Maritime historian Joseph Muscat has just been honoured with a collection of essays written by Maltese and international scholars called De Triremibus: A Festshrift In Honour Of Joseph Muscat. George Cini called on him to see what prompted this researcher, ship model-maker and restorer to embark on his maritime studies.

It is said that islanders have salt in their bones but few I feel carry as much salt as maritime researcher Joseph Muscat.

How would one describe a bachelor who is 70, teaches Christian doctrine mostly to elderly citizens, researches maritime history and writes papers for international conferences on marine craft?

His jovial character instantly takes over our conversation although it does not overshadow his immense love for the vessels that humans have perfected for transport and war over the centuries.

His niche is the fleet of the Order of the Knights of St John in Malta between 1530 to 1798 and the golden period of the British Royal Navy from 1830 to 1860, apart from the traditional Maltese boats.

Although he started his working life as a clerk with the Royal Air Force and then moved on to teaching - religion and not history, which was his specialisation at the Teachers' Training College - he inherited from his father this great ability to make wood models of ships and boats from a very early age.

"I used to carve boats out of off cuts when my father used to make furniture. I was over the moon every time I managed to sell one of these models for a sixpence," he said, his eyes sparkling as the eyes of a six-year-old would.

His father used to let him use all of the tools, even the sharpest, going by the adage that it was easier to hurt yourself with a blunt tool than a sharp one.

Throughout his career he has made a lot of contacts and close friends among the international maritime fraternity and taken part in international conferences.

These friends and acquaintances have just put together a serious of papers which have been printed in a voluminous tome called De Triremibus: A Festshrift In Honour Of Joseph Muscat edited by Toni Cortis and Timmy Gambin and printed by PEG Ltd.

Mr Gambin said the book bears witness to the high esteem with which Mr Muscat is held not only here but also among scholars working abroad.

The hardbound book comes with a colour print of a rare map by an early Maltese cartographer. The tribute consists of 46 essays, 20 of them by foreign scholars, and is spread over 832 pages.

Mr Muscat lives in a typical compact house he shares with his sister Karmena in Rabat and which he lovingly refers to as "ir-Rabat ta' l-Imdina".

Why does the time of the Order of St John sound so romantic particularly to the layman?

"I can assure you it was not romantic at all. On the galleys, the members of the Order used to prefer to live and sleep on the deck rather than in their small quarters.

"Down below it was impossible to breath properly with the stench of urine and the excrement of the slaves who oared the vessel.

"The area where the oarsmen were was cleaned by the sea itself as water came onboard and left by the sides of the vessel. As soon as the knights landed in Sicily they bought rams that they tied close to the oarsmen. The rams were preferred to other animals because they were hardy even at sea. A ram was killed each week for its meat. Such ruminants give off a most repellent musk not to mention the live chickens that were allowed a free range on board, although these fowl were years later kept in cages.

"Each galley used to have also two heads of cattle on board to have a supply of fresh meat for about two weeks," he added.

Mr Muscat's father Guzeppi was a master carpenter and restorer of antique furniture. As a boy, Mr Muscat assisted his father in his work. Mr Muscat's break came when during a weekly meeting of the adult members of MUSEUM, the Christian society set up by the Blessed Dun Gorg Preca, a notice was read out announcing that the Museums Department needed a ship model-maker.

Mr Muscat, then aged 22, ended up restoring a good number of models held by the Museums Department which now form part of the collection at the Maritime Museum, in Vittoriosa. The models are at least 250 years old.

"I used to restore these models at home. One day the director of museums, Captain Charles Zammit, son of the renowned archaeologist Sir Temi Zammit, came over to see how I was doing.

"As soon as he asked me how I was getting along, I showed him a copy of a miniature scallop that I had prepared for one of the models.

"As soon as he saw its size and detail, Captain Zammit, always the down to earth gentleman, waved me on," Mr Muscat said with his trademark unpretentiousness.

These models were not dockyard ones but were made at the arsenals of the Order to provide the craftsmen with the type of vessel they were to build.

Captain Zammit had also suggested to Mr Muscat to go to the National Library in Valletta to check for details on ships in a book by Ettore Rossi.

"Rossi was an excellent historian on the navy of the Order of St John but he did not include any technical details about the ships.

"I did not come across any technical details at the National Library, so I had to rely on secondary sources including the Science Museum in London, the French journal Neptunia and the British magazine Mariners' Mirror."

His courtship with the sea began at the primary school in Mdina when he read Ragel bil-Ghaqal by Guze Galea which recounts a fascinating tale coloured by skirmishes between Christian and Muslim corsairs and mentions such boats as the felukka and xambekk.

"That tale fired my fantasy. Then, aged 13, I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and I made a model of the Hispaniola that Stevenson mentions in the novel.

"I already knew how to use all the carpentry tools my father had when I was eight."

Another influence that opened up the maritime world to him was a prefect at the MUSEUM who used to point out to those in his charge the graffiti on the walls of countryside chapels and ex voto paintings inside these places of worship.

"The oldest graffiti in Malta related to the sea goes back 1,600 years BC. This kind of culture is spread throughout the Mediterranean. The graffiti were often made by highly trained draughtsmen.

"The ex votos represent the unwritten maritime history of these islands particularly of the xprunara and the tartana.

"Some of these paintings are naïve but others were done by specialised artists in this genre called madonnari," he added.

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