The Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes – Plague of Malta 1813

The Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes – Plague of Malta 1813

In 1813 Malta suffered a serious outbreak of bubonic plague while under the rule of the British. It reached all parts of the island including Gozo and killed nearly 4500 people out of a population of 96,000. Its impact will have touched many families including my Callus ancestors, who were known victims. In this post I will tell the story of how it spread, what it was like for patients and their families and how the authorities tried to contain it and care for its sufferers.

Aetiology and Symptoms of Bubonic Plague

A number of detailed accounts of the plague’s progress were published in the years immediately following the disaster, including a Board of Health Report by the Chief  Medical Officer William Burrell to a parliamentary select committee in 1854. An excellent and detailed summary of these can be found at Malta RAMC – Plague 1813.

In 1813 physicians did not know what caused the plague but there were two prevailing theories; contagion or miasmatist. The published reports were coloured by which of the theories the author subscribed to. Ralph Green was Inspector of Hospitals in 1813 and was responsible for managing the sick and containing the disease throughout Malta as a member of Malta’s Board of Health. He believed in the contagion theory which held that plague was spread by physical contact, be that with an infected person’s body, their effluents or anything that had been touched by them, e.g. their clothes or belongings. Quarantine was consequently considered the most effective course of action but little could be offered the patient either as a curative or by way of palliation.

Another account comes from Dr Robert Calvert, physician to the forces, who was a miasmatist. The miasma theory argued that plague was not dependent on contact but was spread through ‘foul air’ caused by atmospheric conditions prevailing according to climate, season and geography. Calvert observed how despite strict curfews and quarantines, the disease appeared to jump from street to street and village to village without any obvious contact but always abated or died out in the winter months.

In fact, we now know that the plague is spread by a flea carrying the organism Yersinia Pestis which it transmits to the black rat, Rattus rattus (WHO). When an infected flea tries to feed from an uninfected host, it regurgitates the offending organism into the wound created by its bite. Despite popular myth, bubonic plague rarely spreads from person to person. Infection from close contact was more likely caused when an untreated victim (and there was no treatment) went on to develop secondary pneumonic plague (i.e. of the lungs) which can spread the bacteria by coughs and sneezes. The main cause of the spread was living in close quarters to infected rats, which was why whole households succumbed.

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Rattus rattus By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms of plague appear about 3-7 days after exposure. The patient has flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, chills and weakness. The most telling symptom however is the appearance of buboes. These are painful swellings in the lymph glands located in the armpits, groin and neck, which turn black when they necrose (giving rise to the name ‘Black Death’).

Plague buboes Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention - Public health Image Library

Plague buboes
Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – Public health Image Library

Improvements in sanitation have massively reduced the risk of plague since the early part of the 20th century and early treatment with antibiotics means that the mortality rate has gone from 40 – 60% to around 1-15%.

The Maltese Epidemic in 1813 – First Contact and Spread

According to all the contemporary reports, the plague arrived in Malta on 29 March 1813 with the San Nicola, a brigantine vessel which had sailed from Alexandria in Egypt, where plague was raging. The master signaled that he had lost 2 men on the voyage to sickness, which he thought could be plague due to the black tumour on the neck of one of the men. The remainder of the crew appeared healthy, so they were allowed to disembark at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island which is on the other side of Valletta, after shaving their heads, washing in sea water followed by vinegar and then leaving their clothes behind on the ship. Nevertheless, on 1 April the captain and his servant, both of whom had attended the sick men on the voyage over, fell sick and died around 36 hours later. The ship was quarantined but after 2 weeks no further crew had succumbed and so a fresh crew was hired to sail the ship back to Alexandria, which was achieved without further event.

Then on 19 April, Dr Gravagna was called to the house of a shoemaker named Salvatore Borg who lived at 227 Strada San Paolo, a poor district of Valletta near the quayside of Grand Harbour, to attend his young daughter who was suspected of having typhus. The child had been ill for 5 or 6 days and later died. On 1 May, the mother who was 7 months pregnant, went into premature labour which ended in stillbirth and then she became ill with fever with signs of swelling in her superior inguinal glands (groin) which soon spread to the other side. She died later that night. Her husband developed fever a few days later with swellings in the groin and axilla. The doctor now suspected plague and notified the authorities.

Bubonic plague was a fairly regular and much feared visitor amongst the sea-faring nations of the Mediterranean, so although the last outbreak in Malta had been way back in 1675, there were strict quarantine protocols for such eventualities.  The Board of Health swung into action. No ships were allowed to leave the port. All public meeting places, such as law courts and government offices, were shut and all the districts and suburbs of Valletta received a daily patrol by a medical team searching out new cases. Anyone who had come into contact with the Borg family were removed to the Lazaretto. The midwife who had attended the woman was found dead at her home a few days later.

More cases were soon found so the restrictions were increased. Crews had to stay on board their ships. Residents were instructed to stay indoors and not to congregate. The sale of any cloth or skins was banned. Any suspected cases were to be reported to the Board of Health and any attempt at concealment or failure to declare one’s self or others with symptoms was punishable by death!

