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"Comino was made
out of bounds for
all civilians ..."

The Comino Tower - A Short History

In 1418, Gozitan traders petitioned the Viceroy of Sicily to give them the permission to erect a tower on the island of Comino, this in order to protect the vessels plying between Malta and Gozo from seafaring raiders. King Alfonso V of Aragon gave the permission for this tower to be built and money was raised by the local government, the Università, through the taxation on imported wine.

Unfortunately the money was used to fund Alfonso’s military exploits and the tower remained unbuilt. In 1532, barely two years after the arrival of the Knights of St. John in Malta, a Florentine engineer, Piccino, was commissioned to prepare designs for a tower to be constructed on Comino. Piccino was however soon called to draw a bastion at Telghet Sceberras, in what is today Valletta, and the Comino Tower was once again shelved.   In 1535 Piccino left Malta.

When in the 1601, Aragonese Grand Master Martino Garzes passed away, the newly-elected Grand Master, the Frenchman Alof de Wignacourt took possession at a time when a Turkish assault on Malta was imminent. In these years the population of Malta was 38,500, that of Gozo 2,700. The assault was eventually carried out in 1614.

It had to be Alof de Wignacourt, who in 1618 financed and built the Santa Maria tower in Comino, having already erected towers in St. Paul’s Bay in 1609, St. Lucian in Marsaxlokk in 1610 and St. Thomas in Marsascala in 1614. The tower, armaments and provision for the Santa Maria Tower in Comino cost 18,628 scudi, the most expensive, the designs probably being drawn by Maltese architect Vitor Cassar (1550-1607). The site chosen is at Ras l-Irqieqa, on the southwestern side of the island, at a height of 230 feet above sea level. Its walls are 18 feet thick, the tower being 65 feet above the ground.

The tower housed ten heavy guns, eight light guns and could take a compliment of 130 men, expected to oppose landing parties. There is a place where a number of horses could be sheltered if necessary. It had a compliment of thirty Maltese soldiers, whose task was to defend the place in case of attack.

The Santa Maria tower rests on a plinth that is 110 feet square and 25 feet high. Other defensive facets are the scarp musketry gallery at the base of the walls, the fausse braye and the glacis.

It was only after the construction of the Santa Maria tower in 1618 that Comino was partly brought under cultivation, not with so much success.

Signallers on the roof kept in continuous communication with St. Agatha’s Tower, It-Torri l-Ahmar, in Mellieha on Malta and Torre Garzes in Mgarr, on Gozo, on matters of a defensive nature, such as enemy movements and their own state of alertness. It was not uncommon of having Knights of the Order, including those who flirted with their vows of chastity and celibacy, imprisoned here, perhaps to contemplate better on their lifestyle.

We are aware that some of the soldiers were decrepit and infirm, as was the case of Mikiel Zarb, an octogenarian Detachment Commander in 1749. Boisgelin, writing in 1804 states that the Comino Tower armament consisted of two iron 12-pounders, one bronze 10-pounder, one bronze 4-pounder and two bronze 3-pounders.

With the British arrival in 1799 to help assist the cause of the Maltese revolution against French Napoleonic rule on the islands, the British forces decided to use the Comino Tower as a prisoner of war camp for undesirables, including extortionists and other nefarious characters.

Comino was made out of bounds for all civilians, and sailors were ordered to give the island a wide berth, or face the consequence of a death by a firing squad and confiscation of the shipping vessel.

With the might of the omnipresent British navy now based in Malta, preferred to the Minorcan harbour of Mahon, the fears of Ottoman incursions against the islands were no more.

The tower was manned by the armed forces in both the First and Second World War, until handed over to the Government of Malta. From the 1960s vandals crept in, denuding the Comino Tower of its furniture and fittings, leaving a fracas only degenerates could contort, behind them. Fires were lit inside, glass strewn all over the historic site as the authorities dozed and yawned. This pathetic situation persisted throughout the 1970s, although the Gozitan heritage organization Wirt Missierijietna [Our Forefather’s Legacy], now defunct, campaigned and succeeded in having the wooden bridge removed, in order to arrest further voluntary damage.

In 1982, the Comino Tower reverted to military life, this time under the Armed Forces of Malta, who used the place as an anti-smuggling deterrent. Electricity replaced oil lamps and the presence of soldiers helped, albeit, checked vandalism and theft, which had included the savaged flagstones.

In 2000, the Malta Maritime Authority reached an agreement with Din l-Art Helwa, a national heritage organization, to fund the entire restoration of the Santa Maria Tower. This shall be carried out in two main phases; the outside restoration, including the missing parapet and damaged walls and turrets and the internal part of the Comino Tower. Restoration works shall be completed by 2003. commends this pro-active stance, which shall help not only conserve and rehabilitate this outstanding historic site, but shall also be an additional attraction to the people of Malta and to the overseas guests visiting our country.

Steve Borg

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