Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.

[p.295]

PIRATES IN THE EARLY BRITISH ERA:
THE MALTA CONNECTIONS

Giovanni Bonello*

Corsairing and piracy had enjoyed primacy in the Mediterranean since ancient times and persevered in their sway till the beginning of the Napoleonic period. By that time, their virulence had declined considerably – a rare exception rather than a rule. Maltese seamen had over the centuries soaked up old traditions of corsairing, an equivalent of legalized piracy.

In fact, corsairing against the enemy appears undistinguishable from piracy – plunder on the high seas – except that, in form and in consequence, the two stood at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Corsairing was authorized by a ruler who automatically participated in the booty by virtue of a letter of marque issued under his authority: a respectable, protected and lucrative profession. Pirates, on the other hand, equally violent robbers on the high seas, lacked a licence. The presence or absence of a piece of paper rendered the first upright entrepreneurs, the second hostis humani generis – enemies of the human race, who it was praiseworthy to hunt and exterminate. Often both proved extremely ruthless. The degree of morality of their plunder depended on whether the prince was their accomplice or not.

Corsairing and privateering pursued almost identical practices, except that the first described the business of authorized pirates in the Mediterranean, and the second profiled the same operations in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Indian oceans. In the early British period, Mediterranean corsairs too started being referred to as privateers.

[p.296] Although during the Order's rule it had generally been easy for Maltese captains and ship-owners to secure letters of marque, either from the Grand Master or from other Christian Mediterranean rulers, these limited the activities of corsairs to hunting and robbing sea-craft, crews, passengers and cargoes of those at war with the sovereign, or the traditional enemies of Christianity, like Turks, Muslims in general and, depending on transient moods, the Jews. The less scrupulous corsairs and privateers, when legitimate prey ran short, closed an eye to the fussy terms of their letter of marque and, dreading to be accused of discrimination, attacked friendly and unfriendly shipping alike, disregarding the minor detail that the wrong choice of prey turned them into pirates, subject to the severest punishments – technically a compulsory death penalty. Many instances of corsairs mutating into pirates define the times of the Order, but this paper only taps the early British period.

The end of legal corsairing at the close of the eighteenth century impoverished the many left without an occupation and upset the few left without an outlet for ferocity. Some went on as before, except that, without a ruler's patent, their prowling became eminently criminal. It would seem that most Maltese seafarers, formerly legitimate corsairs, complied with the new legal order. A few did not and these are what these notes are about.

The major threat to peaceful maritime traffic during this period were not Maltese adventurers, but Barbary corsairs, Greek pirates, with the occasional appearance of Englishmen too, though some Maltese hopefuls remained anything but inactive. The Barbary pirates represented a phenomenon altogether different which almost uninterruptedly offered a threat to Christian shipping in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This study will only deal with Christian pirates: some Maltese and British, but predominantly Greek.

The Mediterranean east of Malta witnessed an explosion of Greek piracy in the 1820s attributable to specific historical developments linked to the Greek War of Independence and the failure of the early revolts against Turkey, when internal law and order practically broke down. Greek seafarers then resorted to guerrilla attack or self defence. 'Greek seamen had long been notorious for their truculence … many of the Greek leaders were men who had been outlaws before the war and who had lived by brigandage and piracy neither of which they regarded as particularly disreputable callings'. One Greek word means both robber and patriot. 'Greek seamen were generally unpaid and always desperately short of provisions and stores … in many cases the people depended on plunder that was taken for their very existence'.

The knots were further tangled by the fact that the victims generally belonged to powers which pursued policies of very real sympathy for the Greek national cause and were thus extremely reluctant to take decisive steps against the hordes [p.297] of pirates that would prejudice Greek chances of ultimate victory against Turkey.[1] The half-hearted measures adopted by the victims of Greek piracy included the introduction of convoy systems from Malta, in which various Mediterranean states participated, but also included USA naval detachments.[2]

The romanticised image of the dashing Greek pirate had by then caught popular fancy. Benjamin Disraeli, in Malta in 1831, boasted of wearing a Greek pirate's costume when going yachting with his friend James Clay 'You should see me in the costume of a Greek pirate: a blood red shirt with silver studs as big as shillings, an immense scarf for a girdle full of pistols and daggers, red slippers, broad blue stripes jacket and trousers'.[3]

British Malta laid down the legal basis for war on piracy. In 1815, Governor Sir Thomas Maitland set up the Commission of Piracy for all offences committed upon the seas or elsewhere within the jurisdiction of the Admiral of Great Britain 'according to the rules and practice of the English Courts'. On 16 November 1815, he delivered his first solemn charge to a Grand Jury and four days later to a Petty Jury, and he believed his addresses important enough to have them printed. They are valuable in so far as, for the first time, they introduced a sort of jury system in Malta even if limitedly to piracy. Maitland proved forthright enough to concede that, personally, he was against 'a new and unaccustomed mode of trial being introduced in Malta … I will fairly own to you that had I possessed any discretionary power on the subject, I would not have advised the present mode of proceeding'.

Maitland was hardly alone in his abysmal opinion of the ability of any member of the Maltese race to reach anything approaching a fair conclusion. Apart from their 'total ignorance'of the jury system, one had to factor in 'the laxity of moral feeling'of the natives and the facilities ingrained in the Maltese legal set-up for bribery and corruption, remarked the Royal Commissioners of 1812, William O'Court, John Burrows and Hildebrand Oakes. Fearful that they had not made their point clear enough, the three added why, in their view, the Maltese were, as a race, constitutionally handicapped, and ideal for ethnic stereotyping: 'the same people whose ebullitions of passion are marked by the most savage and atrocious cruelty, shirk with detestation from the wholesome severity of the law and the necessary execution of justice. No people are more alive to the power and persuasion of eloquence, none more exposed to be misled by a pathetic address to their feelings even in justification of the most horrible of crimes. This false sense of compassion, this mistaken notion of charity, is fostered by the blind superstition [p.298] of their priests … the constant fear of private vengeance which pervades every class of the inhabitants offer additional obstacles to those which we have already enumerated'.[4] Official conclusion: the Maltese are genetically unfit to be jurors. I am not aware if the Royal Commissioners believed in understatement; if they did, they preferred another occasion to let that weakness show.

Already in 1813, Maitland had started pestering the Colonial Office for authority to institute a Piracy Commission 'as we are constantly getting into scrapes by the want of it'.[5] Maitland, like the Royal Commissioners, believed jurors in Malta would be unable to separate questions of law, reserved to the trial judges, from questions of fact, reserved for the jury. In his two addresses he went to great pains to distinguish one from the other. He laid emphasis on the burden of proof of guilt resting with the prosecution, and on the standard and quantum of proof required by English law to convict: a 'conscientious persuasion'that the prisoner is guilty, with 'fair and reasonable doubt'going in favour of the accused.[6]

In its earlier times, the Vice-Admiralty Court held its hearings in the Gran Prigione in Strada Mercanti.[7] It is not clear whether this refers to the Court of the Castellania (today the Health Department) or the great prison of the slaves close to the Infermeria; probably the latter as the Castellania was generally referred to by that name. After some time, when Colonel Whitmore constructed 'the Hall of the Superior Courts of Justice'with an elliptical backdrop on the first floor of the Governor's Palace,[8] its sittings started being held there: the Tapestry Chamber serving as a dormitory for the jurors during the trials. The British authorities appointed Dr John Sewell as the Vice-Admiralty Court's first judge, and its impressive silver oar of office with his coat-of-arms still holds pride of place in the Malta Maritime Museum. That oar was held up ceremonially during the execution of pirates.

At some time in 1829, a notice was stuck in the Commercial Rooms in Valletta that at Smyrna 'piracy is no longer talked of except a mere report that an Austrian vessel had been pirated some time past'.[9]

This paper does not take into account the records of the Vice-Admiralty Court still preserved, including the capture of the Centauro by Captain Giuseppe Debono on the Corvo. They will form the subject of a later assignment.

