The Malta Independent 8 December 2019, Sunday

The organisation of the fleet of the Order

Noel Grima Tuesday, 16 July 2019, 09:23 Last update: about 6 months ago

The Fleet of the Knights of Malta – Its organisation during the 18th century

Author: Joseph F. Grima
Publisher: BDL Publishing 2016
Extent: 448pp

There have been, as the author frankly and honestly admits right at the beginning of this book, many books that have been published about the fleet of the Order of St John.

He mentions, among others, the books by Giovanni Scarabelli, Joseph M. Wismayer, Joseph Muscat and an unpublished MA thesis by Anton Quintano as well as a recent publication by Liam Gauci.

But none, he holds, analyse and explain the organisational aspect of the Order's fleet and this is what he intends to do with this thick book.

He focuses his study to the last century of the Order's presence in Malta and this, though it may seem at first arbitrary, is intentional - the beginning of the 18th century was when the Order introduced a second element to its fleet: the vascelli or ships of the line or men-of-war, set up as an independent, autonomous unit to complement the galley squadron which had existed hitherto.

The background of this change is easily explained - the changed geo-political situation in the Mediterranean saw a decrease of maritime warfare on the part of the Order while the technological progress in the building of ships saw a decreased reliance on rowing and an increased reliance on sails.

In a way, we might say, the Order on the sea was faced with change and could adjust to it much as it could not do so on land where over the years it had burdened itself with very complicated systems of fortifications that could not be adapted to developments in warfare and which later proved to be completely ineffectual when Napoleon invaded Malta.

It is a pity that so much of the skills, traditions and indeed history of ship-building and the organisation of a fleet has been allowed to get neglected. There was a time, when the dockyard wall was pulled down and one could look and admire the historical buildings built by the knights and by the British when it was hoped that the Dock One area could be turned into a vast museum on the Greenwich model (or the many others around the world) to highlight Malta's expertise in  shipbuilding. Instead, nothing was done and the buildings have become a school, called the American University of Malta.

To get his facts, the author carried out deep researches among the Order's many archives that still exist in Malta. He also compares the organisation of the fleet in Malta with that of the Pope's fleet, that of Venice and of France, among others.

Until the beginning of the 18th century, the Order's fleet was based on the galley, propelled by oars with the addition of sails. The galley had not changed much from the days when it was used by the Greeks and the Romans.

The use of galleys in the Mediterranean was passed out during the 18th century but the Order, along with the Papal State and Venice, was one of the last ones to change.

In 1701, the Order decided to form a ship-of-the-line squadron, with the new ships being the equivalent of third-rates. A third-rate was a double-decked vessel with a forecastle, a quarter-deck and the poop deck.

Apart from better maneuverability, the new ships were better made to adapt to the broadside tactics of fighting.

When the French invaded in 1798, the Order had just finished constructing the San Giovanni, which was built in Malta.

A ship-of-the-line was expected to have a better lifespan than the galleys which lasted each about 10 years. But the ships-of-the-line at least at first did not prove to be any better, neither those built at Toulon nor those built in Malta, until they started to be built by the Frenchman Blaise Coulomb (in Malta) and lasted three times as much.

Later on, the Scolaro family from Cospicua and the Maurin family furnished Malta with generations of ship-builders. There are still some Scolaros living in Cospicua till this day.

The author goes to great lengths to speak about the organisation of the Order's fleet. It is very clear the Order tried its best to ensure efficiency and to leave nothing to chance. The rest of the book, collated from the various directives by the Order, show the insistence on order and precedents, on following the rules and the rules catering for every eventuality. It might not be that evident at first, but the Order insisted a lot on keeping proper accounts and on accounting for every little detail. After all, especially after the Revolution in France took away many Order inheritances, the Order's fleet was too small and hence had to rely even more on proper accounts.

In time, the largest single item in the Order's expenditure came to be the upkeep of the naval squadron, much higher than the expenditure on the Hospital.

Nothing was left to chance and the Order's rule books ensured strict discipline, obedience and adherence to orders.

My beef about this book is that it gives us details and yet more details about the organisation of the fleets but then it gives us too few examples of breaches of the rules and what happened later. Obviously, for such a thorough treatment this big book would not have been enough.




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