The plague continued unabated. Everyone was understandably fearful. Many people secretly fled the city to stay with relatives or friends in the villages and countryside. The authorities suspected that people were not sticking to the regulations and were exacerbating the spread. However, years after the plague, Burrell’s report argues that there was no evidence of any contact between the San Nicola and the port residents and that the plague must have reached the population via any one of the many unsuspected ships from Alexandria entering Grand Harbour and mooring up at the quay near Strada San Paolo.

Reaction of the Casals including Żebbuġ

On news of the outbreak in Valletta, the casal (village) of Żebbuġ responded promptly by putting precautions in place. The casal was divided into 3 districts and residents were forbidden from moving outside their own cordon or outside the village walls. An official was assigned for each district to oversee the internment of any victims.  Despite this, the first victim was recorded 25 May. Within a month, 8 people had died. A civic guard was then formed to prevent contact with the neighbouring village of Qormi (aka Curmi). On 29 August, troops placed a cordon around the casal to prevent all movements in and out. In neighbouring Qormi, martial law was imposed on the grounds that the population was worsening the spread by thieving from infected families (which was almost certainly untrue). In September, the military cordons were doubled in both villages. This was a bad policy that was to have catastrophic consequences for these 2 villages.

Plague map of 1813 showing casals (villages) where military cordons were in place. Source: Malta RAMC.

Plague map of 1813 showing casals (villages) where military cordons were in place. Source: Malta RAMC.

The population of Żebbuġ was around 4, 700 in 1813.  Between May and October the village sustained 691 deaths due to plague, which represented about 14.5% of the total population, a staggering loss. Qormi’s population and death rates due to plague were very similar. Death rates amongst the military garrisoned there were, however, very low because they were patrolling the cordons outside the village walls and were in the fresh air, not cooped up in infested houses.

By contrast, the neighbouring villages of Siggiewi and Zurrieq, with populations of around 3,500 people, had 9 and 6 deaths respectively over the whole period, representing under 1% of their populations. Even Valletta fared better, losing 8% of its population.

The Plight of Victims

Quarantine harbour with Fort Manoel and Lazaretto, Valletta. Source: Malta RAMC with permission.

Quarantine harbour with Fort Manoel and Lazaretto, Valletta. Source: Malta RAMC with permission.

Patients who were transported to the Lazaretto near Valletta, suffered appalling conditions. When the hospital became full, the military erected barrache or pest houses in the ditches alongside the walls of the fort. These 12 foot square cabins were unfurnished, poorly ventilated and in the full force of the sun reflecting off the fortress walls so were unbearably hot for inmates (who were already suffering from fever). There were around 5 or 6 patients to a room and 2 attendants per 28 patients (and these were convicts drafted in from the prisons and who had therefore absolutely no wish to be there or much sympathy for the poor victims)! Patients had to lie on straw or bare floors. Sanitation was poor, there was no change of linen and the death rate was consequently extremely high. People who were symptom free but known contacts of victims were incarcerated with the sick in an attempt at containment at any cost and the cost was high, anywhere between 30-50 deaths per day at the peak!

In August, Joseph Callus, the cotton spinning mill owner of Żebbuġ, fell sick with plague. He was a young man who had been married about 3 years to Anna and had a 2 year old son, Andreas (my Gt Gt GF).

There was no hospital in Żebbuġ so patients were looked after in their own homes. While a diagnosis of plague in the household must have been a terrifying prospect for any family, being cared for at home was a much lesser evil for the patient. Like Valletta, a Committee of Health was formed to visit suspected households, dispense food, charity and medical aid and to keep suspected cases under observation. Public subscriptions were raised to help the poor.

People like Joseph, who were relatively well off, would have had better, less cramped housing and probably had servants. This may have lessened their own risk of contamination as it would be the servants who would come into contact with the food stores and animals in the lower part of the house where rats and fleas were more prevalent. The strict restrictions meant that no one was allowed to change their domicile during this period or enter other properties. Complete seclusion had to be maintained. The presence of servants would therefore have depended on whether they were living in.

Once an infection was notified, the house was marked up and guarded. During the height of the epidemic, houses in Żebbuġ and Qormi were actually locked up by the authorities. Only one person would be allowed out for a few hours every day for provisioning and the removal of bodies.

In late August, a field hospital was set up on the outskirts of Żebbuġ for the poorer sick but this was not much better for them as they also had no shelter from the sun. Within a couple of weeks 189 people had died there! Transferring patients away from dwellings into the fresh air did however stop further spread, probably because people were removed from the source of the contamination, namely the plague infested rat population.

As it was, Joseph Callus died 10 August 1813, aged 26.  He was buried in a mass grave in the plague cemetery in Żebbuġ, the exact site of which is unknown.

Communion being given to a plague victim.

Communion being given to a plague victim. Source: Public domain.

The Aftermath

The number of new plague cases started to go down in Valletta from the end of August 1813 but continued to rise in Żebbuġ and Qormi until the end of September, probably due to the quarantine policy. During October plague fatalities reduced dramatically and by November no further deaths were recorded in Malta. The islands were officially declared plague free in September 1814.

We know of course that Joseph’s son Andreas Callus survived, but records for this period are sparse and I do not know at this stage whether Anna or any other members of his near or extended family did also. However, as our family tradition only mentions Joseph succumbing, I think we may deduce that Anna survived otherwise Andreas would surely have mentioned his being made an orphan.