Maltese Piracy

On the fall of Malta to Napoleon, Maltese corsairs immediately resumed their trade, now hoisting the French colours and changing the names of their vessels

[p.299]

The Oar-Mace of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Malta.
(
Courtesy: Malta Maritime Museum)

Sir Thomas Maitland, Governor of Malta (1813-1824)

Charles de Brocktorff: The Vice-Admiral's Court in Session.
(Private Collection)

 [p.300] to French ones. As France was at peace with the Muslim states of North Africa, the only possible source of revenue left to Maltese privateers were the enemies of the French Republic – read Britain and ships destined to the relief of the Maltese anti-French insurgents. The Maltese refused to be squeamish as to who to plunder – the bottom line being profit, not principles. Michele Borg obtained a letter of marque from Vaubois and called his boat L'Egalitι parmi les Hommes. Giacomo Mitrovich, another Maltese corsair named his brigand ship Vaubois.[10] An early episode of Maltese piracy during the British era is documented in the autobiography of Lord Cochrane, that colourful and maverick hero in whose career converged acts of dazzling valour, mulish dissent and an extraordinarily politically incorrect perseverance in the pursuit of justice. On 14 September 1807, according to his version, while cruising with HMS Imperieuse near Corsica, he spied two 'strange' vessels. Cochrane ordered his boats to approach and investigate.

The larger vessel, a polacre, hoisted English colours but this 'ruse' did not fool Cochrane's men who advanced on the suspects nonetheless. When they were close enough, the strange boats treacherously opened fire with musketry and long guns. Within a few minutes, after 'considerable slaughter', the English seamen took possession. The larger vessel was found to be the Royal George registered in Malta, a ten-gun privateer. Apart from the Maltese captain and three Maltese boys, the crew consisted of Russians, Italians and Slavonians 'the great part of them belonging to nations at war with Great Britain'. Cochrane lost two men and two officers killed and thirteen wounded, two of whom in imminent danger of death, in an attack he described as 'a volley of grape (shot) and musketry discharged in the most barbarous and savage manner'. Cochrane discovered that a £500 reward had been offered for the capture of this Maltese pirate vessel and, on his return to Malta, he claimed that prize. What he did not know at the time was that those who ran the Vice-Admiralty Court in Malta and had to adjudicate about his prize, had a share in the pirate ship.

Cochrane made and published extremely serious allegations against Dr (later Sir) John Sewell, the Judge of the Malta Vice-Admiralty Court[11], John Stoddart (later Sir and President of the Court of Appeal, Malta) the prosecutor in that court who represented the captor, and his brother-in-law, Dr William Moncrieff, the chief defence counsel who acted as lawyer for the claimants in that court, mentioning them all by name. The last two lived happily together in the beautiful

[p.301]

Thomas, Lord Cochrane, by P.E. Stroehling (1807).
Private Collection,

Sir Thomas Maitland's memorial at the Upper Barracca Gardens, Valletta.

[p.302] Casa di Saint Poix, 3, Strada Forni, Vallettta, where both Byron and Coleridge had been their guests.[12] 'Stoddart, as King's and Admiralty Advocate, was about to make a small fortune out of the prize that (Sir Alexander) Ball had detained as droit of the crown'.[13]

Unsurprisingly, the Malta admiralty mafia declared the Royal George a prize of the Crown (a droit of admiralty) and Cochrane, with four loyal seamen killed by the Maltese pirate, instead of pocketing his £500 award for her capture, ended condemned to pay 600 double gold zecchini in costs and penalties for having imprudently captured the killers. Cochrane wrote one of his most scathing and bitterly hilarious exposιs of the cancerous, money-extorting device the Maltese Vice-Admiralty court had become in the hands of Sewell, Stoddart, and Moncrieff; but that may form the subject of a separate study.[14]

Sadly, Cochrane was being quite thrifty with the truth. A more objective version recounts how the British captain approached the polacre believing it to be an enemy Genoese privateer. The boarding party sent by Cochrane were surprised to see a Union Jack hanging over her gunwale. The Maltese captain of the polacre, Pasquale Giuliano, informed them that he was a licensed Maltese privateer and that he was reluctant to let them approach – he feared they might be Frenchmen disguised as Englishmen. He added that 'If they attempted to board he should defend himself to the last'. A fierce and bloody action followed. The British seamen stormed the decks and the 52 crew of the Maltese polacre 'put up a hard fight but then were cut down and forced to surrender'. The polacre suffered the death of her captain Giuliano 'an experienced and successful Maltese privateer', and had fifteen men wounded.

The Admiralty Court in Malta found both ships to be at fault. Cochrane, because he was not flying any colours and other irregularities. The polacre, belonging to James Briasco, equally carried part of the blame – possibly because most of the crew of a British-licensed ship belonged to countries then at war with England. The court declared the ship forfeited to the crown. Captain Fredrick Marryat, who gave evidence in the proceedings, records the fury of Cochrane adding 'I never, at any time, saw Lord Cochrane so dejected as he was for many days after this affair'.[15] James Briasco (Briscoe), a British pirate, had been active in the Mediterranean at least since 1803.[16]

Another episode of slighter Maltese piracy shook Malta on 17 September 1817. The bovo San Calcedonio under Captain Giacomo Lofreda had left Grand [p.303] Harbour in the afternoon heading for Capo Passero flying English colours. Six miles out, a Maltese boat, a comune barca da passo maltese painted black with one white stripe and four oars, attacked her. Her crew, six men in all, one particularly tall, spoke Maltese and wore masks and turbans. One wielded a butcher's hatchet. They boarded the bovo and rushed to the cabin where they splintered the strong box and took over 1800 pieces of silver together with all the other coin stored there. They then hacked down the ropes of the mainmast, threw the sails and the oars overboard and headed for St Elmo's lighthouse.

Governor Thomas Maitland offered a free pardon and a prize of 1000 scudi to anyone who would give information leading to the identification and arrest of the pirates – excluding those who had manned the boat.[17] This offer must have led nowhere at first as, six months later, the Malta Government Gazette advertised these rewards all over again.[18] But eventually money talked and Giovanni Xicluna, Giovanni Grech and Antonio Darmanin faced charges in connection with this offence.

These three boatmen stood trial on Monday, 5 October 1818, and the court found them guilty of piracy, one with overwhelming evidence to nail him, and then adjourned for judgement. The three were to suffer the death penalty and, on 10 October 1818, the hangman led them to the Floriana glacis for their execution. The boia disposed of Grech but, after this, the Provost Marshal announced a stay of execution for the other two. In a Proclamation, Maitland put on record his 'severe pain'at having let Grech hang but also pardoned the other two culprits, on condition they consented to perpetual exile and to face the death penalty should they ever return.[19] Governments then considered exporting their problems by the banishment of delinquents overseas, an acceptable expedient.

One month after the piracy suffered by the San Calcedonio, a Proclamation records that Salvatore Diacono and Tommaso Frendo had been condemned to death for piracy and barratry. Their trial, held on Monday, 13 October 1817, lasted twelve hours in front of a court presided over by Maitland and Waller Rodwell Wright, assessor to the government. They stood charged with sinking a vessel captained by Diacono off the coast of the Morea (possibly as an insurance fraud). A third accomplice had meanwhile died awaiting trial. Wright addressed the court in fluent Italian, emphasising how the crime resulted from a 'wicked conspiracy'which ended in the 'subversion of good faith, without the observance of which the Commercial Intercourse of Nations would be annihilated and the existence of civil Society would become precarious'. Such a crime merited to be 'visited with the highest degree of rigour and the greatest severity of the laws'. [p.304] The guilt of the two accused had been established so clearly and consistently 'that it would be absurd to require greater proofs'.

