Horrible Torture in the Streets of Valletta

The horrible torture inflicted on slaves who broke the law in Malta is graphically illustrated in a book by Prof. Godfrey Wettinger entitled 'History of Slavery in Malta', revealing details about the rules and regulations imposed on slaves in Malta.

"I have quoted from about 800 manuscripts of the Order of St John," Prof. Wettinger said.

Torture was administered in St George's Square (the Palace Square) in Valletta, where slaves were tied to a stone column and flogged. Sometimes the accused was restrained on a horse-drawn cart and paraded around the main streets of Valletta while his body was repeatedly burnt with a branding iron heated over a stove.

Other forms of torture included being quartered by boats and being held by a noose in mid-air while being investigated for alleged misdemeanours.

A series of cartoons recording the methods of torture and how they were administered shows a priest earnestly asking the victim, who is being taunted with a branding iron, to abandon his faith and convert to Christianity.

At night, slaves were kept in a prison located opposite the lower Barrakka Gardens. In the prison, slaves had their own tavern because they were not allowed to buy food and drink from other outlets.

There were two other slave prisons: one close to Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa and another in Senglea.

Owners could keep only one slave at home and did not allow him or her to leave the house after sunset.

The law was harsh on slaves; they had to have their head shaved except for a pony tail, and clothes that highlighted their social status.

Black slaves were thought not fit to serve as rowers at sea and therefore did not fetch a good price. Instead they were employed as domestic help.

All slaves were freed when Napoleon came to Malta in 1798, and it then became fashionable for families to display a statue of a black manservant, made of plaster of Paris, in the stairwell of their house.

The slave trade was regulated by a mechanism determining how slaves could be ransomed. The Knights of St John used to collect details about the provenance of slaves in order to be able to estimate a ransom fee. The more well-off the slave's family, the higher the ransom asked for the slave's release.

The book takes up the history of slaves from the year 1000 when scant historical documentation was available.

"The buying and selling of slaves was legal. Slaves were either captured at sea or during sorties mainly by corsairs on North African coasts," Prof. Wettinger said.

Corsairs were private operators licensed to fight enemy ships.

"When sailors, soldiers and passengers were captured, they were brought to Malta, held in quarantine for 40 days - people were terrified of the plague and we are talking about the year 1600 onwards - and they were sold at an auction in a notary's office.

"The more daring slaves used to escape although it was not easy to leave the island. Slaves were not allowed to get close to Grand Harbour and they could not get aboard a boat unless a Christian got on board first.

"Slaves were made to wear a ring and a chain on one foot. Closer to the year 1710, the slave population was about 3,000, about 100 of whom were women."

Investigations about the provenance of slaves could take months.

The contract was signed at a notary's office and there are 6,000 manuscripts that used to belong to these notaries.

Attempts were made to save the soul of slaves and a missionary who spoke Turkish and another who was fluent in Arabic visited slave prisons.

"If slaves became Christian they were paid some pocket money and given better quality bread. We still use the idiom 'skond x'hobz jiekol' meaning 'depending on what type of bread he eats' which is indicative of one's social status.

"Slaves who changed their religious faith were given a Christian name and adopted the surname of their godfather or owners.

"The prison used to house a mosque. This arrangement was reciprocated for Christian slaves in North Africa who were provided with religious services," said Prof. Wettinger.

This article was first published in the Times of Malta http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20020610/local/horrible-torture-on-streets-of-valletta.173721#.VPrZiaTJj_g.facebook

Author: George Cini