top of page
  • hbanziger

E - 46 : Knights in the Caribbean?

One of the fun things about writing blogs is discovering stuff that you never thought of. Was working on a piece about the Maltese Cross, the symbol for the Knights of St John, when I discovered it on the number plates of cars in Gustavia. What does the Maltese Cross do there? What was the connection between Malta and Saint-Barthélémy?

Anse des Salines in Saint-Barthélémy with the pink salt ponds in the back ground

Turns out that Saint-Barthélémy together with Saint Martin and Saint-Christophe belonged to the Knights from 1651 – 1665. Could not find out what motivated the Knights to buy these remote islands. They are beautiful and there is a lot of tourism today – but 350 years ago they had no economic potential. They are made from volcanic debris without any minerals to mine, nothing grows except floor hugging shrubs and tough grasses and the only European animal that likes it there are goats – they are still there. Cows and sheep cannot digest the tough grasses. There is not enough livestock to support a fishing industry. Maybe the Knights suffered from a predecessor of today's “bitcoin mania”?

From a car number plate - the Maltese cross between the

Swedish crowns (bottom) and the French Lilies (top)

The context in which it happened is clear though. After the defeat of the Ottomans at the siege of Malta in 1565 and the naval battle at Lepanto in 1571, the Knights of St John acquired a reputation of invincibility. They used their fame to scale up the raiding of Muslim ships by declaring themselves the “Christian Protectors of the Mediterranean”. With Genoa and Venice in slow decline and Spain losing interest in the Mediterranean, there was a power vacuum which the Knights of St John happily filled.

Maltese galleys capturing an Ottoman ship

Their naval tactics were highly efficient – the pirates from the Barbary coast had found their match. They were now busy defending themselves with less time for raiding the coast lines of Italy and Spain. But there were a lot of complaints from Europeans about the Knights who claimed the right to stop, search and plunder any ship sailing from a Muslim harbour or transporting goods with a Turkish connection. Venice and Genoa were not pleased.

One of the Knights' of St. John's war galleys setting out to sea for another raid

The spoils of all raids were brought back to La Valetta where the Knights sold them off. To understand how profitable the raiding had become, one only needs to visit St. Paul’s Co-Cathedrals in La Valetta and M’dina or the Auberges of the Knights. Many of these beautiful palaces are now being used by the Maltese government and are thus not accessible. Some are open to the public though. The Museum of the Arts is housed in the former Albergo dei Italiani and the National Museum for Archeology in the Auberge de Provence. The quantity of marble used in these buildings, the craftmanship of the interior design and the beautiful paintings are amazing. Malta was extremely wealthy in the 17th century.

Entrance to the Albergo dei Italianin which now houses

Malta's Museum of Fine Art

Being one of the biggest navies in the Mediterranean had an unintended consequence. Nations who desired to develop their own fleet started to hire Maltese Knights as Captains, Commodores or even Admirals. The Knights of St John were prominently present in the young Royal French Navy and the Russian Imperial Fleet. One of them, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, was appointed Governor of the French colony in Saint Kitts where he served from 1639 – 1660.

Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy (1584 - 1660)

He arranged the acquisition of St Barth and St Martin by the Knights from the bankrupt Compagnie des Isles de l’Amerique. They paid the masterly sum of 120'000 Livres for the privilege and happily sent over a new Governor, Charles Jacques Huault de Montmagny. It is unclear though whether he ever set foot on the island - Poincy would not step down - Montmagny had to wait until he passed away. I guess at this point the Maltese Knights woke up - they were taken for a ride and their money was gone. The three islands had little value.

In 1665, they sold them for a token to France who awarded St Barth in one of the peace treaties in Europe to Sweden – at least they could use the flat ponds behind the dunes as Salines and made salt for their fishing industry at home. But they returned the islands to France as well in 1878 once they could make cheaper salt from their salt mines.

Eventually, 800 hardened people from Brittany took over and scratched a meager living from living on Saint - Barthélémy. Their descendants own all the land – which now compensates handsomely for the hardship of their ancestors.

29 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page