Mellieħa Ridge Defences
British Field Fortifications in the North of Malta at the turn of the Twentieth Century....
Method of Construction.
Like all fortification projects, the first steps in the process leading to the construction of Fort Tigné was the acquisition of the land on which the fort was to be built, once the exact location was identified and an outline plan of the fort established on paper. In the case of Fort Tigné, the stretch of land on which the fort was built, or at least a considerable part of it, seems to have been privately owned and, as such, had to be duly expropriated by the Order. Maps of the promontory from late eighteenth-century show the site to have been occupied by a number of fields, with at least three farms, and was traversed by a long and straight country road running along the centre of the promontory. The archival records show that the land which was taken over by the Order for the building of the fort and its glacis belonged to the brothers Matteo and Felice Attard, and the latter’s children who, apparently, were still petitioning for compensation as late as 1797. The minutes of the Congregation of Fortification show that the issue was finally decided in favour of the Attard family during the sitting of 3 June 1797:
‘Sono intervenuti gli uditori, e si e’ proferita la sentenza a favour di Matteo Attard, Giuseppe, Gregorio, Annunziato, Antonia e Grazzia fratelli e sorella, figli del fu Felice Attard, fratello di ditto Matteo per sito occupato per il Forte Tigné’.
A second possible owner of lands in the area expropriated for the fort and its zone of servitude could have been Arcangelo Dalli. Another piece of land in the vicinity of the fort was that belonging to Lorenzo Speranza. Actually this was situated along the road leading to the Cala Lembi Battery and in 1796, Tousard was sent there to investigate a request by Speranza for the building of ‘alcune stanze piccole’ … ‘nel terreno posto in contrada del Forte Lembi’. Tousard did not advise against the new buildings which he believed did not pose any threat to the fort .
Above, Detail from map of the Grand Harbour by de Palmeus (1751), showing the terrain around Dragut Point prior to the construction of Fort Tigné . The Attard family may have occupied the property closest to the tip of the promontory along the central country lane cutting across the headland. (Image Source: Courtesy of Dr Albert Ganado).
Above, Detail from another map of Marsamxett Harbour and Fort Manoel, dated to around the early 1730s, showing the country lanes, terraced fields, and farm buildings close to Dragut Point. This plan seems to provide a more accurate representation of the area than that illustrated in the Palmeus map shown in the previous illustration. The Attard family house may be that shown enclosed by the white box. The map is slightly damaged and does not show the tip of the promontory. (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Library of
Above, Survey plan of Fort Tigné, undated but possibly from around 1794 or slightly later. (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Library of
The next step would generally have involved the surveying of the area and the tracing on site of the layout of the fort. No details of this exercise have survived but one of the plans in the National Library does appear to have belonged to a surveying exercise (but possibly undertaken towards the end of the process) that was intended to fix the exact position of the work from a number of established points, such as Cala Lembi battery - which was measured as being T (toises?) 223. 4.8 (roughly 450m) away from the salient of the work – and the seashore. The plan also provides the heights above sea level (‘altezza sopra il mare’).
