Guido G. Lanfranco

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF MALTA AS PRESENTED BY ABELA IN 1647

[p.49]

It gives an awkward feeling to examine an author, especially a historian, to glean from him information relative to nature. Abela was essentially a historian, and does not appear to have had the inclinations of a naturalist. In his interesting account he perforce had to refer to natural objects or phenomena, but from the mode of presentation it is easy to see that he was not an observer. He rarely gave the direct names of plants and animals, yet in his references to nature he gave general hints and information by means of which a naturalist could make and draw reasonable theories and conclusions. From his account it is evident that, although he may not have been an investigator of natural history, yet he appears to have been one of those who love life, and he was quite sensitive to its natural benefits. This is especially demonstrated by his constant reference to beautiful gardens, cool, clear waterways and restfulness of shady, peaceful, picturesque spots.

Of the whole work, the first book holds the bulk of references to nature, containing geology, botany and zoology, scattered loosely all over the pages; but Not. 12 of this book was especially named "Della Fertilità di Malta", so that it is really intended to include our natural history, although other important items were treated separately.

Not being a naturalist, he quoted profusely from other authors, who had before referred to the fertility of the land and to its natural beauties. Throughout the account, divine power and intervention together with fallacious traditional and contemporary beliefs, are repeatedly sought to solve problems.

I propose to divide my essay in two parts; in the first I shall comment on Lib. I, Not. 12, as it is a specialized section, and in the second I shall handle the other loose items.

[p.50]

PART I

The points dealt with in this section of Abela's work are not well classified, but we can arrange them as follows in natural order.

TOPOGRAPHY, GEOLOGY AND FOSSILS.

The description provided, quite rightly conveys the idea of a stony island; but it includes a variety of conditions of scenery, such as stony, rocky, plain, terraced, etc., and each variety of surface is suited for particular purposes. The stony ground provides grazing for cattle, and produces thorny bushes, which can be used as firewood where timber is lacking; the plain areas produce wheat, barley, and other cereals; orchards and other crops are usually sheltered from the prevalent winds that constantly sweep over this mountainless country, there-fore, unprotected against the elements, and farmers see to it that they receive special attention. Such is the picture presented by Abela; just the same as one could describe it now.

Abela himself does not offer any theory to explain the fossil deposits on the islands, but depends on what other writers said, which, unfortunately, happens to be very unreliable. As he does not, in any way, contradict the sources, it appears that he was of the same opinion, and he later says that the shells, together with other marine objects, were deposited on the rocks during the deluge and were later stranded high and dry, to get embedded in the rocks in the course of time. Presumably as did others of his time, Abela had no idea of the nature of sedimentation, for instead of pointing out that our rocks had been entirely formed beneath the sea, he ventures to say, that "piccole vipere, fonghi ed altre cose terrestri impetriti" are to be found. His "fonghi" are certainly the Echinoderms which were mentioned in a letter by his friend Signor de Peires, to whom he had before sent some fossil specimens.

[p.51] PRODUCTS FROM THE ROCKS.

It is made clear that in Abela's time, use was already being made of the several varieties of rocks to be found on our islands. Besides building, some of the harder rocks were used instead of marble, for ornaments, paving, monuments, etc.

