This fascinating story unfolds in the next few pages…
Malta had harboured a Jewish community for almost fifteen centuries after the visit paid to the island by (St.) Paul of Tarsus. Catacombs commemorate its existence in Roman times, and government records mark its medieval history. But the island fell, together with Sicily, under the rule of the royal house of Aragon, and the community of Malta shared, in 1492, the fate of the Jews of Spain. There was a brief interval during which there were no Jews on the islands (except for "conversos". Then followed the amazing interludes of the slaves.
In 1530, Charles V made over Malta to the knights Hospitaller of the Order of ST. John, who had been driven from Rhodes nine years earlier by the Moslems. The whole raison d’`etre of the body and its tenure of Malta lay in the supposition of a continual state of hostility between the Moslem world and Christendom, of which the members of the Order were, in a sense, the knights-errant. Accordingly, they waged continual maritime warfare, hardly distinguishable from piracy, against the Moslem powers. Seaports were raided and their inhabitants carried off.
Shipping was preyed on indiscriminately, captured vessels being brought to Malta, and crew and passengers sold into captivity. Throughout the rule of the Knights, which lasted until they capitulated to the French in 1798, the islands were thus a last European refuge of slave traffic and slave labour.
The victims were any persons, of whatever standing, race, age or sex, who happened to be sailing on the captured ships. Jews made up a large proportion of the Levantine merchant class and were hence peculiarly subject to capture. Because of their nomadic way of life, disproportionately large numbers were to be found in any vessel sailing the Eastern ports. Also they formed a considerable element in the population of the Moslem ports subject to raids. So, soon after the establishment of the Knights in Malta, the name of Malta begins to be found with increasing frequency in Jewish literature, and always with an evil association.
The islands became in Jewish eyes a symbol for all that was cruel and hateful in the Christian world. Whatever the truth of the contemporary rumour that the Jews financed the great Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, certainly they watched with anxious eyes and their disappointment at its failure must have been great. "The monks of Malta are still today a snare and trap for the Jews", sadly records a Jewish chronicler at the end of his account of the siege. A messianic prohecy current early in the seventeenth century further expressed the bitterness of the Jewish feeling, recounting how the Redemption would begin with the fall of the four kingdoms of ungodliness, first amongst which was Malta.
A typical capture, and one of the earliest mentioned in Jewish literature, is related in the "Vale of Tears" by Joseph ha-Cohen:
`In the year 5312 (1552), the vessels of the monks of Rhodes, of the order of Malta, cruising to find booty, encountered a ship coming from Salonica, wheron where seventy Jews. They captured it and returned to their island. These unhappy persons had to send to all quarters to collect money for the ransom exacted by these miserable monks. Only after payment were they able to continue their voyage.’
In 1567, Large numbers of Jews, escaping to the Levant from the persecution of Pius V, fell victims to the Knights. "Many of the victims sank like lead to the depths of the sea before the fury of the attack. Many others were imprisoned in the Maltese dungeons at this time of desolation," writes the chronicler. It was not only those who went down to the sea in ships over whom the shadow hung. Of the Marranos of Ancona who fell victims to the fanaticism and treachery of Paul IV, thirty-eight who eluded the stake were sent in chains to the galleys of Malta, though they managed to escape on the way.
Arrived in Malta, the captives were only at the beginning of their troubles. A very graphic account of conditions is given by the English traveller, Philip Skippon, who visited the spot in about 1663:
`The slaves’ prison is a fair square building, cloister’d round where most of the slaves in Malta are oblig’d to lodge every night, and to be there about Ave Mary time. They have here several sorts of trades, as barbers, taylors &c. There are about 2,000 that belong to the order, most of which were now abroad in the galleys; and there are about three hundred who are servants to private persons. This place being an island, and difficult to escape out of, they wear only an iron ring or foot-lock. Those that are servants, lodge in their masters’ houses, when the galleys are at home; but now, lie a-nights in this prison. Jews, Moors and Turks are made slaves here, and are publickly sold in the market.
`A stout fellow may be bought (if he is an inferior person) for 120 or 160 scudi of Malta. The Jews are distinguih’d from the rest by a little piece of yellow cloth on their hats or caps, &c. We saw a rich Jew who was taken about a year before, who was sold in the market that morning we visited the prison for 400 scudi; and supposing himself free, by reason of a passaport he had from Venice, he struck the merchant that bought him; where-upon he was presently sent hither, his beard and head were shaven off, a great chain clapp’d on his legs, and bastinado’d with 50 blows.'
The Holy One, blessed be He, says a well known rabbinic proverb, always prepares a remedy before the affliction. So it was the present case. Among Jews, the idea that a coreligionist should be enslaved by a Gentile and forced to disregard the practices of his religion, with life and honour in constant danger, was altogether abhorrent,
Thus from the earliest days the Redemption of the Captives had ranked high among the acts of charity which a Jew was called to execute, and it was considered proper that, should a dying man leave money "for the performance of a good deed, " without further directions, it should be devoted to this Pidyon Shevuyim, as best deserving the title.
Generally the organization of relief had been purely sporadic. Whenever need arose, an emergency collection would be made and assistance proffered to the needy. With the establishment of the Knights of Malta, the depredations on Mediterranean shipping were systematized and came to one main centre. It therefore became useful and necessary to set up a permanent organization to cope with the new permanent situation.
Now, the great entrepot of Mediterranean commerce was still Venice, whose trade with the Levant was carried on largely by Jews. It happened, too, that there was at Venice an important settlement of Jews hailing direct from the Iberian Peninsula, whose genius for organization was famed. Thus it came about that there was set up in Venice in the course of the 17th century the first of Confraternities for the Redemption of Captives - Hebrath Pidyon Shevuyim - which, in due course of the next hundred years were to spread throughout the great Sephardic communities of the West.