A Robin for Winter

dsc_2791 pixlr signed

A Robin for Winter

European robins are charming little birds which never cease to amaze owing to their bobbing, round shape, their dainty, pointed beaks and the deep, black eyes which contrast fully with the plumage surrounding them. However, their most attractive feature is doubtless the red/orange bib which they wear on their breast. This feature is so unique and distinct that it is incorporated in the bird’s name in many languages such as Robin Redbreast in English, Roodborstje (Redbreast) in Dutch, Pettorosso/Petirrojo/ Pitiross (Red Breast) in Italian, Spanish and Maltese, Rotkehlchen and Rouge-gorge (Red throat) in German and French and other similar variations in other Euro-Mediterranean languages. Both males and female adult robins possess similar colouration.

dsc_2800_smooth pixlr signed

European Robins range across all of Europe and the Mediterranean, all the way east up to Western Siberia and as far south as North Africa. While robins residing in the British Isles are sedentary all year long and do not need to migrate south for the winter due to mild British winters, the robins located further east carry out annual migrations to the south in the autumn and back north in the spring on a regular basis to escape the harsher climates and find food in the sunnier and warmer lands of the Mediterranean.

In 2009, two robins netted and released again by ornithologists in Malta were found to be wearing rings which showed that they had migrated from the Czech Republic and from Russia. The Czech bird had been ringed 27 days before it was caught in Malta after travelling at least 1,100 kilometres while the Russian one had been ringed 42 days before it was caught, and had travelled an astounding 2,200 kilometres to reach its wintering location on Malta.

dsc_2793 pixlr signed

They are tiny birds ranging between 12.5 and 14 centimetres in dimension and weighing a puny 13 grams. Yet, in spite of its ridiculously small size, this fluffy ball of bone, flesh and feathers manages to achieve some impressive feats of migration travelling up to a couple of thousand of kilometres between its summer and winter homes every year of its healthy adulthood.

Although the average longevity of robins lies at about 18 months due to high juvenile mortality rates, those who survive in adulthood are more likely to have a lifespan of 3 to 5 years with the longest recorded living robin having exceeded 19 years.

dsc_2803_tonemapped pixlr signed

Here in Malta, we are graced with large numbers of wintering robins who arrive between October and November and stay on as late as March and April. A few decide to remain here for the summer season in wooded areas which have a water supply but they have never been recorded breeding in the Maltese Islands.

Many of those who arrive winter over here although a few continue on their trip to North African destinations. Those who stay identify a piece of territory and defend it vigorously to keep other robins out so that they can monopolise the supply of spiders, insects, worms, seeds and berries available.

dsc_2796 pixlr signed

I am privileged to live in an area of Malta where the majority of houses have patches of greenery in their front and back gardens. Although in an urban setting the gardens serve as a magnet to wintering robins which are very visible defending their individual territories in the different houses and gardens.

One such robin annually graces my garden and is so used to humans that it ventures unafraid to within a few metres of me in my garden, as the selection of pictures accompanying this post show. These are not pictures taken furtively from behind some hide but face to face encounters between man, bird and camera.

dsc_2807 pixlr signed

It is nice to think that the same robin revisits my garden year after year although, given their relatively short lifespan, it is logical to assume that new ones take over unclaimed territory every so often.   I am also familiar with one case in Rabat, Malta, where a robin that had visited the same garden for three years in a row eventually decided to skip the return trip north and has stayed on as a permanent resident in the garden and adjoining house, becoming so tame as to sleep inside the house during the winter and venturing regularly to its humans’ table to eat some food from their plates! This is not a caged robin and is allowed total freedom to come and go as it pleases!

I spend many happy hours tending my tiny but dense city garden and the predictable arrival and stay of my winter robin is an event, which brings warmth and hope during the darker, colder months of the year.

dsc_2794 pixlr signed

 

 

Advertisements

The Storm of 29 October 1757: Bad Weather or the Fury of Hell?

10287018814_19e35f7327_o (2) pixlr

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.

Entering the Country as a Tourist in 18th Century Malta of the Knights

Entering the Country as a Tourist in 18th Century Malta of the Knights

IMG_2461 pixlr signed

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.”

