Griscti Family Tree

Griscti Family Tree

Marie Anne Griscti’s family migrated from Malta to Smyrna and then Constantinople / Istanbul in Turkey, when she was a baby. To see my new page on the Griscti family tree for Marie Anne Callus nee Griscti of Constantinople (c.1830-1908), click on the Griscti name in the menu bar or visit this link.

This initial research covers my Great Great Grandmother’s paternal ancestry back 3 generations to the late 17th century, including her connection to the Xiberras family. The extended family has also been traced through the decades of the 19th and 20th centuries down to the present day. The new web page charts all these descendants and I will write more about some of these families in future posts.

I would like to record my thanks to Marie Anne Marandet for her extensive help in researching the families of Constantinople and to Geneanum for their excellent digital database on the ADAMI records for Malta.





The Maltese Levantines of Constantinople

Galata Tower 2013. Image © A.M. Fry

Galata Tower 2013 © A.M. Fry

In 1829, at the age of 18, my Great Great Grandfather Andrea Callus was part of a wave of Maltese people choosing migration in search of a better life, who went to Constantinople in Turkey. He was born in Zebbug in Malta in 1811 into a fairly affluent family. His father Joseph was the owner of a large cotton spinning mill but in 1813, disaster struck Malta in the form of an outbreak of bubonic plague which claimed the life of his father while he was still a toddler. In the years that followed, the economy went into a sharp decline and the cotton industry all but vanished. Many people went to North Africa but a sizable number chose to go to Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir), both then part of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey in Asia 1772 by Thomas Jefferys. Image c/o

Turkey in Asia 1772 by Thomas Jefferys. Image c/o

When Andrea arrived, he was not alone. A casual glance through the parish registers of the Latin RC churches throws up many Maltese surnames; Azzopardi, Buttigieg, Borg, Calleja, Cassar, Gristi, Pace, Spitero, and many more. Other Calluses crop up, such as Antonio Callus and Francesca Ascathari who married in Constantinople in 1831. It is possible therefore that this couple migrated at the same time as my ancestor and may even have been related to him.  At its peak, the Maltese community in Constantinople was thought to number around 4000.

Another sizable colony lived in the port city of Smyrna (Izmir). This is where the other half of my Maltese ancestry came from, as around the same time, the family of my Great Great Grandmother Marie Anne Griscti, also migrated to Turkey, while she was still a baby.

In this post I shall focus on the origins and development of the Maltese community in Constantinople in the first half of the nineteenth century; who they were, how and where they lived and how they related to the other communities around them. I will write about the Smyrniot Maltese community in a future post.

Map of the parts of Europe and Asia adjacent to Constantinople (1781).

Map of the parts of Europe and Asia adjacent to Constantinople (1781).

Earliest Maltese Settlers

It might seem strange that so many Maltese would choose to migrate to the territories of their historical arch enemy, the Turks. In truth there were probably always a number of Maltese seafarers in transit around the ports at Constantinople and Smyrna, but because Malta’s rulers, the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitallers), never made peace with the Ottomans, very few settled there. Indeed they would not have been welcome as the Maltese, under the Knights, were heavily engaged in piracy all around the Aegean (Borg, A.). If any muslims were found on ships they boarded they could expect to be sold into slavery by the Maltese corsairs (although this was a fate that was reciprocated).  Unsurprisingly, the Maltese were considered unruly ruffians by the Ottoman Turks, a reputation which proved hard to shake off all along the Eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean as far as Egypt and as late as the early twentieth century. The few Maltese that did live in Turkey may well therefore, have had good reason not to want to return home.

Charles Macfarlane by William Brockedon. Licence: Commons

The Scottish traveler Charles MacFarlane visited Smyrna and Constantinople in 1828 and wrote extensively of his trip. He made several remarks about the quarrelsome and disreputable behaviour of the Maltese lower orders who he also feared were not to be trusted after dark! In fact, so bad was their reputation that the local governor or bey of Galata arranged for several hundred Maltese and Ionians (who were considered just as bad) to be rounded up and summarily shipped off to the Dardanelles.  The bey got into trouble however, when a prominent Ionian doctor got caught up in the sweep and complained to the British Consul who then waded in to the rescue (MacFarlane, 1829)!

