1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames

A snapshot of Gozo

The surnames of medieval Gozo were surprisingly different from those in Malta. Vella hardly existed at all, while it constituted a full 3% of the surnames of Malta in 1419. Zammit, Micallef, Zarb, Ellul, Caruana, and Chilia (cf. Cilia), among others, are hardly discernable throughout the Middle Ages, while Refalo, Mintuf (cf. Mintoff), Manuele (cf. Demanuele), Rapa and many others only occur in Malta when members of these families crossed to the larger island (56).

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Gozo had its own privileged group of local aristocrats and landed gentry. Most of the nobles were of foreign origin; they included the Puntetremulo (or Pontremoli), La Barba, Navarro, Platamone, de Naso, de Federico, de Sahona, and Mompalao families. The landowners included the Apap, Maira (cf. Amaira), de Anastasio (cf. Anastasi), Caxaro, de Bisconis, Saliba, Episcopo (cf. Piscopo), Mannara, Sansone, and Fantino families (57).

The catastrophe 1551 precipitated an almost complete break in Gozitan history. Practically the whole population of the island, with the exception of a handful of decrepit men, was carried off into slavery and surviving evidence shows that most of the captives ended their days in Constantinople. Only a few managed to escape or obtain their freedom, and fewer still ever returned to their homes. Members of the De Apapis (cf. Apap), de Alagona, Castilletta, Navarra, Platamone, and Pontremoli families had the necessary funds to redeem themselves. Some of the names of ransomed captives as well as of others who languished in the Ottoman capital are known to us through subsequent notarial records and court proceedings.

One can safely deduce that the people represented by the surnames Agueina, Aluisa, Calimera, Cainba, Gerardu, Giarda, Lazu, Lazarun, Marinara, Xaura, Xluc, and Xucula died in captivity as the family names, recorded before 1551, are never encountered again either in Gozo or in Malta (58). It is hence understandable that most of the medieval surnames of Gozo have been wiped out. A comparison of the family names common on the island before 1551 with those in a list of Gozitan protestors of 1664 shows that there is only a 20% overlap (59).

Some of the redeemed slaves sought refuge Malta, particularly in Valletta and the Three Cities; others settled in Sicily, particularly in Trapani and Licata. Grand Master Juan D’Omedes and his Council initially entertained the idea of abandoning the island, but there seems to have been a semblance of a return to normality by 1553. Motivated by the chance of acquiring real estate abandoned by unransomed Gozitans, many Maltese and some Sicilians (e.g. De Soltano -- cf. Sultana, De Sciacca, Cuchinella, Carnemolla, Parascandalo), began migrating to and repopulating the island. The vast majority of émigrés into Gozo, some 60%, came from just three main regions in Malta: (a) Naxxar, Mosta, Għargħur; (b) Żebbuġ, Siġġiewi; and (c) Żurrieq, Safi, Qrendi (60).

In this manner, common Maltese surnames, which were totally absent from pre-1551 Gozo, have persisted on the island till the present day, as evidenced by intervening Status Animarum records. These include: Agius, Attrad, Azzopardi, Bezzina, Borg, Camilleri, Cassar, Ciantar, Cumbo, Debono, Frendo, Gatt, Grima, Mallia, Mangion, Muscat, Pace, Portelli, Psaila, Schembri, Scicluna, Spiteri, and Xuereb (61).

Despite the steady inflow of fresh immigrants, it was only by the middle of the 17th century that the Gozitan population reached the level of 1551 once more (c. five to six thousand). In 1637, the law obliging all Gozitans to pass the night within the Castello was repealed and the people began to abandon for good their cramped lodgings within the walls to more spacious abodes in Rabat and the countryside. Eventually, these settlements began pressing for autonomy as these fast-growing communities were far from content with the fulfilment of their spiritual needs. Xewkija was established as a parish in 1678; Għarb followed suit in 1679. When Xagħra, Sannat, Nadur, and Żebbuġ earned the same status in 1688, the settlement pattern of Gozo was officially confirmed (62).

At present, Gozo (population c. 31,000) consists of 14 distinct localities – just one town, Rabat, and 13 villages. These can be divided into three groups according to population size. The first group comprises Rabat, Nadur, Xagħra and Xewkija which all have a population surpassing the 3,000 mark. Then, Għajnsielem, Għarb, Kercem, Qala, Sannat, and Żebbuġ have between 1,000 and 3,000 inhabitants. The population in Fontana, Għasri, Munxar, and San Lawrenz is still below the 1,000 mark. According to Census 2005, the commonest surnames in Gozo are: Vella = 1, 492 (4.8%), Attard = 1, 338 (4.3%), Camilleri = 1,187 (3.8%), Grech = 1, 146 (3.7%), and Portelli = 966 (3.1%). The top-ten is completed by Buttigieg, Sultana, Azzopardi, Spiteri, and Zammit. The absence of Borg among the top five is quite conspicuous – it actually occupies the 14th place and significantly features only in the Fontana top-five list. These statistics indicate that 19.7% of Gozo’s total population share just five surnames.