One of the consequences of the plague must have been the collapse of the cotton industry and this would have had serious implications for the surviving Callus family. On 22 August 1813 an order was given to ban the gathering in of the cotton harvest as it was thought the crop might be a source of plague transmission. During this time however, people were banned from free movement around the casal or to places of congregation so the spinning mill could not have been operational. It was also impossible for people to trade or move anything down to the ports.  Foreign ports also imposed quarantine restrictions on Maltese shipping and imports, some maintaining these until as late as 1826 (S. Sciberras)!   The Callus income must have completely dried up during 1813 and may well have gone bust as a consequence of the trade embargo and the emergence of new, cheaper competitors in the cotton trade such as Egypt, Syria and India. Many local cotton farmers switched to growing grain instead.

In my next post I will describe what happened in Malta in the years following the plague to cause Andreas Callus and many of his Maltese compatriots to finally choose to leave their tiny island homeland for pastures new.


General Board of Health (1854), Appendix V on the Second Report on Quarantine: Report of Dr W.H. Burrell on the Plague of Malta 1813, HMSO: London.

Sciberras, S., Malta History: 3 – Economic and social issues of the last two hundred years.

Bonnici, W., Malta Royal Army Medical Corps: Inspector of Hospitals Ralph Green and the Plague of Malta 1813.

WW1 Centenary – Life Stories

WW1 Centenary – Life Stories

Poppies by Olga Flickr CC

Poppies by Olga – Some rights reserved

This year is the centenary of the First World War and as today is Remembrance Sunday I thought I should let you know about the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War‘ project. The project aims to piece together the Life Stories of over 8 million men and women from across Britain and the Commonwealth who served in uniform and worked on the home front during the First World War in order  to create a permanent record of all the people who made a contribution to the First World War.

The project has created a webpage entry or ‘life story’ page for every person who enlisted. The initial details are derived from such things as service and medal records. There are a number of ways in which individuals can participate in the project.

Firstly you can visit the website, search for family members and click on names to ‘remember them’ and share this with others through social media sites if you wish.

You can also register, for free, as a member, which then allows you to upload more information about the people you find. This can include photos, documents and even your own oral histories. The IWM is however, very keen to ensure that the information provided is reliable and robust. Therefore you cannot insert any fact without supporting evidence, although this can include things like family letters.

Finally you can subscribe for a fee, in order to be able to access additional content and create your own web communities on the site.

Anyone can contribute to these sites so I hope some of you will visit and look for your own family members. I have started to contribute to the life story of my maternal grandfather, Victor Callus, for whom there is a lot of available information. I also have information that can be added to those of his brothers, Harry and Arthur, but have less detail on Charles and Andrew. This family was very fortunate in having 5 brothers who went to war and who all came home.

With respect to my paternal McMellon line I have scant information but perhaps others will have more.

We will remember them.

Charlie, Arthur, Andrew, Victor, Harry and father Henry seated.

Photo taken of the Callus family Cardiff, at the end of WW1 – L-R Charlie, Arthur, Andrew, Victor, Harry and father Henry centre seated.


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

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!











Another Callus Revolutionary? Napoleon and Alexandre

Another Callus Revolutionary? Napoleon and Alexandre

Napoleon Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, c.1868 by Jean-Leon Gerome, Hearst Castle - Public domain.

Napoleon Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, c.1868
by Jean-Leon Gerome, Hearst Castle – Public domain.

In 1798 Malta was invaded by Napoleon on his way to his campaign in Egypt. According to our family tradition, Alexandre Callus, brother of my Gt Gt Gt Grandfather Joseph (c. 1788-1813) was a colonel in Napoleon’s army and ended up living in Corsica. Is this a myth or could it be true?

Napoleon’s Invasion of Malta

In the second half of the eighteenth century, there was growing unrest amongst the Maltese people with the rule of the Knights Hospitallers.   In 1775, there had been an unsuccessful insurrection by the Maltese, which included many priests. It had been put down and the ring leaders given life imprisonment or exile. Also, as a result of the support lent to the French Revolution by many of the French knights and Grand Master Ximenes, the island of Malta was in poor shape financially so taxes were raised to recover revenues which caused great hardship to the native population.

By 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte’s star was rising and he was busy hatching ambitious plans to invade Egypt and possibly even to extend to the Middle East. But France was broke and he did not have the resources to finance such an enterprise. As it happens Malta was en route and some Maltese had secretly made contact inviting him to come and relieve the Knights of their dominion!

Napoleon's Invasion of Malta 1798 Public Domain

Napoleon’s Invasion of Malta 1798
Public Domain

On 11 June 1798, Napoleon arrived at Malta with 30,000 troops and requested permission to harbour his ships at Valletta for supplies. The Grand Master, Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim, replied that as Malta was a neutral territory, only 2 ships could enter at a time. Napoleon responded by bombarding the harbour and despatching thousands of troops to land at strategic points all around the island. The Maltese were overwhelmed. At the same time, a goodly proportion of the French contingent of Knights Hospitallers refused to take up arms against their countrymen. The Grand Master therefore had little choice but to surrender Malta to Napoleon in return for lands in France for himself and the Knights. They departed Malta immediately, never to return, signalling the end of the rule of the Knights.