These were presumably taken from the Lower Coralline Limestone, and to a certain extent, also from the Upper Coral-line Limestone. Mill-stones were also made from this hard rock; but Abela notes that soft rock was also in use, and refers to small rounded stones and tonguelike shapes, which are evidently fossils from the nodule beds of the Globigerina Limestone; but the use made of these was mainly connected with superstitious belief and practices. The rounded yellow stones were used instead of jewels on rings, to protect the wearer against the bites of poisonous creatures. It is hard to under-stand what poisonous creatures had to be feared, because we neither had, nor have any on our islands; the fear of these has been introduced by foreigners who had already some know-ledge or other of really poisonous snakes, scorpions, etc., and as a point of discretion they considered all allied creatures as dangerous. If our creatures possess toxic properties, these are only effective against the lower creatures. On the other hand, Abela had already pointed out that our islands are totally deprived of poisonous creatures through the intercession of super-natural power; the wearing of charms would then appear as a violation against this belief; but then the cultural attainments of those times cannot be said to have been generally reliable. Another unacceptable allegation is, that the "Tongues" (which Abela does not accept as being shark's teeth, as we shall see in Part II) actually grow: "crescono nel sasso in cui si generano at principio piccole e poi divengono maggiori, co'l tempo come in un seminerio"! The idea that these fossils grow may have been derived from the fact that at first the fossil may be too deeply embedded in the soft nodule bed, and only a small portion is visible at the surface; but as erosion in the nodule beds is quite fast, particles round the object are removed to [p.52] expose the larger areas of the fossil. Or else the other explanation may be, that since various sizes exist, fossilized at various stages of development, and since they were not at that time believed to have belonged to living creatures, then no other explanation could have been given except that they grew while in the rocks. Speaking further of these sharks' teeth, Abela expresses the prevalent belief that, when powdered, they could be used against fevers and poisoning, and all through the "singolar grazia del glorioso Apostolo S. Paolo, the benedisse questa nostra terra" (133), which confirms, that he never bothered to speculate, but just resorted to supernatural explanations, mostly due to the blind faith of the folk, which to a certain extent still carries its influence even to this day. Other products from the rocks appear to have been ochre paints from the soft beds (132).

WATER SUPPLY.

Here Abela's remarks are similar to those that may be made today, as no real difference appears to exist between the supply of those days and that of our times, except that now, perhaps, the water tables are getting saltier; but the sources have always been the same. Abela even mentions the "Sinia" (128) as one of the means of obtaining water. The simple fisher-folk used to attribute to the power of evil spirits the turbid whirlpools of foaming explosions that once used to take place at certain places by the sea-side, now obliterated, which really consisted of nothing else except the effect of air entrapped in rock crevices and pressurized by the sea (129). Numerous water-courses and springs are mentioned by Abela, and recommended for their purity and freshness.

FERTILITY OF THE LAND.

In this section, fertility of the land has been given priority but it appears rather forced, as there is not really enough to mention regarding fertility. Whereas today we have onions and potatoes as staple products, they are not mentioned by Abela, but honey and cotton, together with grapes and wines, appear [p.53] to have then been prominent products. There seem to be too many needless quotations to emphasize that the land is fertile. First he quotes Porcacchi (125) who includes dogs, cumin and roses among our products; then Quintino (126), and Botero (133-4) who comments on the cattle, donkeys, mules and dogs, and also on salt, which should not really be classified as a product of the fertile land. Abela points out that cumin and anise flavouring or medicinal herbs were easily cultivated, and this also coincides with his earlier quotation from Quintino. The multiple harvests and cotton production are also referred to on the same page (130). Fruit, especially oranges and lemons, were grown to a large size, and exported to France and Rome where they were highly esteemed (134). Further exports mentioned included wine, cotton goods, flax and cereals, which were produced in abundance. The Valletta market always produced food of every description. We may therefore assume that Malta then enjoyed a time of plenty.

MARINE PRODUCTS.