An important activity undertaken during this initial stage of the construction works was the ceremony commemorating the laying of the foundation stone, normally a recordable event in the history of the building of a work of fortification, which ceremony usually involved the burying of some coins or medals specially minted for the occasion. A plaque, now affixed to the wall near the north-west salient of the fort, but which may have actually stood on the wall to the right of the flight of stairs leading up form the shore (as can be seen in the painting by Giovanni Schranz), states that this foundation-stone laying ceremony took place on 9 May 1792:
M.MAG. EMANVELIS DE ROHAN
OPTIMI ET PROVIDENTISSIMI
AB RENATO IACOB DE TIGNÉ ATQUE EDVAR DV TILLET
EQVITT M CRVCIS BENE DE ORD HIEROS MERENTIBVS
ANTONIVS STEPH DE TOVSARD
COMMEN ET PRAEF MACHIN EIVSDEM EQVEST ORD
DEVM OPTIMVM MAXIMVM PRECATVS
VTI CAEPTA PROSPERARET
SPATIVM PROPVGNACVLO NOVO EXSTRVENDO
INIECTIS QVE IN FVNDAMENTA STIPIBVS AERIS ARGENTI
NONIS MAII ANNO AERV VLG MDCCXCII
LAPIDEM AVSPICALEM OPERVM STATVIT
Loosely translated it states that ‘By the bounty of Grand Master E. De Rohan, a most excellent and provident ruler, the first expenses having been provided by Renato Iacob de Tigné and Eduar du Tillet, Knights Grand Cross, benefactors of the Order of St John, Antonius Stephen de Tousard, commander and chief engineer of the same Order, having prayed God most excellent and most high that he might allow to prosper that which has begun, solemnly dedicated the site where a new fortification was to be built and having put into the foundations silver coins on the ninth of May of the year 1792 of the present era placed an inscription in perpetual memory.’
Above, Commemorative plaque marking the laying of the foundation stone. This plaque is affixed to the scarp wall near the salient angle of the work. This was not its original location, however. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
This is rather confusing, however, given that the Order’s records clearly indicate that the whole process was only put in motion in December 1792 and that work on the fort did not commence before 1793. As a matter of fact, the special bronze medals which were struck to commemorate the construction of Fort Tigné and were placed in its foundation stone are dated 1793 and not 1792. It can be safely assumed, therefore, that the date on the plaque is evidently a mistake and should have been meant to read 1793. Interestingly, the Order’s records also reveal that an official inauguration ceremony was also held on 9 July 1795, following the completion of the fort. The Grand Prior of St. John’s Conventual Church, Fra Menville blessed the new fort in the presence of a small congregation of knights headed by the Grand Master, amongst whom was the now-ailing, 79-year old Bali de Tigné.
Above, Commemorative medallion with inscription issued in 1793 to mark the laying of the foundation stone of Fort Tigné. (Image source:
Little is known of the actually process and pace of construction of the Fort. To date we have no information as to the many technical and logistical aspects of the construction process: the size of the work force, the source of building materials, and the nature of the engineering decisions that would have accompanied the design and implementation of a work of fortification, its adaptation, and building on site.
The records, to date, have revealed little in the form of information on this process, aside from the fact that Tousard may have been absent during a critical period of the fort’s construction, owing to his being sent abroad by the Grand Master on a special diplomatic mission. The Order’s official records show that the fort was ready to be armed by February 1795, that is, practically two years after the commencement of works. This is a relatively long period of time for a fort of its dimensions, and as such, is difficult to explain even by the Order’s often relaxed standards employed in works undertaken in times of peace, especially given Grand Master de Rohan’s specific desire, as relayed by Bali de Hompesch to the Congregation of Fortification during the meeting of 24 April 1793, ‘che si termini il più presto possibile’. The Spinola coastal entrenchments, for example, which stretched for some 1.5 km, begun in 1767, took only three years to build and comprised a work force of some 362 men. The comparatively long gestation period of Fort Tigné can perhaps be explained by a dearth of resources necessary to finance and sustain an ongoing effort. However, the presence of an inordinately large number and variety of masons’ marks still to be found all over the original surviving sections of the fort does tend to imply that the works were attended by a relatively large workforce; which only makes the long gestation period even more difficult to explain. Indeed no other work of fortifications displays such a rich display of masons marks, in all some 40 different marks (see table below). A graffiti in the one of the communication tunnels excavated beneath the fort marks the year 1794, thereby showing that structure and its outerworks must have already been in a very advanced state of construction well before 1795.
