The Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes – Cotton (18th C)

In the eighteenth century, my Callus ancestors lived in and around Żebbuġ, also known as Città Rohan, in the central part of Malta. It was an area dominated by the growing of cotton and its manufacture into cotton thread, sailcloth and household wares and clothing. In this article I will describe the development of this industry and how it contributed to the rising fortunes of the Callus family until the early part of the nineteenth century.

Move to Żebbuġ

Andrea Callus (b. 1736 Zurrieq) probably moved to Żebbuġ around 1775 when he married his second wife at the age of 39. She was Caterina Cauchi, the daughter of Alexander and Maria Cauchi of Żebbuġ. Andrea had at least 2 children that we know of with Caterina, born some years apart. Phillip Alexandre was born in 1779 and Joseph in 1787.

Citta Rohan Gate, Zebbug By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (

Citta Rohan Gate, Zebbug
By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (

Joseph married Anna Galea in Valletta in July 1810. Her parents were Pascale Galea and Maria Gatt. There are a couple of references to a Pascale Galea in documents dating from 1778 and 1783, where he has the title of Captain of the Prisons of the Holy Office, in other words, working for the Inquisition (F. Ciappara, MHS 2005). Of course, one cannot be certain it is the same person as it was not uncommon for people on the island to share the same forenames and surnames. However the date and place is about right. If the Captain was Joseph’s father in law, then this may have been perceived as quite an important marriage.

Joseph and Anna had just one child, Andrea Pasqualis Annunziano in May 1811 in Żebbug, my Gt. Gt. Grandfather.

The Cotton Industry

Cotton plant (Gossypium barbadense) Source: Forest and Kim Starr

Cotton plant (Gossypium barbadense)
Source: Forest and Kim Starr

According to our family tradition, Joseph Callus owned a spinning mill “employing a hundred hands”. Recent research has found that his older brother’s occupation was a dyer and that he left Malta in the 1790s while Joseph was still a boy, (see previous post on Napoleon and Alexandre). This seems to suggest that the family could have been involved in the cotton industry long before Joseph became a mill owner.

According to  A.P. Vella, History of the Cotton Industry in Malta, cotton plants were brought to Malta in the 9th century by the arabs and by the 15th century cotton had developed into a flourishing export trade. When the Knights of St John took over the island in 1530, they recognised its importance to the island’s economy and established a number of laws to protect and regulate the industry. Their statutes as a religious order did not allow them to actively participate in commerce so the industry remained largely in the hands of the indigenous population where it employed a lot of people; growers, pickers, spinners, dyers and weavers as well as the merchants and exporters. The crop itself was also fully exploited, seed being fed to cattle, sheep and goats to whiten the meat and the leftover plant material used as fuel in stoves and ovens.

Until the advent of the industrial revolution, cotton spinning was mainly undertaken by women and girls as a cottage industry but there were also a few charitable institutions employing groups of hand spinners under one roof.

In 1770, the Spinning Jenny was patented by James Hargreaves in the UK. This device allowed up to 8 spindles of cotton to be spun at a time so greatly speeded up the process. A little later, Samuel Crompton invented the Spinning Mule. This machine could carry up to 1320 spindles. Whereas hand spinning was previously done by women and hand loom weaving by men, this machine led to the swapping of these roles. The mules required a lot of strength to operate so were manned in pairs by one male ‘minder’ and 2 boys, the ‘side piecer’ and the ‘little piecer’. The women then undertook the weaving, which also underwent development (e.g. flying shuttle).

Spinning mules - public domain

Spinning Mules – Source: Public Domain

By the 1790s, spinning mules had largely replaced the spinning jenny and hand spinning in the UK. A typical spinning mill towards the end of the nineteenth century would hold up to 60 mules. Whether this was the case in Malta as well is difficult to ascertain but the family tradition that Joseph had a “spinning mill employing a hundred hands” would seem to suggest so and must have been somewhere approaching this size of operation.

Turbulent Times – The Start of the Decline

It has to be said that Joseph’s family lived through a particularly turbulent time in the island’s history. In 1798 there was Napoleon’s invasion and the departure of the Knight’s of St John. There followed a 2 year siege of Valletta by the local Maltese supported by a blockade by the British who eventually ousted the French and took over the government of the island, firstly as a Protectorate, then following the Treaty of Paris, as a colonial possession.

The industrial revolution was also starting to gather pace, which led to the creation of new competitors in the cotton trade from Britain, India and Egypt among others. By 1813, the value of Maltese cotton had greatly depreciated but worse was to come when the island was hit by an outbreak of Bubonic Plague. Its effects were catastrophic and far reaching and touched the Callus fortunes in a very direct way. This will therefore be the subject of my next post!












2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes – Cotton (18th C)

  1. Pingback: Exodus – To The Levant And North Africa | From Lancs to the Levant

  2. Pingback: The Maltese Levantines of Constantinople | From Lancs to the Levant

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