The make up of Maltese residents probably only started to change when Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814, because Britain, as one of the western states granted “capitulations” by the Sultan, had a completely different relationship with the Ottoman Empire.

A Brief History of Western European Settlement in Constantinople

Constantinople has always been one of the great cultural melting pots of the world. The city was founded as a Greek colony in about the 7th century BC, then became the capital of the christian Byzantine Empire under Constantine the Great in 324 AD when it was known as Byzantium.

Mehmet II the Conqueror - Gentile Bellini (Public Domain)

Mehmet II the Conqueror – Gentile Bellini (Public Domain)

The Byzantine period continued virtually unbroken until the city was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 under Mehmed II (the Conquerer).  In the final years however the Byzantines lost most of their territories outside the city and trade was taken over by the Venetians and Genoese (Mansel, 1995).  After the conquest, the sultan built his palace at Topkapi and his administration, known as the Sublime Porte, in Stamboul (also known as Sultanahmet). This is the area most visited by tourists today and is where you will also find the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar.

The European side of the city is however, dissected by an inlet called the Golden Horn. On the opposite side of the Golden Horn lie the districts of Galata and Pera, where the majority of Christians who stayed on after the conquest lived. This included the semi-independent colony of Genoese traders who became established in Constantinople in the 13th century. Their base was the triangle of land at the entrance to the Golden Horn, enclosed by thick protective walls and the eponymous Galata Tower which was built in 1349. Although the galatian Genoese had long been allies of the Ottomans, they did actually fight against them during the conquest. Despite this the Sultan recognised the prosperity they brought into the city so allowed them to stay on under his protection as long as they swore loyalty and paid a poll tax. The sultan’s indulgence was also partly motivated by the knowledge that the Venetian navy was more powerful than his, so having a resident community of Italian seafarers provided some additional protection (Mansel, 1995)!

The map below looks out across the Bosphorus from the Asian side of Constantinople to the European side. The water on the left is the Sea of Marmara, the land in the middle is Stamboul. The Golden Horn is the water inlet on the right and the land to the right of it is Galata (surrounded by its walls) and beyond is Pera (Pera means beyond)!

Byzantium sives Constantineopolis by Valvasorri 16 Century. 51-2570, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Emergence of the Levantine Community

As early as the 15th century the Ottomans opened up new trading opportunities to westerners in the form of capitulations (or chapters). The first state to be granted capitulations with the Turks was Venice in 1454. France followed in 1569 and England in 1581.  They were gradually joined by other countries such as Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Poland (Mansel, 1995 & 2012).

The terms of the capitulations granted each state the right to trade freely and to manage their affairs according to the laws of their home nations. This meant that British people who wished to settle in Turkey lived under the jurisdiction of the British Consul. They were exempt from local taxes, were governed by British law and could freely practice their religion. The arrangement was mutually agreeable to the administrative powers in that it provided powerful incentives for traders and entrepreneurs while making things less comfortable for the undesirable elements and runaways from the home countries!

In time these settlers formed a distinct cosmopolitan sub-culture that came to be known as the ‘Levantines’, from the French levant meaning ‘rising in the East.’  Often coming from the better off and more educated classes, a key feature of Levantine society was the niche position it acquired in  the development of trade between East and West.

Up until the 1840s most Levantines spoke Italian or Lingua Franca, (i.e. a simplified version of Italian with ‘loan words’ from other languages widely used around the port cities of the Med.), then French became the dominant language. However the Levantines were also renowned as a polyglot community, most people speaking at least 4 or 5 languages including Greek, Italian, French, Hebrew and English and many also conversant in others such as Turkish, Persian, Armenian and Serbo-croat. This made them useful as go-betweens in the ports and trading districts where they worked as interpreters (dragomen), negotiators, shipping agents, merchants, bankers and so on. Working between Turkish officials, local and incoming  traders and travelers, they often profited from both parties in the exchange. It was precisely these types of roles however, that meant they were perceived as not properly belonging to either East or West. This is typified by the way that visiting compatriots referred to them as ‘Franks’ and worried that their dependency on these middle men meant they might be cheated, while the Turks called them ‘Giaours’, meaning infidels. Many Turks quietly resented the Levantines because they felt that the terms of the capitulations were overly generous to the outsiders! As a result the many different ethnic communities making up the Levantines welded themselves into a single multi-cultural sub-group that looked out for each other, while at the same time looked inwards in terms of passionately preserving their own particular cultural identities and traditions.