In Malta fishing appears to have always been a worth-while occupation, except when the lucrative aspects set in, as in the turbulent present. Abela easily conveys the idea of abundance. The island provided numerous "porti e cale, né quali sogliono i pescatori pigliar gran moltitudine di pesci". Besides, off our shores, in some "seccagne" fishermen could catch fish of every description, which were sold "a buon mercato". Abela further points out that we are the site of migrating tunny, especially at "'Aharsc" (Ahrax) where every year, quantities were taken, as can still be done today. He notes that at the same place, horrible monsters can be seen now and then, as in 1642, when a monster was found dead on the sands of the bay, presumably thrown ashore during a storm "era lungo sette palmi, con doppia dentatura in bocca" (so far so good) but "haveva la forma qui disegnata sembianza" is hopeless, for when you look at the figure supposed to represent the monster, you will be reminded of the work of Gesner, that fantastic ancient naturalist, in whose voluminous effort are to be found unbelievable figures of monsters supposed to have existed [p.54] in his time. The figure shows a creature, half man, half fish with large wings, and a savage-looking maned head. Certainly, the artist did not draw it from life, but perhaps from memory or hearsay; both these sources essentially form part of the imagination, and when the latter runs away with the artist, he is liable to produce such results as illustrated in Abela's work. When talking of the seashells, Abela again shows that the study of natural history was extremely backward in his days. He accepts that the sea water and the rocks combine into a virtue "a gl'huomini nascosta" to form a great variety of seashells. Obviously he did not know of the work of carbonate of lime in the manufacture of shells. However, he names "ostreghe, coccioli, telline, dette da' paesani arzelli, o cappe, gandoffoli." When he mentioned the "cannoletti e dattili" he is further convinced that they grow from the rocks, because these are lithophagi, that is, stone borers; they are locally known as "tamar". These start boring when very small, into the limestone; as they grow they continue to bore deeper and larger cavities, so that by the time they are fully developed, they are unable to leave the rock through the original opening, as it becomes too small for their size. To extract them, it will be necessary to break the rock. Another interesting mollusc is mentioned for its peculiarity, both as being a beautiful species, and also because people in those days, somehow managed to make it useful against ear trouble, when mixed with oil. Abela also writes of fine corals as being present in our sea; we do have several species of coral around Malta, but they are not commercially worthwhile; if they were, I am sure that the Maltese would not have failed to find a job for them.

BIRDS.

Abela stresses the abundance of birds that pass over Malta, and as being mostly sought after on the southern coasts. The trapping of birds by means of nets was already well established in Abela's time for he briefly describes the "ingeniosa inventions di reti" which is still in use today. Falcons were given particular importance because of their historical role as an object of customary exchange between Grand Masters and princes. [p.55] The other usual game birds as the turtle dove, quail and duck are given only a passing thought. Unlike our times, hares and rabbits are attributed to have been "senza numero". Domestic fowls were used for food in daily profusion, and the Order seem to have made good use of this opportunity.

INSECT PRODUCTS.

A few silkworms used to be reared for silk production, and Abela points out, that if more mulberry trees could be planted, silk production would have been greater. But the prospects for such an industry were as low then as they are now, because for a silk industry large numbers of mulberry trees have to be grown, many persons must be employed, and large areas of land would have to be utilized; even then, the production would not always be sufficient to meet maintenance costs.

Abela quotes Quintino who praises the qualities of our honey, and they are of mutual opinion, that the high quality depends on the nature of our flowers. It must be pointed out, however, that it is not so much the flowers that regulate the quality of honey, but the dryness and temperature existing in our climate are much more important to accentuate taste and flavour. The varieties of flowers produce variation in the colour of honey. Abela also reminds us of Cicero, who deplored the conduct of Verres when 400 amphoras of honey were stolen from Malta.

GLASTO.

According to Abela, this plant used to be called "Ennir", and in his day used to be valued for its dye, called "Indaco". He says that those who knew the method of working the pigment, did not divulge their recipe to others, so that the profitable industry was not widespread in Malta. Abela is certainly here referring to Isatis tinctoria, known in English as Woad. There are other plants in Malta which formerly could have been used for the production of dye, as Carthamus tinctorius, (Gliosfor), and a lichen called Roccella tinctoria; but only the [p.56] woad was utilized. It is now extinct, if it existed here at all, and no sign of it can be found anywhere. The ancient Britons used to colour their skins with it, but their mode of preparing the blue dye is, not clear, even to this day, as they could not have employed the same methods used in modern times for extracting the dye. If in Malta we had larger quantities of the lichen Roccella tinctoria, I would have doubted whether Abela's Glasto would have really stood for the dye produced from Isatis, but we have very little Roccella. The reason for this doubt is that when Roccella is used in the production of blue dye, it involves masceration with soda, which can be obtained by burning the wild plant Salsola soda, which is commonly found in Malta. Yet, Roccella could have been replaced by other lichens, commonly found on walls and tree-trunks. Trees have diminished in numbers since Abela's time, so that lichens could have been commoner.

