It’s no secret that Malta’s (un)lucky position smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean sea has brought us a couple of unwanted guests. In light of the upcoming ‘October Ahoy!’ events over at the Valletta Waterfront, we thought it would be fun to look back at some instances when those unwanted guests came in the form of a pirate (or 10), and the horrors that accompanied them.
A warning to ye faint of heart; some of these stories are not the most family friendly. But fret not, all October Ahoy! events certainly are.
1. The Tale of Thomas McSweeney
Back in 1837, a ship called the HMS Rodeny was docked in Barcelona, Spain. There were roughly 720 men on this ship, 719 of them English Protestants, and 1 Irish Roman Catholic. Some background for those of you who didn’t already clock the problem here; Protestants and Catholics were not very… compatible.
As you can guess, that single Irishman was Thomas McSweeney; a blond-haired, charismatic 21-year old from County Cork. Poor McSweeney was given a rather tough time aboard the HMS Rodney, but the final straw came when his direct superior Lance Sergeant T. Allen falsely accused him of being ‘off-deck’ during his shift. In a rage, McSweeney charged at Allen and pushed him over the edge of the upper deck. Allen fell a storey, landing on the below deck, resulting in his death.
McSweeney was sent to trial aboard the aptly named HMS Revenge, that was docked in Malta. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. People from Valletta and the Three Cities exited their homes to watch as the young Irishman was pushed to his death.
McSweeney gained a lot of sympathy from the Maltese, as they believed that he had been condemned to death because of prejudice against the Roman Catholic religion. You can visit his grave in Vittoriosa, which is still adorned with candles and flowers to this day.
2. St. Gregory’s Church in Żejtun
There’s an old church in Żejtun (think built-in-the-1400s old) that has one of the oldest cupolas (or domes) in Malta. Surrounding the dome is a U-shaped passage… that just happens to be full of human bones.
The bones were discovered in the 1960s, and legend has it that they belong to a group of locals who were hiding from a fleet of furbani (also known as Turkish pirates). It seems these poor souls got trapped inside the passage and perished together.
3. L-Għarusa tal-Mosta
This one’s more well known, and actually has a happy ending. So there was this rich guy, the Marquis Cumbo, who had a beautiful daughter called Marjanna. The family’s servant was a captured Turkish pirate called Ħaġġi. Ħaġġi was a very loyal and well-behaved servant, and so Marquis Cumbo let him return home. But Ħaġġi left reluctantly, as he was harbouring a very powerful crush for the beautiful Marjanna. Alas, Marjanna was about to marry the love of her life, Toni.
While he was over in Turkey, his admiration and jealousy were marinating nicely. Once he reached boiling point, he decided he couldn’t stand the pain of missing her anymore – so he put together a band of pirates and they sailed back to Malta to kidnap Marjanna. They took her back to Turkey, where he kept her prisoner!
In steps true-love-Toni, who sails over to Turkey to save her. As he arrives near her place of imprisonment, he hears Marjanna singing a Maltese għanja. Toni responds to her verse, and Marjanna jumps to her feet upon realising that her true love had arrived to save her. She convinces her maidservant to help her escape, and she and Toni sail back to Malta to live happily ever after.
4. Għar Ħasan
This is another tragic not-really-love story involving a Turkish pirate, this time called Ħasan. So Ħasan kidnapped a girl from Birżebbuġia, and hid her in a cave. During her imprisonment, in a kind of precognitive homage to Beauty and the Beast, the girl developed a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome and fell in love with Ħasan.
However, this was a problem as it was illegal for Christians to consort with Muslims at the time, and so a party of Knights set off to look for the two star-crossed lovers. As the party approached, Ħasan and his lover jumped off a nearby cliff; opting to die together to avoid being separated.
An alternative take on this story is that the girl did not fall in love with Ħasan, and he actually threw her off the cliff himself, jumping after her. Such a sweetheart.
5. Ħalfa BBQ
Il-Ġebla tal-Ħalfa is a tiny glorified island (TBH it’s just a rock) off the coast of Gozo. The story goes that the famed Great Siege’s Dragut was casually raiding Gozo in the year 1544 along with his brother, when mid-raid Dragut’s brother was killed. He asked the Gozitans to send his brother’s body over, so that he could be given a proper burial.
Needless to say, the Gozitans were not very compliant with Dragut’s wishes (and to be fair, they had literally just raided their island). So, they took the body over to Ħalfa, and basically set him on fire in protest. Dragut was pretty miffed about this, and eventually returned to Gozo to kidnap all the Gozitans and send them into slavery.
6. Il-Madonna Tal-Isperanza
Here are more Turkish pirates, this time headed for Mosta’s reaches.
There was once a group of sisters working on their farm, when a group of pirates came to raid their land and kidnap them. The girls fled towards Mosta, however one of them was not able to keep up with her sisters. She fell behind and noticed the Turks approaching her, so she ran into a cave and hid there.
While she was hiding, she prayed to Mary for protection. Legend has it that at that moment, a spider began weaving a web and in a matter of seconds had completely blocked off the entrance to the cave. When the Turks approached the cave, they saw that there was an undisturbed web at the entrance, and assumed that nobody was inside. The girl was saved, and in return she built a church dedicated to Mary atop the cave.
BONUS: You can experience life as a pirate this month at the Valletta Waterfront!
Yeah, things were intense. If you and your family want to experience the seafaring life minus the kidnapping and deaths, you can head on over to the Valletta Waterfront to join in the corsair-themed month of free activities. Every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon during October, October Ahoy! will present a mix of music, giveaways and fun life-size educational games for all; including face-painting and animation.
And for those of you who enjoy the creepier side of things, you can head on over to the Waterfront on the last weekend of October, as well on the evening of the 31st October to join in on the spooky Halloween fun! You may be able to spot some eerie nautical characters, or some spooky shadows popping up. You can even indulge in your love for creepy things and head on over in a costume!