The Maltese Community in Galata

Port of Galata, Constantinople. Source: Levantine Heritage Foundation.

Port of Galata, Constantinople. Source: Levantine Heritage Foundation.

The new Maltese migrants were part of this milieu. Although there were many Maltese working as sailors and dockers in Constantinople and Smyrna in the first half of the nineteenth century, increasingly others from the merchant and educated classes started to arrive and establish themselves in the Levantine trades and professions. They included doctors, lawyers, writers and artists and small business entrepreneurs such as my Great Great Grandfather Andrea, who set up business as a ship chandler in the Galata district.

By the mid 1800s he and many others were well established and successful. For instance, some of his Maltese relatives included Emmanuel Griscti, his brother in law, who owned a forge in Galata and his wife’s cousin, Antonio Griscti, who also owned a chandlers. Andrea’s daughter Elise, married Joseph Calleja, whose family also originated from Malta. Joseph and his brother Antoine worked for the Imperial Ottoman Bank which was based in Galata. Meanwhile Joseph Callos (sic, possibly related), was an importer/exporter of window glass. Unusually, his business was based in Stamboul in Eminonu (near the Spice Bazaar) and he lived in Pera.

Prominent examples of Maltese Levantines included Lewis Mizzi, a polyglot of a dozen languages who was the owner and editor of two newspapers; ‘The Levant Herald’, and the ‘Eastern Express’. Mizzi became a famous lawyer in Constantinople in the 1870s, but he was also a scientist and minerologist. When he retired, he returned to Malta, where he became a member of Lord Strickland’s political party.

Count Amedeo Preziosi. Portrait by Nadar 1860-70. Public Domain.

Count Amedeo Preziosi. Nadar 1860-70. Public Domain.

There was also a famous artist, Count Amedeo Preziosi. Born into a noble family in Malta in 1816 he moved to Constantinople in about 1842 at a time when “orientalism” was becoming fashionable, after studying art in Paris. He became famous for his romantic portrayal of oriental scenes in watercolour or pen and ink which were popular with travelers wanting souvenirs. As a typical Levantine, he spoke Turkish, Greek, English, French and Italian and worked for a time as a dragoman as well as a painter. He married a Greek and had 4 children. His studio was in Hamalbasi, opposite the British embassy in Pera but in later years he moved to the quieter district of San Stefano (Yesilkoy). He died in 1882 after a hunting expedition when his rifle accidentally discharged, spraying him in the chest with shrapnel, as he handed the gun to a servant.  He is buried in the catholic cemetery in Yesilkoy.

“In a Turkish Park” by Amedeo Preziosi – Christie’s, LotFinder: entry 5221684. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 

Life in Galata

Galata (today called Karakoy), accommodated the larger part of the Levantine trading and working community down at the port.

New Quay, Galata. Image c/o LHF.

New Quay, Galata. Image c/o LHF.

Until 1836, there was no bridge across the Golden Horn so local boatmen ferried people to and fro in small boats.  The consequence of this was that most of the inhabitants each side tended to stay put, only crossing when needed so there was a limited amount of intermingling and certainly no socialising between the muslim and christian communities.

Vue de Port. Before construction of the first Galata bridge in 1845, crossing the Golden Horn was via ferrymen manning small crafts. Image c/o postcard collection of Maggie Land Blanck.

Vue de Port. Before construction of the first Galata bridge in 1836, crossing the Golden Horn was via small craft manned by ferrymen. Image c/o postcard collection of Maggie Land Blanck

The first bridge was built in 1836 a little way upstream from the current bridge. The second bridge was commissioned in 1845 by Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, the Valide Sultan, and crossed at the mouth of the Golden Horn in the same location as today’s. It has been rebuilt several times since.

View across to Galta from opposite side of bridge. GH to gal LHFconstantinople28

View across to Galata from Stamboul side of bridge. Source: LHF.