THE MALTESE DOG.

Abela quotes the praises of Strabo, Esichio, Musuro. Favorino, Fazello, etc., when he discusses this dog. Although dubbed as Maltese, this creature appears to have a hazy past, but is certainly the most ancient lap-dog under domestication, which preserved its type and character for over 2000 years. From the Egyptian Fayum a fine model of this dog w-as unearthed; Strabo and Aristotle both mention the Maltese dog, and this means that its antiquity is striking. I don't know how the idea that it is Maltese originated, but most of the old writers speak of it as Melitaeus; but could this name have really been intended to suggest "Maltese". or did it have any connection with honey? Its disposition being sweet, perhaps the name was intended to suggest honey; even the name of Malta has been formerly associated with honey, according to studies made on the origin of our island's name.

LIVESTOCK.

Bela praises the quality of lamb in Malta, and the flesh of other cattle, especially that of calves, of which a large numher were killed monthly, depending on the season. Be reasons that [p.57] this quality is derived from our excellent pasture and water. Certainly we would not, ourselves, attempt to reason the same; we know perfectly well that our pastures are no grasslands, and to say the least, our water supply is deplorable; that is why we have plenty of goats, because they live well on scanty pasture; yet Abela does not mention goats. He also says that animals brought from Sicily are allowed to fatten up on our pastures, so that their flesh could acquire a special flavour, an advantage, he says, which could not be enjoyed while the animals are killed immediately on arrival. Be this as it may. technically speaking, good pasture produces good cattle, and I can't for a moment believe that Sicily is inferior to Malta in this respect, or that our pastures are ideal.

PART II

Here I am separately taking the other scattered items relating to Maltese natural history, which should have really been included in Lib. I Not. 12. Reading through Abela's valuable chapters dealing with the names of villages, valleys, heights, plains and other geographical or physical features, one is struck by the large number of place-names involving animals, birds. trees and plants. This points to the fact that they originated during primitive occupation of the islands when man felt closer to nature and natural living than he feels now. Therefore a new place, a peculiar rock, a bay or a thoroughfare was sure to he somehow likened to, or connected with natural objects, with which man was then familiar. Nowadays we can name roads and places after great men, historic occasions, mechanical contrivances, etc. as we have much more advanced material to choose from, than was available to early men. These names can shed some light on what was to be known in Malta at the time.

WATER SUPPLY AND FLORA.

Watercourses, usually associated with gardens, are mentioned, throughout a considerable section of book I, especially at Buskett (63), [p.58] Imtaħleb (24), Fawwara (28), Ta' Baldu (65), Wied Kannotta (71), Wied Bufula (72), Wied id-Dis (85), Qormi (92), Għajn il-Kbira (95), San Anton (88-9), and numerous others. Lush growth was recorded and trees were mentioned, including the Fig (89, 90), the Vine (85, 92, 95, 96), and the Carob (73, 85, 89), not to mention the abundant citrus fruits in orchards and gardens. Abela explains that the garden of Bunachla (68) was named after an Arab, but the name should suit a palm tree better. The oak is of importance, and appears to have been quite common in Malta (27.72) although it is scarce now; but even in Abela’s time, it was already on the way to extinction (17, 90), as he himself notes. The olive was also far commoner in those days, even in the wild state, as the place-names show (73, 85, 86, 104, 106), although in some places it was already extinct (88, 107). The existence of pine trees (Żnuber) created the names of some places still existing today (22, 72, 104). The Juniper (Għargħar) used to be common in the area of St. Julian’s and Naxxar, as the names still show (89). Mytle (Riħan) left its marks in place-names (70, 99, 105), as did the Buckthorn (Ziju) (106), the broad-bean (at Wied Bufula) (72), Rushes (Simar and Bordi) (25, 86), Fennel (Busbies) (9, 66, 70), and Reeds (Qasab) (66, 70).

