Aug28

Campaigning for Rihama Battery

Din l-Art Helwa’s pioneering restoration of St. Mary’ Battery in Comino in the 1990s and lately, St Anthony’s Battery at Ras il-Qala in Gozo,

have been important landmarks in the conservation of an important typology of Hospitaller fortifications – the eighteenth century coastal gun batteries.  Once a staple feature in many of the bays and inlets of Malta, and Gozo, only a handful of such structures have survived to this day. The majority of some thirty odd batteries built between 1715 and 1792 have either completely disappeared beneath the unrelenting and short-sighted rush of post-war modern urban and tourism developments, or were mutilated beyond recognition as they were rapidly converted to suit modern living conditions. Many others were simply allowed to crumble silently into ruins.

 

Of the few remaining batteries that still retain a great degree of authenticity and are worthy of preservation and restoration are the ones at Mistra, l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha,Qawra Point, Birzebbuga, Armier, Marfa, St Thomas Bay, Qalet Marku, Qolla l-Bajda and Ramla left. Of these, undeniably, the best preserved is Mistra Battery, erected during the reign of Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca. It retains all its original features – blockhouses, redan, gateway, paved platform and ditch, missing only a short embrasured parapet on one side. This battery is, however, currently being used as a part of a private fish-farming concern but once it is returned to the public realm, Din L-Art Helwa should strive to ensure its restoration.

The batteries at l-Ahrax, Qawra Point, Ghzira, Ferretti, and Qolla l-Bajda too, have been in private ownership from many decades, either as residences or as catering establishments, but unlike Mistra battery, these have all seen various accretions and alterations made to their original structures and fabric to some degree or other. Vendôme Battery at Armier, one of largest batteries built, has survived more or less intact, albeit engulfed by ‘boat-houses’ that have interrupted its contextual link with the sea. This work, like Mistra Battery, has great potential if properly restored and efforts should be made by the relevant authorities to rescue it before it succumbs to development pressures. Wied Mousa Battery at Marfa, on the other hand, has been earmarked for restoration – this battery has one of the best preserved gun platforms and parapet but it unfortunately lost a significant part of its blockhouse when a large rectangular building was grafted onto its gorge sometime during the late nineteenth century and the whole converted into a hotel. The Qalet Marku and Tombrell batteries, on their part, are little more than ruins but still retain significant archaeological potential and deserve to be excavated and studied accordingly.

Rihama Battery in St Thomas Bay, and the subject of this brief article, is perhaps the one surviving structure that requires the most urgent and critical intervention to ensure that it does not follow in the wake of many of its unfortunate sister structures. It is one of those historical buildings that can truly claim the epithet of ‘heritage in peril’. Indeed, a significant part of the Rihama Battery has already disappeared, having collapsed into the water, carried away by the sea, while the surviving sections are heavily consumed and in dire need of repair. Still, despite the loss of part of its revetment and its redan, as well as a minor alteration to its blockhouse, the battery still retains largely authentic and unadulterated features and, equally important, an undeveloped and unchanged coastal setting (unlike, for example, St Thomas tower which is suffocated by modern buildings and hemmed in like a ‘fish in an aquarium’). The Rihama Battery is also unique for its pentagonal plan (most batteries had semicircular platforms) and the fact that it contains the largest surviving blockhouse to have been fitted to such coastal works.

Fortunately, the plight of Rihama battery has not gone unnoticed for a small group of dedicated individuals have finally come together to set up a local voluntary organization committed to preserving and restoring the battery. Known as the Ghaqda Bajja San Thumas, this group of volunteers has been campaigning hard over the past months, assisted by the Marsaskala Local Council, to acquire and secure the site and muster the resources required for this task.

Image 1: Current view of the battery blockhouse and platform (Image source: Author’s collection).

 