The Grand Master's Capitulation of Malta to Napoleon in 1798. Public Domain.

The Grand Master’s Capitulation of Malta to Napoleon in 1798.
Public Domain.

Napoleon’s troops were instructed to overrun the island, plundering the treasury, palaces, churches and the houses of the aristocracy. The financing of the Egypt campaign was effectively achieved through piracy! At this time, my Callus ancestors resided in Zebbug, near Mdina. When the villagers of Zebbug heard that the French troops were coming, they quickly descended on the parish church and hid its treasures. They then threw open all the doors to the church so that the soldiers would think that the church had already been looted and would pass by.  Ingenuous and it worked!

Napoleon himself only stayed 6 days and then departed for Egypt. During that time, he issued 10 Ordinances for the government of the island which included mandating use of the French language, the abolition of slavery, compulsory schooling, decreeing religious freedom for jews and Greek orthodox church and the recognition of civil marriage. Streets and squares were renamed.

The Maltese Response to French Rule

A garrison of around 4000 soldiers was left behind to maintain control of Malta. At first the local Maltese population welcomed them, seeing them as liberators, particularly as Napoleon had abolished the ancient feudal system that had kept them in thrall to the Knights.  However while they tolerated the policy of looting the aristocracy, they took great exception to the looting of their churches and the disrespectful attitudes of the French garrison to their clergy. This reached a head at a public auction of church property in Mdina which inflamed the crowds and caused a local riot. Soon after, on 2 September 1798 after an occupation of only 3 months, the Maltese rebelled and routed the French from Mdina and the island’s interior.

The French and about 100 Maltese supporters retreated to Valletta where they remained under siege for almost 2 years, with the British fleet under Nelson blockading the Grand Harbour and supplying arms to Maltese irregulars to starve and harry the troops inside the fortress. What was left of the garrison eventually surrendered to the British in September 1800. (The Maltese were not consulted on the terms)! Britain then held Malta as a British Protectorate until the 20th century, when Malta gained independence, becoming a republic in 1964.

An excellent and more detailed account can be found at Vassallo History – French Blockade.

The Search for Alexandre

How does our family tradition stack up against the historical facts of Napoleon’s invasion?

Alexandre was baptised Phillip Alexander Augustus Callus on 7 July 1779 in Zebbug. This meant he was 19 years old at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.

His parents were Andrea Callus and his second wife Caterina Cauchi, (Andrea’s first wife Rosa Cauchi having died many years earlier without issue). Alexandre was named after Caterina’s father Alexander Cauchi. He was about 9 years older than his brother Joseph, but it’s not known if there were other siblings.

We have to speculate under what circumstances Alexandre could have engaged with Napoleon’s forces. I think it unlikely that he would have enlisted after Sept 1798, as the Maltese of the interior, which included Zebbug, had by then become completely disenchanted with French rule. To enter at the rank of colonel seems doubtful, particularly for a young non career soldier in these circumstances, but there is the possibility that he bought a commission during the 3 month “honeymoon period” of Napoleon’s occupation. His family were probably sufficiently well off. If this were true, then he would most likely have been caught up in the siege at Valletta and been lucky to survive and escape!

It seems more probable that he had left Malta and joined the French army some time prior to the invasion as there were plenty of French sympathisers before this point. In a letter from Hortense Callus dated 1930 she states that Alexandre joined the army in Corsica and “passed through Malta before settling in France”. If correct he may then have been part of the force that captured Malta and then left for Egypt. By the time that campaign was over, a return to Malta would have been impossible due to the French reversal of fortune.

I do not know what would have been the earliest age for enlistment in the French army and have not been able to locate any French military records – where to start? Perhaps this is an avenue for future research.


With just a birth date and a viable timeline but little else to go on in terms of evidence, this seemed to be the end of the road for this story and then finally, I decided to see if it was possible to locate any Corsican records online. Lo and behold, I discovered one solitary Callus family in the records – a marriage in 1824. With some trepidation I clicked on the name to find out more and up came the results:

The bride was Marie Catherine Jéròme Callus born c. 1805 Ajaccio. She married Etienne Corticchiato (b. 1803) on 24 April 1824. But more significantly Marie’s parents were named as Alexandre Callus and Therésè Secondini of Ajaccio, Corsica!

There are also records for 2 other children:

Dominique Callus b. 1810 Ajaccio and

André Callus b. 1817 Ajaccio

Ajaccio, Corsica Photo by JeanBaptisteM. Some rights reserved.

Ajaccio, Corsica
Photo by JeanBaptisteM. Some rights reserved.

The dates align perfectly with our man. If we assume he married around 1804, he would have been aged 25. What is more his occupation is given as, not a colonel, but a teinturier=dyer. Alexandre’s brother Joseph, was the owner of a spinning mill back in Malta, so the occupation of dyer seems an appropriate skill for the main industry of his home town and the family business. It is not clear however what induced Alexandre to leave the island when his family seemed to have a thriving business. Perhaps therefore the spinning mill was not the product of his father’s fortunes but of his brother’s, either as a self made man or connected with his in-laws? (I will be returning to Joseph’s story in a future post).