I consider of special importance only one passing remark which Abela makes when mentioning Qala Dwejra of Gozo. He says that on Ħaġret il-Ġeneral there is a red-coloured plant, which, when reduced to powder, was taken against dysentery, apparently with marvellous results. Unconsciously he was referring to a historical and remarkable plant called Għerq il-Ġeneral, Fungo di Malta (Cynomorium coccineum) which was an object of much interest and value in the past, but now lies forgotten. Incidentally, it is neither a fungus, nor restricted to the Maltese Islands, as is usually believed. Abela was the first ever to refer to it in writing, although most foreign authors always name Paolo Boccone as being the first (1674). Prof. John Borg (1927) in his "Descriptive Flora of the Maltese Islands", says that Abela wrote about immoral uses being made of this plant; but Abela did not mention anything of this sort, for it was Bonamico who wrote about its uses (1670).

[p.50] During my researches in preparing a monograph on this fascinating and historical plant, I found that Abela was the first who wrote about it, in the historical sense, Bonamico was the first who described it medicinally, and Boccone was the first who gave it a botanical description.

FAUNA.

With regards to information on birds, this section is as poor as the former, and the only notable feature is connected  with the "paragno" or netting of birds, of which Abela here mentions only the falcons (66, 73, 94, 103, etc.), and once also "colombe" at Għar Ħasan (22). Għajn Ħamiem known today, does not refer to these birds, but is probably a corruption of an Arabic word which is meant to describe the water there some collected. Wied Bufula (72) is not named after a bird, as many may think, but, as Abela explains, it is connected with the Broad-bean (fula). Abela refers to Għar Ħamiem (27) near Dragonara, where these birds used to build their nests. This place is alleged to have been called Dragonara because some simple minded persons told about the existence of some dragon or monster; but Abela thinks, that most probably the monsters consisted of large eels living there. Talking of eels, we are reminded that only two other fishes are mentioned in this section. One is the Saupe (Xilpa) after which, the inlet "Daħlet ixxilep" was named (25). The other fish is the grey mullet (Mulett) mostly named in connection with "Daħlet il-Qasab" (91-93), an inlet so called, because a set of canes were regularly prepared to catch mullet in Marsamxett. At Msida (28) fish used to be enclosed in a fish-pond and kept as a food reserve. The only sign of a fish in this work is the simple reference to the shape of Malta, which compares with that of a fish (67). The Lithophagi (Tamar) are once more named, as "Dattili marini", which should be "Datteri di Mare" (Lithodomus lithophagus) (22). The other aquatic creature referred to is the crab, mentioned in connection with Xatt il-Qwabar (16). Various other creatures are incidentally mentioned by Abela, in his references to place-names, as Wied il-Għasel (71) traditionally alleged to have sustained numerous hives of honey bees, but Abela's version [p.60] of the tradition makes us believe that the place was literally brimful of honey for the length of 3 miles, thus accounting for its being named the Valley of Honey. He also mentions Wied in-Naħla (73). Many other places possess animal names., as Dar il-Baqar (95), Tal-Fkieren (75), Għar Ħanżir (95), Għar Għul (65), In-Nemmiel (66), Rdum il-Ħmar (25), Wied il-Ħrief (73), allied it-Tiġieġ (94), etc.

GEOLOGY.

