“The Desire of the Maltese and the Voice of Europe”: Stories of British Malta (Part 1)

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“The Desire of the Maltese and the Voice of Europe”: Stories of British Malta (Part 1)

Throughout its long history Malta was occupied by almost all of the powers holding sway over the Mediterranean across the centuries.  Two of the most famous powers to occupy Malta during the past five hundred years were undoubtedly the Knights of St John, whose stay was so long that they eventually came to be known as the Knights of Malta, and the British.  The story of the passage of Malta from under the rule of the Knights to becoming a fully fledged British Fortress Colony, with a very brief two year interlude under Napoleon’s French is indeed an interesting period in the island’s history.

While most storytellers tend to glorify the Knights as the chivalrous order which gave Malta its wonderful capital city, its impregnable bastions and fortifications, together with its lavish palaces, cathedrals and churches others tend to focus on the fact that the Knights were a medieval aristocratic anachronism, which in their last few years in Malta stuck out like a sore thumb in the brave new world heralded by the egalitarian and libertarian philosophies spawned by the French Revolution.

In fact when in 1798 Napoleon and his fleet, which were en route to Egypt, sailed into Valletta’s Grand Harbour with the excuse of needing to water the ships, it was a foregone conclusion that the supposedly unassailable fortress was surrendered without a single shot being fired.  Napoleon’s French were initially welcomed with open arms by the Maltese but the welcome quickly turned into distrust, hatred and a strong urge to expel once the French started to loot Malta’s ecclesiastical treasures to finance their war machine.  The resulting uprising quickly forced the French to abandon the countryside and seek shelter behind the walls of Valletta.  A veritable paradox as a result of which the only time Valletta was besieged in its history was by the Maltese themselves!

With the French squarely trapped in Valletta, the Maltese sought outside assistance to blockade the enemy and obtain military assistance to oust them.  A request which was ultimately responded to by the British under Nelson, who helped negotiate a capitulation which gave the depleted French garrison safe passage to evacuate from the island to the consternation of the Maltese who wanted to massacre them to a man in response to the atrocities they had committed during the siege of Valletta.

An unstable peace was declared between France and Britain in 1802 through the signing of the Treaty of Amiens, which amongst other things committed to the British withdrawal from Malta and the island’s return to the Knights.  This was something which neither the Maltese nor the British were happy with: the former on account of the fact that they did not want the return of the arrogant Knights at all costs and the latter following their growing appreciation of Valletta’s impressive natural harbours and their sophisticated defensive networks.  The British refusal to leave Malta is recognised as one of the major reasons for the re-commencement of hostilities between Napoleonic France and Britain until Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.

A few months before Waterloo, the Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 May 1814.  One of the decisions of the Treaty, namely Clause 7, specifically dealt with the annexation of Malta as a British colony.  This decision put paid once and for all any aspiration by the Knights to regain control of their former island home, thus ushering in 150 years of British rule in Malta.

This important episode in Malta’s history is commemorated by a poignant Latin inscription above the Main Guard building facing the Palace in Valletta.  A plaque beneath a Maltese stone rendering of the British coat of arms complete with lion and unicorn, the rough translation of which reads, “Confirmation of the Granting of These Islands to Great and Unbeaten Britain by the Desire of the Maltese and the Consent of Europe AD 1814”.

An impressive mouthful which not only extols the virtues of the victor of the spoils of war but emphasizes the fact that Britain did not unilaterally conquer Malta but was invited here by the Maltese themselves with the approval of the other victorious European powers.

A small monument with a message that is undecipherable to most but which stresses an important transit point in our island’s rich history.

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Queen Victoria and her Maltese Lace

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The British formally ruled Malta between 1814 and 1964 for a total of 150 years.  During this period, the longest serving British monarch was undoubtedly Queen Victoria who ruled for sixty three years and seven months, which was a longer reign than that of any other British monarch and the longest of any female monarch in history until overtaken by Queen Elizabeth II in 2015.

Memories of Victoria’s reign in Malta are generally related to place names.  The capital of the island of Gozo, Rabat, was renamed Victoria in 1897 on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee while the largest British fortification on Malta, a defensive infantry wall criss-crossing the island at its widest point from east to west along a geological fault is known as the Victoria Lines.  A residential area known as Victoria Gardens also probably owes its name to the Victorian era.

