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5 Maltese Legends about Pirates

Although for many years, Malta has known nothing but peace and tranquility, the island’s history was often quite turbulent, being caught up in numerous conflicts between various foreign powers. But apart from major wars, Malta was often under threat of hostile raids resulting from a wider conflict that for centuries became a way of life in the Mediterranean: piracy, or corsairing as some preferred to call it. This phenomenon is known to have been practiced in the region since ancient times but really exploded with the advent of the Crusades, as the conflict between Christianity and Islam provided the perfect justification for attacks on 'enemy' shipping and coastal settlements.

Being on the Christian side, the main threat to Malta came from the Barbary corsairs of North Africa, who terrorised Christian shipping operating in the region, as well as frequently landing on Mediterranean shores, where they showed no mercy as they sacked whole settlements, carrying off with them livestock and valuables. But their main aim was often to take slaves, who could then be sold off at auction, or else offered back to their wealthy families for a considerable ransom fee. Of course, not everyone could afford this, explaining why institutions such as the Monte della Redenzione degli Schiavi were set up. The task of this organisation was to raise funds to pay the ransom of Maltese slaves from poorer families, but the truth is that many never made it back home.

The fear of being enslaved was very real, and played an important role in the lives of many of our predecessors, as evidenced by the numerous wayside chapels in the Maltese countryside that has some connection with stories of pirate attacks, as well as the numerous pirate legends that have become a part of Maltese folklore.

1. Għar Ħasan

One of the more popular legends about the subject does not mention a pirate attack as such, but the main character is a Muslim slave, who presumably would have been captured in one of the many sea battles between Maltese and Barbary corsairs. Not surprisingly, Ħasan, as he was called, had for many years longed to be able to return to his homeland, even though while in Malta he had become infatuated with his master’s daughter.

Ħasan is usually described as a hateful and evil person, perhaps reflecting the stereotypical image that most Maltese had of people like him at the time. Despite being treated well by his master, he ended up trying to flee from Malta with the aforementioned girl, Marija. While some versions claim that she went willingly, others insist that she was abducted. Ħasan took Marija to a cave in the vicinity of Birżebbuġa, known to this day as Għar Ħasan (Ħasan’s Cave), from where he intended to make his escape by sea. He promised Marija that if she went with him and converted to Islam, he would provide for her and make her a very happy woman.

When Marija informed him that she had no intention of abandoning her country and her Christian faith, Ħasan was enraged. At the same time, soldiers led by Marija’s father approached the cave, having finally tracked them down. Afraid of being caught, and angered by Marija’s refusal to escape with him, the vengeful Ħasan leaped out of the cave, whilst grabbing hold of the girl and dragging her with him to their deaths, dashed to pieces on the rocks below, or, according to another version, drowned in the raging sea: a tragic end either way.

2. L-Għarusa tal-Mosta

A somewhat similar story is that associated with Cumbo Tower in Mosta, which belonged to the Cumbo family. They also had a slave, called Ħaġġi, as well as a daughter, Marjanna, to whom inevitably Ħaġġi became attracted. It seems that although Ħaġġi was initially loyal towards the family, everything changed when Marjanna became engaged to a Maltese nobleman, a certain Toni Manduca. Consumed with jealousy, Ħaġġi soon deserted, boarding a ship and finding his way back to his home in Turkey.

Yet, less than a year later he was back, this time as part of a pirate raid targeting Mosta. Together with some accomplices, Ħaġġi showed up at Cumbo Tower, where preparations were underway for Marjanna’s impending wedding to Toni. Unaware of what was happening, Marjanna’s father opened the door, at which point Ħaġġi rushed into the house and abducted the young woman. She was bundled onto a ship and carried away.