Place-names, again, reflect some geological aspects of the Island; thus we have Forn il-Ġir (106), Għajn il-Kalkara (73), and Kalkara (20), which show us where lirne used to be extracted. Other names describe the colour and nature of the ground, as Għar il-Taflija (73), Ras il-Ħamrija and Ras il-Bajada (23), Bir Buħaġiar and Taċ-Ċagħqi (93). Some rock shapes have created the names of some localities, as Munqar (102), where part of the cliffs near Wied Babu is beak-shaped; L-Imsaqqfa (107), because of a projecting rock, Blat it-Qamar (88), after the shape of the rocks. Erosion is the agent that has changed the surface of the earth since the beginning of time, and Wied Qerda (95) is said to be so called because of torrents that have devastated that area. But in Abela's clays most of the changes that occurred on the earth's surface were still attributed to supernatural powers, rather than to the simple movements they really were, or else the explanations given were totally impossible or useless. Maqluba (100), is merely a circular hole or swallow hole, formed when the land subsided over an underground cavity which grew, in time, with the large amount of water that seeped through. Even to this day, rain water continues to find its passages to underground cavities in the same area; but in Abela's time, the legend of God's punishment was the only excuse for such a formation. Three small elevated rock-heaps at El Aram (68) were not then simply attributed to erosion, but were said to have once been three heaps of hay that had become petrified. Stalagmites and stalagtites that appeared at Wied il-Kbir near Qrendi (101) were only referred to as "stillicidii d'acqua, che dall'aria e humidità congelati, si vengono a produrre a somiglianza di certi candelotti..." [p.61] resembling icicles that hang from roofs in other lands. There are cart tracks near Wied il-Ġnejna at Mġarr il-Barrani (69), and Abela explains that the latter name stands for the cart-tracks that run into the sea, and reasons, that by this means Maltese stone was exported to Barbary during the existence of the land-bridge. Naturally this was impossible and unnecessary, but it was one of the ways of explaining the disappearance of the cart-tracks into the sea since simple subsidence and erosion were not then considered. The word "Barrani" in this instance, as in others, should mean "outer", and not going out towards the sea. Abela translated "Meġira Ferħa" (23) as "Corso allegro, o di gioia". It is traditionally held that this is the place where Count Roger landed. If we merely visit the place, we will instantly notice that it would have been insanity to choose the place for a landing; but at the same time we will also find the solution to the name it bears. "Meġira" (Miġra) is a watercourse, but "Ferħa" has nothing to do with emotion; it is merely a "branch" a "derivation" or an "offspring". In Maltese, we call the young of anything, "ferħ", and sometimes even "ferħa". Therefore the name has no historical origin, but is merely given to the little valley which branches off from the main course. As ever, fossils were not correctly interpreted in Abela's time, or, if an interpretation was attempted, the result was ridiculous; let us therefore ignore the useless miraculous powders from the rocks (20); and come to another point. On finding large, Quaternary fossils, of elephants, hippos, etc., our forefathers wanted to find a much more dramatic explanation than fossilized animals, so they came to the conclusion, after consulting mythology, that the bones and teeth that came to light, belonged to giants, "ben chiaro dimostrando esser qui state habitationi di quei primi posteri, e successori di Noe." (145), and "i Ciclopi d'Omero fussero i primi uomini che dopo it Diluvio habitassero la Sicilia, e per consequenza le sue isole vicine ancora, come sono Malta e Gozo" (147). Abela also gives the illustration of a tooth, which is supposed to have belonged to one of these giants, but can be instantly recognised as being that of a herbivorous mammal.

Apart from the items I have already pointed out there are a few others connected with creatures to be found in Malta, [p.62] as snakes and scorpions, and also the viper (erroneously supposed to have existed here), which need not be discussed, as they are merely connected with unnecessary supernatural powers which can be ignored as absolutely primitive and valueless.

CONCLUSION.

On the whole, looking back at Abela's work, we instantly know it as a purely historical account; but his references to nature, though few in number, and, with the exception of a very few, of little value in studying the natural history of our islands, are also really interesting to the student of history, since they give an idea of the way that scientific, or merely logical thought has developed with the passing of time, and this has an important bearing on the evolution of civilization and culture, which, in our islands, still retains much of the ancient way of thinking. When we compare the Maltese cultural status with contemporary world culture, we find that we are on an equal footing with other lands; but when it comes to natural history, very little can be said, as most of us do not take it seriously. Since Abela's time, however, the study of nature in Malta has increased but long gaps exist in the line of development, which takes the form of decisive periodical steps for-ward. Thirty years ago ended one of the latter periods, but now we can start another, stronger, and perhaps more effective; the gaps will diminish, until finally the development may be-come continuous, and we would be able to say that the right level has been reached, and later, perhaps, surpassed.

All the same, we must pay homage to the pioneers, and though Abela was no naturalist, we can still remember him for the picture he has drawn for us, which really shows that our forefathers appreciated the beauties of nature, even though they could not have as yet understood all its implications and purposes.