IMG_2463 pixlr

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………….

 

A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

DSCN8208 pixlr signed.jpg

A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

It is mid-July on Malta.  Summer is almost four weeks old and the last signs of spring have long since vanished.  It has not rained for weeks and the next rainstorm is about six weeks away.  The air is hot and humid and the land is parched.  Only a few brave patches of resistant greenery emerge from the bone-dry, dusty, rocky landscape.

I stand at Ras il-Qammieh at the western tip of the Marfa Ridge on the flat topped plateau descriptively called id-Dahar, the Back.  Truly it resembles the back of some gargantuan rock monster lying face down in the blue Mediterranean from which it was born and from whose depths it now emerges.

I walk towards the westernmost point on mainland Malta to watch the sun set.  A place where the wild fennel grows profusely on the garigue, competing with Mediterranean thyme, wolfbane and lentisk.   There are no clouds on this clear July evening, but the air near the horizon is pregnant with suspended dust: fine dust from the Sahara sand storms of a few weeks ago, still airborne due to the absence of rain.  As the sun sinks lower into this dusty atmospheric layer, the sky, the sea and the landscape take on a surreal golden hue.  No need for fancy filters or artistic rendering: a mere point and shoot on my camera’s automatic setting and the scene is captured for ever.

The photo only captures the visual aspect however.  In reality, the experience is augmented by some rich olfactory flavours and other sensations  which can only be experienced in situ to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.  The cloying humidity,  the smell of the baked earth rising in waves from the ground, the fine dust clinging to one’s sandal-clad feet, the soft breeze coming from the sea.  And the intoxicating smell of wild fennel like some heady liquor combining to turn a simple sunset into something transcending the mystical.

A rushed burial on Comino

DSCN6216

A rushed burial on Comino

I visited Gozo’s small but rich Museum of Archaeology recently.  A small building housing an impressive spectrum of remains and artefacts from Man’s earliest forays on the island up to early medieval times. A testament to how this small island has played host to multitudes of peoples and cultures for the past eight thousand years.

In a room reserved for Roman-era finds, one exhibit attracted my attention. The well-preserved, skeletal remains of a man accompanied by a vertically split amphora lay gingerly within the confines of a glass display cabinet. The man’s skull, his vertebral column, his shoulder blades and his ribs indicating a state of repose spanning long centuries. His well preserved skull still contains teeth and also sports a reasonably sized puncture in the cranium.

The remains were discovered on the island of Comino in 1912. Workmen carrying out trenching works on the eastern side of Santa Maria Bay discovered a shallow grave in the soil. The grave contained a man’s remains covered by two vertical halves of a split terracotta amphora. Amphorae were the classical age’s equivalent of packages and containers and were used to transport anything from wine to oil, honey or the famous, pungent Roman fish sauce known as garum. The burial has been dated to around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago between the 3rd and 5th centuries of the current era.

The archaeologists could say a lot from the style and nature of this unique burial from the evidence at hand. This was not a typical rock-cut tomb in an inland location as one is normally used to for the Roman period. It was a shallow grave in soft soil very near to the sea. The split amphora provided even further clues.

DSCN6215

In all probability this man was a sailor or passenger on a ship who died on board. His death must have happened in Maltese waters and the decision must have been taken to bury him at the first available opportunity for a landfall. This landfall was Comino’s Santa Maria Bay, a small sandy beach at the mouth of Comino’s two miniature valleys of Wied Imdied and Wied l-Ahmar.

The deceased’s body must have been unloaded off the vessel and transported to the beach where a shallow grave was rapidly dug out of the soil. In order to compensate for the shallowness of the grave and protect the remains from exposure, the burial was completed by covering the corpse with two halves of a vertically split amphora, from the stock of amphorae on board the vessel. And there it lay in peace until 1912 when it was brought to light once more and now lies in its new resting place in the museum in Victoria’s Citadel.

Who was this man? Where did he come from and where was he bound to? Was he a sailor or a passenger? What led to his early demise? Is the hole in his skull related to his death? What did he look like and how old was he?

