ARX - Hospitaller Coastal Batteries

Readers and subscribers of ARX online journal will be happy to learn that is currently finalizing another new publication dedicated to the eighteenth-century coastal batteries built by the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in the Maltese islands.

Entitled ‘In defence of the Coast: Part II - Hospitaller Coastal Batteries’, this new 300-page publication will focus on the design and construction of one of the most interesting elements of Hospitaller defensive schemes to materialize in the Maltese islands during the course of the last century of the Order’s rule.


The new publication examines in detail the various factors which influenced the design and construction of this distinct typology of coastal structures  ̶  from the defence problems that dictated their introduction and tactical use,  down to the various schemes proposed by the Order’s military engineers to address the threat posed to every single bay and vulnerable stretch of coastline exposed to enemy landings, and  the constructional details, building methods, techniques and materials of the thirty or so structures built  to fulfil this particular defensive role.

In defence of the Coast: Part II - Hospitaller Coastal Batteries is the product of many years of research on the subject  by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D., and  draws on new and hitherto unpublished  archival and historical material, contemporary accounts, plans and reports, contracts and appalti related to the design, construction and maintenance of these coastal works, as well as the extensive logistical preparations that were made to equip the large workforce with all the necessary implements and materials destined for the task of constructing these defences in the years 1714-16. This new publication is also amply illustrated with many original plans, old prints, paintings, and photographs, as well as graphic reconstructions and explanatory diagrams created by the author specifically for this book (samples of which are illustrated below), all brought together to document, and shed light on, the many issues underlying the central theme.

Below, Author's graphic reconstructions of  Westreme Battery and Batteria Mistra, together with plans, old photographs, and diagrams that shed light on the structural details of these work of fortification. These graphics are typical of the images employed to illustrate the subject matter throughout the new publication (Images source: Author's private collection).

Hospitaller Coastal Batteries  - a brief overview

Between 1714 and 1716, the Hospitaller Order of St. John embarked upon the implementation of an ambitious coastal defence scheme comprising novel forms of defences in the shape of gun batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments. Up until that point in time, the Maltese islands’ coastal defences had relied solely on a system of seveneteenth-century towers, which were meant largerly to function as lookout posts. These new defensive structures, however,  were purposely designed to actively resist an invasion and to provide a solid barrier  to any seaborne  attack  ̶  a front line of defence, so to speak, conceived as Grand Master Perellos' minitaure version of Vauban's  'prè carrè' frontier barrier. The spinal element in Perellos’ extensive network of coastal defences were the coastal gun batteries – the subject of this publication.

Coastal batteries were dedicated structures that were envisaged as solid platforms, designed to mount the large guns capable of taking on the heavy firepower of any  formidable galleons and ships-of-the-line escorting vessels and barges  laden with enemy soldiers intent on forcing a landing onshore.  Although the majority of these coastal batteries  took root around the shores of the Maltese islands in the years 1715–16, the idea for these French-style coastal defences had been first mooted in 1714 by the Order’s commissioners of fortification, Jacques de Camus d’Arginy and Bernard de Fontet, aided by a French secondary engineer by the name of François Bachelieu. The coastal defence scheme, however, found its great exponent in the Prior of France, Balì Philippe de Vendôme, and it was mainly through the his insistance and enthusiasm that an island-wide network of such coastal defences was able to materialize in a relatively short period of time. Many of these works were also paid for by individual  knights, who made small financial donations toward the national effort  and were rewarded by having the works named after them (eg. Arrias Battery,  Ferretti Battery, Gironda Battery, etc.). In all, some thirty batteries (not counting the redoubts) were built in the three year period spanning from 1714 to 1716. However, the scheme continued to be augmented with the addition of various other works in response to new military emergencies as these materialized over the course of the eighteenth century in places such as Ras il-Qala, Gozo, Mgarr Harbour, Qala Lembi, and  Tombrell. The last of the coastal batteries was erected in the 1790s at Delimara Point, in an attempt to defend the entrance to Marsaxlokk Bay.

Above, top, The battery at Ras il-Qala, in Gozo, as it appears in one of the Order's records (Image source: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta).

Above, Author's graphic reconstructions of St. Anthony Battery at Ras il-Qala, Gozo, as actually built in the early 1730s by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena. (Images source: Author's private collection).


Above images: Graphic reconstructions of L-Aħrax battery and tower. (Images source: Author's private collection).