However, the fact that the nub of this story came down to us as oral history does indicate that Alexandre must have remained in contact with his family in Malta. If there was a family falling out, his travels would not have been considered worthy of passing on to future generations.


The lack of evidence for a military role remains a mystery. It is interesting to speculate that following Joseph’s death in 1813, Alexandre may have had an opportunity to return to Malta to take over the spinning business. However if Alexandre had indeed had a military career in Napoleon’s army then Malta’s new colonial regime under the British may well have considered this a treacherous association, making it impossible for him to return. It’s becoming a recurring theme!

Harbour of Ajaccio, Corsica by Paul Arps, 2014. Some rights reserved.

Harbour of Ajaccio, Corsica
by Paul Arps, 2014. Some rights reserved.

From the Blue Sea I Took my Name

From the Blue Sea I Took my Name

Blue Grotto, Wied ir-Zurrieq Photo by L. Joonas

Blue Grotto, Wied iz-Zurrieq
Photo by L. Joonas. License.

My direct line of Callus descent can be traced all the way back to Gregorij Callus and Maruzza Farrugia who married 18 September 1688 in the village of Zurrieq, in Southern Malta. This article is about the people descended from that first family in the 18th century and the places where they lived.

Location of Zurrieq, Malta Image by W. Shewring, 2007

Location of Zurrieq, Malta
Image by W. Shewring, 2007. License.


Zurrieq (pronounced Zoo-ree-ah) is about 7km South of Valletta on the South coast. It’s a village/small town of around 12,000 inhabitants. The administrative boundaries includes the tiny island of Filfla and the tourist hotspot ‘The Blue Grotto’. Zurrieq is derived from the Maltese Zoroq which means ‘cyan’ or blue and the town’s motto is “Sic a cyaneo aequore vocor”, which translates as “From the blue sea I took my name”. The town’s flag and Coat of Arms reflects this continuing theme of the blue sea and white and blue for the sky.

Zurrieq Coat of Arms Image by Inkwina

Zurrieq Coat of Arms
Image by Inkwina. License.

It is quite possible that my Callus antecedents in Zurrieq go back all the way to the Byzantine period. Zurrieq is one of the oldest continuous settlements in Malta. Archeological finds there have been dated to the Bronze Age (the ancient temple of Hagar Qim is just outside the town), but also Punic, Roman and Byzantine Greek. As I mentioned in my introductory page on Callus, it is thought that the surname is of Byzantine Greek origin, although surnames did not really come into standard use until the Norman period.

First Generation

Parish records in Malta start from the early 1500s. Until recently many have only been accessible from the originating parish church and sadly a lot were lost in the blitz of Malta in WWII. Our first family tree was compiled by Moira McGrother and went back as far as the marriage of Alberto Callus in 1720, which named Gregorij and Maruzza (AKA Maria) as his parents. However, a large number of records have now been digitised and published on the ADAMI Collection website. This has enabled me to go back just a little bit further and pinpoint the 1688 marriage. A number of other Calluses married at the same church around the same time. These included:

  • Gio Maria Callus married  Margarita Darmanin 11 Oct 1687
  • Giuseppe Callus married Paoline Camilleri 16 Apr 1690
  • Maria Callus married Angelo Psaila 16 Jan 1693

It is quite possible these are all siblings of Gregorij. All these records are taken from an index file so unfortunately we do not have the names of each spouse’s parents which would prove one way or another whether they are indeed related and might also enable us to track back to even earlier generations. The detailed entries may yet be available from the original full marriage register but will require a direct enquiry at the parish church of St Catherine of Alexandria in Zurrieq. (Hint – if anyone is planning a visit to Malta, perhaps they might like to follow this up)!


St Catherine's of Alexandria, Zurrieq, Malta

Parish Church St Catherine’s of Alexandria, Zurrieq, Malta

St Catherine’s was built around 1634-59. It has paintings by the italian artist Mattia Preti who is buried in the church. He also executed the ceiling painting of St John the Baptist in St John’s Co-cathedral in Valletta.

Second and Third Generations – The Windmill Community

It is difficult to imagine what the lives of our early forebears were like from just a few dates on a register, but luckily, the Adami collection has more records to help us flesh out the details. This includes baptisms, marriages and burial registers for a limited number of towns and villages and a number of census rolls taken in 1747, 1758, 1764 and 1776.

So what can we glean from these?

Well first of all, we already knew that our branch of Callus was descended from Gregorij’s son, Alberto, who married Magdalena/Maddalena DeBrincat in 1720 in Zurrieq and that they had a number of children (Nicolo, Vittoria, Giovanni, Maria and Andrea). The new records reveal that Alberto had 2 more children than was previously known (Teresa and Anna). He also had a brother, Giuseppe (Joseph). Giuseppe married Grazia Bonnici  in 1715 and had a daughter, Orsola. Their father Gregorij, was already dead by the time of this marriage.

Then comes the 1758 census of Zurrieq and suddenly we can see a large number of Callus families all living together cheek by jowl in a small community or district of Zurrieq recorded as Sarolla, now known as Ta Xarolla. The likelihood of course is that they are all related in some way. Some of the relationships can be worked out, others are more opaque, so for instance:

Family no. 113 – Alberto and Maddalena (Gen 2) were living with their children – Teresa, Anna and Andrea (Gen 3 ancestor).