DSCN6244

I hope that one day we will have answers to these questions. A mix of detective work assisted by analysis of DNA extracted from this man’s teeth and facial reconstruction from the well preserved skull could tell us so much more about this small incident which played its final drama on tiny Comino so many centuries ago.

 

Emily’s resting place

Emily’s resting place

IMG_0648 pixlr signed lores

Last weekend, I took a visiting friend to a quiet corner of Floriana, to the aptly named Garden of Rest.  Run by Malta’s National Trust, Din l-Art Helwa, the garden lies on the site of Malta’s first Protestant cemetery built during the early decades of the British period until it reached full capacity and was replaced by the larger Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta.

The site is lovingly and tastefully maintained and presented and features the final resting place of more than 500 people including the Maltese patriot and scholar Mikiel Anton Vassalli and the British diplomat and author John Hookham Frere.

The graves of great men and women aside, whilst walking along the garden paths, I was particularly struck by a simple headstone marking the resting place of a little English girl of eleven who died in Valletta on the 29th May 1837. A little girl called Emily Greig.  The details on the headstone are scant.  It tells us Emily’s age, her place and date of death and her father’s name: Sir Hector Greig.  It also tells us that she was Sir Hector’s only child.

Intrigued by this information I took a few pictures of this memorial and continued on my tour of the cemetery.

Upon my return home I decided to look for information on Sir Hector Greig.   My research told me that his first appointment in Malta was that of Superintendent of Quarantine and that he was subsequently appointed as Chief Secretary to the British Government of Malta by Governor Henry Bouverie in 1837.  He also served as Chief Secretary under the Governorship of Patrick Stuart until he resigned in September 1846, presumably to return to England.  Other responsibilities of his while in Malta included serving on the Board of Health and the Committee of the Charitable Institutions.

My curiosity also unearthed another small piece of history: an envelope for sale on Ebay bearing a postmark dated November 15, 1866 and bearing the handwriting of Sir Hector Grieg: little Emily’s father.  A small memento which suddenly became a tangible link to a forgotten girl’s resting place and which now lies in my proud possession!

The front of the envelope contains some very useful information.  It is addressed to a Mr Baden of the North British Mercantile Insurance Office in Threadneedle Street in the City of London, the same street which houses the Bank of England.  An addendum in somebody else’s handwriting at the top of the envelope notes that Sir Hector, “has been Chief Secretary at Malta” and that he had been “created Knight Commander – 1839”.  This latter piece of information indicates that he was Knighted while serving in Malta and this could be due to services he rendered to Her Majesty Queen Adelaide during her visit and stay in Malta between 1838 and 1839.  This was the first ever visit of an English Queen to Malta.

IMG_0715 pixlr signed

The front of the envelope tells us even more!  It was posted  in 1866, twenty years after Sir Hector’s departure from Malta and twenty nine years after little Emily’s premature demise.  The stamp on the Victorian Penny Red stamp indicates that it was posted in London SW18, a postcode which includes Battersea and Wandsworth, suggesting that Sir Hector resided in this part of London upon his return to his country.

IMG_0718 pixlr signed

The opened flap at the back of the envelope contains some more information in Sir Hector’s own script.  It is a short message “with Sir Hector Greig’s compliments to Mr Baden” indicating the enclosure of payment covering “premium on life insurance due 18th November” (1866) for “£27″ 3/4d” which I interpret to signify 27 shillings and three quarters of a penny or one pound and thirty five and three quarters pence in today’s sterling currency.  This would be equivalent to a £152 insurance premium in 2017 currency after taking inflation between 1866 and today into account.

It all started off with a casual walk on a sunny autumn morning around a cemetery on a Floriana bastion constructed by the Knights of Malta.  A walk during which my attention was drawn to a little foreign girl’s final resting place on a Mediterranean island so far away from her home.  And it evolved into my learning a few interesting facts about her father’s sojourn in Malta and my acquiring a small memento bearing his handwriting.

I plan to revisit little Emily’s resting place in the coming weeks.  And I will be sure to carry her dear father’s memento with me to place it on her grave so that I can briefly help them reunite again by intersecting across space and time.