Galata Bridge view pre 1894 with original police station building on the right. Source: LHF.

Galata Bridge view pre 1894 with original police station building on the right. Source: LHF.

Rue Karakeuy, Galata. Source: Levantine Heritage Foundation.

Rue Karakeuy, Galata. Source: Levantine Heritage Foundation.

Julie Pardoe, writing in 1839, observed that Galata was a prosperous enclave, being the focus of European commerce in Constantinople.

“Many of its streets are of considerable width, and some of its houses are inhabited by the principal Frank merchants, of even princely dimensions.”

The Camondo Palace on the shore of the Golden Horn. It is now owned by the Turkish Navy.

An example of one of these “principal Frank merchants” was the Jewish banker Abraham Soloman Camondo. He was the main banker for the Ottoman Empire until the formation of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in 1863 and was fabulously wealthy, owning much property in Galata and Pera. Abraham also built the Camondo steps in Galata c. 1870-80.

The Camondo Stairs in Galata © A. Fry

The Camondo Stairs in Galata

Maltese Houses

Typical balcony of Valletta, Malta. Image c/o V. Leeming 2015.

Typical balcony of Valletta, Malta. Image c/o V. Leeming 2015.

The Maltese tended to own their own houses and built them in their traditional style, which often featured a style of enclosed balcony very typical in Malta.

Maltese balcony in Felek Sok, Galata, Istanbul. Image c/o Maistora. All rights reserved.

Maltese balcony in Felek Sok, Galata, Istanbul. Image c/o Maistora. All rights reserved.

The example on the left is from Malta. It is thought that this style of balcony originated in Moorish  Spain and developed to enable muslim women, who were not allowed outside unaccompanied, to watch what was going on in the streets from a seat in the window.

The balcony on the right can be found on Emre Han, Felek Sokak, next door to the former synagogue now known as Schneidertempel Art Centre, just off Bankalar Caddesi in Galata.

Other examples can be found all over Galata.  This one is unusual in having  Maltese cross symbols on each side.

Yuksek Caldirim, Galata (steps up to top of Galata). Undated. Image c/o Maggie Land Blanck.

Yuksek Caldirim, Galata (steps up to top of Galata). Undated. Image c/o Maggie Land Blanck.

The majority of the population lived up from the Port among the many narrow streets and steep ‘staircases’ lined with houses mostly built of wood. The area was notorious for frequent outbreaks of fire.  The Galata Tower, at the top of the hill was therefore used as a watchtower for fires. In 1829 MacFarlane observed that this was manned by a guard of two or three men night and day to give the alarm when a fire broke out, which they did by beating a tremendous drum suspended in the upper gallery.

Wild fire brigade Istanbul by G Berggren 1835-1920.

Wild fire brigade Istanbul by G Berggren 1835-1920.

The Galata Tower along with the original medieval walls,  marked the boundary between Galata and Pera. However the walls were removed in 1860 in order to enable the development and enlargement of Pera as a fashionable new residential and shopping district for the Levantines.

Francis Bedford - Constantinople - Tower of Galata and Portion of a Turkish Cemetery, May 21, 1862. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Francis Bedford – Constantinople – Tower of Galata and Portion of a Turkish Cemetery, May 21, 1862. Digital image c/o the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Both Pera and Galata were renowned for being over run with packs of feral dogs which prowled the streets and sprawled out in the middle of the roads. At night they kept up a fearful cacophony of barking and howling. The muslim population believed they brought good luck to the city so fed them, but the christians considered them a menace and chased them away or poisoned them. At one point, Sultan Abdulmecid had them all rounded up and shipped off to an island in the Sea of Marmara but there was such an outcry from the Turks that he had to have them all brought back (Mansel, 1995).

Feral dogs in Rue Boujouk-Hendek, Galata, undated. Image c/o postcard collection of Maggie Land Blanck.

Feral dogs in Rue Boujouk-Hendek, Galata, undated. Image c/o postcard collection of Maggie Land Blanck.

Packs of dogs on Grande Rue de Pera c. 1906 c/o postcard collection Maggie Land Blanck.