Referring to Diacono, Wright commented on 'the respectable character of your family whereof you are an unworthy member'and, of his youth, 'what early progress he had made in the way of fraud and crime'. As to Frendo, his elder age proved to be 'a maturity of deliberate, malicious and complicated fraud'and a tool for 'seducing by your fatal and wicked counsels that unhappy young man to his destruction'.[20]

On Monday, 20 October 1817, at eight in the morning, Diacono and Frendo were led from the Valletta Castellania with a hangman's rope round their neck to the Floriana glacis overlooking Grand Harbour. Frendo, assisted by a priest, climbed the scaffold and, after recommending his soul to God, died by hanging. After an interminable interval, while Diacono waited his turn, the Provost Marshall read a stay of execution, and conveyed the lad back to prison. In the afternoon, a formal Act of Mercy by Maitland was read out to him 'which was received by the prisoner with the most lively feelings of gratitude'.[21]

The Governor commuted Diacono's punishment to deportation for life to New South Wales, Australia in view of his young age, the fact that he had been encouraged by Frendo, and of his previous exemplary conduct. Maitland made it clear that this act of clemency would be a one-off, that henceforth all the law's might would go to protect the commercial community and that no one should expect any clemency – all judgements would be duly carried out.[22] This is possibly the earliest recorded case of a Maltese national being transported to New South Wales, then a leading penal colony. If so, that would make Salvatore Diacono the first-known Maltese in Australia. Diacono is documented in 1821 in the archives of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, with a letter in Italian to the parish priest asking him to go and hear his confession.[23]

To mark more solemnly the foundation of the Order of St Michael and St George, Maitland granted a far-reaching amnesty. Among those who benefitted were Matteo Rismondo, Giovanni Maria Bianchi, Michele Inglott and Michelangelo Garsia, all guilty of barratry, a crime which fell under the jurisdiction of the Piracy Commission. Barratry included the infliction of wilful or negligent damage to ships and their cargoes. Those who, more than anyone else, concelebrated the joy of the first knights of the new Order included fraudulent bankrupts, pimps, robbers, one guilty of the crime of having shown disrespect to his father and another sentenced to life imprisonment for having stealthily returned to Malta from exile.[24]

[p.305] The top Maltese pirate of the era, Salvatore Fernandes, in September 1823 assaulted the Maltese brig La Speranza, butchering all her crew to the last man, and making away with anything found on board before sinking the vessel. As Fernandes sailed on a Greek mistico which had a predominantly Greek crew, this episode had best be related when dealing with Greek piracy.

Somewhat apart from the outright pirates were the 'privateers' operating from Malta. Robert Wilson's Journal records how, in October 1807, his ship 'chased a stranger to windward: after three hours' chase came up with her. She proved to be a Maltese privateer and had been very successful in captures'. And again, in May 1808, 'Saw a stranger standing towards us, boarded her per signal from Minstrel; she proved to be a Maltese ship privateer belonging to Mr Payne (Richard Payne Knight?) at Malta out sixteen days from thence and was going up the Adriatic'.[25]

Greek Piracy

For the reasons hinted at in the introduction, Greek piracy flared up on a big scale in the 1820s and Malta found itself at the receiving end in more senses than one. Many episodes crowd the record in which Maltese ships suffered the unwelcome attentions of Greek pirates, or in which suspects from Greece were imprisoned, tried, condemned or acquitted, in Malta. Several paid for their crimes with their lives on Maltese gallows, though mostly the authorities were unable or unwilling to obtain convictions of those numerous Greeks detained in Malta facing charges of piracy.

The first and best-documented of these episodes relates to the barbarous highjack of the Maltese brig La Speranza described as a 'notorious and most horrible case of piracy'. About this, an extremely detailed statement by one of the ringleaders, survives.[26]

The brig, under the Maltese captain Francesco Gristi (Grixti) lay at anchor off the castle of Coron, carrying cargo, passengers and an almost entirely Maltese crew. A Greek mistico had been armed exclusively to go out in search of shipping to plunder. According to the chief witness, the Maltese Salvatore Fernandes, Captains Giovanni Mavromicali and Hadji Panajotti, very close relatives of the general commanding the district of Calamata, were actually the Governor's business associates. He and other high officers of the administration had a substantial share in the mistico and in any loot she hoped to capture. The crew also enjoyed protection and immunity because of the high political clout of the ship's commercial sleeping partners. The part played by the Maltese Fernandes [p.306] remains enigmatic. While all the other evidence points to him as the prime mover of the venture, in a skilful statement he attempted frantically to exonerate himself, shifting the blame on adverse circumstances and on other ringleaders, all Greek.

Fernandes, a native of Malta, in his 1824 testimony described himself as an old man. He explained how he had been married to a Maltese woman 'but left her as she proved a woman of bad character'. He remarried, no doubt bigamously, to establish his own good character beyond any reasonable doubt. His new wife was a native of Calamata where he lived. He had been away from Malta, but returned during the plague (1813) to settle some accounts.

In his report, Fernandes repeatedly relies on his Maltese origin to clear himself: how could he possibly have participated in the murder of the Maltese captain and the blood-bath of the Maltese crew? When he realized that the ship attacked by the Greek mistico on which he sailed was Maltese, he claims to have told Panajotti 'You must consider that the vessel and her master are Maltese. If you attempt to molest her, from friends that we are now, we shall become enemies'. Panajotti supposedly answered 'The English took from me a million at Piscardo, and I will take from them much more. If you speak any more, I'll serve you the same as I intend to serve the Maltese'. Saying that, Panajotti knocked Fernandes down and wounded him in the head. The Greek captain had in mind a previous act of piracy in which he claimed that English interference had cheated him of a large prize and he thought this a good occasion to pay them back.

According to Fernandes, at the beginning of the cruise Panajotti placed on deck an image of the Virgin Mary and made his crew swear that they would kill all the men of any vessel they came across, whatever her flag, plunder everything found on board and then sink the craft. All those present took the oath on the Virgin Mary. He also informed them that the first four shares of any booty would have to go to the Governor of Calamata, to his brother endearingly called Cazzi, to Captain Kristair whose son would be marrying the daughter of Cazzi, and the fourth share to Giacomo Cornelio, one of the principal nobles of Zante.

On approaching the Speranza, the mistico first invited Gristi (an old acquaintance of Fernandes in Malta) together with a Greek passenger and two seamen from the brig to come on board. And here, shortly later, the crew tied them up and murdered them separately in cold blood. Panajotti ordered the corpses to be placed in bags with weights for ballast and thrown overboard. Panajotti then sent thirteen of his crew on board the Speranza to take everything of any value they could find. This they did very thoroughly, after assassinating another seven of the Maltese crew – eleven in all (another account says seventeen). They locked the bodies in the steward's room and sank the brig. One of the Maltese had tried to defend himself and wounded a pirate in his head. The latter told Fernandes 'You will pay for this. I was wounded by a Maltese like you'.

[p.307] After acrimonious controversy, the pirates shared the loot between them, reserving the portion destined to the four civil authorities who participated in the joint venture. This included the clothing of the murdered Maltese crew – strong evidence of guilt against some brought to trial. Further adventures followed, until the 46-gun British frigate Naiad captured seven of the pirates, including Fernandes, and, in May 1824, carried them to Malta to be tried. All the other ringleaders resorted to their protection networks and escaped capture and trial. On 7 July 1824, Fernandes made an extremely detailed statement before James Calvert, the acting magistrate for the ports, believing he had amply exonerated himself. However, one of the detained Greeks, almost certainly Spiro Calavritino, turned king's evidence and nailed the Maltese to his guilt. Fernandes hanged himself in prison in August before the trial started.

The hearing by the piracy court, presided over by Sir Waller Rodwell Wright, turned into a bit of a farce. 'By some extraordinary and inexplicable conceit of the jurymen, they were acquitted of the murders and have in consequence been sentenced on another count to the galleys'.[27] Actually, what happened was somewhat different. All the accused had been sentenced to death, but a recommendation for clemency from the jury induced the governor, the Marquis of Hastings, to commute the penalty to deportation. Pano Cavani, Strati Cojungi and Spiridion di Giorgio Lico for life in a penal colony, Costantino Marini Gioghizza and Anastasio Silvirano for fourteen years.

