Giuseppe Garibaldi’s first and only visit to Malta took place in March 1864 when the Italian Risorgimento goals had been reached and the unity of Italy had become a reality. That visit, a prelude to the enthusiastic welcome he was given in England some days later has been amply recorded by Maltese newspapers of the period. But Garibaldi’s connection with Malta and the Maltese dates back to 1837 when he had already taken refuge in South America, mainly in Montevideo. It was there that met with other Italian exiles on the run from the despotic governments that held Italy in thrall for so many years. In Montevideo he teamed up with Luigi Rossetti, undisputed leader of the followers of Mazzini in South America, and supposed nephew of Gabriele Rossetti who had found refuge in Malta in 1821, befriended by John Hookham Frere.
In their battle against despotism these Italian idealists had taken up the cause of the break-away province of the Rio Grande do Sul against the forces of the Imperial Government of Brazil. In 1837 Garibaldi had been given Letters of Marque, by the rebellious province, to run after Brazilian ships – a privateer who needed to assemble a crew for his ship. Among the crew of “corsairs” Garibaldi had approached and enlisted two Maltese – “due maltesi” – whose names he does not give, and consequently none of his many biographers – Alexandre Dumas, Howard Blacket, Jessie Mario White, Indro Montanelli – give their names: “due maltesi di cui non si conoscono i nomi”.
Garibaldi’s exploits aroused the ire of the Imperial Brazilian Government which made pressure on Argentina and Uruguay to desist from giving them help or facilities in their ports. In one of his skirmishes Garibaldi was grievously injured and left for dead. The sea-battle was fought by four Italian sailors from Genova and the two Maltese who fought bravely to ward off their attackers. Garibaldi’s wound necessitated a physician’s attention and crew headed for the Argentinian port of Gualeguay where the ship was confiscated and the crew underwent an interrogation by a special commission. It is by the testimony given by the crew members that we come to know who the two Maltese were. The documents containing the testimony lie in archives in South America. They were seen once by an Italian diplomat who transcribed them; the originals had never been seen before and have never been seen since. They are dated July 1837 and the ink is fading, 18 pages of legal paper in which the crew give their names, nationality, profession and age.
The testimony of the crew members confirm Garibaldi’s ideals – his fight against despotism, slavery etc.- and also confirm the bravery shown by the two Maltese who, unlike other members of the crew, did not abandon “a sinking ship” but kept their word. Copies of the original documents – the Letter of Marque and the testimonies – are in my hands, and I have transcribed them faithfully so that they are legible and are not lost.
In assembling his crew Garibaldi writes letters to his fellow exiles. In one of these letters he mentions Malta and says he is happy the British Government is not hindering the work of Italian exiles in Malta. This is in April 1837, where he mentions a “Comitato di Malta”. A copy of this letter is also in my work, as are official documents by the Brazilian Imperial Government to put pressure on Argentina and Uruguay to hand over the corsairs and their ship should they seek refuge in their ports. Garibaldi’s assertion about the Comitato di Malta is confirmed by the testimony of an Italian aristocrat who was caught by the Austrians in North Italy, and, subjected to repeated interrogations, confirmed the existence of this Committee, giving names. This is also recorded in the book.
After their testimony the two Maltese remained in the Argentinian town of San Antonio de Gualeguay till the beginning of October 1837. After that, all the crew members were allowed to leave. Nothing is known of what happened to the Italians (with the exception of one sailor who later served again under Garibaldi) and the Maltese. They could have returned home to Malta or simply integrated themselves to their new surroundings.