Rihama Battery

Rihama Battery was one of the original group of coastal fortifications erected by the knights of St John in the years 1714-16. In all some 52 coastal batteries and redoubts were constructed as part of the Hospitaller knights’ new strategy of defending the archipelago against invasion. These structures were intended to work in combination with a network of seawalls (or entrenchments, the so-called trincieramenti), redoubts and towers, all of which were designed to actively resist invasion and prevent invading enemy forces from landing their troops ashore. Each bay or landing place was defended by a combination of such elements, the exact number of which depended on the size of the bay, the nature of the terrain, and the local tactical requirements. As a rule of thumb, however, each bay was defended by at least two batteries, one on each side, as well as an infantry redoubt set in the middle of the bay, and a line of trincieri to seal off the rear. Existing records show that St Thomas Bay was defended only by two gun platforms, each equipped with a small number of guns. Rihama Battery, occupied the right side of the bay, and Mahsel Battery the opposite left side. The latter was sometimes classified as a ‘redoubt’ even though it was armed with canon. It has long since disappeared, however, leaving the Rihama Battery as the only Knights’s period structure to survive in St Thomas Bay (the Bay also contains a number of WWII defences). St. Thomas Bay lacked a centrally-placed redoubt, despite it being a relative wide open anchorage and it is not yet clear if it had any form of entrenchment walls either. The ‘Pianta Ideale dalla Punta del Monsciar sino La Torre Migiales con tutti li Trincieramenti da Farsi’, prepared by the French military mission headed by the Comte de Bourlamaque in 1761, does show a proposal for a bastioned entrenchment cutting across the beach and leading all the way up to St Thomas Tower on the headland. A short stretch of what appears to be the remains of an entrenchment wall can still be found along the rocky shore of the headland but, apart from this, but there is no evidence, nor any remains, to indicate that any part of this enceinte was ever built across the bay itself. Further research, assisted by archaeological investigations would hopefullyserve to resolve the issue.

Image 2: Detail from 1761 plan of the proposed coastal entrenchments at St Thomas Bay showing both Rihama Battery(enclosed in box) and Mahsel Battery (Image source: Author’s collection).

Image 3: View of what appear to be the reamins of a coastal entrenchment wall skirting the left side of St Thomas Bay. The Mahsel Battery would have beem positioned ahead of these works (Image source: Author’s collection).

 

The historical records show that Rihama Battery was referred to by a variety of names. The original 1715/16 document lists it as ‘Batteria di Richama’, while the 1761 map of the bay and its defences drawn up by French military engineers shows it as ‘Batt. Rihama’. It is also listed as 'Batteria Rihama' in the 1785 inventory compiled by the Commander of Artillery, the Knight St. Felix. The fortification historian Alison Hoppen provides the additional names ‘Ducluseaux’ and ‘Tal Franciz’. Ducluseaux may have been the knight who donated money to the Order for the work to be built. Indeed, a number of batteries were named after various knights who contributed to the coastal defence scheme out of their own pockets (e.g. Crevelli, Arrias, Vendôme, Ferretti, Gironda, etc). The Order’s records do confirm that there was indeed a French Knight by the name of Chev. Ducluseaux [Ducluzeau or Du Cluzeau] de Handessus. He was accepted into the Order in 1671, so by 1715, when the battery was being built, he would have been around sixty years old and a very likely candidate for such a benefactor– old, rich, and wishing to leave some monument to his name. This may also explain, in turn, the battery’s other name ‘Tal-Franciz’ (Maltese for ‘belonging to the Frenchman’), possibly referring to Ducluseaux as the ‘Frenchmen’, or the ‘French knight’, given that his name would not have been easily pronounced by the local Maltese. Undoubtedly, further research is necessary to establish whether there is any connection, or not, between this knight and the battery. Another local name for the battery, found in nineteenth century records, is 'Tan-Naz'.

 

Structural features.

There are various sources which shed light on the battery and its features and these allow the military architecture historian ability to recreate a reasonably holistic picture of the original structure despite its missing parts. Unfortunately no Hospitaller-period plan of the battery has survived and the work appears for the first time in basic graphic form in the 1761 plan of the proposed entrenchments mentioned earlier, where it is shown with its present plan but lacking the V-shaped redan protecting the entrance doorway. Today, the redan is no longer visible but it is shown in a detailed mid-nineteenth century plan discovered by the author (see plan below).

Image 4: Late ninteenth-century plan of Rihama Battery showing the blookhouse with its redan and its drop-ditch, and the pentagonal gunplatorm. Note that the revement along the left face, now totally missing, was then already in an advanced stage of deterioration (Image source: Author’s collection).