On Meeting a War Hero

On Meeting a War Hero

FullSizeRender-3

As a child of 1960s Malta, with strong family roots in the Three Cities and the Grand Harbour, part of whose coast they line, I was brought up listening to first hand accounts by relatives and acquaintances of incessant air raids, nights spent in bomb-proof shelters, dive-bombing sorties on naval vessels being repaired at the Dockyard and the bravery of supply convoys which ran the gauntlet between Gibraltar and Malta or even Alexandria and Malta to deliver much needed ammunition, fuel and food supplies to extend a lifeline to Malta as it stood alone and besieged by the Axis territories in surrounding Italy, the Balkans, Tunisia and Libya.

Foremost amongst these convoys was the immortal and unforgettable Santa Maria Convoy, officially codenamed Operation Pedestal which went down in history as the biggest ever convoy of the Second World War comprising fourteen merchant ships escorted by a huge group of Royal Navy warships including two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven light cruisers, thirty two destroyers and seven submarines. Each merchantman carried a similar mix of supplies so that even if only a few made it through, Malta would be replenished with the whole spectrum of necessities relevant to feed its population and arm its defenders.

The fastest of the merchantmen was the Texaco oil tanker the SS Ohio which, as the fastest oil tanker available at the time, generated a sailing speed of 16 knots equivalent to 30 kilometres per hour. The American Government conceded the loan of this tanker to Britain upon Churchill’s own personal request.

The bravery of the convoy and its protagonists as it sailed through hostile seas and constant German and Italian air and sea attacks during the second week of August 1942 is legendary and in the end, by 15th August, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, and following the loss of one aircraft carrier, two light cruisers, one destroyer and nine merchant ships, with up to 550 men killed, a total of five merchantmen limped one at a time into Malta’s Grand Harbour to the joy of the thousands of jubilant Maltese shouting and waving flags on the Harbour’s battlements.

While each surviving warship and merchantman had its own story to tell, the epic of the Ohio, so badly bombed that it had to be brought into harbour slung between the two destroyers Ledbury and Penn who had to manoeuvre it slowly as it was almost down to its deck and in imminent danger of breaking its back due to a jammed rudder, stands out as the most memorable.   Ohio reached Grand Harbour against all odds and no sooner was her precious cargo pumped off her that her keel settled on the Harbour bottom.

Thus was the story of the Ohio and the Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija told and retold to me within the stupendous backdrop of Grand Harbour itself, so that it became woven into my very fabric and stoked back into my vivid memory each time the historic convoy’s anniversary was commemorated every August 15th.

Fast forward to August 2002, the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Pedestal, when I was one of the hosts at a reception in Valletta in honour of the surviving crewmen of the convoy from sixty years previously. Crewmen who had been invited specifically to Malta to be honoured for their contribution in saving Malta from capitulation in those dark days in 1942.

Of the crew members present, there were only two survivors who had actually served on the SS Ohio, one of whom was Allan Shaw who I had the pleasure to meet, exchange a few words with and pose for a quick photo beside the original Ship’s bell from the Ohio which had been borrowed from Texaco for the occasion.

The Sunday Times of Malta of 13 August 2017 published an article in which it announced that following Allan Shaw’s passing in 2015, his twin children have revisited Malta to scatter some of his ashes in the Grand Harbour on this 75th anniversary of the famous convoy. The full story can be read on https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170813/local/ohios-final-survivor-returned-to-grand-harbour.655447?utm_source=tom&utm_campaign=top5&utm_medium=widget

As I read the story, I went back to the stories of my childhood and my brief encounter with Allan Shaw in 2002.   I remembered meeting a rather short, humble, unassuming gentleman.  Such is the stuff that real heroes are made of.  And when it came to having our photo taken, I actually had to politely clarify that he was the actual subject of the photo and that I was a but a mere observer from the post-war generation who wanted to immortalise my brief encounter with him, the real hero.

Postscript:

So Grand Harbour’s hallowed waters now also carry within them the combined ashes of SS Ohio’s Allan Shaw and HMS Ledbury’s Commanding Officer Roger Hill, another unassuming war hero linked to Malta through Operation Pedestal. But that will be the subject of another story when the time for it comes……..