Arabella Mary Stuart, in Malta at this time, and possibly present in court when the judges read out the death sentence (her brother James worked for the Vice- Admiralty court) gives a first-hand account of the scene 'When the sentence of death was passed on those miserable men, they were almost distracted; they burst into tears and called for a confessor, as their idea was that they were immediately to be led to the gallows, this being the custom of the Greeks. As they were condemned on Thursday before Good Friday, they petitioned the Marquis (of Hastings) that the execution might not take place till after Easter Sunday. The circumstances attending the trial and the result were such that the whole of the court were very much affected'. She then records the suicide of the Maltese ringleader Fernandes.[28]

After the Speranza butchery, the annals are filled with other attacks by Greek pirates on Maltese shipping. These included: the plundering near Canea on 6 September 1825 of the Maltese vessel Il Fortunato Camelo (Carmelo?); in 1826, the Tagliaferro in March near Nauplia and the Madonna del Carmine on 15 May off Grabusa; in 1827, the San Francesco on 9 March off Cape Matala and the Nova Fama in July off Crete, all by Greek pirates. Of these attacks, little is known.[29] [p.308] The San Francesco, we find, was taken to Cala Limiona. The pirates allowed the brig to depart after most of her cargo had been plundered and her crew ill-treated. The naval command armed and disguised the sloop HMS Gannet with a view to capturing the pirates of the San Francesco.[30]

Charles Swan was personally present on HMS Cambrian when boats from this ship and from HMS Seringapatam captured seventeen Greek pirates, some dangerously wounded, and took them for detention and trial in Malta. His is one of the few first-hand accounts. This happened on Monday, 31 January 1825. The English lost four men dead and sixteen 'severely hurt'. The pirates, wrote Swan, 'fought desperately to a man and such was their resolution that, in the last violent effort to escape, having discharged their pieces they dashed furiously at the assailants and leapt headlong into the water'. Fifteen Greeks lost their life in this encounter.

The pirates' captain died of a pistol shot in his chest and several sabre wounds in the lower part of his body. 'His face, which must have been handsome, was shockingly smeared with blood and his long black hair, clotted and spread in disorder around him gave a singular wildness to his appearance … His mouth, the upper lip of which had long moustachios, was stiff with gore and his eyes were unclosed, adding yet more strongly to the savageness of features which his last bold act contributed to impress upon him. The dark eye of his country gleaned fiercely even in death'. His corpse, stretched out on the quarter deck covered with a flag was 'a horrible and an awful sight'.[31]

On 21 February 1825, Swan observed that the Greek prisoners on board 'seem cheerful and unconcerned at the situation'. He resented the disdain with which the British crew treated them. 'I regret that I sometimes overhear expressions of bitterness and animosity against them fall from the sailors; they appear to consider these unfortunate men as beings of another class and scarcely entitled to the common obligations of humanity … One is sorry to hear an Englishman, of whatever station, indulge in protracted and cowardly spleen, and still more sorry must we be to perceive it, as I have perceived it, extend even to the inanimate body of the dead'. When one of the Greek prisoners wounded by a sabre cut across the head died, the sailor charged with preparing the corpse 'treated it in a manner so vindictive and revolting'that an officer had to intervene.[32]

The Cambrian was released from Maltese quarantine on 15 March 1825, and three days later Swan noted that the capture of the pirates had been divulged in the 'Malta Gazette, a weekly (also weakly) paper'reserved entirely to the edicts of the government.[33] The Greeks had to be kept in custody in Malta pending [p.309] instructions from London. These were to the effect that the men be returned to Hydra for trial and they left on 19 May 1825 to be placed, four days later, on a Greek warship 'and they will thus have the means of effacing the dishonourable stain attached to their late proceedings.[34] Whether they did or got away remains unknown.

The American pastor Andrew Bigelow was present in Malta on 14 February 1827 when an English frigate escorted a captured Greek pirate vessel into Grand Harbour. On further investigation, it resulted that the pirate ship had, till recently, formed part of the official fleet of the Greek admiral Miaulis and, when this fleet returned to port for the winter, she had decided to try her luck as a pirate. She had, in fact, captured a French ship from Marseilles and a Genoese brig. On board the captured vessel, the English frigate found goods worth 6000 dollars taken from the two looted ships.[35]

Arabella Stuart possibly had various batches of pirates in mind when, on 15 February 1827, she commented in a letter that 'James (her brother) has not written by this opportunity; he is engaged in the piracy court and as there are about 40 pirates to be tried, he expects to be much occupied for two or three weeks or perhaps longer'.[36]

Of the piracy against the Maltese Superba, a clearer picture survives. On 25 April 1827, when becalmed six to eight miles north of Cerigotto, at about 3.00 pm her master Francesco Zarb saw three Greek vessels approaching: a mistico, a lateen-sailed boat and an Ionian schooner. They got close and ordered Zarb to go to the lateen boat. Meanwhile about fifteen armed men boarded the Superba, tore its flag down and trampled on it. In all, 135 pirates armed these three Greek boats. They attacked captain Zarb and threatened him at the point of a sword to reveal where money was hidden. They then systematically rifled the cabin and all the seamen's berths and put the loot on deck. They beat the cook and the captain so seriously with sticks and ropes 'they were both much marked'. Not satisfied with this, several of them pushed the steward to the hold and sodomized him on the ballast after beating him into submission. Others took a fancy to a passenger, possibly Ludwig Friedrick Fisher from Hanover, and gang-raped him too, to dispel any silly notion that business and pleasure don't mix, hardly the only recorded episode of pirates raping the crews and passengers of captured ships.

In Malta in 1827, Bigelow repeatedly heard first-hand reports of how common it was for Greek pirates to sodomize their captives:

[p.310] 'Within the last few weeks several Austrian and Neapolitan merchant ships have been stopped and overhauled by Greek cruisers and not only plundered of specie and other property, but their crews abused in a manner not to be named. Two months ago, the American brig S*** was boarded by them and in part robbed; and the abomination alluded to in the case of the European vessels, was perpetrated on every one of the brig's company. As respects the S***, the account was fully confirmed to me by the master-commandant of the United States schooner Porpoise (Lt. Benjamin Cooper) who arrived here (Malta) on Monday.'[37]

These episodes seem to confirm the historical link between homoeroticism and piracy.[38]

The pirates removed everything they could from the Maltese ship – money, valuables, arms and ammunition, boats, flags, food, nautical instruments and charts, furniture, bedclothes, clocks and watches, cutlery and every item of clothing available. They transferred these to the boats and then gave the ship permission to proceed while they fled for safety to Grabusa, the pirates' favoured haven. The Superba later encountered the 26-gun HMS Talbot, and Zarb, Daniel Attard and Fisher gave a detailed account of what had happened to them. They identified the captain of the mistico as Francesco and that of the galley as Anastasius, both from Hydra with their vessels usually berthed in Grabusa.[39]

When the British navy eventually stormed Grabusa early in 1828 and destroyed every marauding vessel berthed there, 'four notorious pirates'were captured 'with a view to their being sent to Malta for trial'.[40] These do not seem to have included Francesco and Anastasius, as a later document mentions Papa Martinianos Perakis, Papa Gregorio, Giacomachi Scandali, Giorgio Ruppi and Captain Christobulides who, after the conquest of the fort, kept the lowest of profiles 'having great fear on account of their past conduct … all their riches are, as report says, buried under the ground'.[41]

The pirates not only attacked and plundered non-Greek vessels. There are records of Ionian vessels ferrying provisions to one Greek fortress being robbed if they happed to pass near another. Writing on 7 March 1827, Captain Gawen W. Hamilton of HMS Cambrian lamented that 'an Ionian vessel went into Argentiera the other day, her crew went ashore except two, one an Ionian, the [p.311] other a Maltese'. In the night, the vessel was taken out, carried to a barren island and plundered; the Maltese sailor was murdered.[42]

In 1827, Admiral Sir Edward Codrington lamented that the Malta prisons were crammed with Greek malefactors. 'We have a prison full of pirates which we shall have difficulty in proving guilty … We find it easier to get confession of piratical acts than proof by law, for want of claimants of the property plundered, in the character of prosecution and witnesses, whose detention previous to trial overbalances the benefit arising from a successful issue. Although I may not be able to affect more condemnations on trial, I hope to be able to diminish the numbers sent here for ineffectual adjudication; though I have reason to believe that piracy is rapidly increasing in all parts of the Levant'.[43]

English piracy law, in Codrington's view, 'only served to clog the admiral's hands'and proved almost totally ineffective against the robbers of the seaways. Codrington, with poorly-disguised envy, mentioned the French who favoured summary proceedings and the Russians who actually resorted to them, executing thirty suspects on sight on one occasion.[44]

How inefficient English law proved against piracy can be judged from an official moan list, dated 18 June 1827, from Malta to London:

This dismal monument to failure adds that, besides these, there were 33 other Greek prisoners brought for trial to Malta for piracy, but were still undergoing quarantine at the Lazzaretto.[45] That makes 126 Greeks detained in the Malta gaols in 1827 on suspicion of piracy, without one single conviction to show for it.