Packs of dogs on Grande Rue de Pera c. 1906 c/o postcard collection Maggie Land Blanck.

Dogs on Hamel Bachi, Pera. c/o LHF.


The Maltese community were predominantly Roman Catholic and most frequented the parish church of the apostles St Peter and St Paul in Galata.

Interior of S.S. Peter and Paul RC Church, Galata.

Interior of S.S. Peter and Paul RC Church, Galata.

There has been a church on this site since about 1600. The church that stands today was built by the Fossati brothers in the 1840s and is built into part of the remaining medieval Genoese walls. It is still used today by the Maltese community of Istanbul with masses conducted in Italian.

Inner courtyard of S.S. Peter & Paul RC Church in Galata. The Ottoman Empire did not allow Christians to build churches on top of hills or fronting directly onto any streets.

Inner courtyard of S.S. Peter & Paul RC Church in Galata. The Ottoman Empire did not allow Christians to build churches on tops of hills or fronting directly onto the streets.




In 1848 Andrea Callus married Marie Ann Griscti at this church. They went on to have 14 children who were all baptised here. Like many Levantines, the Maltese preferred to marry into their own community and marriage was seen very much as a way of cementing alliances with and improving the financial security of families. Romantic unions did occur but were not usually the primary concern. There was a 20 year age difference between Andrea and Marie Ann and it is probably no coincidence that both the Callus and Griscti families ran chandlers businesses.




102_0393 Callus memorialAs for deaths, at the other end of the spectrum, the majority of Maltese were interred at Ferikoy cemetery, a few miles north of Pera. There are a few memorial stones within the courtyard of S.S. Peter and Paul, including two Callus’s, and a few burials within the crypt of the church. However most Christian churches simply did not have space for many burials.  This memorial to Filomena Callus is one of the tombstones in the courtyard. Filomena was the daughter of Antonio and Francesca Callus who were married at this church in 1831. They may have been related to Andrea Callus.

The other church used by the Maltese community was St Mary Draperis in Pera.

The other church used by the Maltese community was St Mary Draperis in Pera.

 Social and Geographical Boundaries – Life in Pera

British Embassy Building in Pera.

British Embassy Building in Pera.

The Levantines who lived in Pera enjoyed a different status. On being granted capitulations, each country established an embassy from which to manage and administer its interests. These were built on the hill behind the port area of Galata in the district known as Pera (in Turkish Beyoglu).

Russian Embassy in Pera.

Russian Embassy in Pera.

 In its heyday in the second half of the nineteenth century, Pera became known as the Paris of the East; its main street was called the Grande Rue de Pera and was full of grand and elegant buildings. Alongside the embassies were theatres, grand hotels, fashionable shops selling luxury goods, cafes and bars. Pera was therefore considered the aristocratic or more genteel quarter.

When my Great Great Grandfather arrived in the city in 1829 however, the area had a very different aspect. The general environment was undeveloped as many of the hotels and shops were not yet built. Instead at the top of Pera lay the Grands Champs de Morts, a vast Turkish cemetery with magnificent views across the Bosphoros but which MacFarlane described as:

“a dense grove of gloomy cypresses with crowded white tomb stones glaring from its recesses”.

Constantinople from Grand Champs de Morts, Pera. Engraving by R, Wallis after WH Bartlett pub 1833. Image c/o

Constantinople from Grand Champs de Morts, Pera. Engraving by R, Wallis after WH Bartlett pub 1833. Image c/o

When MacFarlane first climbed the hill up from Galata to Pera he was struck by how quiet the streets were and how sullen and suspicious the inhabitants looked. He also observed with interest that nearly every third doorway was painted red. The reason he discovered was that in January 1828, the Sultan had expelled all the local Armenians, (their persecution in this city something of a prevailing theme in the history of the Ottomans). The red doorways identified their vacated dwellings which were to be appropriated by the Turks. This expulsion followed on from the rounding up of the Maltese and Ionians. The immediate consequence was an almost complete absence of trade and activity in the district. Such acts must surely have caused some disquiet to new arrivals such as Andrea. There was also a prevailing sense of anxiety in the city about a threatened Russian invasion. It could not have been an auspicious start to his new life.

