Reassessing the tradition of Mount Sceberras.
Long after the French abolition of titles of nobility in Malta in 1798, the later claims of nobility giving unprecedented versions of certain families which lived in Malta during 1530-1798. The Sceberras family is a case in point where the British Governors upheld the idea that that family was to receive an annual payment for the land today known as Valletta.
The lustre of this family is relatively recent. It is not one of the families listed by Abela in his Descrittione di Malta (1647).
The 19th century Commissioners’ report on the Maltese Nobility gives an unfair impression that the Sceberras family catapulted to the fore only thanks to Michele Sceberras’s marriage to Clara daughter of Fabrizio Testaferrata who held the title of Barone di Cicciano. In fact the report reveals that the claimant to that title Antonio Sceberras preferred the Testaferrata surname to his lawful patronymic. The Strickland and Apap claimants to the title of Conte della Catena did not show much interest in retaining the Sceberras surname even though both were claiming a right to succeed Nicolo Sceberras in the Bologna entail.
Unfair as this may be, it cannot go unnoticed that yet another prominent member, no less than a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was known in contemporary documents as the “Cardinal Vescovo Fabrizio Testaferrata” rather than as a Sceberras.
But the later British Governors of Malta maintained a ‘tradition’ that the Sciberras/Sceberras family used to receive for the peninsula that bears its name.
The tradition is also described in “The family of Inguanez” (1888) (page 35) as follows:
“Monte Xberras, the spot chosen by the Grand Master La Valette, for the site of the new town, commenced by him in 1566, and finished by his successor Del Monte, was probably in the possession of this family, as a tradition exists that each Grand Master on taking his investiture, should present the head of the Xberras family with a glass of water, in acknowledgment of some territorial right by which Monte Xberras was formerly held.”
But an article on the Sunday Times of Malta (4 January 2010) lists the various acquisitions made. There is no mention of any Sceberras, nor of one single acquisition for that matter. In fact there appears to be no documentary evidence that the peninsula was ever acquired from the Sceberras family.
Abela does not connect the Mount Sceberras to the family Sceberras. All he says is (page 9) “La parte di detta lingua di terra, che soggiace al Promontorio, fu’ chiamata da gl’ Arabi Sciaaret Meuia, che significa pred inculto di Meuia nome proprio d’Arabo. Il Promontorio doppo, o’ parte della collina piu’ eminente Sceb, e Ras, cioe’ a’ dire luogo rilevato, il quale sovrasta al Capo, ch’ e’ la punta sopra detta dove nell’ anno 1566, fu’ fabricate l’Inespugnabile Citta’ Valletta, ch’ apprese il nome dall’ Invittissimo Fondatore VALLETTA GRAN MAESTRO, essendosi intitolata per comun consenso della Religione L’UMILISSIMA doppo l’assedio di Malta, il tempo della costui fondatione con altre circonstanze si legge nell’ infrascritto Epitafposto sopra la Porta Reale.”
Abela gives us a clue to what may have given rise to the 19th century fable of Mount Sceberras. In describing the histories of the noble Bordino and Monbron families, Abela hints at a scandal of sorts. In 1512, a rich little girl by the name of Imperia Bordino had come to hold a monetary fief after her father’s death. The fief had its basis in two grants dated 1397 of the lands Benuarrat and Culeja to the Vaccaro family who were her ancestors. In time, those property fiefs were converted into annual monetary payments receivable from the Royal Treasury. The amount of money was small and by the 17th century Abela was already lamenting that it was a pittance compared to the real fruits of the land. In any case, these monetary fiefs were subject to the usual rule of investiture and this right was succeeded from generation to generation. Anybody would not have bothered to trouble himself for a most meager of annuities but this particular monetary fief could be used as a basis for membership to the Consiglio Popolare as well as a basis to claiming the title of “barone” which was personal to the holder of the monetary fief. Little Imperia’s mother dutifully paid homage and was invested in the girl’s name on the 12 March 1512 but sadly the girl died shortly afterwards in 1514.
Abela does not write much about either the Bordino or Monbron families but in both articles he was clearly impressed by the fact that the infant was not succeeded in the fief by a relative, but ex pacto et providentia Principis by a cleric Pietro de Monbron who was invested in August of that same year 1514 and soon after the King’s death Monbron was invested again in 1517.
Where does the Sceberras feature in this nefarious scheme to impress an infant to pass fief and title to a stranger? Nowhere but Abela who is writing in 1647 notes that Mombron was succeeded by his niece Imperia d’Avello and her husband Antonio Sceberras, adding that they were invested in the monetary grant in 1519. By reason of a custom adopted in Malta (later curtailed by the 19th century commission on the Maltese Nobility) the invested holder of a fief would be styled “barone”.
We are speculating that the minuscule payment that continued to be received by the Sceberras descendants from the later British Governors was taken lightly. The source of this tradition appears to have been the author of the “Family of Inguanez”. This source is the same which stated (page 19) that the King Alfonso had authorized the placing of Antonio Inguanez’s arms next to his to commemorate Antonio’s reducing the islands of Malta and Gozo to the House of Aragon. This claim has no basis in Abela’s Descrittione who explained the context how three, not two, coats of arms were displayed.
We know that Abela was ignored because the Inguanez book describes how in 1886 Governor Lintorn Simmons had the arms restored to the great “satisfaction of the descendants of the Inguanez family”.
Like Simmons, the other British Governors must have been practical men: It is difficult to undo myths that take root, so why quibble over a cup of water?