The Magazine

Waylaid in Malta

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.

david clark

david clark

I’m not sure why I admire these women so. They seem, all in all, profoundly ignorant people—ignorant in that peculiarly British way that saw all other European cultures as willful and childish failures to be British. But maybe what draws me is what remains clearest in their story, for they were also brave beyond measure, with a strength of conviction that still takes the breath away. 

They were Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, and they had already suffered for their evangelizing. Banned from the Isle of Wight as a public nuisance, Katharine was later “strip’d and ty’d to a whipping-post in the market of Salisbury” for her heterodox street-corner -haranguing of passersby. How could they refuse their burden, when Malta was even more lost in sin than Salisbury? The British consul housed them, anxiously urging them to leave the island as Katharine and Sarah shouted prophecies into the streets from his windows. After 15 weeks, a reluctant Inquisition finally imprisoned them in response to a public outcry. 

The three years it took to obtain their release was due mostly to their own recalcitrance, refusing several deals between the embarrassed Maltese and British—even while they continued to instruct their jailers on true doctrine and the errors of the Romish Church. Finally in July 1662, after the intervention of the Stuart family, they were ejected from prison and bundled onto a ship for home.

It’s a great story, I think, but I know it only because I sat down the other morning to begin an essay on science and religion I had promised an editor weeks earlier. And while I stared at the blank screen, my daughter came in to ask about the English Civil War, which had come up in something she was reading. 

I told her, of course, that I had to work, but we could look up a few things online. An hour and a half later, I explained that enough was enough; she would have to continue on her own, since I had to write about science and religion. But we did go through the bookshelves first, to find my copy of C.V. Wedgwood’s classic popular history of the era, A Coffin for King Charles. And while I was there, I pulled down History and Hope, a collection of Wedgwood’s essays I hadn’t looked at in years, to see if the book contained anything a little smaller, a kind of pocket guide to the civil war.

It didn’t, but after my daughter wandered off with A Coffin for King Charles, I browsed through Wedgwood’s short pieces—reminded again of how sane and balanced she was as a historian: her suspicions of useful history, her nuanced praise of Gibbon, her wonderful account of the trial of the dashing highwayman Captain Hind. Two hours later, just as I remembered that I really needed to start on science and religion, I came across “The Conversion of Malta,” Wedgwood’s small account of the strong-willed Sarah Chevers and the even stronger-willed Katharine Evans.

A little online browsing of an hour or so uncovered A Brief Discovery of God’s Eternal Truth and a Way Opened to the Simple Hearted Whereby They May Come to Know Christ and His Ministers, from Antichrist and His Ministers: With a Warning from the Lord to All People That Do Name the Name of Christ, to Depart from Iniquity—Written in the Inquisition of Malta by Katharine Evans. The title was only a foretaste of the marvelously convoluted prose.

I did finally catch myself—just as I was wondering whether to follow up with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the great old 1563 account of Protestant suffering, or jump ahead to Quaker histories—and swear it was time to get to work. But then it occurred to me that the best parallel was probably The Bible in Spain, George Borrow’s bestselling 1843 memoir of an eccentric English Protestant sent to do the Lord’s work in what the British simply knew was a benighted Catholic country. I was deep in the third chapter when my daughter called me to dinner.

See? Easy to spend a productive day. Just start writing—on, say, science and religion—and never quite get back to it. 

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