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Young Lovers' Escape to Comino during the Siege of Gozo
In those far off days, the risk of slavery in Gozo was the order of the day. The small Island, unmanned and defenceless in the midst of the Mediterranean was easily reachable and a frequent target for marauding sea-dogs and the cunning Turks.
Escape to Comino - I
Toni and Catrina lived in Gozo and were so deeply in love that they wanted to get married soon, but her father strongly opposed the idea. Toni had an adventurous spirit and as far as her father knew, he was not very fond of working. The girl's father was more in favour of her other suitor Santu, who had some property and was quite well off by the standards of those days.
However, Catrina preferred Toni's looks and character. He was strong-looking, lean and handsome. So one evening in the year of our Lord 1551 they decided to escape to Comino and get married there. They got into his little rowing-boat (frejgatina in Maltese) and left quietly for Comino, where an old priest was to marry them secretely. (Consult Map)
As they neared the narrow stretch of water between the 2 Cominos, known today as the Blue Lagoon, they observed a concentration of Turkish galleys coming from Malta towards Gozo. Some were single-masted but the majority were the larger double-masted type. Their lateen sails were unfurled although there was no wind and their 15 pairs of oars were swiftly cutting the now darkening water of the Gozo channel. Some of the galle ys disappeared round Qala point, while others took a South West direction past Mgarr ix-xini and rounded the cliffs of Ta Cenc. Five of the galleys dropped anchor and blocked Mgarr Harbour.
Toni's experienced eye could see that the ships were all fully-manned and seemed to be circling the Island. What was going on?
Escape to Comino - - For once, the lad was glad that there was no wind. His boat was bare-masted and almost invisible in the semi-darkness. He was a dexterous oarsman and though he pulled strongly at the oars, they barely broke the surface of the water or made a sound. Silently they continued towards Comino to their fateful rendezvous with the priest.
About an hour later they heard 6 cannon shots from the far side of the Island of Gozo. "This seems like a signal of some sort," Toni whispered to his bride. "Look the galleys are moving in".
Indeed the 5 galleys weighed anchor, unshipped their oars and began rowing fast, four of them towards the port of Mgarr and one towards Ix-xatt l-Ahmar and Mgarr ix-Xini.
"The infidel dogs are attacking the Island. Damn the Turks, may God drown them", Toni said gnashing his teeth. "What can we do! They are attacking in full force and from all sides simultaneously. That's why the other ships kept going past to get to the other side. The small Dejma garrison and the few Knights at the Citadel can do nothing against such an opposition and will soon have to surrender. They will all be killed or dragged into slavery".
It was the summer of 1551 and the siege of Gozo was on.
"Perhaps the Grand Master will send his galleys from Malta. Look at that bonfire on Qala, that is a signal to the Red Tower at Ghadira for help", whispered Catrina.
However, there was no need for the Qala warning signal because after some time they could see several larger fires scattered here and there all over the sloping hillsides of Ghajn Sielem and Qala. It was already too late for help to be of any use.
"Oh my God, they are razing the island to the ground. Gozo is bearing the brunt. They are spending their fury on Gozo after their shamefaced defeat in Malta. The cowards, attacking a defenceless Island".
"Oh dear, I can hear screams. Listen", said Catrina clutching Toni's arm with her cold trembling hands.
"It is only the wind in my shrouds", Toni told his bride in an effort to calm her fears.
But Catrina knew better. She had heard. The shouting and screaming and an occasional gun shot could be distinctly heard across the water.
"They will all be killed, my poor father and my brothers. What will happen to my sister Estella? She will surely be raped and carried into slavery. I will never see any of them again! Oh what have I done, leaving them all alone. Oh Holy Mother, my poor sister a slave", she sobbed.
Toni was heartbroken. He could do nothing to help his poor trapped compatriots. He was alone and only had his knife and a catapult in his pocket. Neither did he know how to calm Catrina. She knew exactly what was happening and what would happen to the survivors - all dragged into slavery, the men to labour on the ships or in the fields and the women to slave in the households.
He took her in his arms and whispered, "Look Catrina, perhaps they will not be killed. We should thank God for bringing us here or else we would have suffered the same fate. Let's go and talk to Fr. Joseph on Comino. He's waiting for us, remember", Toni said softly as he kissed the tears from her eyes. "Let's see what he thinks".
Escape to Comino - - II
He grounded the 'firilla' (small boat) on the soft golden sand, tied a thick hemp rope to the iron ring behind the stem, slung the rope over his right shoulder and started dragging the boat over the sand like an ox pulling the plough.