Most of these structures followed the French pattern, albeit on a considerably smaller scale and consisted, fundamentally,  of a semi-circular or polygonal gun-platform, sometimes ringed off by an embrasured parapet or low parapets (en barbette), or a combination of both,  and  having one or two small blockhouses closing off the rear, frequently reinforced with a defensible redan to protect the landward approaches.  Initially, it appears that a few  of the batteries were conceived as little more than prepared positions for horse-drawn field artillery, undefended and open to the rear but eventually all acquired defensible perimeters and blockhouses to shelter the guncrews and munitions.  For added protection, particularly where it was thought necessary the garrison would have to ward off landward attacks, the batteries were given loopholed redans and defensible walls ('muri per impedire la vista da parte di terra') as well as strong defensible blockhouses (corpi di guadia). The military engineers experimented with various design combinations and solutions, depending on the tactical requirements of each individual site.  Indeed, design-wise, hardly any two batteries were the same. They all differed in some detail from one another, either in size, shape of the artillery platform, number of embrasures on the parapet, or the layout of the barrack blocks and landward defences. This variety may reflect the personal preferences of the many military engineers who were present on the island in the years 1714–16. In overall charge of the coastal defence project, however, was the French military engineer Philippe de Maigret, who would later go on to acquire considerable renown in France with his publications on military theory, Traité de la sureté et conservation des etats, par le moyen des forteresses, published in Paris in 1726.


Below, Various examples of Maltese coastal batteries dating from the eighteenth century, from top to bottom; St. Mary Battery, Comino; Vendôme Battery, Armier; Blockhouse of Wied Mousa Battery; Wied Musa Battery, Marfa; and Rihama Battery, St. Thomas Bay (Images source: Author's private collection).

This new publication will also delve into the issues pertaining to the armament and garrisoning of the coastal batteries but the study is primarily concernced with those matters revolving around the design and construction of these works of fortification. Often, these aspects of the subject present the greatest challenge to the proper understanding of a defensive work, largely owing to the lack of available information, both documentary as well as architectural, especially in those defences that were either demolished, heavily multilated, or adapted in the course of  time.  Archaeological remains, where these still survive, therefore, can provide important clues. For example, the surviving remains of the early stages of the excavation and formation of the ditches of some coastal batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments, as shown in the images below, are very instructive in revealing the established sequence and methods adopted in the fashioning of a typical shallow ditch, with its rock-hewn scarp and counterscarp. A study of such features, found in different stages of completion (many of which were abandoned half way through), shows that these excavation works began first with the delination of the outline of the ditch by means of shallow culverts cut along the line of the scarp and the counterscarp;  the ground within the delinated area was then systematically broken down into smaller sections and cut out into boulders and blocks.  In many works of coastal fortification this process also allowed the ditch to serve as a quarry but it is also clear that in many instances the builders were simultaniously acquiring their supplies of building stones from other sources – either from nearby or distant quarries, or even from pre-hoarded stocks of seasoned stone. This aspect of the study will be discussed in considerable depth in the publication.


 Below, Evidence of the early stages in the excavation of the ditches of coastal batteries as still surviving in various sites around the Maltese islands. (Images source: Author's private collection).

Another process rarely discernable in the surviving batteries is that of the clearance and levelling of a site prior to the commencement of building works. Such evidence for the clearance of the rocky terrain, generally described in the Order’s parlance and in the official records as spianatura’, can still be detected, for example, at Westreme Battery in Mellieħa and at Batteria Mistra (see images below), as well as at a couple of other sites which will be discussed in the forthcoming publication. The spianatura, or levelling of the uneven ground on which a defensive structure was to be constructed, was frequently the very first step in the builders’ preparation of a site prior to the initiation of structural works, particularly in areas of very rough and jagged rocky terrain such as can be found along the karstland at Mellieħa, Selmun, Mistra, and St Paul’s Bay, amongst other places. The spianatura, however, was not a systematic excavation nor a productive quarrying attempt intended for the extraction of stone but, more precisely, a ‘spaccatura’, i .e., the rough breaking down of the hard rocky surface to remove any jagged outcrops and thus smoothen intense unevenness in the ground in preparation for the laying of foundations;  it never extended very far beyond the footprint of the structure involved as can be seen, for instance, in the photographs below showing the ‘boulder-like’ karst protruding close to the salient of the blockhouse and the redan of Westreme Battery and Mistra Battery respectively. By the 1760s, there is also clear documented evidence to show that explosives (fornelli) were being employed in the removal of large outcrops of rock interfering with the desired levelling of a site (eg. Spinola Entrenchment 1762-67). In 1714-16, however, the levelling of the ground for the construction of these batteries was still a very much a labour-intensive task carried out by hand with typical quarrying and rock cutting tools such as pickaxes, wedges, and sledgehammers. As a matter of fact, among the equipment sent by Giuseppe Fugard, the secretary of the Congregation of Fortification, to Aloisio Abdilla, the foreman of works overseeing the construction works on the batteries at Marsaxlokk then being carried  under the direction of Commander Mongontier in January 1715, were 10 ‘mazze di ferro armate’ ( heavey reinforced sledgehammers).

