An act of recognition dated 1878.


Although the Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility was ready, published and presented to the British Parliament by May 1878 (__), we witness in July of that same year, what appears to be a documented contradiction to the Report. A closer examination shows that the document is, in effect, an official act of very limited value.

After the Royal Commissioners went to great lengths to explain how and why mere acts of British Local Government were valueless for the determination of succession of titles of Nobility, we find that in July of that same year 1878, the Governor of Malta, HE Sir Arthur Borton KCB issued an “act of recognition” in favour of Giovanni Sant as successor to his lamented father Gio Francesco Sant to the title of “Barone di Ghariescem e  Tabia” which is considered to have been granted by Grand Master Lascaris in 1638.

It will be recalled that Gio Francesco Sant had successfully claimed this title by reason of his descent from Giacinto Cassia through a female line, also showing that he was the possessor of the fief “ta ghariescem” and “Tabia”.  The Commissioners were satisfied that although no particular title of nobility was conferred upon Giacinto Cassia and his descendants in 1638, they did not think themselves justified in refusing to Conte Gio Francesco Sant the title of barone, notwithstanding the non existence of the authentic and original grant of the title. Effectively, the Commissioners had established that the criteria to succeed the title of Barone di Ghariescem et Tabia were twofold, namely:- descent from the old Cassia and the actual possession of the fief. Gio Francesco had died on the 5 June 1878.

So, what prompted Borton to issue such a document in July 1878?

Looking again at Borton’s certificate, we find that the document is in effect only a confirmation that the Conte Giovanni had succeeded his father in the possession of the “Baronia” and specifically that Borton was reserving the Government’s right to the payment due by the actual possessor as a payment and homage in virtue of an instrument received by Notary Michele Ralli dated the 16th April 1638. Borton’s certificate does not attempt to confer a title, but is merely a statement of fact that Giovanni was the person being held responsible for the payment and homage as contemplated by the deed dated 1638.

The aforesaid Report published in 1878 describes how the same deed requires that the land of ‘ghariescem e Tabia’ should be possessed iure feudi; that it could not be transferred to and divided among the descendants of both sexes of Giacinto Cassia, without the Grand Master’s license, until the total extinction of the descent of Giacinto; and that the holders of it should annually pay into the Tesoro of the Order, fifty Sicilian ounces of general weight, equivalent to 10/.Sc. 4d sterling (about 1.60 US dollars). Giacinto was to obtain the investiture, take the oath of fealty, and procure the Bulls from the Cancelleria, and all his successors in the fief were to receive the investiture from the Grand Master.

All in all, the certificate issued by Governor Borton is but a mere administrative document and does not change the considerations made in the Royal Commissioners’ Report which have relevance to this very day.

Borton’s certificate is therefore superfluous insofar as it concerns the basis of the title, and has value only insofar as ensuring that the local Government’s property rights are preserved.

This view is reinforced by the fact that the document refers to the 1638 deed which as we have already seen does not confer any title whatsoever. According to the Royal Commissioners’ Report, it was the subsequent course of events - namely the explicit declarations of the Grand Masters from 1659 to 1797 - made not only on the occasions of the investiture of the fiefs, but also of the appointment of some of Giacinto Cassia’s descendants to important offices under the Government of the Maltese islands, that brought about the Grand Masters denoting various possessors of the same fief as baroni .  

Borton must have been very aware that local Government couldn’t upset what had already been established by the Grand Masters during their tenure which ended in 1798 and that his “recognition” of Giovanni Sant had no substantive effect on determining whether in fact Giovanni had satisfied the two criteria necessary to succeed the title of Ghariescem et Tabia.

This specific point was also addressed by the British Secretary of State (The Right Hon. Sir M.E. Hicks Beach, Bart.) who categorically said that all acts – including those emanating from the Governor – are valueless for the purpose of reviving or perpetuating a title which had become extinct, or was otherwise without legal support and cannot be taken to have conferred, revived, perpetuated or confirmed any dignity which did not already rest upon independent legal basis.

