertheless particularly adapted to the locality, and the nature of the duty required of them.”
John Gadsby pictures the calesse “something like a Blackpool or Ramsgate bathing machine”. James Barber, in his overland guide, wrote that the calesse is “a sort of Brobdignag imitation of a Dutch toy”.
The travel literature relating to Malta is replete with narrations expressing the personal experiences and impressions of visitors to the island. These personal impressions provide an insight how travellers perceived scenarios to which they were unfamiliar and unaccustomed.
John Galt in attempting to visualise the raison d’etre behind the construction of the calesse peculiar to the Maltese, remarked “they are not, I suspect, a people remarkable for inventions; on the contrary, they seem to have reached a Chinese state of self-sufficient perfection, and are satisfied with their attainments”.
M.D.D. Farjesse, writing in 1835, described that the light soil of the island produced so much dust that it was absolutely impossible to walk or ride a horse. To remedy this inconvenience, small covered carriages were used, dragged by a single mule under the guidance of the driver who was constantly on foot, enduring a most tiring journey.
The Rev. John A. Clark arrived in Malta from Philadelphia on July 13, 1838. While travelling in the calesse, “I am sure our appearance, had we gone through the streets of Philadelphia, would have exited the risibles of not a few of the staid and grave inhabitants of that sober city”.
The French painter of battles, portraits and oriental subjects, Emile, Jean-Horace Vernet, arrived at Malta on the Scamandre on October 26, 1839. His journey to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Constantinople in 1839-1840 is narrated by his companion M. Goupil Fesquet.
On seeing a calesse on the road, Fesquet was struck by its strange appearance. He observed how the wheels were placed behind the vehicle and how the coachman ran by its side. The calesse had a coat of arms painted on the door. He saw a priest coming out of the vehicle and noticed his thin legs which, he says, were characteristic of the Maltese.
Enoch Cobb Wines, the American Congregational minister, was a keen observer: “On leaving the city, I observed that he (the driver) put a loaf of coarse bread into the carriage, and to an enquiry whether he intended to eat while we were gone, he replied, ‘non, signore, e mangiare pel cavallo’ (no sir, it is food for the horse)”.
The calesse seems to have survived until late in the 19th century when improved vehicles were introduced, leading to today’s karrozzin. N. R. Raven, writing in October1887, remarked: “One of the changes in Malta worthy of notice is the disappearance of that hideous vehicle, the caleche, which ought to have become obsolete half a century since… the introduction of Carrozzini or four-wheelers in lieu of the above, is an immense improvement, for now, one can travel about with ease and comfort.”
CommentsComments powered by Disqus
Do not have an account?Sign Up