The Storm of 29 October 1757: Bad Weather or the Fury of Hell?
A huge storm engulfed Malta just before one o’clock in the morning on 29 October 1757. A storm which was so terrifying that an account was written about it and published in a little book, according to the Scottish traveller and writer Patrick Brydone who refers to this event in his account of “A Tour through Sicily and Malta” that took place between May and August 1770.
Brydone says that about forty five minutes after midnight on Saturday 29 October 1757, during the reign of Grandmaster Manuel Pinto de Fonseca, “there appeared to the south-west of the city, a great black cloud”. Brydone goes on to say that, according to his sources, the billowing black cloud, “…changed its colour, till at last it became like a flame of fire mixed with black smoke”.
As the storm approached the Grand Harbour and Valletta from the direction of Zurrieq, Mqabba and Qrendi, the scary visual spectacle was joined by an ominous din, “a dreadful noise….that alarmed the whole city”
Upon reaching the Grand Harbour, the power of the storm wrought havoc on the numerous sea vessels berthed within its sheltered confines. The destruction was impressive: “It passed over part of the port, and came first upon an English ship, which in an instant was torn to pieces, and nothing left but the hulk; part of the masts, sails and cordage were carried along with the cloud to a considerable distance.”
This unfortunate English ship was not the only vessel which succumbed to the storm. The account also mentions that, “the small boats and fellouques that fell in its way were all broken to pieces, and sunk.”
There were human casualties as well. A poor sentinel, on guard duty, “terrified at its approach, ran into his box: both he and it were lifted up and carried into the sea, where he perished.” He was not the only victim. In Brydone’s account, it is claimed that, “the number of killed and wounded by the storm amounted to near 200.”
Damage to property was not limited to the sea alone. Once the storm reached Valletta, “it laid in ruins almost everything that stood in its way. Several houses were laid level with the ground, and it did not leave one steeple in its passage. The bells of some of them, together with the spires, were carried to a considerable distance. The roofs of the churches were demolished, and beat down, which, if it happened in the day time, must have had dreadful consequences, as all the world would immediately have run to the churches.”
The storm’s last act on Malta involved the demolishing of the St. Elmo lighthouse, after which it, “passed over the sea to Sicily, where it tore up some trees, and did other damage, but nothing considerable; as its fury had been mostly spent on Malta.”
The storm was very obviously a rare south-easterly electrical weather occurrence. A moisture-laden billowing mass of cloud charged with the electric activity common in the autumn in the Central Mediterranean. It passed low and swift across the most heavily developed part of Malta at the time, leaving disaster and victims in its wake. Or was it?
Brydone reports that of all the unsatisfactory theories he has heard about this “singular hurricane”, the most popular opinion, “of a thousand people in Malta that will take their oath” was that the storm comprised, “a legion of devils, let loose to punish them for their sins.” The witnesses claimed that, “they saw them (the devils) within the cloud, all as black as pitch, and breathing out fire and brimstone.” The Maltese also claimed, “that if there had not been a few godly people amongst them, their whole city would certainly have been involved in one universal destruction.”
A “libeccio” storm of the type that regularly wreaks havoc in Sicily or a demonic attack? Whatever it was, it is nevertheless an intriguing event from 262 years ago.