Comino Island - History

The History of Comino Island

Comino Island is known to have been inhabited by farmers during Roman times, however for long periods in its history it has been sparsely populated, or abandoned entirely.

From 1285 until some time after 1290, Comino was the home of exiled prophetic Abraham Abulafia. It was on Comino that Abulafia composed his "Sefer ha-Ot" (The Book of the Sign), and his last work, "Imre Shefer" (Words of Beauty). According to Maltese folklore, a mystical hermit named Kerrew would occasionally cross the channel between Malta and Comino on his cloak to meet the renowned Cabbalist, Abulafia.

In the Middle Ages Comino Island was popular with pirates and marauders attracted by it's rugged coastline which is delineated by sheer limestone cliffs and dotted with deep caves.

Comino's caves and coves also frequenlty served as trading posts for raids on hapless boats crossing between Malta and Gozo.

Knights of Malta used Comino Island as hunting and recreational grounds. The Knights were fiercely protective of the local game, which consisted of wild boar and hares (Maltese: fenek tal-grixti): upon conviction, poachers were liable to a penalty of three years as a galley slave.

In 1416 the Maltese people petitioned their king, Alphonse V of Aragon, to build a tower on Comino Island to serve as an early warning system in case of invasion and to deter marauding Turks, pirates, smugglers and corsairs from using Comino as a hiding place and staging ground for devastating sorties onto the sister islands of Malta and Gozo. Two years later a special tax was levied on imported wine to raise funds for this project. However, the monies were diverted to the King's coffers, and the Island remained undefended for another two hundred years.

In 1618 St. Mary's Tower (Maltese: it-Torri ta' Santa Marija) was erected by the Knights of Malta on the orders of Grandmaster Wignacourt. It was designed by Maltese architect Vittorio Cassar. Funds for its construction were raised primarily by means of the sale of Comino brushwood. Located roughly in the centre of the southern coast of the Island, it formed part of a chain of defensive towers, the Wignacourt , Lascaris, and De Redin towers, installed at vantage points along the coastline of the Maltese Islands, and greatly improved communications between the Islands of Malta and Gozo. The Tower is a large, square building with four corner turrets, located about 80 metres above sea level. The Tower itself is about 12 metres tall, with walls that are approximately 6 metres thick, and is raised on a platform and plinth that are approximately 8 metres high.

Comino Island served as a place of imprisonment or exile in the 16th and 17th centuries for errant knights. Knights who were convicted of minor crimes were occasionally sentenced to the lonely and dangerous task of manning St. Mary's Tower.

During times of crisis its garrison numbered up to 60 soldiers. By 1791 its armament included two 12-pound iron cannon, one 10-pound bronze cannon, one 4-pound bronze cannon, and two 3-pound bronze cannon.

During the French Blockade (1798–1800), St. Mary's Tower served as a concentration camp for suspected spies. In 1829 it was abandoned by the British Military. For several decades it was deemed to be property of the local civil authorities, and may have been used as an isolation hospital, or even as a wintering pen for farm animals.

The Tower saw active service once again during both World War I and World War II. Since 1982, the Tower has been the property of the Armed Forces of Malta. It now serves as a lookout and staging post to guard against contraband and the illegal hunting of migratory birds at sea.

St. Mary's Tower underwent extensive restoration between 2002 and 2004. Today, it remains the most notable structure on Comino, and provides a destination for tourists taking walks around the Island.

In the past, and well into the 20th century, whenever the seas were too rough for the Gozitan priest to make the crossing to Comino for the celebration of Holy Mass, the local community would gather on the rocks at a part of the Island known as Tal-Hmara, and gaze across the channel towards the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rocks (Maltese: il-Madonna tal-Blat), in Hondoq ir-Rummien, Gozo, where Mass was being celebrated. They followed along with the progression of the Mass by means of a complex flag code.