There is then a detailed inventory of the battery's building costs from 1716, which sheds some light on the original structure and its features. To begin with, the battery cost a total of some 1179.11.19.2 scudi to construct, making it the fourth most expensive structure of the fifteen works erected at Marsaxlokk and Marsascala. A significant part of the money went into the construction of the rectangular blockhouse (with splayed sides) which sealed off the gorge of the battery. This was definitely one of the largest blockhouses constructed in a Hospitaller coastal battery. The Rihama Battery blockhouse consisted of three rooms, a large central one for the accommodation of troops, with two smaller ones on the sides serving for the storage of gunpowder and victuals; in all the blockhouse’s roof was supported on 17 diaphragm arches and two cross-walls. Similar (but fully-rectangular) examples of blockhouses of comparable dimensions could be found at Pinto Battery (19 arches), Benghisa (20 arches - demolished), Elminiech (15 arches - demolished), and Buggibba (15 arches - demolished). Most blockhouses had between 7 and 14 arches. The blockhouse was served with its own cistern which was cut out into the rock immediately underneath the floor of the building. There was one main entrance from the exterior and a corresponding opening leading out onto the battery platform. Each of the two side rooms had a door opeing to the the gunplatform while the central room also had two windows, likewise opening onto the battery.

It is not yet clear if the redan protecting the main entrance was a feature of the original battery. As mentioned earlier, it is not depicted in the 1761 plan while the 1716 construction account does not make any specific reference to it. The list does mention, however, the sum of 20 scudi as having been spent on the construction of feritori, i.e. musketry loopholes, and six of the existing loopholes are actually positioned diagonally in order to enable the defenders to enfilade the two outer walls of the redan (see plan above and images 10 and 11 below). This tends to suggest that the redan may well have been incorporated into the original design. The redan, which is slightly asymmetryical in plan, was itself defended by a number of loopholes, the exact number of which is unknown as large parts of the structure had already fallen into ruin by the time the plan shown above was drawn up. It also contained the main entrance in its south face, which was in turn protected by a shallow drop-ditch along its right face and was possibly served by a drawbridge. The 1785 inventory compiled by St Felix mentions a Rastelliere, possibly a wooden palisade. Such fixtures were often placed on the counterscarp immediately in front of the drawbridge.

Unfortunately the redan is no longer standing but the imprint of its drop-ditch can be easily made out in the depression which leads towards the present entrance into the structure. The original doorway into the blockhouse was unfortunately enlarged during the late nineteenth century when the battery was converted into either the soap factory or the abattoir.The nineteenth century plan shown above also reveals that the main entrance doorway was much smaller than the present opening. It may possibly have been crowned by an inscription or escutcheon, evidence for which has not survived. The building accounts of 1716 show that some effort was made to decorate the doorway with a raised surround (oramenti e archipiano) - this however may be referring to the second doorway leading out onto the battery platform, which still retains these features (see image 7 below).

Image 5: Current view of the battery blockhouse and platform (Image source: Author’s collection).

Image 6: Current view of the battery blockhouse. Note the raised window and door surrounds (Image source: Author’s collection).

Image 7: Current view of the central doorway opening from the blockhouse onto the platform. The main entrance into the battery from the exterior can be seen in the background (Image source: Author’s collection).

Image 8: Current view of the interior of the blockhouse with the entrance of what seems to have been the gunpowder room (Image source: Author’s collection).

 

The gunplatform itself was slightly unusual in that it had a pentagonal plan. The two outer faces formed a salient and were fitted with a parapet and a flag-stoned platform to service the guns. Only the right face of the platform, facing out to sea, was fitted with a parapet high enough to take embrasures. The left face, looking out directly towards the bay, was given a low parapet designed to enable the guns to fire en barbette. This arrangement, as a matter of fact, is supported by the 1716 accounts which show that only three canoniere (embrasures) were constructed and these can still be seen today, albeit blocked up with rubble and debris. The parapet, indeed the whole revetment, along the left face of the battery, is sadly missing, having long since collapsed into the sea.

Two side walls flanked the battery but these thick walls were meant largely to serve as traverses and were designed to screen off the interior of the open battery platform from high ground to the rear of the structure. They do not appear to have been served by infantry banquettes even though one of the expense items mentioned in the 1716 document lists the sum of 11 scudi as having been disbursed for the construction of banchette.

The 1716 document also speaks of some sixty metres of counterscarp wall having been constructed. This would mean that the battery, or at least some parts of it, must have been surrounded by a ditch on its landward side. The nineteenth century plan, however, only shows a short stretch of drop ditch on one face of the redan and nothing else. The rocky ground to the right side of the battery, however, does tend to show a shallow rock-hewn depression that could have once formed part of a ditch along the flank of the battery but there is no surviving trace of a masonry counterscarp. The left flank of the battery, on the other hand, is heavy covered in vegetation and soil and only an archaeological investigation can help resolve the issue.

Image 9: Current view of the exterior wall of the battery's heavily consumed and partly rebuilt north-facing flank  (Image source: Author’s collection).