"Help me", Toni called out breathlessly to Catrina. "Push from the stern. I want to hide it in the reeds".
Before long, Toni took Catrina's hand while in the other he carried the heavy bundle which she had brought with her. Quickly they made their way to the small chapel where they expected to find Fr. Joseph.
"Where can he be? The door is locked. He knew we were coming for the wedding", Catrina complained, looking anxiously at the crumbling walls of the 12th C small church.
"He knows about the attack on Gozo. C'mon I know where to find him. He's hiding in the East Caves".
Although the caves were only a short distance away, it was not easy going in the dark over the rocky ground strewn with loose stones and wild thyme and with the brambles catching and cutting at their feet. On their left they could see Gozo alight with burning sheds and blazing farmsteads. No sounds could be heard but he could easily imagine what was happening on his beloved island - pillaging, raping, torturing and killing.
"Poor fellows" thought Toni. "I'm sure that many of the villagers did not have the time to reach the safety of the Citadel in Victoria. Either butchered or enslaved. Better dead than in the clutches of the Turks. They hate us Christians like the devil himself. The cursed infidels. Please God, let me get my hands on one of them".
When they descended a steep slope and reached the caves, they found Fr. Joseph on his knees praying before a small wooden crucifix which he had placed on a narrow ledge in the wall. By the feeble light of a small candle burning in front of the crucifix the couple could see that the old priest had been crying. He knew well enough what slavery under the Turks meant for the Christian captives.
"What will happen father", Catrina asked, hoping for some consolation from Fr. Joseph.
"We can only pray, my child. It is all in God's hands and we can only help our brethren by prayer. Consider yourselves lucky. Your pure love has saved you, my dear friends."
"Father, can you marry us here or do we have to go to the chapel", asked Toni rather impatiently. The priest smiled at the lad's earnestness and the lass's shy downcast eyes.
"Here will do just fine, dear child", retorted the priest taking his prayer book out of his deep cassock pocket. He placed the spouses side by side in front of the crucifix and facing them he explained that marriage was a blessed sacrament which would bind them to each other for life. He read the sacred text and finished by pronouncing them husband and wife.
Catrina then opened her bundle and produced half a loaf of bread and 3 small goat's cheeselets. Sitting down on the sandy floor of the cave all three ate their humble fare and drank some goat's milk from a brown earthenware jar. They did not eat as heartily as was their wont since their troubled thoughts were with the poor victims trapped in Gozo.
Escape to Comino -- III
Days later, knowing full well that the Citadel had surrendered and that the last of the victorious Turks had left the island, the three fugitives landed in Hondoq-ir-Rummien (Ravine of the Pomegranates) early in the morning and made their weary way to Victoria. A little before noon they climbed the hill to the Citadel to ask for news but only silence and death greeted them. All the houses were empty and the streets were totally deserted. Dead bodies were everywhere and the stench of death permeated the air.
Quickly they left and decided to go to Catrina's farmhouse some distance away on the outskirts of Victoria in a beautiful locality known as Is-Saqwi (Irrigated area). The carob and wild-nut trees were all blackened with smoke and the red sandy soil was all stamped and trampled with a thousand footprints but they could see that the small stone house was still standing. And to her great wonderous joy, her father was there too sitting on the doorstep with the usual clay pipe smoking in his mouth.
He smiled when he saw them approaching and turning his head towards the door he called out,
"Stella come, Catrina and Toni are here".
Toni could not fail to notice the amicable tone of his father-in-law and he breathed a grateful sigh of relief. Catrina was crying with relief when she heard her sister's name and saw her coming out of the house. No nothing had happened to her, she had stayed hidden in a well for 3 whole days and nights, her father explained.
"Thank you, Virgin Mary", Catrina kept repeating under her breath, "for saving my dear sister from slavery". Both her brothers had died a hero's death during the short Siege of the Citadel and their father together with only 39 others had been left behind owing to his old age. Santu, Catrina's other admirer, Santu had also been killed in the fighting.
With all the population of Gozo dead or borne away into slavery, Toni and Catrina became the sole proprietors of whole acres of farmland and decided to have plenty of kids to help them till the fields.
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The story is set during the 1551 Siege of Gozo when the whole population was carried away into slavery, 5000 in all with the exception of 40 men who were left behind owing to their old age..
It is true about the land becoming unoccupied. They say that some rich and influential people came over from Malta and claimed whole stretches as their own.
Toni and Catrina. In the past and to some extent even today, newborn babies in Gozo were named after saints, St.Anthony and St.Catherine.
Citadel or Cittadella a medieval walled city in Victoria.
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