Gozo is a microcosm with its own peculiarities and unique distinguishing features. The genetic structure of Gozitans is mirrored in their surnames. Gozo, to a greater extant than Malta, is a very homogeneous population. For a long period of time there has been minimal exchange with the outside world, and until the immediate post-war period, the various villages in Gozo were isolated from each other. Most marriages occurred between members of the same village. This invariably led to a high degree of endogamy, particularly in the smaller villages. Maurice N. Cauchi’s A Picture of Gozo: Studies on Ethnographic, Educational, and Health Aspects of Life in Gozo (Malta, 1998) is undoubtedly the first study to show the relationship between villages as gauged by an analysis of surnames (63). Some surnames (like Vella and Attard) are omnipresent and occur in high frequency all over the island. Others (like Piscopo, Stellini, and Cini) are restricted to one or two villages, presumably indicating a founder effect with minimal dissemination. The study of surnames of a small island population such as that of Gozo could be of anthropological interest, and may shed light on genetic drifts within a community.

According to Cauchi, the commonest surnames of Gozo are to be found in most localities. Vella, in particular, features in the top-six list of all places with the exception of Xagħra. Some surnames are restricted largely to one or two particular localities (e.g. Cini in Żebbuġ; Zerafa in Għajnsielem; Curmi, Debrincat, and Parnis in Munxar; Refalo, Sultana, and Bigeni in Xagħra; Camenzuli in Għarb; Meilaq, Falzon, and Muscat in Nadur; Sacco, Bezzina, and Scicluna in Rabat; Dingli in Xewkija; Piscopo in Għarb and San Lawrenz; Cefai in Qala and Żebbuġ).

The degree of homogeneity of the population in a locality may be indicated by the proportion of the population having a single surname. One surname may account for anything from 6% to 17% of the total village/town population. In the villages of Żebbuġ and San Lawrenz surnames Cini and Grima account respectively for 16.9% and 17.0% of the population, while in Qala and Kercem surnames Buttigieg and Grech account respectively for 14.1% and 13.7% of the population (64). The top six surnames in San Lawrenz, Żebbuġ, and Qala comprise 55.11%, 54.02%, and 45.42% of the respective populations, making them the most homogeneous localities in all Gozo. The least homogeneous localities are Rabat and Għasri where only 28.75% and 28.66% of their population is covered by the top-six surnames.

Isonomy implies the sharing of the same surname by two individuals, hence also the proportion in which this occurs. In demographic studies, isonomy is gauged by a specific value called alpha, which hence reflects the degree of surname frequency. A high alpha would then be expected to correlate directly with the degree of inbreeding. The largest values of alpha are found in the smaller villages, particularly Għasri (disproportionately so), Fontana, Sannat, and San Lawrenz. The smallest values, as expected, are found in Rabat (65).

It is of some interest to determine the degree of sharing of the more common surnames by various localities in Gozo: Buttigieg, Vella, and Portelli in Nadur and Qala; Cauchi, Formosa, and Vella in Għarb and San Lawrenz; Azzopardi, Vella, and Xuereb in Xewkija and Għajnsielem; Vella, Camilleri, and Zammit in Rabat and Żebbuġ; Attard, Grech, and Vella in Rabat in Għasri (66). This presumably indicates a degree of intermixing occurring in the past between these localities. Some villages appear to be unique in that they do not share any common surnames to any great extent. Of these the most obvious ones are Fontana and Sannat.

It is quite plausible that a surname arises in one locality (founder effect) and spreads from there to various other areas in a radial fashion. One tentative and highly speculative explanation is as follows; Portelli and Vella arose in Nadur and spread to Qala, and from there to Għarb. Buttigieg probably started in Qala and migrated to Nadur, and hence to Għajnsielem. Vella and Camilleri link up Nadur with Rabat and thence to Żebbuġ. Vella and Xerri link up Qala with Xewkija (67). Further evidence of such migration would be required to confirm these suggestions.

Notes:
  1. G. Wettinger, ‘The History of Gozo from the Early Middle Ages to Modern Time’, in C. Cini (ed.), Gozo. The Roots of an Island, Malta: Said International, 1990, p. 58.
  2. Wettinger (1990), p. 56.
  3. S. Fiorini, ‘The 1551 Siege of Gozo and the Repopulation of the Island’, in J. Farrugia and L. Briguglio (eds), A Focus on Gozo, Gozo: University Gozo Centre, 1996, p. 78.
  4. Wettinger (1990), p. 58.
  5. Fiorini, p. 86. Cf. also G. Wettinger, ‘The Gozitan Captives of 1551’, in Malta Year Book, Malta, 1977, pp. 427--30.
  6. Fiorini, p. 86.
  7. Cf. J. Bezzina, ‘Gozo 1668 -- The Village Communities Confirmed’, in MaltaYear Book, Malta, 1988, pp. 391--3.
  8. Cauchi based his population estimates on figures provided in the Government Gazette of 29/4/1997.
  9. Cauchi, p. 22
  10. Cauchi, p. 30.
  11. Cauchi, p. 27. To note that while Rabat shares three common surnames with two villages (Għasri and Żebbuġ), the surnames involved are different, and only the ubiquitous Vella is shared between them.
  12. Cauchi, p. 47

  1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames
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