More to the point, the Secretary of State said that no public officer, not even a Secretary of State, has the power of conferring titles of honour, for which the personal sanction of Her Majesty in each case is necessary; and even assuming that such acts to have been done by British officials with full knowledge that the titles were non-existent, their want of power would prevent these acts of supposed recognition form having the slightest effect. These considerations are key to raising arguments against any private transaction or testamentary nomination which is not sanctioned by the sovereign. In this regard, it is not amiss to recall that the title of Conte Fournier granted to Giorgio Fournier de Pausier by the same Empress Maria Theresa, , in the Kingdom and Provinces of Germany by a patent given at Vienna on the 29th January 1770,  was never allowed in Malta by the Royal Commissioners in either their original or supplemental report, but the British Secretary of State only accorded precedence to Lazzaro Sant Fournier allowing him to take the place to which he would be entitled under the principles of legal interpretation applicable to the grant as if it had emanated in 1770 from the Sicilian or Maltese Sovereign authority. The Secretary of State appears to have known full-well the limits of his authority.

The idea of “recognition” of mere honorific titles devoid of any property holding, only took hold for the first time in Malta in 1883 when the titles of Cassar Desain and Testaferrata Olivier were then deemed by a later Committee to have been created in 1749 and 1745 respectively by consequence of two separate acts of Grand Master Pinto. It should be recalled that in the Royal Commissioners reported that in 1749 and 1750, Gilberto Testaferrata was styled Marchese by the Grand Master, and in 1776 and 1777 his son Mario Testaferrata was likewise styled Marchese. The Royal Commissioners explained in their report why these direct “recognitions” were not unequivocal and could not be taken as proof of creation of a title. The 1883 Committee did away with this reasoning.

Turning our attention to the other title referred to in Borton’s certificate, namely the prefixing of Giovanni’s name with Conte, this is understood to be referring to the title granted on the 22nd December 1770 by the Empress Maria Theresa in the Italian Provinces annexed to the German Empire. This title had been successfully claimed by Gio Francesco who proved that he was the first born son of the Conte Luigi Maria, eldest son of the Conte Gio Francesco, who was the eldest son of the first titled person. From the Royal Commissioners’ Report we learnt that in this grant, a condition is attached by which the grantee is required to purchase a fief in Lombardy. The Commissioners admitted that they were unaware whether the fief referred to in this part of the patent was ever acquired, but as this condition is not peremptorily laid down in the patent, they decided that its non-performance did not invalidate the grant. Therefore insofar as determining succession of the title of Conte granted in December 1770 the criteria to succeed that title is whether Giovanni had the required descent from the first titled person.

Clearly, the Local Government had no property interest in the Italo-German title of Conte (Sant) because it was merely an honorific title. By referring to Giovanni as a Conte the British Governor’s act neither diminished nor enhanced the title and is valueless insofar as affecting the terms of the creation dated December 1770. By all accounts, Giovanni was the first born of Conte Gio Francesco, the first born son of the Conte Luigi Maria, eldest son of the Conte Gio Francesco, who was the eldest son of the first titled person

It should also be noted that in Borton’s certificate, neither Giovanni nor Gio Francesco Sant (-Cassia) are referred to as “the Most Noble” or “the Most Illustrious and Noble”. As seen elsewhere, they were not within the remainder of the titles of “Most Illustrious” and “Noble” granted at various times by the Grand Masters, and that the sobriquet of “the Most Noble”only came to be introduced some 8 years later by the British Colonial Government in the erroneous belief that all Maltese titleholders were entitled to the titles of “Most Illustrious” and “Noble”.

Most publications state Giovanni and Gio Francesco’s surname to be “Sant Cassia” and not “Sant”. However the Royal Commissioners had pointed out that Gio Francesco’s surname was “Sant” and that the surname “Cassia” was not to be appended to the title of “Barone di Ghariescem e Tabia”. In the concluding part of their Report, the same Commissioners explained that they were designating all the titled gentlemen only by their baptismal and paternal family name. In this regard, it should be pointed out that the only connection between Gio Francesco Sant and the surname Cassia was through his paternal grandmother’s mother’s paternal grandmother Domenica who was the daughter of Giacinto’s son Pietro.