The Maltese islands have a long history of occupation and colonisation, and during these periods torture was sometimes used as a means of maintaining control.
This was done as punishment for crimes, to extract confessions and exert power over the population. Here’s a few examples of the kinds of nasty torture techniques used in Malta over the centuries.
The Knights of St John
This religious military order ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798 and during this time it was known to use various forms of torture to extract information from prisoners.
One of the most well-known forms of torture is the use of the rack, a device that stretches the victim’s body until their joints are dislocated. The rack was often used to extract confessions from accused criminals or to punish those who had committed crimes.
Another form of torture used in Malta was the use of the strappado, or corda, which involves suspending the victim from their wrists, which are tied behind their back. This form of torture was also used during the rule of the Knights Hospitaller and was used to extract information or confessions from prisoners.
The strappado is a particularly brutal form of torture, as it can result in dislocated shoulders, broken bones, and long-lasting damage to the victim’s joints. No wonder it was known as ‘the queen of torments’.
Historian Giovanni Bonnello writes that following the failed Slaves Revolt of 1749, the Knights of Malta arrested and tortured 135 slaves, executing 38 of them.
The torments employed by the knights against those who had plotted to overthrow them included “the rack, the lash, flesh being torn away with red hot pincers (usually starting with the nipples) arms and legs shattered by repeated blows of a metal sledgehammer and, finally, drawing and quartering while still alive, by tying each extremity of the body to four vessels rowing in opposite direction”. Basically, every possible horrible thing that could be done to these seditious men, was done.
Bonnello, who is Malta’s foremost historian, also says the harsh punishments were given to any slaves recaptured after daring to escape. Typical punishments would be “cutting off their nose and ears and branding their foreheads or cheeks with red-hot irons”.
And anyone from the general public found guilty of theft faced having their flesh clawed with pincers, the hands with which they stole mutilated, before being hanged.
The Roman Inquisition was established in Malta in the late 16th century and was responsible for enforcing religious orthodoxy.
The Inquisitors used a range of torture methods to extract confessions from suspected heretics, including the aforementioned strappado and the cavaletto, which saw men and women placed on a triangular bench high off the ground with weights attached to their legs, so that their genitals were pulled down onto the bench’s sharp edge.
Also employed was the stringitore, where the victim was tied to a chair, their leg encased in a metal boot and then crushed in a vice.
British colonial period
One form of torture employed by the British, who ruled in Malta from 1800 until 1964, was the use of the cat-o’-nine-tails.
This 19th Century punishment was a whip with nine knotted cords used to flog prisoners, and was employed as a punishment for a wide range of crimes. It was often used in public as a means of intimidating the population.
The forms of torture used mentioned here range from the brutal to the gruesome, and they reflect the complex and often violent history of the island. But while many of these torture devices are now illegal and considered barbaric, it’s important to remember that they were once considered acceptable means of punishment and control, both in Malta and in the wider world too.