Pirates and pirating are as old as time. The Mediterranean - some of the first shores man settled - has always been full of guys looking for other guys' boats to plunder. It should come as no surprise, therefor, that the freebooters of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis were not the only ones cruising that fabled sea in search of booty. The Knights of Malta were just as dangerous and just as feared as any Barbary pirate. There were differences, though, not the least of which was religion, or the ships each group favored.
Originally known by the tongue twisting moniker The Knights Hospitaler of St. John of Jerusalem, the Order of the Knights of Malta was formed in 1113 and eventually set up shop on the Island of Rhodes. By the early 1500s, the Knights had moved from their base in Rhodes to the Island of Malta, smack dab in the middle of the rich hunting grounds of the Mediterranean. They were cagey fellows and they had inherited a couple of Barbary galleys when they moved in. Hey, somebody said, how about we get into the business of pirating ourselves? The Malta Galleasse was about to be born.
As the picture above illustrates, the galleasse was an enormous fighting vessel capable of carrying an equally enormous compliment of men and arms. The Malta Knights relied more heavily on gunnery than did the Barbary pirates, so the galleasse was thicker at the gunwales and far more sturdy than a galley. Ramming a galleasse was generally an effort in futility that would more likely wreck the Barbary galley than dent the Malta galleasse.
The galleasse had a remarkably shallow draft. A ship 180 feet long might have a hold no deeper than 7 feet allowing her a draft beneath the water of as little as 3 feet depending on how heavily laden she was. This made her fast in spite of her weight. Fully armed and manned, she might displace 1,000 tons.
The compliment of men aboard a galleasse was usually large, for the most part due to the number of warriors and oarsman aboard. One expert writing in the late 1800s estimated that the largest of ships might be crewed with 450 rowers, 350 soldiers, 60 Marines, 50 ordinary seaman, 36 gunners, 12 warrant men, 4 mates, 5 pilots, 2 priests, 2 surgeons, 4 scribes, 2 sergeants, 2 carpenters, 2 caulkers, 2 coopers, 2 bakers, cabin boys, a Captain, lieutenants and a purser. This small army could top out at 1,000 men.
The galleasse was a two mast vessel with one enormous lateen (fore and aft) sail to each mast. This is the same configuration seen on Barbary galleys. The sails, however, were only unfurled when the wind was favorable. Like the Barbary galleys, the galleasse was run by slave power. Most were Muslim prisoners but some were Christian criminals or debtors culled from the prisons of Italy. Their fate was most unchristian indeed.
The galleasse navigated by the Maltese corsairs had its heyday from the 1500s until the Napoleonic Wars. The French Revolution took the Knights' estates from them and then Napoleon's navy invaded Malta on her way to Egypt. The days of the pirates for the Church were over, but the craft of the Maltese galleasse can still be very much appreciated.