Two Greeks tried and convicted of piracy in 1828 by the Maltese Vice- Admiralty Court have remained legendary: the very first recorded Greeks in Australia. On 29 July 1827 a small schooner manned by nine young sailors from Hydra, the Heracles under her master Andonis tu Manolis, stopped and robbed the brig Alceste, under captain Luigi Mallia, flying the English flag, proceeding from Malta to Alexandria. During that summer alone, at least 27 Greek piracies are recorded.[46] After relieving the ship of all valuables, the pirates, armed with pistols and ataghans, allowed the prey to go on her way. A British warship, the Gannet, on patrol against sea marauders captured the vessel two days later, took her to Malta and left her crew there for five months awaiting trial.

Sir Edward Codrington, in charge of the anti-piracy operations – not the most impartial of judges – and Sir John Stoddart, judge of the Vice-Admiralty court, presided over the trial. Three Englishmen, three Maltese, four Sicilians, a Frenchman and a Spaniard made up the jury. The prisoners, defended by the Advocate for the Poor Dr Francesco Maria Torregiani, pleaded that under international law they were entitled to intercept and rob a vessel destined to Alexandria, a port occupied by Turkey, an enemy at war with Greece. The prosecution, conducted by Dr Giovanni Vella and Dr Gio Batta Satariano, parried with the argument that the would-be saviours of Greece had only taken personal valuables and had allowed items of military importance to continue on their way to the enemy. After 88 hours of deliberations in camera, the jury acquitted Pietros Lalahos, not identified by any witness, and Pietro Theodorsi Bouff, and convicted seven of piracy.[47]

The court sentenced the seven to death on 5 March but recommended four of them for clemency. As nagging doubts persisted about the formal validity of the trial, the Malta government sent all the papers to London for further consideration, pending which the execution of the sentence remained suspended.[48] The convicts petitioned George IV for a reprieve. Luck was on their side as William Huskisson, the Colonial Secretary, happened to support enthusiastically the movement for Greek independence and he arranged for the sentences to be commuted to [p.313] transportation to New South Wales – three for life and the rest for fourteen years. Together with 200 other convicts, the Greek pirates arrived at Port Jackson aboard the Norfolk on 27 August 1829, a date remembered as the beginning of the Greek settlement in Australia. They were put to work as 'convict servants'. Those sentenced to shorter terms obtained freedom of movement in Australia within six years, while for the lifers, the forced servitude had to last eight years.

The newly-independent government of Greece petitioned London for a pardon and the return of the Greeks convicted in Malta, and in 1836 Lord Palmerston agreed to repatriate them to London if the Greek government would meet the cost of their transport. Those who opted to return worked their passage instead and obtained a gratuity of £12 each for clothing and other necessities and arrived in England in March 1837. They were: Damianos Ninis, Jorghis Vassilakis, Nicholas Papandros, Costandis Strambolis and Jorghis Larezzos. The two who remained, Andonis Manolis (or tu Manolis, died childless in 1880) and Ghikas Boulgaris (died 1874, survived by nine children and about 50 grandchildren) became the first Greek settlers to be naturalized in Australia and are honoured to this day as the founders of the large Greek community there.[49]

The last major episodes of Greek piracy which found their culmination in Malta were the boarding and robbing of the schooner Minerva in December 1828 and of the merchant bombard San Nicolς off Port Cufo in the Gulf of Cassandra two days later. Thodori Portarinos, Dhimitri Petica, Jannis Marianopolo and Jannis Jorghis were charged with piracy against those two ships on 21 May 1829 before the Vice-Admiralty Court presided over by the Chief Justice of Malta, Sir John Stoddart.[50]

The accused had been captured by HMS Alacrity, a brig under the command of Captain Nias, on 11 January. Gerasimo Svoronos, master of the San Nicolς, recognized the pirate ship, some of her crew and the looted merchandise. The evidence of a Turkish dervish made prisoner on the Minerva by the same pirates threw plenty of light on the episode. The records describe Portarinos, the captain, as a fugitive from prison held there 'for felonious practices'. His long boat, pulled by 18 sweeps, had no flag at all. She mounted a four-pounder gun on the bow and her crew went around liberally armed with muskets, pistols, swords and knives.

'Their conduct on board the San Nicolς was marked by violence and cruelty'threatening all with death unless they revealed where monies were hidden. They particularly targeted a Jewish passenger whom they tied up 'in a most barbarous manner'and carried him to their own ship. There he disappeared and all the indications point to the fact that Portarinos's pirates had murdered him. The crew [p.314] consisted of 'ten thieves, two sailors and a Turkish gipsy'. When the Alacrity approached the pirate boat, all except four jumped overboard and evaded capture. The dervish assured the court that Marianopolo and Jorghis had no weapons and did not take part in the attack. They claimed they did not share in the plunder but received 'a small daily stipend'.

Dr Francesco Maria Torregiani, counsel for the accused, pleaded the case, and on 26 May 1829, Stoddart after 'a most able and elaborate'summing up, found Portarinos and Petica guilty of piracy, but acquitted the other two defendants. 'In the most solemn and impressive manner he condemned the two to 'death by a public execution, and with all the disgrace and infamy which can attend so sad a termination of mortal life'. He made it clear that he believed they had murdered the Jewish passenger: 'You Thodori Portarinos, appear to have made a trade of robbery and bloodshed, and you, Dhimitri Petica, though young in years, appear to have grown hardened in iniquity and cruelty'.

The hangman, Michele Prestigiacomo from Calabria, executed the two on 27 May in Floriana early in the morning. 'They were attended to the place of execution by the Acting Deputy Marshall of the Vice-Admiralty Court, bearing the silver oar, and a great concourse of people who went out to witness their miserable end'.[51] Marianopolo and Jorghis too were conveyed to the scaffold 'to witness the miserable end of their former associates with which they appeared to be deeply impressed'. Only the clemency of the Lt. Governor (Sir Fredrick Hankey?) permitted the bodies, 'after hanging for one full hour, to be taken down and buried', otherwise their corpses would have hung in chains and have remained in that state till 'they should rot and fall to pieces'.