However the most visible and universally known manifestation of Queen Victoria in Malta is undoubtedly the white marble statue that graces the paradoxically named Republic Square in the capital, Valletta.  Such is the presence of the statue, with the monarch on an elevated pedestal, staring haughtily at an unfocussed point across the square, that the space is universally known as Pjazza Regina or Queen’s Square in spite of its obviously anti-royalist nomenclature!

L1320054_5_6_tonemapped pixlr signedThe monument is the work of the Sicilian sculptor Giuseppe Valenti and was erected in 1891 to commemorate Victoria’s 50th anniversary as monarch.  It survived the intensive bombings of the Second World War which leveled most of the buildings surrounding it and only sports minor damage in the form of a chipped index finger.  Over the decades it also bore the brunt of thousands of pigeon droppings but was recently given a good clean-up and had some minor damage repaired by a team of restorers in 2011.

Haughty Queen Victoria’s most humanly touching link with her Maltese subjects is reputed to have taken place when the Monarch placed an order for  ‘eight dozen pairs long and eight dozen pairs short mitts, besides a scarf’ of Malta lace.  The objective of this was to encourage the re-emergence of the old art of lace-making “so that the poor would be able to obtain a modicum of enjoyment from their lives”.

This small story is unknown by most but is more than adequately represented in the Valletta statue through the intricately sculpted lace shawl covering the Queen’s lap.  I have passed by the statue hundreds if not thousands of times in all my years, but never did I actually stop to enjoy the life-like realism and minute detail of the lace shawl: even more so when considering that one is here talking about a marble statue and not something carved out of some softer medium.

So next time you are in Valletta stop for a coffee in one of the square’s many cafes and spend some time enjoying this one time ruler of Malta and an empire on which the sun never set, clad as she is in her beautiful and impressive Maltese lace!

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Giving a face to Malta’s Temple builders

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Giving a face to Malta’s Temple builders

Malta’s fascinating prehistory is not only of local but of global significance.  This is because this phase in the island’s human development gave rise to the renowned temple culture which is reputed to have given the world its first complex constructions in stone.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta collectively possess a UNESCO World Heritage Status.  This status has also been bestowed directly on the unique Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, a massive underground burial complex which has no equivalent worldwide.

The extent of prehistoric heritage in the Maltese islands is impressively immense.  Temples, dolmens, megaliths, tombs, cart-ruts and the foundations of villages dot the landscape.  Additional, though less complex, hypogea have been discovered on both Gozo and Malta.  The many sites have yielded numerous artifacts to archaeologists, foremost amongst which a variety of representations of the human form.  Some of the human statues are easily distinguishable as male or female while others are more difficult to define in terms of gender.

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While an entire category of statuettes are headless, the excavations have also yielded a number of statues with heads and stand-alone heads.  Heads showing refined faces with neat hairstyles and beardless faces: a far cry from the popular yet mistaken notion that all prehistoric peoples fell within the caveman stereotype popularised by cinema and pulp fiction worldwide over the past couple of hundred years.

Until recently, these small stone faces provided the best available indication of what the prehistoric temple builders who lived in Malta five and a half thousand years ago looked like.  Other than that, the only other evidence came from the skulls found in the tombs and hypogea from which until recently only generic observations such as those relating to skull shape could be surmised.

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Until recently that is!  A Heritage Malta (www.heritagemalta.org) team led by Katya Stroud has just released the findings of some cutting edge research on the skull of a female which was unearthed from the Xaghra Stone Circle on Gozo.  Research which has led to the first ever 3D virtual reconstruction of the facial features of a prehistoric Maltese person.  Presenting for the first time ever, a scientifically-based representation of what one of the earliest Maltese inhabitants looked like.  The work was carried out under the expert guidance and assistance of Professor Caroline Wilkinson (http://www.lifesci.dundee.ac.uk/people/caroline-wilkinson), a Professor of Craniofacial Identification at Dundee University in Scotland.

The resulting facial reconstruction, which I have integrated into the above image of the autumn equinox I took at Mnajdra in the late 1980s, shows a person from our distant past who could very easily mingle with modern-day Maltese and pass unnoticed.  A facial reconstruction which is not based on mere supposition, but on the latest technology available in Professor Wilkinson’s laboratory.