No. 114 – Andrea Callus, a widower, with his children Rosa and Giuseppe – (relationship to our ancestors not known, perhaps a brother or cousin of Alberto)?

No. 116 – Giovanni and Clara Callus and their children – Gio Battista and Catarina (Giovanni was one of Alberto’s sons).

No. 119 – Arcangelo and Anna Callus and their children – Giuseppe and Lorenzo (relationship not known).

No. 128 – Grazia Callus (widow of Alberto’s brother Giuseppe) and her daughter Orsola.

No. 40 – Imperiuzza Signora Callus and Orsola Callus (relationship not known – what does the title Signora signify)?

No. ? – Giuseppe and Maria Callus (relationship not known).

No. 70 – Arcangelo and Evangelista Callus and their children – Giuseppe, Maria and Catarina (I think Arcangelo might be another son of Andrea Callus of no. 114).

These records suggest another point of detail that we did not know before. Andrea Callus, shown above in family no. 113, the “child” of Alberto, is thought to have been born about 1737 in Siggiewi, which is where his wife came from.  In 1757, Andrea married Rosa Cauchi, who died without issue. The census of 1758 shows him living with his parents with no sign of Rosa. I think this might therefore indicate that Andrea was widowed within a year of his marriage and returned to his family. Perhaps she died in childbirth as many women did. He was aged about 21 although I have no baptism record for him as yet.

I intend to publish an updated family tree chart for this Callus line in a future post.

Tax Xarolla Windmill, Zurrieq Photo by Wayne77, 2014

Tax Xarolla Windmill, Zurrieq
Photo by Wayne77, 2014. License.

Now the principle feature of Xarolla was that it had a windmill, one of several in this area. It was built by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena in 1724. The windmill at Xarolla has been restored to full working order and is now open to the public as a cultural centre. Next door to the windmill are some early christian catacombs dating from the 3rd and 4th century.

In the 1764 and 1776 censuses, Giovanni Callus, Alberto’s son, is shown living with his now extended family, at Nigret, where more of these windmills were located. The first windmill, Tal-Qaret, was built as one of five by Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner at Nigret in 1674. Vilhena built another next door to it in 1724 which was named after its first miller, Luret Marmara. There were also windmills at Siggiewi and Zebbug, both villages where later family members moved to. It is not unreasonable to suppose therefore, that the Callus families of this period may have had occupations associated with the mills, e.g. wheat growers, millers, or merchants. (The digitised census records are incomplete and none of the other families identified above can be found in the later censuses).

Visit this link for an interesting article about the Windmills in Malta. Most were built and owned by the Knights of St John but in later years many seemed to be owned by members of the Zammit family. Note above therefore that Giovanni Callus was married to a Zammit (Clara). I wonder if this is significant?

More information about the village of Zurrieq can be found at Zurrieq local council website .

There are photos and more information about Zurrieq at






The Lost Garden of Dr Joseph Callus (1505-1561)

The Lost Garden of Dr Joseph Callus (1505-1561)

Ta'Hammud along Dingli cliffs and coastline, Malta. Photo by Lawrence Porter at Picasaweb

Ta’Hammud along Dingli cliffs and coastline, Malta.
Photo by Lawrence Porter at Picasaweb

Dr Joseph Callus (1505-61) has in recent years become an important symbol of Maltese national identity. As such much research is being done in Malta to try to uncover more information about his life. One matter which has attracted particular attention has been the alleged discovery of his estate, which was confiscated by the Order of St John after he was convicted of treason in 1561.

The property in question is called is-Simblija near Ta’Baldu, Dingli, a few miles towards the coast, south of Rabat, Mdina. It consists of a medieval rural settlement, which includes a number of rock cut rooms, one of which is claimed to be the Santa Marija ta’Callus chapel. There is also an artesian well, communal oven and nearby, the remains of a donkey-driven flour mill. The settlement is surrounded by fields and orchards. A 360 degree panoramic image of the site can be accessed at Malta in 360° including detailed information about the buildings in the complex.

In 2006, the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA) made a preservation order on the complex, making it a grade 2 national monument, following an EU funded restoration project. However when visitors such as local walking groups tried to gain access to the site, they were blocked by the owners who insisted that as the site remains private property, they are under no obligation to open it up to visitors. This resulted in angry letters being published in the media and even questions in parliament!

However, as it happens, not everyone is convinced this is the correct site! If you think about it, Dr Callus was a man of great status and wealth who had an active public life in the citadel of Mdina. The property at is-Simblija is a rustic, semi-troglodyte dwelling miles from the town. It does not seem the sort of place one would have expected him to live in, although one explanation could be that he acquired lands which were leased out to tenant farmers.