On 29 October 1829, the two acquitted prisoners were again brought before the court to answer to the charge of piracy from the Minerva, as the first trial had only dealt with the San Nicolς, and here things took a rather bizarre turn. The Court ordered that the two accused be conveyed by a British ship to their native country in order to look for proofs of their innocence and, if they succeeded in proving it, they would never be called upon again to answer charges of piracy of the Minerva. 'If you find no such proof still, by living honestly and peaceably in your own country, you may entitle yourself to a favourable consideration of your past conduct'. And Stoddart added, 'Teach your countrymen that nothing on the sea can resist the English navy and that the British Naval Force in these seas will inevitably pursue and seize pirates wherever they lurk'.[52] It does not often happen that an accused person is asked to prove his innocence, but then nothing on the sea could resist the English Vice-Admiralty Court of Malta. [p.315]

British Piracy

The Mediterranean had witnessed exploits of English pirates since the late sixteenth century.[53] Their activities declined towards the end of the Order's rule and almost faded altogether during the Napoleonic era. But then, some Englishmen in the Mediterranean immediately pounced on new lucrative possibilities: as soon as Malta fell into the hands of the French, British corsairs started attacking and plundering Maltese ships, even though the British brigands sometimes had Maltese members among their crews. The Maltese responded by arming two galliots to defend Maltese ships from British corsairs.[54]

In 1819, Charles Christopher Delano and the brig William, with her assault on the brig Helen, put an end to English piratical inactivity and again placed Malta centre stage in piracy and the fight against it in the Mediterranean. Delano's is probably the best-documented record of Malta-related piracy in the early British period. His feats and the verbatim transcript of his trial in Valletta were printed post haste in Malta and concurrently in England. The London version consists of a 96-page book, set in the most wretchedly microscopic type face then available. But, whatever the strain on the eyesight, these two publications provide the most complete insight into the facts, the prosecution enquiry, the court scene, the law and the procedure then in force.[55]

Of Delano, the main actor, we do not know enough. One source claims him for America, born in Maine on 21 July 1778, to Alpheus and Margaret Sides[56] but no hints of his American nationality ever appear in the trial. If he is the American Charles Christopher Delano, then he would be related to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The parish registers of the church of St Nicholas, Liverpool, record that on 21 July 1805, Charles Christopher Delano, mariner of the parish of Liverpool, married by licence Ellen Abbot, spinster of the same parish.[57] He wrote to his wife when arrested after capture 'as there might be some delay in his return from the Mediterranean', a polite form of understatement. Witnesses described him as a short man. He had already visited Malta on business ahead of the tragic chain of events.[58]

Before assaulting the Helen, Delano had on several occasions suggested to his crew his intention to capture a ship and become rich, assuring his men that their share would not be less than £100 each. He would do that, he told them, not only for the money, but out of a compelling longing to revenge himself on English [p.316] law which had made him penniless: 'brought to beggary'after having found him guilty of smuggling, a punishment that never stopped him smarting. 'He was once worth £3000 and now he has not a farthing to call his own. They were all a parcel of robbers and it would be no shame if everyone turned so'.

On 2 August 1819, the brig Helen of Dartmouth was sailing before Cape de Gatt on the Spanish coast bound for Genoa and Livorno, carrying a rich cargo of manufactured woollen and cotton goods, coffee, iron and other assorted merchandise. Richard Cornish, the master and co-owner, had no idea of what lay in wait for him. The three passengers and crew, all British, included Nicola Camilleri, arguably Maltese.

A ship which claimed to be the Crescent of Boston, but was in reality the William of Liverpool under the command of Charles Christopher Delano, approached the Helen and ordered Cornish to come to his ship with his papers. When Cornish dallied, Delano threatened to sink the Helen, and the master complied; as soon as he approached the William, Delano's men crowded his boat and proceeded to board the Helen.

Delano then ordered Cornish back to his ship. At pistol point, all the captives were forced down the forecastle and the pirates proceeded to nail down the hatches securely. Cornish pleaded to spare his ship, the sole source of income for a family of eight, and to have mercy on his little boy who he held in his arms, but the sentinels responded threatening they were about to kill everyone on board. The pirates, all armed with loaded pistols or swords, broke open the main hatches and piled all the merchandise on deck. The confined crew reached the point of suffocation through lack of ventilation and Delano, at the very last moment, opened the bull's eye on the upper deck to admit some air.

At 6.00 a.m., Delano lashed the two ships together and, with the aid of a crane, moved the loot to the William. This transhipment took six hours to complete. The pirates loaded about 200 cabin packages and 50 bales, apart from one so big that it proved impossible to transfer; they removed by hand the cloth it contained and took it to the William.

Delano's crew then started to scuttle the Helen with all the crew and the passengers nailed down inside her. They bore large holes between the timbers beneath the waterline, destroyed the water pumps, erased the name of the sinking ship and of its long boat before returning to the William, convinced the looted brig would soon disappear to the bottom of the sea taking with her all the evidence of their murderous piracy. The Helen was to be their collective grave.

In despair, with the Helen sinking and the William disappearing from sight, the prisoners found a hatchet and a chisel with which they eventually succeeded in bursting through the nailed-down hatch. They boarded the badly-damaged long boat after wrapping a tarpaulin round her, barely keeping her afloat by constant bailing. Providentially, they came across a Greek brig which rescued them when [p.317] about to reach the end of their endurance. She put them ashore at Cadiz, except for Camilleri who, being subject to quarantine, remained on board the Greek vessel. The Helen's crew and the passengers eventually returned to Britain, saving for two who obtained a passage on the sloop HMS Spey heading for Malta. The Helen somehow kept afloat and in time drifted ashore on the Spanish coast, a ghost ship if ever there was one. All this time, Delano believed the Helen had foundered with all hands on board.

The William, belonging to Messrs Geller and Co of Liverpool, had left on 18 July 1819 bound for Malta, laden with sugar and bale goods, and then for Smyrna, with a cargo of iron. When Delano proposed the piracy, the crew backed him solidly, one remarking that the rope to hang him had not yet been made, another that all he desired was a short life and a merry one, very consciously echoing Bartholomew Roberts (1682?-1722), arguably the most renowned pirate of all times, who wished himself 'a merry life and a short one'.[59] After the attack was decided upon, Delano plied his crew heavily with rum and the men consented unanimously. Including Delano they were eleven: Thomas Johnson and Benjamin Wilcox, first and second mate, John Curtis, carpenter, the cook John Lewis, John Smith, Reuben Marshall and George Francis, a mulatto from Philadelphia, never apprehended. Two of the crew, Robert Walker and James Atkinson, later turned evidence for the crown and avoided prosecution.

Approaching Malta, the men kept busy cutting out the original marks from the bales and substituting them with false ones and Delano started selling the loot on the high seas to a Greek and an Italian brig. By this time, Delano had pocketed £120, the mate £60 and the others £30 each. Before reaching Malta, all the men took an oath on a prayer book and signed it undertaking never to divulge anything that had happened. They referred to it as the Masonic oath and all pledged 'that my heart should be pulled out, my throat to be cut, my body to be pulled in four pieces and to be burnt if I ever deceived a mason'. Delano promised to help all his men join Freemasonry on arrival in Malta. They berthed in Valletta on 29 August 1819.

Here Delano contacted James Morris with a request to find him buyers for the goods still on board. The first were the tailors John Kimberly and Paolo Buhagiar of Strada Reale. Initially they declined, but Buhagiar, described as 'a stout man who spoke pretty good English'returned at night and purchased cloth to the value of 4500 gold scudi. Delano signed the receipt Thomas Jones. When word spread that Delano was disposing of cloth at giveaway prices, Emmanuele Benaglia and Antonio Ciantar of the Marina bought 20 bales of printed calico and woollen cloth for the price of 12,230 gold scudi. Delano explained away his prodigality and the origin of the goods, in the absence of bills of lading, with a tall story [p.318] that the merchandise had been put on board the night of his leaving Liverpool by a friend on the verge of bankruptcy. Mr John Roman Diston, a public broker, reassured Benaglia and Ciantar that the sale was above board.

Delano, his men and the William left Malta on 3 September 1819 for Smyrna where he made another distribution of the spoils, the sceptical crew feeling sure that Delano had cooked the books to keep an inordinate share for himself.

The arrival in Malta on HMS Spey of James Heath and Richard Humphreys, two of the Helen's survivors, proved to be Delano's undoing. They described the William in great detail and confirmed the suspicions raised by the bonanza of goods downloaded in Malta at derisory prices. The brig Frederick, under Lt William Hobson and with the two seamen on board, speedily left for Smyrna and there the shipwrecks instantly recognized the pirate vessel. Hobson filled his long boat with armed seamen hidden under sails and berthed along the William. His men sprung and secured Delano with his crew, except for the American mulatto who escaped capture. Hobson sailed the pirate ship back to Malta and arrived in Marsamuscetto on 3 October 1819. The suspects were kept in irons in the Lazaretto prison, while the two collaborators ended in different cells in Fort St Elmo.

