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Get rich or die trying | Liam Gauci

Dynamic young historian Liam Gauci chats to TEODOR RELJIC about his latest – and already sold-out – book about Maltese corsairs, ‘In the Name of the Prince’, which paints a vivid picture of these enterprising seafarers during the vibrant 1760-1798 period

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
20 April 2016, 10:19am
Historian Liam Gauci: “All of Europe knew that Malta was perfect for this kind of business” • Photo by Peter Paul Gauci
Historian Liam Gauci: “All of Europe knew that Malta was perfect for this kind of business” • Photo by Peter Paul Gauci
When I meet the young historian Liam Gauci – happily, at our common current hometown of Marsaskala – he’s apologetic over the fact that the only copy of his latest book he can hand me is a spiral-bound uncorrected proof. 

“I’m really sorry, but this is actually the only physical copy I’ve got left at the moment,” he tells me after placing the thick and colourful volume on the table of the seaside café whose shadier interior we’ve chosen to patronise due to the sudden heat wave. “I couldn’t even give a copy to my girlfriend ¬– she’s quite annoyed about that!” 

But mild domestic tension aside, this is actually something of a ‘humblebrag’ on Gauci’s part. What it really means is that ‘In the Name of the Prince: Maltese Corsairs – 1760-1798’ – published by Heritage Malta last February – has entirely sold out its first run, and that history buffs and general readers eager to get a taste of this turbulent historical period and its colourful maritime protagonists will have to wait at least a few more weeks until the second run is released in shops. 

Corsair patron: Grandmaster Emanuel De Rohan Polduc (School of Antoine de Favray, late 18 cent., Oil on canvas, San Anton Palace)
Corsair patron: Grandmaster Emanuel De Rohan Polduc (School of Antoine de Favray, late 18 cent., Oil on canvas, San Anton Palace)
Not that the book’s success is all that surprising. Though he will later go to great pains to stress that corsairing is emphatically not the same as piracy, the subject carries over a similar whiff of nautical romance. And Gauci’s firm historical footing (he’s a regular patron of Valletta’s Notarial Archives), coupled with his humane focus on individual key players, is an assurance that the book is both historically solid and readable. 

Gauci is also good at pinning down the pragmatic realities behind what may seem dramatic, colourful and grandiloquent historical narratives. Another advantage of working from notarial archives is that they present the researcher with the historical protagonists’ business and property concerns: quite literally allowing the historian to get down to the brass tacks of what their subjects prioritised. And it’s good to be reminded that corsairing was, first and foremost, a business.

“We should look at corsairing as a motor of the Maltese economy at the time – just like the Freeport, and digital gaming are now,” Gauci says. “Essentially you would have Maltese families investing in a corsair – giving him money to arm a ship for war, leave Malta, capture anything of value belonging to the Ottoman Empire in the name of the ‘Prince of Malta’ – that is, the Grandmaster – to then sell it off in a public auction for profit.”

Human trafficking of Ottoman slaves was one of the chief corsair pursuits
Human trafficking of Ottoman slaves was one of the chief corsair pursuits
Unsurprisingly, Malta’s geographical location was crucial to such a venture, so much so that Gauci describes how eventually, “all of Europe knew that Malta was perfect for this kind of business”. But it was a business with loaded political and diplomatic implications. The French weren’t too keen on it because it disrupted trade in Eastern Europe – a crucial financial lifeline for them. And neither was the Church too enthusiastic about the practice – not because of any moral considerations, mind, but because bringing the Catholic and Orthodox Church together was always a desirable priority… and being Ottoman subjects at the time, the Greeks were threatened by it too.

But corsairing was too lucrative and flexible a pursuit to be deterred for very long by arbitrary rules from above. In an instance when the Church clamped down on it quite heavily, Maltese corsairs simply swapped the flag around. 

“What the Pope really prevented was corsairing under the flag of the Order. So what the Maltese corsairs then did was to carry on corsairing as usual, only under the flag of Monaco – which effectively meant that instead of paying the required 10 percent to the order, they would pay it to the Prince of Monaco!” 

Gauci also recounts how Maltese corsairs got around an Ottoman ‘ruse’ that attempted to mask their ships to prevent corsair attacks. 

“They had assumed that using Greek traders would discourage the Maltese from attacking their ships, since the Greeks were Christian too. But what usually ended up happening in that case was that the Maltese corsair would stop the Greek captain, and if he spotted any Turkish markings on their merchandise, they would either seize it from them, or ‘re-sell’ it to the captain there and then.” 