Above, Table showing the large variety of 40 different mason’s marks found all around
Above, Portion of the interior wall of one of the casemates, showing various masons’ marks. Below, Some examples of mason’s marks as found at Fort Tigné. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Above, The date 1794, found carved on the rock-hewn wall of the underground communication gallery situated beneath the fort where it leads to the right counterscarp musketry gallery. (Image source: Courtesy of Mr. Kenneth Incorvaja)
Interestingly, in his instructions to Vaubois on 9 June 1798, Napoleon ordered his general to blockade the Fort at Dragut Point because he was informed that the fort was not yet completed. What elements of Fort Tigné where still incomplete by 1798 is difficult to ascertain but Napoleon surely had access to reliable information, for among his acknowledged informers was the Chevalier Le Fay, the commander of the Order’s fortifications. Most probability, Napoleon’s information concerned the outerworks, which as already mentioned earlier, had a number of defects.
In charge of the works on site was Antonio Cachia, the Capomastro delle Opere of the Order (The equivalenet of the director of the modern-day works department) who also represented the interests of the Congregation of Fortification and War. Capomaestro Cachia was a veritable architect in his own right, one of the small group of twelve local architects licensed to carry out this profession. He was the elder cousin of Michele Cachia, the architect and self-appointed military engineer who helped the Maltese insurgents set up their many batteries and fieldworks during the insurrection against the French in 1798-1800. Assisting Cachia as Soprastante (overseer of the works) on site at Fort Tigné was another Maltese architect, Francesco Sammut from Birkirkara. A testimonial dated 12 October 1794, signed by Antonio Cachia, confirms that Sammut had been tried out (‘esperimentato’) for this role for the first time at Fort Tigné, having previously performed various other jobs under Cachia’s direction.
‘Io infrascritto, attesto per la verità qualmente avendo piena cognizuine dell’ abilità di Mas.o Francesco Sammut per averlo da più anni pratticato in diverse fabriche …. E per averlo io esperimentato nel Forte Tigné in qualità di Soprastante il quale esegui tutti quei lavori secondo le misure, e gli ordini datigli …’.
The existing proposed plans of the fort appear to have been drawn by a draughtsman by the name of Giovanni Borg. On 16 December 1792, the Congregation of War agreed to assign Borg a salary of 200 scudi per annum on Tousard’s recommendation:
‘e’ accordato a’ Borg duecento scudi l’anno sull’istanza fatta dal Sig. Ingegnere, coll’obligo di ervire sotto gli ordini del medesimo da disegnatore e fare tutt’altro, che per servizio delle fortificazioni gli verra da lui comandato’, which other duties would have probably involved site measurements and quantity surveying. Borg, unfortunately for Tousard, died shortly afterwards, leaving the engineer with no other option but to find another qualified assistant to take his place:
‘Il Sig. Ingegnere ha reso conto, che essendo morto Gio. Borg, nominato per suo Disegnatore, ha preso un altro’.
The identity of the new draughtsman appointed by Tousard, and perhaps responsible for the working drawings of the forts (including others of
‘Essendosi ritornato dal Congedo il Disegnatore Enrico Ittard, gli sono stati concessi a grazia scudi cento cinquanta dal danaro della sua pagha che non percepi nel tempo di sua assenza’
The stone employed in the construction of
Writing in 1811,
Above, Surviving example of the original rusticated masonry at Fort Tigné, Note the mason’s mark. Note also the reddish soil-based bonding mortar. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Above, Another stretch of the original rusticated masonry of Fort Tigné , (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Above, A large stretch of original rusticated masonry. These stones, however, were used to form the inner face of a revetment wall that was later hidden by the terreplein. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Above, Detail of the walls inside one of the countermines of Fort Tigné. Note the mason’s marks and the daubs of red paint used to mark the stones during the quantity-surveying exercise undertaken by the Order’s agrimensori following the completion of works. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Above, View of one of the massive lintels employed at the entrance of the firing chambers within the countermines. Note the large mason’s mark. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Today, little survives of the original rusticated masonry, since many of the walls were hacked away and refaced with British-period cladding (likewise rusticated). An examination of the various revetments exposed during the course of recent restoration works reveals that rusticated masonry was also employed in some areas of the inner skins of revetment walls that were meant to be covered up and hidden with terreplein. Generally, such internal revetments were built more economically out of roughly-shaped ‘zmarrat’ stones, a sort of coursed rubblework. That fact that tooled drafted masonry was employed in such secondary walls implies that the builders had probably made use of a surplus amount of pre-produced stocks of rusticated stone. Interestingly, the use of such drafted masonry where not really required can also be found in another work of fortification completed during Tousard’s time – namely the casemated interior of the demi-counterguard at Fort Ricasoli, begun around 1788 under the direction of the Bali de Tigné.
