Entering the Country as a Tourist in 18th Century Malta of the Knights
Nowadays we take it totally for granted that travelling between one country and another necessitates a number of procedures ranging from visas to other types of border control, means of transit, quarantine, consular assistance if necessary, banking services and accommodation.
Whereas tourism today is a highly organised industry fully geared towards servicing hundreds of millions of tourist trips worldwide, it was still in its infancy in the eighteenth century when only a handful of privileged and adventurous individuals were in a position to undertake trips to countries far away from their homelands: trips which necessitated lengthy sojourns over sea and land using slow means of transport thus resulting in quite lengthy tours rather than the short breaks we are accustomed to today.
One of the earliest accounts of a tourist’s trip to Malta I have encountered relates to a visit of around 5 days made by a Scotsman named Patrick Brydone sometime in early June 1770, at a time when Malta was still under the rule of the Order of the Knights of St John under the Grandmastership of the Portuguese Manuel Pinto de Fonseca.
Brydone was a Scotsman born in Coldingham, Berwickshire in the UK in 1736. After attending St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland, he went abroad as travelling tutor or companion, with William Beckford and some other gentlemen. In 1770, he made a tour with these gentlemen through Sicily and Malta. This tour forms the subject of his book, ‘A Tour through Sicily and Malta, in a Series of Letters to William Beckford, Esq., of Somerly in Suffolk,’ first published in 1773. It was favourably reviewed, and so well received by the reading public, that it went through seven or eight editions in England in his lifetime, and was also translated into French and German.
This short entry focuses on the realities of the sea crossing and the entry formalities from when the tourists reached Valletta’s Grand Harbour, until when they landed, were transferred to their accommodation and tended to their financial requirements.
Getting to Malta
In 1770 the only way to get to Malta was obviously by sea and the fastest and relatively safest way of doing this was via a rapid crossing by a Maltese speronara or xprunara boat. Brydone describes the speronara as:
“… a small, fix-oar’d boat, made entirely for speed, to avoid the African pirates, and other Barbaresque vessels, with which these seas are infested; but so flat and narrow, that they are not able to bear any sea, and of consequence keep always as near the coast as possible.”
As is the case with modern means of transport, the trip offered an element of on-board entertainment:
“… the scene had naturally sunk us into meditation; we had remained near an hour without speaking a word, when our sailors began their midnight hymn to the Virgin. The music was simple, solemn, and melancholy, and in perfect harmony with the scene, and with all our feelings. They beat exact time with their oars, and observed the harmony and the cadence with the utmost precision ………….. at last they sung us asleep, and we awoke forty miles distant from Sicily …”
Crossing the Border
The official Maltese border crossing for a 17th Century traveller was the mouth of Grand Harbour, the narrow entrance of which, then still bereft of the breakwater which protects it today, was flanked by the two powerful Forts of St. Elmo at the tip of Valletta and Ricasoli across the water on the Kalkara side.
These two sentinels kept a close watch on all movements into the harbour and Brydone describes the moment of entry thus:
“The entry into the port is very narrow, and is commanded by a strong castle on either side. We were haled (hailed) from each of these, and obliged to give a strict account of ourselves.”
Quite obviously an eighteenth century forerunner of a border post, complete with double checking, at the official point of entry into the territory.
The frontier formalities aside, the arriving tourists were also subjected to a health-related interview given the high risk of sea-borne plague and pestilence which frequently spread through unchecked shipping movements originating from infected areas:
“… and on our arrival at the side of the key (quay), we were visited by an officer from the health-office, and obliged to give oath with regard to the circumstances of our voyage.”
After being courteously cleared from quarantine requirements by the health-officer, the tourists were put in touch with the English Consul:
“He (the health-officer) behaved in the civilest manner, and immediately sent us Mr. Rutter, the English Consul, for whom we had letters of recommendation.”
Accommodation and Financial Needs
Brydone’s account also gives a charming description of the welcoming nature of their accommodation, so necessary after the depredations of a five-day boat crossing from Syracuse in Sicily which prevented the travellers from even changing the clothes they were wearing:
“Mr Rutter immediately conducted us to an inn, which had more the appearance of a palace. We have had an excellent supper, and good Burgundy …… we are now going into clean, comfortable beds, in expectation of the sweetest slumbers. Think of the luxury of this, after being five long days without throwing off our clothes – Good night.”
Contemporary commercial banks today speak of personal banking as some newly devised service. Consider this extract from Brydone, fresh from a good night’s sleep in Valletta following his arrival the previous day:
“Our banker, Mr Pousilach, was here before we were up, inviting us to dine with him at his country-house, from whence we are just now returned. He gave us a noble entertainment, served on plate, with an elegant desert (dessert), and a great variety of wines.”
Brydone’s account also delves into all sorts of other descriptions and stories relating to his short visit, but the above excerpts provide an ample description of what it took a tourist to travel to and enter Malta a long 248 years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose………….