Advert

Inquisition talk features some colourful corsairs

The boat of blaspheming, meat-ongood- Friday-eating corsair Capitano Zelalich in action. Images provided by Liam Gauci

The boat of blaspheming, meat-ongood- Friday-eating corsair Capitano Zelalich in action. Images provided by Liam Gauci

A magician, an alleged homosexual and a Muslim renegade who lived in Malta in the late 18th century had one thing in common: they were all, at one point, defenders of the Christian faith.

These are just three of the corsairs mentioned in Inquisition records found in Malta, which show another side of the highly respected sailors who fought ‘infidels’ out at sea.

“The Inquisition defended the Christian faith against blasphemy, heretical teachings and the infiltration of Islam, among other things. So when inquisitors heard of corsairs’ less-than-exemplary behaviour, they kept an eye on them,” researcher and Maritime Museum curator Liam Gauci said.

The three colourful characters will feature in a talk Mr Gauci is giving tomorrow at 7pm at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa, where a temporary exhibition organised by Heritage Malta is on display until May 1 showing how the inquisitors spent their days on the island.

When Mr Gauci, who has been conducting research on corsairs for the past nine years, shifted his attention to Inquisition records dating from 1788 to 1798, he realised the corsairs were a headache for the prelate sent here by the Holy See and they were regularly mentioned in proceedings.

The legal system of those times granted corsairs the right to capture an enemy’s ship and bring back any treasure, including the crew, as slaves.

Lipari said he had always been a Christian at heart, said the rosary every day and tried to make it easier for the Order to capture the ship

This mission was one “against the enemy of our faith”, and corsairs were highly respected. They filed part of their gains as a form of tax return with the Grand Master and also the cloistered nuns of the Saint Ursula Monastery.

However, these defenders of the faith and their crews were often accused of blasphemy, sodomy, excessive beating of their servants and even converting to Islam, which meant they had to appear in front of the inquisitor.

The inquisitor could grant forgiveness, while priests could not. Fortunato Refalo, 16, had to appear in front of the inquisitor for blaspheming against Christ the Saviour when he tripped, hit his head and landed at the feet of a priest whom he was meant to serve sugar and lemon for his morning breakfast.

Malta in the late 18th century, when the corsairs Zelalich, Raffaeli and Lipari sailed the sea.Malta in the late 18th century, when the corsairs Zelalich, Raffaeli and Lipari sailed the sea.

“This is one of the lightest incidents. There was a ship’s captain called Capitano Zelalich, who, according to Gian Anton Vassalli, was a great patriot and saint.

“However, according to the inquisitor’s documents, if things weren’t going as planned while out at sea, Capt. Zelalich would take the portrait of St Nicholas to the upper deck and pledge he would spit on it if the saint didn’t help the crew capture a ship,” Mr Gauci said. Zelalich was highly respected and became very rich because he, a former slave, had organised a mutiny against his Turkish owners.

He was, however, eventually accused of sodomy, because of illicit sexual acts with his cabin boy Marco, whom he once beat up for flirting with another sailor.

“But it was not until he was spotted eating meat on Good Friday by his servant Maria Lucia and her husband and fellow corsair, Angelo from Senglea, that he landed in hot water.”

Meanwhile, another corsair, who was not as rich as Zelalich, turned to magic and performed the old trick of conjuring two silver scudi (20 pence coins) from behind people’s ears. When he still could not make ends meet from this form of entertainment, Stefano Raffaeli told a tavern owner a slave had turned up in one of his dreams and shown him buried treasure in the tavern owner’s garden.

The tavern owner’s wife, however, soon reported this Raffaeli, who had to explain to the inquisitor that he was only performing harmless tricks, not black magic.

Another corsair who ended up in the inquisitor’s documents, Giuseppe Lipari, converted to Islam while in Tunisia after he was enslaved for the second time.

Once he converted, since he was familiar with the secrets of Christian corsairs, he was elected second in command of the largest Tunisian ship, which, unfortunately for him, was eventually captured by the Order of St John. Suleiman – as he now called himself – was imprisoned, for the third time, in Malta.

In his defence before the inquisitor, Mr Gauci explained, Lipari said he had always been a Christian at heart. He said the rosary every day and in fact tried to make it easier for the Order to capture the ship he was on.

If you would like to hear Capt. Zelalich’s colourful blasphemies and other curious anecdotes, more information about Liam Gauci’s talk is available on 2166 3731.

Comments not loading? We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox with javascript turned on.
Comments powered by Disqus  
Advert
Advert