The spianatura preceded the laying of the foundations and the excavation of a ditch, and occasionally, was also necessary after the termination of building works in order to open access paths along the approaches leading to the entrance gateways on the landward sides of the defensive structures, so as to facilitate access for the garrison and the transportation of equipment and supplies.

This process of the levelling of the terrain was always listed in the Order’s administrative records and entered separately in the account books of fortress construction sites specifically under the heading of ‘Spianatura.’ For example, the cost to the Order’s treasury department of the spianatura of the site at l-Aħrax Battery in the limits of Mellieħa, in 1714-16, is listed as the very first expense in the accounts ledger of the said battery, before the entry of the construction of the walls and the excavation of the Trinca (ditch), and this work amounted to the not insignificant sum of 80 scudi. In this instance, the levelling works comprised the removal of some 80 cubic Canne Maltese of hard surface rock, estimated at 1 scudo per cubic cane, as revealed in the extract from the Conto Sommario of 1716 shown below (Courtesy of the National Library of Malta). In contrast, however, one finds that the redoubts at the Ramla Tal-Bir (near Armier) and at Ramla in Gozo, which were built very close to the sea on the sand, did not require any spianatura whatsoever but necessitated, instead, a different type of expense under the heading of ‘scavazione’ (excavation), which involved the digging up, to some depth, of the soft ground for the preparation of special foundations. At the Sta. Maria Redoubt in Ramla, Gozo, this scavazione resulted in waterlogged foundations, which proved a particularly tricky problem to resolve, incurring additional interventions and expenses. Of the 47 batteries and redoubts under construction in 1714-1716, all but 4 did not require some degree of scavazione or spianatura of the site. Of the 43 works requiring some preparation to the site, 22 needed no spianatura.

Like all previous issues of ARX, this new forthcoming edition will be available online free of charge through website. The tentative publication date is set for April 2015. plans to follow this issue with four other publications in the series ‘In Defence of the Coast’. These will be dedicated to the small seventeenth-century watchtowers built during the reigns of Grand Master Lascaris and Grand Master Martin de Redin, and to the eighteenth-century redoubts, entrenchments, and fougasses respectively.

The issue dedicated to the coastal entrenchments examines the Hospitaller knights’ grand plan to seal off the island’s  shores with a continuous ring of walls, designed to transform the whole island, literally, into one large fortress.  The entire success of this coastal defensive strategy hinged around the construction of an unbroken line of trincieri or trincieramenti, a type of  bastioned seawalls fitted with their own rock-hewn ditches and designed to present a physical barrier to invasion. Not surprisingly, however, this ambitious scheme soon ran into serious difficulties and, in reality, only a very small portion of the coastline was fitted out in the envisaged manner. Among the entrenchments that were actually built and can still be appreciated today are the ones at Birżebbuġa, Spinola, Armier, and Ta’ Kassisu (Mellieħa).  Many of these seawalls were built to the formal conventions of the bastioned trace, while others were constructed in a much cheaper and ephemeral manner as rubble walls, or in the pietra à secco style, as it was then known.  The 1761 emergency, in particular, triggered off by the episode of the Corona Ottomana, saw the commencement of the most serious effort, albeit the last, in the construction of coastal entrenchments. Even so, many of these works were abandoned half way through after nearly a decade of construction, largely for the want of money but also because of a growing realization that the whole notion of an island-wide defensive scheme, involving endless miles of bastioned ramparts, was then far beyond the Order’s ability to defend, both logistically and in terms of the limitations of its manpower resources.



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