This is the first guest post from Evarist Bartolo, Shadow Minister for Education and a lecturer in communications at the University of Malta. More than 30 years ago, he taught one of Malta Inside Out’s founders, Alex Grech, to write and appreciate English literature.
There are at least 500 islands in the Mediterranean. One of them has six inhabitants: four men and two women. The youngest is a 42-year old man; the oldest is a woman, twice his age.
Throughout the last 23 centuries pirates, hermits, prisoners of war, exiled knights, farmers and tourists have settled the island. Some 80 years ago, one of the German prisoners of World War I held there, built a water mill driven by a rat. Apart from rats, bats and wild rabbits, most of the inhabitants there have been pigs.
2,500 years ago, the navigator Scillace called it ‘Lampas’. Cluverius called it ‘Hephaestia’. 1,800 years ago Ptolemy referred to it as ‘Chemmona’. ‘Kineni’ in Greek means nearest to and Comino lies nearest to Malta. The Arabs called it ‘Kemmuna’ perhaps a corruption of the Greek word, or a reference to the plant of ‘kemmun’ (cumin) which covered large areas of the island at the time.
In 1285, Abulafia, one of the earliest Cabalists and born in Saragossa in 1240, arrived on Comino to live there for three years during which he compiled his “Sefer ha-Ot” (The Book of the Sign).
Five years before he found refuge in Comino, Abulafia went to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to the ideal that Moslems, Jews and Christians could live together in harmony, instead of persecuting one another. He fled to Comino after being flung into prison for four weeks in Rome and then having to leave Palermo hastily as his teachings were considered too dangerous and he was going to be stoned by the people.
While Abulafia lived in a cave at one end of the island, at the other end pirates sheltered in the bays and caves which were excellent hiding places for them for many centuries. We know of at least two local hermits who lived there for some time. A small Catholic community must have lived there over 600 years ago, big enough to sustain a medieval chapel.
The island was probably abandoned when the raids by corsairs became frequent, as the inhabitants had no fortifications in which to seek refuge. In the 15th century, taxes had been collected by imposing an excise duty on wine imported from Sicily but the money was not used for the tower that had been planned for Comino. In 1533 Grand Master l’Isle Adam also commissioned a plan for a tower on the island but again this project fizzled out.
Grand Master Wignacourt built the existing tower in 1620 and 30 soldiers were stationed there. At this time, knights who had misbehaved in Malta were punished by being sent to Comino.
The island was to serve as a prison camp on a number of occasions. At the end of the French occupation, Comino was used for French prisoners, Maltese who were accused of spying for the French and common criminals.
150 years ago, farmers from Naxxar settled on Comino and started growing crops. The 1881 population census for the Maltese Islands tells us that 20 males and 13 females lived in Comino. Ten years later, the population had increased by 10: 25 males and 18 females. Nearly half of the inhabitants, 17, were children under the age of five.
In 1912, Comino served as a site for an isolation hospital for cholera victims. Soldiers wounded in the war of the Dardanelles were also sent to Comino for treatment. The hospital building still stands there.
Several times during the last 200 years there were several big projects to make use of Comino, including a big pig farm in 1993, when the island was considered ideal to rebuild the Maltese and Gozitan pig industry after African swine fever disease destroyed it.
Comino is a small rock that has seen almost as many twists and turns of fate as its larger sister islands. These days, apart from its six residents, it’s home to one hotel, seasonal staff and tourists, numerous sea craft and a very popular blue lagoon.
Photo: Therese Debono