The unit of measure used in the design of the fort was the French toise ( 6.395 feet). French military engineers in Malta preferred to use this measurement in the design of their projects although, on the ground and in their dealings with the master masons on site, all measurements and computations were actually undertaken in Maltese cane (Canna Maltese or qasba -2.292 yards or 2.095 metres). The faces of the casemated ramparts were 30 toise long (roughly 60 m). The flanking arms were tangential to the circumference of the tower which had an interior dictated by a grid of 8 toises. Tousard adopted the true arch vault (semi-circular vault) for all the casemates while the towers intermediate floor of stone slabs rested on a bedding of timber beams.
Baptism of fire – 1798
Fort Tigné is also unique because of all the many fortifications built by the Knights, it was one of only a handful of forts to really put a spirited, prolonged, and effective resistance against Napoleon’s troops during the French invasion in 1798, and this, despite its small size. In all the accounts of the French invasion, it is
12 x 24-pdrs
6 x 18-pdrs
6 x 12-pdrs
4 x 4-pdrs
12 mortars (six shell-firing and six stone-throwing (petreros).
This seems to have been the same armament which had been sent to equip the fort once it was declared ‘in stato di ricevere l’artiglieria’ in February 1795. The guns were actually redeployed from other forts and batteries around the harbour wherever they could be spared (‘da dove stimeranno più vantaggioso’) according to the instructions of the Commander of Artillery.
Thomas Freller states that only 15 of the 28 guns were actually serviceable at the time of the French attack, that is, practically 50 percent of the ordnance, but does not indicate which of the various calibres were inoperative. Still, this figure appears to be slightly exaggerated. In any case, the guns which would have been really critical in the situation were the 24- and 18-pdrs (a total of 18 guns). It was these ‘counter-bombardment’ weapons which allowed the fort to effectively hit back at the besieging French guns on equal terms. And indeed, as will be shown below, it was these very guns which featured mostly in the account of the resistance put up by the fort. The subsequent French artillery inventory of the fort, carried out in 1799 by the French commander of artillery, D’Hennezel, shows that the complement of cannon had by then been reduced to 21, with a reduction of five 24-pdrs and the replacement of the six 12-pdrs by four 10-pdrs. This redeployment of the guns may have been motivated by the need to remove or replace any unserviceable ordnance.
Above, Detail from D’Hennezel’s artillery inventory of Fort Tigné drawn up during the French occupation. (Image source – Courtesy of the National Library of Malta).
The man who was destined to direct the defence of Fort Tigné during the dramatic days of the Napoleon’s invasion was the Bavarian knight Joseph Maria von Rechberg.(2) He was assisted by the Spanish artillery officer Camaño. It appears that, initially, the fort was designated to be placed under the command of Tousard himself, but he was immediately replaced once rumours began to spread around questioning his loyalty. The garrison consisted of a troop of Maltese Cacciatori, a volunteer light infantry regiment of Chasseurs (raised in 1777), a number of bombardiers (gunners) from the man-of-war Santa Zaccaria, together with an unspecified number of Maltese country militiamen.
