Guarding against Contagion


This latest issue of ARX occasional papers (Issue 6/2016), authored by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri, is dedicated to the role that coastal fortifications and guard posts played in the Hospitaller knights’ attempt to secure the Maltese islands against the real threat of contagion following the devastating outbreak of plague in the harbour city of Messina, in nearby Sicily, in 1743.

The risks to the Island on this occasion were deemed exceptionally high, given the close proximity of the source of contagion and the many maritime, commercial, and social contacts which the Maltese had with the city of Messina. The situation demanded even more careful vigilance not the least because of the ferocity of the outbreak, which would destroy some 50,000 persons - nearly two-thirds of Messina's inhabitants - by the time it had run its course.


Ensuring that the pestilence did not set foot on the Island, however, called for more stringent measures than the requital quarantine provisions. Foremost amongst these was the need to establish a cordon sanitaire – a defensive ring which allowed the Knights to keep both a strict and careful watch over every inch of shoreline bordering their little realm and also to intercept any efforts which sought to disregard the ‘safety’ barrier laid around its shores. Inevitably, the exisiting system of coastal military watch towers and militia guard posts which had been set up to guard against approaching enemy galleys and corsair vessels was immediately recruited as part of the line of coastal pickets. Yet, it was soon realized that these handful of towers and militia posts alone were not going to be enough to hermetically seal off all the vulnerable landing places. For although comprising a land mass of little more than 316 Km (121 sq miles), in practice Malta's long and easily accessible shore line spanned some 136 km in length, making the task of controlling every single bay, inlet, and hundreds of possible landings places a considerably more difficult task than it may have seemed a prima vista.

Guarding Agianst Contagion looks at the special provisions that were implemented by the Order of St. John and its resident military engineer, Francesco Marandon, on this occasion in their attempts to establish various picket lines and sentry posts around the shores of Malta. The system of cordon sanitaire which they put in force comprised a multi-layered defensive ring which was intended to guard, intercept and report upon any suspicious activity. Basically, this consisted of an outer defensive line of armed sailing vessels; a second line of coastal forts, towers and observation posts (including coastal batteries and redoubts) within visual distance of one another; an inner ring of foot and cavalry patrols, and an inner ring of quarantine (and isolation) stations and heavily controlled entry points inside the harbours.

This tiered hierarchical structure was designed to warn the islanders of incoming vessels, intercept the ships at sea with force if necessary, and prevent any landed elements from proceeding into the interior of the island. Each layer was obliged to remain in a state of vigilance and report on those elements that came in contact with it; the captains of the speronare, for example, were expected to check on the towers’ sentinels, by signalling to them from out at sea and the mounted patrols, to report on the alertness of the various guard posts. The effectiveness of the system is perhaps best illustrated by the interception of a contaminated brigantine that had sought to make a landing along the coastline in the vicinity of Żabbar. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the Islands emerged from the whole ordeal unscathed and were spared the devastation that had visited nearby Sicily. Whether this was the direct result of the stringent quarantine provisions which had been implemented by the Order on this occasion, or simply because of good fortune, however, it is impossible to tell.

Watch Towers and Corpi di Guardia (Image source: Copyright Stephen C. Spiteri 2017)

One particular feature of the 1743 preparations was the need to provide shelter for the many sentinels who were posted on guard duty around the Island's shores on this occasion, for the winter of 1743 was also to prove one of the coldest on record.  The answer, it appears, was to build a host of easily transportable sentry boxes (termed guardiole or guerites) and to deploy these wherever a permanent sentry was required to be stationed. Francesco Marandon tells us that these 'guardiole, in Francese Guerites, per mettere a coperto le sentinelle' were constructed from a wooden framework, had a sloping roof, were covered in oiled canvas or woollen cloth, and were built to rest on two long sleeper poles (a graphic simulation prepared by the author and based on the dimensions given by Marandon is provided to illustrate the concept). Each contraption was light enough to be manhandled by the sentry on duty so that it could be easily turned against the direction of the prevailing wind. But because of this very lightness, each sentry box needed to be weighted down with heavy stone boulders so as to prevent it from being toppled over or blown away by strong gusts of wind. Furthermore, a number of existing military structures, such as coastal towers and batteries, were also fitted with their own sentry boxes built permanently in stone.


In all, Marandon lists a total 93 watch posts and coastal fortifications which had been established to form part of the cordon sanitaire in 1743. Amongst these were 20 newly established militia posts (capanne) supplied with guardiole (either fixed or portable); 15 repaired or rebuilt old militia posts; 17 existing towers of which 6 were given sentry boxes; 19 coastal batteries of which 4 were given sentry boxes; and 16  redoubts of which 3 were given sentry boxes.

This study also looks at the various provisions which were implemented to guard the Lazzaretto (and the rest of the Isolotto), the Barriera, and Corradino.

Stephen C. Spiteri

Guarding against Contagion: Vigilance and the Role of Fortifications in Hospitaller Malta during the Outbreak of Plague in Messina in 1743

ARX Occasional Papers, Issue 6 - 2016

Malta. 2017.

270 x 297 mm, full colour, 40pp.


This publication is only available in printed form (hardcopy). Unlike previous issues of ARX, Guarding Against Contagion is not available online or in softcopy (PDF).


Dr. Stephen C Smiteri

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