As for the higher echelons of society, MacFarlane found the Embassy community lacking culture and living a stultifying life. They rarely ventured out of their grand houses except to visit each other at the occasional soiree and had as little to do with the merchant class Levantines as possible.

Even so, any self respecting Levantine trader who wanted to show off their rising social status and wealth did so by moving house up the hill! The further up into Pera you went, the higher your social status!

Petraki Han opposite the Galata Tower. Built in the 1890s and home to Andrea and Marie Ann Callus.

Petraki Han opposite the Galata Tower. Built in the 1890s and home to Andrea and Marie Ann Callus.

As for my great great grandfather, by 1898, he was living with his family in an apartment in Petraki Han, a large, new and fashionable neo-classical style apartment block right opposite the Galata Tower. In true Levantine style, he had made it to the top both topographically and symbolically! Apartments in this building are today available as holiday lets at Istanbul! Place. One of these “Petraki II” is quite possibly the actual apartment of my forebears!

petraki han en face de la tour

In a future post, I will return to the subject of life in Galata and Pera in the latter half of the nineteenth century with more details about my Maltese ancestors and their families and associates.

For my next post I will discuss the life of the Maltese Levantines who lived in Smyrna, another Turkish port city south of Constantinople on the Aegean coast, which had quite a different aspect and culture.





Borg, Alexander, From Sworn Enemies to Fellow EU Applicants: Contradictions, similarities and differences between Maltese and Turkish Societies.

Levantine Heritage Foundation website

MacFarlane, C., (1829), Constantinople in 1828: A Residence of Sixteen Months …, Saunders & Otley, London. (Public Domain – Digitised by Google)

Mansel, P. (2010), Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe in the Mediterranean

Mansel, P. (1995), Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire. Penguin: London

Pardoe, Julie, (1839), The Beauties of the Bosphorous, London.

Ekenci, E.B. (2014), Travellers journal: an-exotic-community-in-the-ottoman-empire-the-levantines

Maltese Balcony Origins

Traditional Maltese Balconies

Uncredited images are the author’s own.

Exodus – To The Levant And North Africa

Exodus – To The Levant And North Africa

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies – but in battalions!”

(Shakespeare, Hamlet Act IV, Sc. 5).

Between 1818 and the early 1830s people began emigrating from the Maltese islands at a rate of around 1 to 2000  per year, the rate doubling towards the mid 1830s and only abating after about 1842. By this time some 20,000 Maltese had left (approx 15% of the population).  My ancestors joined the exodus. In this article I will describe what drove people to leave and to the destinations they chose.

Economic Decline

In the early 1800s Malta had a successful if somewhat volatile economy. The majority of its industry centred on cotton production which gave employment to pretty much the majority of the population one way or another, but it also prospered from its position as a useful shipping stopover for the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and it did good business in smuggling.

The first blow came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars when new ports opened up for traders resulting in less shipping traffic coming into the Grand Harbour of the capital Valletta. Malta also became less important as a base for smuggling.

Quays of Grand Harbour Valletta wood engraved print 1891

Engraving of Valletta Grand Harbour 1891 c/o

The biggest catastrophe to the economy was the impact of the Plague of Malta in 1813. Quarantine restrictions across the island stopped the production of cotton spinning and export in its tracks as the congregation of people and movements between the villages, towns and ports were vetoed. Foreign ports also required shipping from Malta to be quarantined, so trade was all but extinguished for over a year. Some foreign ports insisted on keeping quarantine restrictions on Maltese shipping until as late as 1826 (perhaps not entirely for health reasons)! During this time, importers found new, cheaper producers from places like Syria, Egypt and India. New commercial treaties were negotiated to try and boost trade but only succeeded in further depressing the market and lowering wages for growers, spinners and weavers. Customs duties were also raised to try and generate revenues but just ended up further damaging trade. The Maltese economy started to spiral towards bankruptcy.

Some new enterprises were introduced to try and fill the gap, such as silk farming, which failed, and tobacco, which was the most successful. Cigar making employed 600 hands across the whole island at its height in 1842. Yet in 1813, my ancestor Joseph Callus, had employed 100 hands in a single cotton spinning mill which serves to illustrate the massive decline in employment across the islands (see Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes).