Above, Contemporary drawing purporting to show the Commander of Fort Tigné (shown in the background) around 1798. The Commander is shown wearing the blue uniform with red facings of an artillery officer of the Order. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
The first defensive shots were fired by the troops stationed on the left place-of-arms (closest to the country road) against a group of French soldiers disguised as civilians who were seen approaching the fort on foot, presumably on a reconnoitring sortie early on 10 June (Freller 107). Then the fort’s guns opened fire to support a naval attack by a galley, two galeottes and chaloup which sallied out of the Grand Harbour under the command of General Soubiras in a desperate attempt to attack the French ships and boats landing their troops at St Julian’s Bay and at St George’s Bay. In the evening, the Fort’s guns opened fire once again, this time against some French ships seeking to sail into Marsamxett harbour, and successfully obliged them to beat a hasty retreat.
This forced General Vaubois, in command of the attack along this sector of the front, to land some artillery and position them against the fort in the hope of suppressing the place. Napoleon, in his instructions to Vaubois (through Berthier) on 9 June 1798, had instructed his general to blockade the Fort at Dragut Point. As a result, and all throughout the following day (11 June), the French guns, assisted by the cannon on some of the French ships-of-the-line and frigates, rained a continuous hail of shells and bombs on the fort. Indeed, some parts of the fort facing the sea still retain what appear t be the imprint of French naval cannon shot). Around midday, the French also tried to install a battery under the cover of a church and its surrounding country houses which stood on a nearby hill (possibly the church of Porto Salvo) but the heavy return fire from the fort’s 24- and 18-pdr guns (which is said to have gone on for about two hours under the direction of Camano) knocked down most of the structures, obliging the French to reposition their battery to another site. This time round, the French gunners sought to place their howitzers in an area behind the hill.
Above, Possible evidence of the French naval bombardment of Fort Tigné in June 1798. One of a number of shot marks to be found along the northern seaward-facing walls of the Fort, where the original masonry still survives. This one is located on the flank of the left counterscarp musketry gallery and faces the sea. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
By the evening, the continuous firing had consumed most of the fort’s limited stock of munitions. Somehow, amid all the chaos and confusion, the resourceful Rechberg managed to locate and transport, all the way from the Polverista in Floriana (first by coach, and then by boat), a large quantity of gunpowder and other supplies.
That evening, the besieging French troops began torching some houses and gardens in the neighbouring areas of Sliema and Gzira, hoping to demoralize the defenders. General Vaubois remarked that a ‘fort of such a kind as Fort Tigné’ could not ‘be taken when it is defended by brave soldiers’ (Hardman). But, as the political situation, and morale, in the city to the rear of fort began to crumble, Rechberg and his troops found themselves increasingly isolated and unable to communicate with their comrades in Valletta. Unaware of the surrender negotiations going on behind the scenes, however, the Fort continued to hold out and braced itself for a second day of bombardment, which commenced early in the morning. The defenders kept up their resistance but sometime around noon some soldiers in the Fort noticed that French flags were flying over Valletta, Floriana, and right across the creek at Fort Manoel. This caused a great degree of consternation, particularly amongst the militiamen, whose families were in the city, and who, as a result, wanted to surrender. Rechberg reacted by ordering them to lay down their arms and leave the fort, as a result of which the garrison was reduced to a mere 80 men.
By late afternoon, munitions were once again running low. Moreover, the continuous French bombardment was having its toll on the fort itself which was slowly succumbing to the damage being inflicted by the French guns, with a number of its casemates being heavily battered and on the point of collapse. At this point, realizing the hopelessness of their predicament, Rechberg and his troops decided to try to escape under the cover of darkness. What happened after is not clear, but not long afterwards Rechberg was in French custody, and presumably many of his soldiers too. The Fort was definitely in French hands on 13 June.