Wied ir-Rum, Malta. Photo by Lawrence Porter -

Wied ir-Rum, Malta.
Photo by Lawrence Porter – Picasaweb

In a piece published in the ‘Times of Malta’ in June 2012, Noel Ciantar claims that the is-Simblija complex is a complete misattribution and that the chapel at is-Simblija is no such thing, just a farm room, a claim backed up Professor Fiorini’s research in 2002. According to public deeds Joseph Callus owned a viridarium (orchard or garden) which contained a chapel at Wied ir-Rum on the outskirts of Rabat. It was originally known as Giardino ta’ Callus but became Wied Ferin in later records, which Ciantar claims suggests an attempt to obliterate Joseph’s name from history. (Although there are now several streets in local villages and towns named after Callus, e.g. in Rabat and Zurrieq). Ciantar cites a number of sources up to 1772 identifying Ta’ Callus about 1/2 km to the west of is-Simblija in a valley adjacent to Il Qattara. He also claims that while there once was a chapel at this site, it was deconsecrated hundreds of years ago and fell derelict. No sign of it remains today and even the correct site of the garden has yet to be pinpointed correctly. We shall have to wait and see what transpires.

Full text of  Rendering Justice to Guzeppi Callus by N. Ciantar at Times of Malta.

Folio image of 19th century drawing of Wied Ferin orchard.

A Maltese National Hero – Dr Joseph Callus (1505-1561)

My Callus ancestors can be traced back to the late 17th century. They came from Zurrieq in southern Malta. One of Malta’s oldest national heroes also came from Zurrieq. His name was Dr Joseph Callus (aka Giuseppe, Guzeppi or Mattew, Matteo). This is his story which I have drawn together from a wide range of sources.

Formative Years

Joseph Callus was born in 1505 in Zurrieq, Malta, the son of Hyeronimus or Glormu Callus. He had 2 brothers that we know of, Antonio and James (Giacomo).

Medical Practice

It is believed that Joseph Callus trained as a doctor in Southern Italy and was practising in Sicily in 1530. It is in fact quite likely that he attended the oldest medical school in the World, the Scuola Medica Salernitana which was based in Salerno in Southern Italy and housed Western Europe’s most important medical library of the day, the Library of Montecassino. We can surmise this because the Salerno School developed a canon of writings called the “ars medicinae” (art of medicine) and  Callus is later referred to as a “doctor of art and medicine”. There is also evidence from his medical practice in Malta and his Will, bequeathing some of his medical books, that shows that his training was based on the Arabo-hellenic tradition which involved the study of the ancient Greeks such as Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen and important Persian and Jewish practitioners such as Al Razi (or Rhazes), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Maimonides (A. Bugeja, 2012 p.30, P. Cassar, p.358) . These ancient Greek texts had been lost to Western medicine for centuries but were rediscovered during the Renaissance through Arabic translations. The medical school at Salerno was the most famous proponent of this form of medicine at the time.

Scuola Medica de Salernitana. Image sourced from a copy of Avicenna's Canons (Wikimedia Commons).

Scuola Medica de Salernitana. Image sourced from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons (Wikimedia Commons).

I should just explain the principle differences in early medical practice. Early medieval christian medical practice was dominated by a curative approach heavily influenced by pagan and folk medicine, which relied on herbalism and superstition (charms, amulets, prayers and rituals etc). The medical practice of the arabo-hellenic tradition was quite different in approach because it sought to understand the causes of disease and how the body worked. It therefore included the study of anatomy and used surgery as well as medicine. Arabic medicine also made great advances in the study of ophthalmology (eye diseases).

Career 1530-61

Joseph’s career got off to a good start. In 1530 he was employed by the Knights of the Order of St John (Knights Hospitallers), as physician to their navy, as they got ready to leave Sicily for their new base in Malta. He is documented as also having been employed as a naval physician on two further expeditions, to Syracuse and Tunis between 1539 and 1560 (J. Galea, 1945).

In November 1536 he was appointed the physician of the capital at Mdina and visiting physician for the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rabat, a role he held continuously for 29 years. This was Malta’s first hospital, which was established in 1372 for the care of foundlings, the very old and infirm and the very poor. It was served by a surgeon, a visiting physician and a visiting apothecary paid for by the universitá (town council) out of revenues they raised from the sale of wine. Joseph’s father, then brother Antonio, served as the apothecary. The “hospital” such as it was, received patients in the small church of Santo Spirito where there were 4 beds or cots, for up to 8 patients, i.e. 2 patients per bed!

The role of physician was held in high esteem and so Joseph made a good living. He bought property and engaged in treasure hunting and was often asked to be a god-father at baptisms and curator for orphans (Documentary Sources for the History of the Maltese General Practitioner, Bugeja, 2012, p. 29).  He would probably also have received private patronage and gifts, something suggested in a recorded dispute of 1560 when he sought compensation for the price of a schooner (see below).

During this time, he also became renowned as a medico-legal expert. Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette himself referred to Joseph as Eruditissimus Vir (erudite man).  A legal testimony from 1542 survives in the cathedral archives of Mdina. It is written in Latin and reports the medical opinion of 2 doctors, “Magnificus Joseph Callus” (doctor of art and medicine), and Rainerio de Bonellis (physician, surgeon and professor of medicine, also a noble), in a case of a woman Mattia  who was seeking annulment of her marriage to John Azzopardi, on account of his inability to properly consummate their marriage and father a child. A detailed analysis of the case is described by medical historian, Paul Cassar, (A Medico-Legal Report of the Sixteenth Century from Malta),  who observed that Callus clearly identified the husband as having the congenital medical abnormality today  known as hypospadia glandis, where the urethral opening is on the underside of the male genitalia. He also accurately described its implications for the sufferer. Cassar comments that the testimony shows a clear knowledge of anatomy and there is nothing in this account that would not pass muster in medical jurisprudence today.

