Joan Abela - Visiting Assistant Lecturer, Faculty of Laws, University of Malta



From its very first few days in Malta in 1530, the Order of St John continued to live up to its Rhodian corsairing tradition, and retained its engagement in the Levant with ‘Christ’s Militia’ sailing ‘per omnes partes barbarie orientis’ (in the Levant). Malta’s geographical proximity to infidel territory in North Africa augured well for the continuation of the ‘Eternal Holy War’ by the corsairs. The Knights not only managed to provide the essential institutional framework for corsairing activities to flourish, but even strengthened existing maritime links and built upon the expertise of the Maltese and the Greek community that settled in Malta. The island’s peculiar conditions as an international maritime hub and its prominent role in corsairing activities made it a rendezvous for adventurers who came from various parts of the Mediterranean. Legal documents constitute an extremely rich but surprisingly neglected source of primary information that sheds light on the workings of this economic activity. Their usage has been mainly relegated to footnote-fodder and thus they remain largely unexplored territory.

This paper seeks to redress this lacuna by tapping these sources, especially Notarial deeds held at the Notarial Archives, Valletta, and the records of the Tribunale degli Armamenti set up in 1605 in order to regulate corsairing activities. Both of these legal depositaries lend themselves splendidly to serve as a mirror on various agreements, disputes and litigations dealing with corsairing activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the sale, ransom and manumission of slaves in Malta. The budding cosmopolitan nature of the contracting parties who were participant in these deeds also sheds light on a much broader aspect of these activities and helps to place them within the wider Mediterranean maritime framework.




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