All this the Crown Solicitor, William Wright, recounted, though in far greater detail, to the piracy court nominally presided over by the Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland, who had returned to Malta from Corfu' on HMS Glasgow specifically to be present at the trial, and by the First Commissioner, Waller Rodwell Wright, President of the Court of Appeal,[60] and to the Grand Jury.[61] The trial started on 26 January, 1820 and ended on the 31st with hearings lasting from 9.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. The jurors slept in the Tapestry Chamber, converted into a dormitory.

The eight prisoners stood at the dock – all the captured crew of the William except the two who had volunteered to give evidence for the prosecution. Giuseppe Onofrio appeared as counsel for Delano. Onofrio had been the clerk of the Birkirkara battalion during the uprising against the French. He worked as a notary public from his office at 4, South Street, Valletta, but on 15 October 1829, the government appointed him registrar of the Court of Special Commission and, on 31 May 1830, procurator of the Vice-Admiralty Court. He died, aged 49, on 7 May 1831. Mr Fletcher (Matthew, or Henry?) defended the ship's mate Thompson and Mr Charles Curry, also a notary, the other six sailors.

[p.319] Although the trial took its full course with the hearing of a very substantial number of witnesses, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, with two participants in the piracy having obtained immunity and two sailors of the doomed Helen having made full disclosure of the facts. Except for Delano, all the other prisoners charged had volunteered partial confessions, claiming however they had taken part out of fear.

Among those who gave evidence were Heath and Humphries, the seamen of the Helen who had reached Malta. They described in graphic terms their horrifying odyssey and how they identified the William, her merchandise and her crew in Smyrna. Others included an officer who went, quite unimportantly, by the name of Warren Hastings Horatio Nelson Mills, the Maltese merchants Paolo Buhagiar, Antonio Ciantar and Francesco Zarb, another tailor, not very comfortable in explaining how they had bought so much merchandise at suspect prices well below their wholesale value, and Luigi Casolani, a marine police officer.

When the prosecution closed its case, Delano made a statement. He attempted to turn the tables over: yes, he admitted the piracy, but insisted that everything had been organized by Walker and Atkinson, those who had converted into witnesses for the prosecution. He said he had strongly opposed the assault on the Helen, but Walker and Atkinson had locked him up at pistol point and he had remained a captive throughout. 'The court frequently interrupted the prisoner in this statement and warned him of the extreme folly of the course he was pursuing … The prisoner however persisted notwithstanding this humane interference on the part of the court'.

The other accused delivered written defences. Mr Fletcher and Mr Curry submitted that the evidence was inconclusive; of the two turncoat sailors who had betrayed the others, the defence said that 'men who could publicly come forward in an open court of justice and proclaim themselves guilty of so atrocious a crime as piracy, were not worthy of being believed in their oaths'.

Mr Onofrio summoned four character witnesses on behalf of Delano. George Gorman said he had known Delano when, as captain of the Crescent, she had been captured by a British warship and brought to Malta on suspicion of being an American vessel (Britain was then at war with the USA). Delano had managed to obtain the freedom of his vessel in the Malta Vice-Admiralty Court.[62] He considered Delano to be a remarkably honest, good, sober, quiet man. Joseph Morris, a ship chandler in Malta, had acquaintance of Delano for eight years: an honest, sober, steady man. The same said Meno Henry Stresow (born in Lubeck, but naturalized Maltese) and James Bell, merchants based in Malta.

[p.320] Mr Waller Rodwell Wright then addressed the jury. He reviewed minutely the facts and explained the legal definitions and the weight to be given, to the evidence of accomplices who had turned King's witnesses. The summing-up could have been made today: balanced, thorough, moderately and skilfully argued. The jury remained in deliberations for two hours and, on Saturday night, returned a verdict of guilty against all the prisoners at the bar. The court adjourned for sentencing to the following Monday.

The restraint Waller Rodwell Wright had shown in the summing-up to the jury vanished in his sentencing speech. It turned into a torrent of emotional harangue, religious sermonizing ('Fervently address your supplications to the Fountain of Eternal Mercy') and hysterical, romantic melodrama. The chronicler commended the 'impressive and pathetic manner'in which the address was delivered and this, 'coupled with the dreadful situation in which the culprits stood, affected the court (which was crowded to excess) even to tears'. Wright condemned the eight accused to be 'severally hanged by the neck until you be dead'. Waller Rodwell Wright, the President of the Commission, and William Wright, the public prosecutor, were then the leading Freemasons in Malta. Their brotherhood with Delano did not stand in the way of justice.

The sentence was carried out on the following Friday, 4 February 1820, at 8.00 a.m. The Government Gazette published meticulous instructions on the choreography of the macabre ceremony: painting the brig William black all over and towing it to the centre of Grand Harbour. After hanging on the cursed ship, the corpses were to be cut down, put in open shells and taken under armed guard to Fort Ricasoli where four of them had to be hung in individual iron cages from gibbets erected for that purpose at each of the four corners of the fort. The other four bodies were to be buried, one at the foot of each gibbet.[63]

Things had been moving behind the scenes. Maitland reprieved Rueben Marshall for his previous 'uncommonly good character'and Curtis for 'some very peculiar circumstances'not further specified. On 1 February, Delano asked to be privately baptised in prison 'under sentence of death'and confessed he was 'the prime mover and instigator of this most heinous crime … in order to reconcile himself with the Supreme Being on whom all his hopes then depended'.

Punctually, the macabre mise en scene was carried out 'in front of the whole Army garrison and the crews of Royal Navy ships, plus vast numbers of Maltese on the bastions and houses overlooking Grand Harbour'. The spectators included the 10th (North Lincoln) and the 36th (Herefordshire) regiments.

Almost two years later, Sergeant William Wheeler spent some time in Fort Ricasoli. In December 1822, he recorded

[p.321] 'On a small outwork, close to the water, are four English sailors hanging in gibbets for piracy. My room is about one hundred yards from them; if it should be a windy night, I am amused with the creaking of the irons every time I wake. I think I hear you say, what pleasant neighbours'.[64]

But even seven years after the executions, on 14 February 1827, the remains of Delano and his companions-in-crime still swung in the wind on Fort Ricasoli:

'There is another set of objects which can only be looked upon with unmixed horror, which one is compelled to see as his eye glances along the coast below Fort Ricasoli. It is the spectacle of four pirates hung in chains, who were executed several years ago, and have remained on their gibbets ever since. They are kept there in terrorem – as scarecrows; for the crew of every vessel is forced to see them on entering the harbour … why inflict on all peaceable and honest people the inevitable sight of what must be so shocking? Nothing can be more hideous, especially when the wind is high, than to behold, even from a distance, those carcasses in their tattered coverings, dangling to the breeze.'[65]

Echoes of that piracy and those mass executions lingered on. William H.G. Kingston (1814-1880), perhaps the most popular and prolific author of his times, used Delano's tragedy in one of his famous adventure novels, Salt Water, of which three or four present-day editions still currently appear on the market.

Fantasy Piracy

Pirates exercised a fatal attraction on authors of fiction, not least in the nineteenth century when the popularity of the romantic novel reached its heyday. In a long, anonymous novella, published in 1831 in the USA but taken from a previous unacknowledged British publication, a mysterious and lethal pirate ship which terrorized the Mediterranean placed Malta at the hub of the narrative, though the writer seems to have known little about the island, except that it crawled with British servicemen and was an important stepping stone on the way to and from India.

In this book, entitled The Demon Ship – The Pirate of the Mediterranean, the author, obviously influenced by the recent highly-advertised episodes of Greek piracy, in part sublimated that violence and those horrors to suit the romantic agenda of the reader: 'Many of our youth, especially of the female sex, attach an [p.322] idea of romantic grandeur to the very word pirate, and I once knew a young lady who, during a sail up the Mediterranean, was kept in a state of delirious excitement by the expectation, I mean the hope, of our all being eventually captured by a Greek corsair'. Bitter was her disappointment when a perverse destiny cheated her of that exquisite treat.