Fall from Grace

Joseph Callus was also involved in Maltese politics. This interest may have been sparked by his father’s involvement in the universitá but Bugeja cites evidence that on his return to Malta in 1530, Joseph was himself a member of the universitá. As I observed in my first post on Hyeronimus Callus and the Universitá, it is interesting that when the Knights came to Malta, they displaced the authority of the Universitá Notabile in Mdina by appointing a Lieutenant Governor to be their superior. This certainly caused some resentment amongst the Maltese nobility. Mdina was the island’s capital city but it remained politically as well as geographically distant from the new rulers of the Order. In 1568, this was further underscored when the Knights built Valletta and made it the new capital!

In 1878, a novel by Ramiro Barbaro told the story of Mattew Callus (sometimes translated as Matteo), who became a martyr of the Maltese people. It described how, in 1560, a doctor of the city drew up a petition on behalf of a number of citizens protesting about the usurpation of their rights by the Order of St John. It was addressed to King Philip II of Spain and asked him to intercede on their behalf. The petition was however intercepted by agents of the Order and was sent to the Grand Master. Mattew Callus was accused of  of treason, tried and hanged in 1561. The story is widely believed in Malta but the attribution to a Mattew Callus is acknowledged as an error. All the hallmarks point to our Dr Joseph Callus instead.

Research published by Joseph Galea in 1945 (Mattew Callus: a myth?) asserts that the misattribution can be traced back to a Canon Bartolo, the Bishop’s vicar in Mdina cathedral, who in 1574 wrote a complaint to the visiting Inquisitor Monsignor Duzzina about the Order in general and de Vallette in particular. This complaint included an account of the trial and execution of Mattew Callus which matches the novel exactly. Galea argues that Bartolo may have been disaffected having been passed over for a bishopric on several occasions which may have influenced his account. However he also acknowledges that Bartolo may have himself received a distorted version of the truth, the story being passed down by word of mouth in an age of general illiteracy.

Galea presents a new reading of the case which comes from a manuscript of the universitá (Mandata Ordinari 1540-1563, vol. 84) now held in the Royal Library in Malta. The manuscript is a petition dated 1560 from Dr Joseph Callus to Grand Master de Vallette. In it he pleads for reinstatement of his position as physician to the cité, a position in which he has served faithfully for 29 years without lapse. He reminds de Vallette that he has also served in the Syracuse and Tunis naval campaigns on the Commander-in-Chief’s vessel. The reason for the petition is that Callus was involved in a dispute with Catarinella de Falzone over compensation for a schooner (sconia) and had taken this to the episcopal court instead of appealing to the authority of the Order. He explained that this was done in error rather than intending any offence to the Grand Master. De Vallette accepted this appeal and ordered the magistracy to restore Callus’s position and salary forthwith. The petition is written in Italian.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette (1557-68). Photo by Giulio Andreini.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette (1557-68). Photo by Giulio Andreini.

Not withstanding this evidence, it is true that Dr Joseph Callus was still actually hanged by the Order of St John in 1561 but Galea states that the true reason cannot be confirmed because the archive records for the law courts of Mdina were destroyed in a fire in 1798. It is also known that his estate was confiscated by the Order of St John before his death. This all took place in the same year that Joseph was reinstated so, while there may have been some conflation or distortion of the facts as laid out by Galea, clearly something  very serious happened to end his life so catastrophically. My own theory is that in the period following his dismissal, before his appeal was heard, perhaps feeling bitter and disaffected, Joseph did decide to appeal to the King of Spain, as speculated. If this came to light after he had been pardoned and reinstated by the Grand Master it would certainly account for the severity of the punishment meted out to him.

Legacy in Malta

In Malta, the legend of Dr Callus is one of some controversy and ambivalence. On the one hand, he is seen as a martyr of Maltese patriotism, standing up for the rights of the common people and paying the ultimate price. On the other hand, the man who condemned him was another Maltese hero, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette, who held Malta during the Great Siege of 1565 against Turkish invaders and was the architect of their new capital, Valletta. There was public criticism following the  publication of the novel by Barbaro that so much was known about Malta’s colonial rulers but so little about their own people like Callus. In the last few decades there has been a resurged interest in academic historical research which is gradually uncovering more information about the lives of ordinary Maltese and their attitudes to their overlords. I therefore plan to return to this topic as one such area of study concerns the missing estates of Joseph Callus which has caused further controversy!

Postscript – Could we be Descendants?

Almost categorically not. Joseph named his brother Giacomo (James) Callus as his heir in a testament bequeathing his property dated 19 August 1548. It seems likely therefore that either Joseph did not marry or if he did, he left no children.

What we may say with some confidence however, is that it is quite probable that we share a common ancestor, as must any Callus originating from Zurrieq. It may also be possible that our family is descended from one of his brothers. To prove this one would need to find a marriage record for Antonio or Giacomo naming Hyermonimus as the father, and then trace their descendants forwards in time until you reach the oldest known records of our own family, an extremely difficult task and not one likely to be achieved any time soon! Personally I am content to assume we just share an ancestor.