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The Fougasse


The Fougasse is one of the most fascinating adjuncts of coastal defence introduced in Malta by the Knights of St John in the 18th century. The fougasse formed part of broader military arrangements that were designed to protect the shores of the Maltese islands against invasion. Carved out in the rock, the Fougasse-Perrier (as it technically known) is a sort of large well dug close to the shoreline that was cut at a 45-degree angle. Technically, this hollow was shaped to simulate a mortar and designed to fire a huge mass of stone boulders. The objective was to shower about 300 boulders (stones) of various sizes to hit the enemy ships and boats intent on disembarking their troops at a nearby bay – a veritable early form of ‘weapon of mass destruction’.

In all some 64 fougasses were cut in the immediate years after 1742. 50 of these fougasses are situated in Malta and the other 14 in Gozo. Today, unfortunately, only a handful is known to have survived since many fougasses were destroyed as a result of development along Malta’s coastal areas. One of them was recently discovered at the 'Xatt l-Ahmar' coast in summer of 2005. The fougasses here were meant to keep back the enemy from landing and attacking Fort Chambray.

In fact it was excavated by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage during the summer of 2005. The site was previously undocumented. Mr Spiteri, the founder of Fortress Explorer Society, was in charge of the excavation of this fougasse at ix-Xatt l-Ahmar. Mr Spiteri was assisted by the members of the staff from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

The Ghajnsielem Local Council ensured that the site was adequately protected during the excavations. A few weeks later, the Council cleaned and refurbished the surrounding areas and transformed the site into an attraction for visitors.

Current evidence suggests that this unusual form of artillery contraption designed by the Order's resident military engineer Francesco Marandon was first used in the Maltese islands. Usually two fougasses guarded an inlet or harbour and although the fougasse would have been highly effective if fired at the exact time when the enemy attempted to attack, it was laborious to prime. Preparation consisted in putting at the base of the conical shape about 100 pounds of gunpowder which was equivalent to the gunpowder used by a battalion of 700 men to fire four rounds each.

The gunpowder was covered by a wooden circular stopper and then the "cannon" filled with stones which got smaller the closer one got to the mouth of this ingenious piece of warfare. Down the length of the fougasse, a culvert was shaped out of the rock along which a fuse cord reached from the gunpowder chamber up to the mouth of the pit. Once filled with stones, the fougasse was fired by lighting the fuse cord. Mr Spiteri believes a number of fougasses were prepared to be fired but they never were. "The gunpowder would have become useless in a couple of days. And once fired, it took over an hour to re-charge it." In his book The Fougasse: The Stone Mortar Of Malta, Mr Spiteri quotes traveller Patrick Brydone who in 1770 visited Malta and came across the fougasse. Brydone in fact had noted that the Maltese quarried the rock to build their fortifications but also used the rock as "artillery to defend the fortifications, being hollowed out in many places into the form of immense mortars".
 

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