The story-line follows the broken-hearted Lieutenant, later Colonel, Edward Francillon who leaves the UK for a military career in India after being rejected by Margaret, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of his neighbour Captain Hugh Cameron. Returning to Malta ten years later, on his way back to Britain, he books a passage on the fast brig Elizabeth Downs, flying the British flag, only to find that Margaret, who he understood to have died, is the only other passenger on deck.

Old passions, not unsurprisingly, revive, but, in a dramatic turn of events, the reunited innamorati discover that the brig they had boarded in Malta was the notorious Demon ship of Capt. Vanderleer, the scourge of the Mediterranean, which used her Malta passenger operations to disguise her real identity and her murderous missions. The two lovers are saved from certain death by the ingenuity of one of the pirates, the Frenchman Gorod Jaqueminot, who owed a debt of gratitude to Francillon for a previous good turn. After bloodcurdling adventures, needless to say, the Colonel and the lovely Margaret survive and get married to live happily ever after. Sounds as corny as most, but not at all incompetently written. Many versions, some abridged or published by instalments, circulated in the USA.[66]


* *Giovanni Bonello has been a judge of the European Court of Human Rights since 1998 after a long career specializing in human rights litigation; he defended 170 human rights lawsuits in the domestic and international fora. He drafted the European Convention Act which made the European Convention on Human Rights part of the internal law of Malta. In 1990, he was nominated Chief Justice and President of the Constitutional Court but declined the appointment. He has published sixteen volumes on history and art-related subjects, four of which were awarded the Best Book of the Year prize by the National Book Council. He is Companion of the National Order of Merit, Cavaliere of the Italian Republic, Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and was awarded the special Gold Medal of the Malta Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, the Insigna of Merit by the Russian Federation for outstanding achievement and the extraordinary gold medal by the Judiciary of the Republic of Moldova. Two books about his contributions to human rights have been published in The Netherlands and in Malta, and a substantial Festschrift celebrated his seventieth birthday in 2006.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mr Joseph Muscat who, helpfully and expertly, went through the text.  

[1] G.J. Pitcairn Jones, Piracy in the Levant, The Navy Records Society, 1934, xvi – xviii.

[2] P. M. Swartz, U.S. Greek Naval Relations Begin: Antipiracy Operations in the Aegean Sea, Virginia 2003.

[3] D. Sultana, Benjamin Disraeli in Spain, Malta and Albania, Tamesis 1976, 42.

[4] Public Records Office (PRO), Colonial Office (CO) 158/19.

[5] PRO, CO, Maitland to Bunbury, 158/40, 29,x.1813; 3.vi.1814; 17.i.1815.

[6] Charges of His Excellency the Governor, Malta, Published by Authority (1815).

[7] D. Sultana, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Malta and Italy, Barnes and Noble 1969, 42.

[8] J. Johnson, The General, Sutton 1987, 43.

[9] Pitcairn Jones 1934.

[10] Archives of the Order in Malta (AOM) 6523, ff. 63, 128, 131, 137.

[11] John Sewell had graduated MA in 1791 and DCL in 1795. He settled in Malta in 1803 and left the island on 27 July 1814. Knighted on 25 May 1815. Appointed arbiter by Admiral Dauvergne in 1816 in the arbitration commission of five to determine the conflicting claims of Dauvergne and De Rohan over the duchy of Boillion, Sewell was the only one to find in Dauvergne's favour. Dauvergne committed suicide shortly after, crippled by legal fees. Sewell died on 15 January 1838.

[12] Sultana 1969, 33.

[13] Ibid., 253.

[14] Richard Woodman (Editor), Admiral Lord Cochrane, The Autobiography of a Seaman, 1860, reprinted by the Lyons Press, 2000, 127-129, 275.

[15] D. Cordingly, Cochrane the Dauntless, Bloomsbury 2007, 137 – 139.

[16] Y. Jasiotis, 'La diplomacia Espanola en Grecia', in Erytheia, 7, No 2, 1986, 37.

[17] Government Notice, 18.ix.1817.

[18] Government Notice, 2.iv.1818.

[19] Proclamation of 10.x.1818.

[20] Malta Government Gazette (MGG), 15.x.1817, 1130-1131.

[21] MGG, 22.x.1817, 1138.

[22] Proclamation of 20.x.1817 and MGG, 22.x.1817.

[23] A. Agius, 'A Migrant's letter in 1821', The Times (of Malta), 24.ix.1988.

[24] Proclamation of 16.xii.1818.

[25] H.G. Thrusfield, 'Five Naval Journals', The Navy Records Society, 1961, 205, 250.

[26] MGG, 6.iv.1825; C. Swan, Journal of a Voyage up the Mediterranean, London 1826, 277- 278, 287-320; Ph.J. Green, Sketches of the War in Greece, London 1827, 300-320.

[27] Swan, 278.

[28] Mrs (Percy) Domville, Arabella's Letters, Hodder and Stoughton, undated but 1927, 179 – 180.

[29] Pitcairn Jones, 282 – 290.

[30] Ibid., 94.

[31] Swan, 199 -200.

[32] Ibid., 254 – 255.

[33] Ibid., 274 – 275.

[34] Ibid., 274, 275, 278, 361, 365.

[35] A. Bigelow, Travels in Malta and Sicily, Boston 1831, 164-5.

[36] Domville, 246.

[37] Bigelow, 165.

[38] B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, New York University Press, 1982; H. Turley, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, New York University Press, 1999.

[39] Pitcairn Jones, 98-103.

[40] Ibid., 257.

[41] Ibid., 260-261.

[42] Ibid., 85.

[43] Lady Bourchier, Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, London 1873, 353.

[44] A.V. Laferla, British Malta, Vol. I, Malta 1976, 117 – 118.

[45] Pitcairn Jones, 111-113.

[46] Ibid., 288-290.

[47] MGG, 5.iii.1828, 73-76.

[48] MGG, 12.iii.1828, 82.

[49] H. Gilchrist, 'The Greek Connection in the Nineteenth Century', in Canberra Historical Journal, September 1984.

[50] MGG, 20.v.1829.

[51] MGG, 27.v.1828, 160-162.

[52] MGG, 10.vi.1829, 176.

[53] G. Bonello, Histories of Malta, Vol. X, Malta 2009, 21-35.

[54] AOM 6523, ff. 128, 131.

[55] Trial of Charles Christopher Delano and Others, London, John Murray, 1820; same title, but printed in Malta at the Government Press, 1820, price Half a Dollar.

[56] http:/genforum.genealogy.com/delano/messages/520.html

[57] Registers of Marriage 1805, p. 6, entry 11; Source LDSF film 1068889.

[58] PRO, C.O., 323/107, February 14, 1812.

[59] J. Baer, Pirates of the British Isles, Tempus, 2005, 203

[60] The other Commissioners were: Commodore Anthony Maitland, Sir Richard Plaskett, Robert William St John and A.P. Green.

[61] Mark Denison, foreman, William Henry Burgess, Charles Johnston, David Howiels, Alexander Breck, William Robertson, Joseph Greaves, William Huttton, John Denton Sykes, William Walker, Edward Gingell and Robert Wolley – mostly merchants, except Howiels, who taught English, and Greaves who, besides his commercial activities, was also secretary of the Lancastrian School in St Christopher Street, Valletta.

[62] PRO, C.O., 323/107, 14.ii.1812.

[63] MGG, 2.ii.1820.

[64] B.H. Liddel Hart (ed), The Letters of Private Wheeler, London 1951, 207.

[65] Bigelow, 172.

[66] E.g. in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art , Vol. XVIII, Philadelphia 1831, 258-271; The Atheneum or Spirit of the English Magazine, Third Series, Vol. V, 1831, 374-396; The Lady's Book, Philadelphia 1831, 137 – 146; Rural Repository, Hudson, April 9 and 23, May 7, 1831.