Another factor in the economic decline was the change of administration. The primary interest in Malta of its new colonial masters, the British, was its usefulness as a strategic naval base. Sciberras argues that it had less concern therefore, for developing the infrastructure of the interior or looking after the native population. Predictably the British expressed an imperialist attitude towards the native Maltese, treating them as inferiors and ousting them from governmental and administrative posts in favour of British employees. This was quite different to the administration of the Knights of St John who had subsidised the economy with income from their estates abroad and spent more on infrastructure and public works. While the Knights had been very paternalistic towards the Maltese, they had also been more inclusive, perhaps because the island was the principal dominion of their monastic order and where they lived out their lives.

The Battalions of Sorrows

A large population and high levels of unemployment led to a big increase in poverty and crime. Banditry and begging became prevalent. In the mid 1830s, there were an estimated 2500 adult beggars in the villages alone and many more in the towns. Children were of course also recruited by their families to beg as a matter of course.

The evils of rising poverty levels were more homelessness, poorer housing conditions, sanitation and nutrition and inevitably disease.  Infant mortality 1826-36 was around 30% (Cauchi, M, 1990).


“Poverty in short pressed heavily on the under-employed. Deriving sustenance from bean or millet, when obtainable, they frequently found themselves eating prickly pears, thistles and clover. During the day, some refused to leave their houses because of inadequate clothing. During the night, they covered themselves with sacks, rags and manure. Some had no place to sleep, save the streets. Deaths from hunger and exposure apparently did occur and numerous deaths resulted from weakened resistance to fevers, the death rate averaging 29% per 1000”. 

In 1830 an outbreak of smallpox on the island killed 756 of its inhabitants. Then in 1837 there was an outbreak of cholera throughout the Mediterranean. In Malta it killed almost as many people as the 1813 plague, some 4253 people! And in 1840-41 the islands were devastated by a severe drought which further exacerbated the shortage of food. The population level was predictably stagnant until after 1842.

Small wonder so many people wanted to leave!

Pastures New

"Mediterranean Relief". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mediterranean Relief“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Most emigrants left for the North African coast, namely Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt and in particular to the cities of Algiers, Constantine, Sousse and Tripoli. Significant numbers also went to the Levant, (or eastern Mediterranean), to port cities such as Beirut, Smyrna (Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul).  Sizeable Maltese communities became established in these places. Just a few hundred emigrated to the Greek islands, Sicily, southern Italy and France. My ancestor Andrea Callus (1810-98) left Malta for Constantinople in 1829. Other branches of my Maltese family tree (Griscti, Diacono) also left in the early 1830s and went to Smyrna in Turkey.

Considering the long history of Maltese conflict with the Ottoman Empire and their religious and cultural differences, emigration to North Africa and Turkey at first glance seems a strange choice. Why didn’t the migrants go to more culturally similar countries such as Italy? Surely it would have been easier to assimilate in those places?  Historical research into nineteenth century emigration from Malta is still in its infancy, so explanations are still very much up for debate. Two accounts, one by Fr Lawrence Attard and another by Joshua M Hayes provide some interesting and slightly conflicting observations and theories.

Hayes stated that the British Government preferred emigrants to travel to other British colonies in West Africa or places like Jamaica or India but most Maltese did not want to leave the Mediterranean. They preferred to keep their options open to return, a factor evidenced by the high numbers who did in fact return, even if only on a temporary basis. Attard states that the government did come up with a number of proposals to support emigration to places like Cephalonia and later, Cyprus, but they simply never got off the ground. So there was no formal help and those wanting to emigrate had to do so by their own means.  Places like Tunis, Tripoli and Sousse were only a couple of hundred miles away and were on regular trade routes, so passage was relatively cheap.

Other factors suggested by Hayes, are that the geography and climate of North Africa is similar and also the language. Algerian Arabic in particular, is linguistically quite close to Maltese.

