Bali de Souza’s Cannon

The mid-eighteenth century was an important and frantic period in the military administration of the Hospitaller knights of St John.

By Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D

The 1750s and 1760s saw massive efforts directed towards the reorganization andupgrading of the Order's military equipment and storage facilities. Chief amongst these undertakings was the introduction of a much needed restructuringof the Knights' armouries and of their ordnance department. In particular, a massive purchase of weapons, begun in 1759, involving an armaments deal with the weapons-manufacturing firm of St Etienne en Forest, in France, for the supply of 20,000 infantry muskets, 700 pairs of Pistolets d'Arcon, 700 pairs of boarding pistols, sabres and 'gros trombons à fourchette', was not only meant to upgrade the then-existing quality of the Order's equipment, as well as create an adequate reserve of serviceable weapons, but it was also meant to introduce a much needed degree of standardization. By the late 1760s, the Order of St. John could muster a force of some 18,000 men and hundreds of cannon with which to defend some 25 km of bastioned ramparts and scores of coastal defences. Rationalizing the logistics underpinning this growing organization had became a serious priority.

One individual who was directly involved in much of this re-armament programme was the Portuguese Knight Fra Raimondo de Souza da Silva, Bali di Lessa and Langone, 'Gran Croce dellaven.da Lingua di Castiglia e Portugallo' and member of the Congregation of War and Fortification, the main body responsible for directing and overseeing all the defence preparations of the Maltese islands. In 1769, Bali De Souza was instrumental in reviewing (with a damning report!) the storage facilities and state of equipment in the Order's armouries. In 1770, however, he went one step further and took the personal initiative to establish a Fondazione intended to help with the acquisition of new cannon and mortars of which the Order was then apparently 'molto sprovista'.

De Souza financed this 'fund' directly out of his pocket with the sum of 50,000 scudi invested in the massa fromentaria (a grain-importing agency which was then the equivalent of a modern bank), the profits from which investment were to be used 'nell' acquisto di bronzo di perfetta lega per fondere quella quantità di Cannoni corrispondente al denaio rammassato', which guns (or mortars – mortari a bomba - depending on what was most in need at a given time) were to be 'del calibre e proporzioni prescritte ed ordinate dalla Ven.da Congregatione da Guerra'. In 1779, the sum of 50,000 scudi was indeed a phenomenal amount of money - by comparison, the construction of some 30 coastal batteries and redoubts erected earlier in 1715 had cost a little more than 41,000 scudi.

Caption: Detail from a manuscript drawing attached to the deed establishing the Fondazione set up by Bali de Souza, showing the template to be adopted in the manufacture of bronze guns and mortars financed by his foundation. (Image source: Courtesy of the Notarial Archives, Valletta).

A document discovered by the author at the Notarial Archives in Valletta shows that all the guns manufactured and paid for by De Souza's fondazione were to be decorated with a set of three escutcheons cast in low relief on the breech of the weapons. These were to bear the arms of the Order and the reigning grand master (the drawing shows the arms of the then-reigning Grand Master, Pinto de Fonseca), as well as those of Bali de Sousa himself, all set above a cartouche containing a commemorative inscription:


'Che in detti Cannoni e Mortari vi si dovranno essere in due scudi di basso rilievo assieme legati le armi della S.R.[i.e. Sacra Religione]; e dell Sig.r Gran Maestro Regnante, esotto alli sud.i due scudi, lo scudo con le armi del Illm. Sig.r Fondatore, ed in una cartella l'inscrizione descritta nel foglio di carta reale inserita'.

This inscription, within the cartouche, was to read asfollows:








This foundation deed, as expected, was also recorded in the Order's own papers, particularly those relating to the Common Treasury. To this end, a detailed account was entered in the Archivije Registri della Ven.a di Guerra Contenente tutte le circostanze e requisiti spiegate nella Fondazione di Capitale di cinquanta mila scudi nella Massa fromentaria di questa fatta con tutte le opportune e necessarie licenze dal Bali di Lesa e Langone' and recorded in the acts of the notary employed by the Comun Tesoro.

A fuller discussion of this subject will be found in the publication 'Hospitaller Armouries', in the new series of volumes entitled Encyclopaedia of Hospitaller Military Architecture, produced and edited by the author.

[1]This appears to be an error, as it should read 'FROMENTALE'





Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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