True Story of the Maltese Falcon

By Patrick Fletcher Posted on History


Two days after returning from a trip to the island nation of Malta, I rushed out and rented a 1941 black-and-white classic from my neighborhood video store. I couldn't wait to feed the cassette into the VCR. As the vintage movie unfolded, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) encountered a beautiful and cunning femme fatale and a motley crew of bad guys who all lusted for the same legendary figurine, a gem-encrusted golden bird of prey known as "The Maltese Falcon." According to the old film someone stole the priceless objet d'art from a treasure galleon off the coast of Spain in 1539. For 400 years the idol-like creature left a messy trail of death and destruction in its wake as one greedy thief after another wrestled the plunder into his possession, then lost it.

Dashiell Hammett, the author of the detective novel upon which the famous motion picture was based, spun a great tale. In reality no precious, jewel-covered winged figure ever existed. However, the Maltese falcon is not a figment of a novelist's imagination. Such an creature actually did exist and it played an important role in the history of the Mediterranean.

Location, Location, Location

The Maltese archipelago lies in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and northern Africa. The chain is situated about 60 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles east of Tunisia, and it straddles the 36th parallel. The tiny nation is composed of three inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) and three islets, or big rocks (Cominotto, Filfla and St. Paul's Island). In satellite images the fragments of land look like crumbs that have fallen off their huge Sicilian neighbor.

Many cultures have coveted the small chain of islands. Due to their strategic location, Malta and her two small sisters, have been the targets of a long succession of invaders and conquerors, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, French, Arabs and Turks. To this list of intruders add hordes of pirates of various nationalities and boatloads of British colonials. And St. Paul, who survived a shipwreck on the rocks in 60 A.D. and converted the entire population to Christianity. Each of these gate-crashers contributed an ingredient to the rich cultural stew that is the modern-day Republic of Malta.

Powerful Crusaders

Indisputably the most potent influence upon the Maltese crossroads was exerted by a group of crusading, hospital-building, multinational aristocrats known as the Knights of Malta. The story of this monastic community, originally called "The Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem," begins long before its reign in Malta. The religious fraternity was founded in 1099 before the taking of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade.

Only sons chosen from noble European families of were offered membership in the exclusive club. As a result of the vast wealth the rich scions brought with them (and later from extensive privateering), the group possessed plenty of resources and lots of prestige.

The wealthy brothers' first order of business was to build and administer a hospital for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Later the hospitalers felt obliged to become a military unit. They were needed to defend crusader territory and to protect pilgrims from bandits and gangs of marauding infidels. During this period the brotherhood acquired the status of knighthood.

When the Turks ejected the Knights from their headquarters in Rhodes in 1522, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, gave his military men the choice of Malta or Tripoli as a new home base. The Knights didn't like either choice, but they figured no place could be less hospitable than hot dry Tripoli – they opted for Malta.

The Knights' Rule

In 1530 Charles deeded the Maltese islands to the grand masters in return for a symbolic annual rent of one live bird, a Maltese falcon, which was to be presented yearly to the emperor's viceroy in Sicily. The tribute represented the role the Knights played for Christendom – they served as protective "birds of prey" for the empire.

The religious warriors ruled the Maltese archipelago for 268 years and, in the process, they transformed the small island country. Evidence of the industrious Knights' occupation can be seen everywhere, but most noticeably in the gorgeously carved and faceted architecture of the islands' cities, towns and villages.

Massive stone-walled citadels and battlements, impressive turreted basilicas, and charming, narrow-laned hamlets crown Malta's many hills. Most were built in the 16th century by these authentic knights in shining armor. Multitudes of Maltese crosses, the eight-pointed emblem of the order, were chiseled into golden limestone surfaces, putting the Knights' stamp on the place for all time.

Opulent Palaces

Although the Knights took vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, they became slackers over the years. The grand masters lived in princely luxury in castle-like headquarters called auberges. These luxurious palaces were segregated into eight nationalities (Provence, Auvergne, Aragon, Castille, Leon, Italy, Germany, and England) and were designed and decorated to reflect the homeland culture of the Knights who lived there. No English duke or French viscount lived in more a more splendid style than a grand master of Malta.

The imposing, historically-significant residences still dominate the cityscape of Valetta, although now they function as government buildings. For example, the Auberge de Castille et Leon is now the prime minister's residence and the National Museum of Archeology is housed in what was once the Auberge de Provence.

The Grandest Master of Them All

The most famous Grand Master was Jean de La Vallette, who is credited with building the imposing fortress city of Valetta. The reinforced capital was constructed in a hurry after the original fortifications just barely fended off an onslaught in 1551 by the minions of the Turkish sultan (and the Knights' archenemy) Suleiman the Magnificent. The mighty limestone bastions jut out into the sapphire water of Grand Harbor like the prows of colossal ships and no one can look upon them without conjuring up images from children's picture books, of heated battles between scimitar-wielding, turbaned infidels and mace-bearing knights clad in mail.

No record exists that supports the notion that the wealthy Knights showed off in 1539 by having a jeweled bird fashioned from solid gold, which they sent to the emperor's representative in a treasure galleon, although Dashiell Hammett's fabrication certainly thickened the plot of his thriller. In reality, the Maltese falcon was a living bird of prey which symbolized the power and prowess of the strong military arm of the Holy Roman Empire, the Knights of Malta. The true story of Maltese falcon stimulates the imagination, too.

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