Many Maltese chose Algeria as a preferred destination following the French conquest of Algeria in the early 1830s and the appointment of its first French governor in 1834. According to Attard, to secure the country, France needed colonists who would help develop the infrastructure and administration. France is a big country with a small population with low numbers of people wanting or needing to emigrate. The Maltese were seen as hard working and trust worthy, and even though they were now ruled by the British, the French governor did not think they were particularly loyal to the British or politically active. In fact, on the contrary, many Maltese were quite Francophile, despite Napoleon’s short interruption to relations! In Tunisia, Attard argues that the French welcomed the Maltese as a counter balance to an influx of Italians who were suspected of having their own designs upon the country.

Hayes, however, sets out a slightly different perspective. He argues that what the French wanted were agricultural labourers but emigration was beyond the means of Maltese subsistence farmers. What they probably got instead were dock workers from Valletta who earned a bit more and were familiar with the shipping trade, and displaced officials and professionals such as doctors. Although the French allowed the Maltese in, they regarded them with suspicion preferring Italian and Spanish immigrants. The Maltese were subsequently quite poorly treated and were at the bottom of the social pecking order amongst the ex patriot communities in French North Africa.

Vue de la Ville de Constantine by Theodore Frere, 1841

Vue de la Ville de Constantine by Theodore Frere, 1841

Social networking was another factor. During the rule of the Knights, the Maltese conducted annual assaults on the north Africa coast (known then as the Barbary Coast). During these raids, inevitably some Maltese were taken prisoner. They were then sold into slavery and moved into the interior. A large Maltese slave colony was established in Constantine and there were slaves living at other places. Trade links also meant that there were itinerant Maltese communities in most major ports. Immigrants homed in on these communities for support in getting established in their new countries.

It is not clear to me why more Maltese did not go to Italy and Sicily which would appear to have offered many of the same benefits as North Africa, i.e. close to the motherland, similar climate and geography, shared language of Italian which was widely spoken in Malta and perhaps of even greater significance, a shared religion. Malta has always been a strong and almost fanatical adherent to catholicism which one would have thought made Italy a better prospect than a muslim country. Certainly muslim countries at that time allowed religious freedom and with catholic France in control of North Africa, this may have provided further reassurance. The deciding factor must therefore have been the scope for economic opportunities both in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire extended over 1000 miles from its capital at Constantinople in Turkey. This meant that the Ottoman navy was essential for maintaining control, both militarily and administratively, e.g. for tax collection. The Empire had no merchant navy. Its majority religion, Islam, forbade profiteering from usury and regarded trading as an inferior and undesirable profession for devout muslims. Ottoman subjects were in any case conscripted for 7 years military service, which led to a preference for military and administrative roles. Jews and Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were subject to higher taxes than muslims but as minority groups, this did not make much in the way of revenues for the Ottoman administration.

Traders from Western Europe moved in to fill the vacuum and through a number of contracts drawn up between the Sultan and European powers, obtained a range of rights and privileges in favour of subjects residing and trading in the Ottoman dominions. These became known as the ‘Capitulations’. Subjects were exempted from local taxes, laws, house searches and conscription and were bound instead to the jurisdiction of their home countries.  The capitulations providing a virtual tax haven and the lack of existing port trade amongst the Ottomans, did much to encourage western entrepreneurs to set up new businesses all along the shores of the Ottoman Empire. These traders  became a distinctive sub culture and were known as ‘Levantines’.  They came from many of the major trading places around the Mediterranean; Genoa, Venice, France, Italy, Greece and of course Malta. There were also peoples from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

The link below shows the modern sea route between Malta and Turkey, a distance of 1054 nautical miles.

By sea from Valletta, Malta to Istanbul, Turkey.

The history of the Levantines is an area of socio-economic history that has been little researched to date but is attracting growing interest in academia. I will be returning to this subject in future posts to describe the lives of my Maltese ancestors who became part of this unique and interesting culture in the nineteenth century.


Cauchi, Maurice N.  (1990) –

Hayes, Joshua M., (2010) – M’hemm l-ebda post iehor bhad-dar (There’s no place like home): Maltese Migration to French Algeria in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of Maltese History, Vol 2, No. 1, 2010

Sciberras, Sandro (2009) – Option Maltese History/3_Economic and social issues during the last two hundred years.pdf

Reasons for the Success of the Levantines: a subjective listing –

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.