No figures have turned up to reveal the number of casualties that were suffered by the garrison during the course of the two-day bombardment. Nor does one find any reference to the works that would have been necessary to repair the heavy damage to the fort given the degree of bombardment to which it is said to have been subjected. The British took formal possession of the fort on 5th August I800. In a letter to his brother dated 6 September I800, Captain CJ. Riddell claimed he had the honour of taking possession of
Above, Detail from the short letter dated 6 September I800, sent by Captain CJ. Riddell to his brother following his deployment to Fort Tigné . (Image source- Courtesy of Mr. Tarpey).
Above, Rough sketch plan of Fort Tigné drawn by Francesco Sammut sometime after 1800, following the cessation of hostilities and the lifting of the blockade. The plan probably indicates Francesco’s involvement in the repairs made to the fort after the blockade. Sammut had also worked as overseer of works during the construction of the fort in 1793-95. (Image source: Courtesy of Perit Andre’ Zammit).
Spoliation and decay ‒ The 19th and 20th centuries
With its damage made good,
Above, Plan of Fort Tigné drawn by Col. Lewis, showing its armament around 1864, undertaken as part of an island-wide exercise intended to document the defensive ordnance. The fort is shown armed with eighteen 32-pdr guns (two on traversing carriages) and four 10-inch guns en barbette, as well as a singular 32-pdr gun on central pivot traversing carriage mounted on the circular tower-keep. (Image Source: Author’s private collection).
Above, View of Fort Tigné from the early 1870s, showing its newly re-constructed parapets fitted with casemates and armoured embrasures for 9-inch RML guns and other ordnance. Note that the barbette battery has been replaced by a raised parapet pierced with four vaulted embrasures. (Image source:
Above, View of the steel racers which once supported the traversing carriages for two 9-inch RML guns placed inside a casemate. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
Sectional elevation through the left face of the fort showing raised parapets and other British alterations. (Image source: Author’s private collection).
With the development of new and more powerful coastal artillery,
As has been amply demonstrated in the course of this paper, Fort Tigné was a sophisticated and unorthodox work of military architecture for its time – surely, one of the most interesting and innovative works of fortification built by the knights in Malta during the course of the eighteenth century. Although borrowing heavily from D’Arçon’s lunettes, and clearly influenced by some of Montalembert’s ideas on the concentration of fire-power and protective casemates, as well as his concept of perpendicular fortifications, Tousard went on to masterfully adapt and improve the borrowed ideas to suit both the local conditions and the tactical requirements of the site, creating in the process what can safely be regarded as one of the first truly polygonal forts ‒ an embryonic precursor of the type of fortress design that would come to dominate the military architecture of the nineteenth century.
Although the heavy mutilations which were inflicted by the British military in their attempts to upgrade and secure the harbours’ defences for the safety of their fleet thoughout the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have served to rob Fort Tigné of most its authenticity and proper legibility, it has still not lost its significance as a truly unique work of military architecture. Thankfully, the recent years have witnessed a reversal of this predicament as the fort is being expertly and painstakingly restored, regaining, as a result, a considerable part of the dignity that it rightfully deserves as an important, indeed prominent, feature in Malta’s unique fortified landscape.
This paper is the subject of ongoing research and further study. Full reference and notes will be duly provided when it is eventually published in a new edition of Fortresses of the Cross. The Author would like to thank the following scholars and researchers for their assistance, namely Prof. J. Langins, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
University of Toronto, for information on D’Arcon and his lunettes; Dr. Emilie d’ Orgeix from sending me documents and contacts; Isabelle Warmoes (Musée des Plans Relief, Paris), Arch. Philip Prost( for his valuable book), Arch. L. Sapienza (for his thesis), Arch. Svetlana Sammut and Midi plc (for allowing to photograph the fort during restoration works), and Chev. J. Sammut (for information on commemorative medallions). I am also greatly indebted to the late Prof. Quentin Hughes who imbibed me with a fascination for this fort, and its history, particularly the intriguing issue of its dependence on the Lunette d’Arcon.
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri PhD - MilitaryArchitecture.com (C)