Joseph F. Grima:
The Fleet of the Knights of Malta.
BDL, 2016.

Giovanni Bonello

The fortunes of the Order of St John ebbed and flowed dramatically over the thousand years of its existence, particularly during its Maltese period, when it was enjoying its highest profile ever on the world stage. Even when international criticism over its very raison d’etre, its politics and its achievements started gathering momentum, its small, dashing, thieving fleet held the respect of most observers of the maritime scene. Over the years, everything else changed, mostly in the direction of decline, but the ships of the Order remained a model of beautifully-honed organisational skills throughout the Mediterranean.

We know that, in seamanship, Tuscany photocopied the Maltese schemes and constitutions, and that when the French monarchs decided to invest in a powerful navy, they did it with an observant eye on the Malta blueprint. A Frenchman who had undergone his naval training on the ships of the Order had a guaranteed career spread out for him, and many of the great French naval heroes had learnt the tricks of navigation on the vessels of the Knights of Malta.

The fleet of Malta has been doubly fortunate, in so far as it retained its prestige and ascendency even when most of the other institutions of the Order had started collapsing, and also because it has attracted plenty of well-informed historical attention.

There has been no dearth of historians who concentrated on researching and publicising its history and its achievements. Ettore Rossi, Scarabelli, Salvatore Bono and Mori Ubaldini in Italian; Dauber in German; and a plethora of Maltese scholars, including  Joseph Muscat, Captain Joseph M. Wismayer, Anton Quintano, John Debono, and, lately, Liam Gauci have all contributed validly to overviews or specialised publications on the navy of the Order, or on some of its aspects or activities – not to mention Peter Earle and Roderick Cavaliero. It is one subject in our history which cannot lament being under-researched.

A notable tessera for the overall mosaic of life under this Order

But one area of interest had not been systematically explored so far: the internal workings of the Order’s fleet. The chains of command and hierarchies, the supplies and suppliers, the medical services, salaries and remuneration, legal regulation, ship building and repairing, tactical prowess and manoeuvring, staffing, signalling and communications, the bureaucracy, discipline, training, spiritual care, promotions and a score of other aspects that enabled the ships to operate on their own and as part of a murderously unforgiving pack, like well-oiled clockwork.

Chapman's drawings of the Capitana.Chapman's drawings of the Capitana.

Lieutenant-General of the ships-of-the-line.Lieutenant-General of the ships-of-the-line.

This is the lacuna that Joseph F. Grima has filled painstakingly, with much enthusiasm, thoroughness and competence. His weighty book is a consummation of every published, and I believe, of most unpublished sources which could throw light on the subject.

To be fair, some bites had been taken at this particular apple before, but never with such relentless and coordinated dedication. This book beats, in depth and ambition, anything on the organisation of the Order’s navy that and been attempted before. His bibliography, especially that of the manuscript archives he trawled, strikes one as nothing short of awesome.

Grima was the right person with the right passion to undertake this massive toil. A proud son of Qormi, for 32 years he acted as secretary of the Malta Historical Society which, under his benign oversight, grew and flourished. He wound up his professional journey in 2006 as assistant director of Education. He has published extensively about the history of the Order and of his native Qormi, but I believe this to be his major work so far. I doubt much can now be added on this subject.

Galley captainGalley captain

I would not want anyone to run away with the idea that this is all about dull civil service organisational stuff. Grima’s wisdom led him to home in on action and a human element, the heroics and the failings of men, and, most marginally, women.

There is no mention of women disguised as men smuggled on the Order’s ships, as proved not uncommon in the British navy, together with wives or sweethearts who were tolerated on board. There are records, however, of eminent ladies, like Maria de’ Medici, being given gracious passage on the galleys of Malta on her way to marry Henry IV, king of France.

The book deals with the dire fates of those seamen who fell into slavery, the savage punishments to maintain discipline or to gratify the sadism of the agozzini, and the penalties for blasphemy “defaming God, the saints or our holy faith”; the scourges of early navigation, dysentery and scurvy; the outbreaks of the lethal plague and the paranoid measures the Order had in place to staunch the spreading of contagion; the sinfully lavish banqueting reserved for the officers, and the more guardedly spartan menu of the crews; the musicians on board, to entertain and for signal purposes; and the different classes of rowers, the human motors when ships started depending on them for speed and manoeuvrability rather than on unreliable winds in the sails. All these are here.


Four types of oarsmen propelled the Order’s ships: the slaves – mostly Muslim – who were forced to row because they had fallen in captivity; criminals condemned by the courts to row in the galleys; those who had crashed into debt and had to raise money by breaking their backs on the oars – the buonavoglia – and finally those who had freely chosen to be seamen in the pursuit of a trade. Different rules applied to each class, but all scored pretty low in the pecking order. None as disreputable as the buonavoglia, a word still in current Maltese as an epithet of contempt, a blackguard. To call anyone buonavoglia frustato (whipped) amounted, we are told, to slander actionable in court.

The navy of the Knights is no more, but the Order, as much as its men, helped to profile Malta and the Maltese nation – a community that believed, as a nation, without the faintest vacillation, that legalised thieving, called corsairing, was the best way forward. But also a nation that, before many others, practised the social dimension of solidarity – free health services, free hospitals, orphanages, limited education, some pension schemes, legal aid and social housing were introduced or put on a stronger footing during the rule of the Knights of St John. It is fitting for historians to record for future generations these pioneer attempts at governance with a social soul.

Grima has here fashioned a notable tessera for the overall mosaic of life under this Order.


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