 

Arming the Battery

The Order’s records show that for most of its life Rihama Battery was armed with seven guns. In 1785, its largest calibre weapons were three 8-pdr iron canon mounted in embrasures on the north seaward facing parapet while four 4-pdr guns were deployed en barbette ( i.e., firing over the parapet) along the west-facing side overlooking the beach. The guns were mounted on naval pattern truck carriages (ceppi di marina) and the battery was equipped with three extra carriages. Ammunition levels stood at 210 iron round shot for the 8-pdr guns (i.e, 70 shot per gun) and 280 iron round shot for the 4-pdr guns (70 shot per gun). There were also 45 grapeshot rounds (sachetti di mitraglia) for the 8-pdr, and 60 for the 4-pdrs. The battery was also equipped 140 cartridges (scartocci di pergamena) possibly for muskets.

Below is a list of all the items stored inside the battery in 1785 (apart from the guns and their munitions mentioned above).

Manoelle 28 (?)/ Platine di piombo 7 / Piediporchi 2 / cocchiare di rame 2/ misure di rame 2 /  Bancazza 1/ Cuscini, cugni e Cascavalle  38 / Rastelliere 1/ Aste con rifald:i, e lanate 9 / Cavaletto 1 / Fagotta 1/ martello 1/ Picconi 2/ Garacoli 2 / Cocchiara di fumata 1/ Mannarettta 1/ Fanali 3/ Guardafuochi di legno 7/ Scartocci di pergamena 140 / Zappe 2/  Cuffe (casse?) di verghe 6/ Rosette, caviglie, e chiavette 29/  Scarpello 1/ Tenagli 1/ Chiodi di acciajo 8(?)/ Embuto di latt 1/ ammorse d'osso 8/ mecciere 2/ Buttafuochi 7/ Casse 2/ Passapalle di rame 2/ Marteletto 1/ Cavatacci 1/ Tagliaferro 1/ Tenazzo 1/ Puntaloro 1/ Sarsia and Meccio.

Image 10: Current view of the interior of the blockhouse showing the three musketry loopholes to the left of the main entrance (Image source: Author’s collection).

Image 11: Present-day view of the musketry loopholes to the right of the main entrance. (Image source: Author’s collection).

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3D Reconstruction of Rihama Battery.

The Final days of Rihama Battery

Rihama battery's baptisim of fire came on Sunday, 10th June 1798, when Malta was invaded by Napoleon’s army. For nearly a century it had stood in silent vigilence. The artillery inventories of 1770, 1785, and 1792 reveal the same amount of ammunition in the battery, indicating, that its guns probably never fired. Not much is known of Rihama Battery’s role in the tumultuous events of 1798. The French attack on this section of the coast was assigned to General Desaix with General Belliard whose troops landed between St Thomas Bay and Wied ix-Xaqqa at Marsaxlokk. The main force was preceded by a vanguard of 400 men which landed at Wied ix-Xaqqa near the mouth of Marssxlokk Bay and advanced rapidly to take the coastal defences from the rear. The St Thomas Bay defences were most likely outflanked by the French troops, and their guns rendered useless, as the French soldiers proceeded systematically along the coastline towards Fort Ricasoli. At the time, the two batteries guarding the Bay would have been garrisoned by a small number of gunners deployed there from the Order’s navy together with a contingent of militia from the Regiment of Zejtun, equipped with muskets. The standing orders for the early eighteenth century show that 240 men from the Zejtun Regiment were generally detailed to defend St Thomas Bay in the event of an invasion.

Like most other coastal works of fortification, Rihama Battery would quickly lose it military value in the years that followed the British takeover. It was eventually abandoned by the first few decades of the nineteenth century and was decommisioned by the British military around the beginning of the 1830s. From around that time it was devolved to the civil government and eventually ended up as a sea-side residence before eventually being converted into a soap factory and abattoir, a process which saw some alterations to the right half of the blockhouse and the grafting of an additional annex. The battery was leased by Government until at least 1979 but practically nothing was done to maintain the building and arrest its decay during all this period. It is now in the process of being devolved to the organizations campaigning for its restoration.

MilitaryArchitecture.com augurs that the Ghaqda Bajja San Thumas and its partners, together with all other interested stakeholders, will be successful in their laudible efforts to save this historical building from oblivion and bring it back to life so as to enrich the island's unique patrimony of fortifications.

 

Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D

MilitaryArchitecture.com (C) 2012

 

 

Author:
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D
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