The house of prolific corsair Captain Guglielmo Lorenzi, West Street angle with Old Theatre Street, Valletta
The house of prolific corsair Captain Guglielmo Lorenzi, West Street angle with Old Theatre Street, Valletta
So corsairing certainly allowed Malta to play a part in international politics. “From the point of view of international peace, it may not have played the best role,” Gauci says with a smile, “but it was certainly very good for local families, who made a lot of money out of it.”

And the most lucrative business was “human business”, apparently. Human trafficking is the less polite term, and “slavery” would be the most direct way of describing what corsairs made the most money out of.

Gauci describes how corsairs would be paid large sums to capture slaves off Ottoman ships and then ransom them off. “This was quite different to slavery in the Americas however. The slaves weren’t whipped or mistreated in any way… because it wouldn’t pay the traders to ‘damage’ their goods. This doesn’t mean that European slaves had a good time of it, but at least life wasn’t as horrific as that of their American counterparts.”

Merchandise was another key aspect of the corsairing business, which in this case meant they would raid Ottoman ships for goods like saffron, coffee, rice and wheat – essentials for Malta at the time since “we never really had great natural resources”, which made the popularity and relevance of corsairing adventures all the more urgent to the populace at large.

“This is why I’d like to appropriate the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ line to describe Malta. We didn’t have great natural resources, but we had the sea and made use of that. Most significantly, our biggest plus was that we had a great harbour with a good infrastructure, which was perfect for corsairs.”

So how did corsairs differ from pirates, exactly? Beyond the fact that of course, pirates plundered for their own gain and would never be expected to place their loot for public auction, Gauci explains that corsairs were bound to the law in a very real way.

“If, say, a Maltese corsair captured a Greek and brought him back to Malta as a slave – the Greeks could actually take him to court. And we have evidence of a particular case when the corsair Giuseppe Scolaro captured something illegally and wasn’t just taken to court – he was taken to the cleaners: he was thrown into prison and had to be bailed out by other fellow corsairs.”

Detail of naval engagement of Captain Zelalich defeating a Tunisian corsair whilst captaining the Grandmaster's Galleot in 1765 (Anonymous, Maltese, c.1765, Oil on Canvas, Verdala Palace)
Detail of naval engagement of Captain Zelalich defeating a Tunisian corsair whilst captaining the Grandmaster's Galleot in 1765 (Anonymous, Maltese, c.1765, Oil on Canvas, Verdala Palace)
Lucrative and adventurous this business may have been, but the corsair’s life wasn’t an easy one. Neither was it guaranteed that, wealth and rich patrons notwithstanding, the corsair had any form of coherent social standing within Maltese society at the time. Admitting that further research could shed more – and necessary – light on this particular aspect of the subject, Gauci figures that even the corsairs who gained great wealth may have been looked on as ostentatious pretenders. 

“It’s a terrible cliché, but basically… these guys wanted to get rich or die trying. And probably, those who succeeded would not be looked upon too kindly by the populace at large.”

It appears that, in the social hierarchy, corsairs were outliers at the very best. But this is precisely why Gauci sees them as such tantalizing research subjects. Growing out of an MA dissertation and bolstered by documents culled from the Notarial Archives, the subject gave Gauci a glimpse into historical Malta as it was lived at the time. 

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to read about the Grandmaster… but grandmasters were the exceptions to social rules at the time. Corsairs were actually professionals trying to make a living in Malta, and looking through their notarial deeds one gets a sense of their daily dealings and struggles.” Gauci’s selection of protagonists also points to a Malta that assimilated foreigners into its social fabric – ones that, like the Montenegrin Pietro de Giovanni Zelalich and the Corsican-born Guglielmo Lorenzi, made Malta their home base – and that paint a vivid and telling picture of the island at the tail-end of the Order’s grasp over Malta. 

“These guys were really bringing in an international flavour to the island!”

But speaking of international flavour, Gauci’s publication also belies another, more explicitly ‘academic’ purpose: that of setting the record straight on some misconceptions regarding Maltese corsairs, most of which happen to have been propagated by foreign academics who had taken an interest in the subject over the years: such as the idea that Corsairs are Catholic pirates, or that they were attacking Greek merchants (“There was a huge business in fake Maltese passports – and we have evidence of this”).

Gauci assures me that he’s not railing against pesky foreigners meddling into “my subject” – if anything, these misconceptions are more often than not borne out of the fact that there’s such a vast amount of historical documents from the relevant period available locally – too much, perhaps, for an international researcher who’s only capable to carve out time for a short visit.

“What we need is healthy discussion of our history. This is the approach I take, even in this book. There’s a reason why everything is clearly referenced. I want to be challenged, so that we can continue having a discussion.”

In the Name of the Prince: Maltese Corsairs (1760-1798) is published by Heritage Malta, with photography and design by Daniel Cilia. The book is edited by Sandra Borg

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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