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When prostitution in a car was a crime... but not on boat

New book chronicles the history of the oldest profession in Malta

The debate on regularising prostitution has recently been reignited, with Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli citing the current situation as “untenable”. But few might be aware there was a time when prostitutes in Malta were registered and ordered to undergo medical examinations four times a month. And that, in 1953, Judge William Harding ruled it was a crime if prostitution took place inside a motor vehicle but not so if on a boat?

In a new book, crime historian Eddie Attard chronicles the history of prostitution in Malta, dating from the period when Malta was governed by the Knights of St John, through to the British period up until the present day.

Il-Prostituzzjoni f’Malta, a BDL publication, will be hitting the bookstores later this month.

Mr Attard writes that during the rule of the Knights between 1530 and 1798, prostitution in Malta was at its heyday. The Knights, who were supposed to take the vow of chastity, were not even meant to have sexual relations with women in general, let alone with prostitutes.

Prostitutes would wear a white shirt tied beneath their bust and a white cape over their shoulders

However, when the Knights first found themselves in Vittoriosa, they succumbed to temptation since the city contained many pubs and brothels. Apart from Maltese prostitutes, there were also Greek, Italian, Spanish and Arab prostitutes from North Africa.

The French king’s geographer Nicholas de Nicolai, who visited Malta in 1551, wrote that he was impressed by the large number of prostitutes scurrying around the Vittoriosa streets.

When Valletta was built, it was decided that a part of the city would be solely reserved for the Knights. In turn, many prostitutes transferred from Vittoriosa to the new capital, seeking places where business was lucrative.

In reality, the idea of separating the Knights from the public did not work out at all. At the time, prostitution was not illegal and in an attempt to hush up the scandal, foreign prostitutes were driven out of Malta and the Maltese prostitutes were forced to live in a remote part of Valletta.

De Nicolai wrote that prostitutes at the time would wear a white shirt tied beneath their bust and a white cape over their shoulders. Their hair was kept long – in fact, those who changed their ways chopped off their locks as a sign of penitence.

A couple of Malta’s Grand Masters were partial to some slap and tickle themselves. Drawing from other Maltese authors and historians, Mr Attard writes that before becoming Grand Master, Adrien de Wignacourt sought out Maltese women whose husbands were sailors with the Order’s navy.

On one occasion, Wignacourt was nearly caught with a woman after her husband returned home unexpectedly. One of his first acts upon being elected Grand Master was forbidding sailors to disembark before sunrise and before three warning cannon shots were fired.

Grand Master Ramon Perellos sought out women even when he was 80 while it was alleged that Grand Master Emanuel Pinto died during sexual intercourse at the age of 92!

Apart from Grand Masters, there were also inquisitors who failed to honour their vow of chastity.

In 1608, the inquisitor Leonetto della Cordoba was charged with seeking out prostitutes and, as a result, was dismissed after only two years as an inquisitor.

A number of prostitutes worked in Gozo as well. Mr Attard flags the case of a Gozitan prostitute who (rather ironically) was called Innoċenza Camilleri. She married at the age of 14 and when her sailor husband was caught and made a slave, she turned to prostitution.

To pull her out of the fire, a family friend swore under oath that her husband had passed away, enabling Innoċenza to remarry. After her second husband tired of her and left her, Innoċenza returned to prostitution.

After 30 years, her first husband returned to Gozo and Innoċenza begged Inquisitor Antonio Pignatelli for mercy. Taking pity on her, he gave her some prayers as penitence.

In the two years Malta spent under French rule between 1798 and 1800 the practice of prostitution kept rising and the French decided to open hospitals in the monastery of Saint Scholastica and in the Auberge de Bavière for soldiers suffering from venereal disease.

Interestingly, the French exploited the incidence of venereal disease among the Maltese as a weapon during their blockade in Valletta. In fact, they expelled prostitutes from Valletta with the aim of allowing them to spread disease among their enemies.

During the beginning of British rule, the situation of prostitution remained as before and possibly increased due to the foreign sailors and soldiers stationed in Malta.

In 1861, the British authorities decreed that every woman who worked as a prostitute had to visit the police force doctor three times a month for a medical examination. In 1920, this was increased to four times a month.

A 1900 document shows that at the time, there were 198 sailors suffering from venereal disease. Seventy-nine of these cases began in Malta between July and September of the same year. This meant the British sailors were contracting venereal disease from other countries and spreading it in Malta. While laws were enacted to control venereal disease, for many years Malta lacked a law regulating prostitution. The first step was taken in 1898, where the law was amended in the case of houses where rooms were rented out and brothels.

It was prohibited for more than one prostitute to live in such houses unless they informed the police. Brothels were also prohibited and law breakers were fined or sentenced to three months in prison.

A police report shows that in 1904, there were 152 registered prostitutes. Many others were not registered and the number was continually on the rise.


152

The number of registered prostitutes in 1904


In December 1917, a prostitute in Valletta by the name of Katie Shaw was mentioned as dressing herself up as a man to locate other men to prostitute herself with.

In an article on prostitution published in 1933 in Il-Ħmara, the newspaper wrote: “Prior to the last war, one could say that Malta was a convent, since religion was the bridle which curbed the habits of the Maltese, who were wholly Catholic.

“How things changed! This land which once enjoyed a reputation of goodness and honesty, one is now ashamed to step foot on it. The time has come when one cannot distinguish an honest woman from an unprincipled one.

“Everywhere one looks, all that one is met with are webs of deceit and invitations to a life of debauchery.”

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