I find this development very touching.  Our prehistoric ancestors left us their buildings and artifacts and their mortal remains. But no images and no written records.  So near and yet so far away.  A missing link which relegated them to an unreachable, distant past which was too far away. Very different from say the Knights of Malta who left portraits and a wealth of documents in a language we can understand.   A faceless, writing-less people about who we could only speculate by interpreting their artifacts.

And now we can see what they actually looked like!

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Maltese War Currency

 oneshilling Maltese War Currency

Until the advent of the British in Malta in the early nineteenth century, the island’s currency consisted exclusively of coins.  During the time of the Knights of St John, Malta minted its own coins with issues changing under each successive Grandmaster of the Knights.

The commencement of the British period in Malta’s history brought about the introduction of the Maltese banking system whose major objective was to facilitate trade between Malta and its trading partners, particularly in areas where the island was used to export British goods to traditionally inaccessible continental markets.

The introduction of paper currency was an intermittent affair, normally associated with the higher denominations.  By and large people preferred coins, particularly at a time when silver and gold formed the basis of the high value coins.  A currency’s worth was estimated in terms of its inherent metallic value rather than the symbolic value represented on a printed banknote.

Wars have a strange way of affecting rapid changes to things which would have otherwise been impossible to dislodge, and nowhere was this more true than in the case of Maltese currency banknotes.

two shillingsThe first signs of change came during the First World War.  A fear that stocks of British coins could not be replenished following the British declaration of war on Germany led to the widespread printing of the first ever Maltese banknotes for general distribution rather than use by the merchant classes.  However these notes were withdrawn and replaced once again by coins after the initial panic subsided.  Towards the end of the Great War in 1918, a hoarding of silver coinage by the Maltese population which was feeling the economic pain of reduced military expenditure, led to a temporary shortage of two and five shilling coins thus restricting commercial activity.  The authorities printed significant quantities of banknotes for the two denominations, but the panic quickly subsided and the few notes which had been initially circulated were withdrawn and the remaining stocks were stored.

The commencement of hostilities during the Second World War posed a different problem.  This time round, Malta was on the frontline and there was a genuine fear that Britain could not guarantee a steady flow of currency, especially given Malta’s lonely location as a British outpost surrounded by enemy territory in all directions.

two shillings sixpenceThe solution to this state of affairs was practical and ingenuous.  Paper currency issued in the name of the Government of Malta was once again designed, with six different notes for one shilling, two shillings, two shillings six pence, five shillings, ten shillings and one pound.  Since there were no sophisticated printing presses available on Malta the notes were printed in the United Kingdom and shipped in different consignments to the island.  Furthermore, to economise, the notes were only printed from one side.

The dangers of transporting currency during a war are high, both because of losses if the ships transporting them are sent to the bottom of the sea and also in the event of the currency falling in enemy hands.  While there was not much that could be done in the case of the first eventuality, the risk of currency falling in enemy hands was removed through the introduction of a simple, yet effective way. The Malta Government banknotes printed in Britain were not valid unless they were stamped with the signature of the Government’s Treasurer!  Thus, arriving stocks of banknotes were further processed in small, hand-fed printing machines to add the Treasurer’s signature and make them valid legal tender.  When the bombing became very intense, printing facilities were spread in different locations and at one point banknotes were even being stamped within the confines of a brewery!

five shillingsThis notwithstanding, the Italian propaganda machine did its best to transmit the message to the Maltese population that Britain had effectively commandeered Malta’s currency stocks and replaced them with worthless printed paper: a message meant to turn the Maltese against their British masters and foment economic uncertainty.

Notes were dispatched to Malta on naval and merchant ships, aircraft and even submarines and not all stocks made it here.  For example when HMS Breconshire was sunk off Malta only 12,000 of the 84,000 one pound notes on board were recovered.

onepoundAlthough stocks of banknotes were generally adequate during the worst parts of the siege, there was a period between 1942 and 1943 when there was an acute shortage of one shilling notes.  The solution to this problem was found when the Authorities discovered the old stock of unused two shilling notes from 1918 and overprinted them with a new one shilling denomination until replacement stocks arrived from Britain in 1943.

one shilling overprintWhen we talk of war we tend to concentrate on stories related to bombings, hostilities, food shortages and battles.  However it is also important to bear in mind that even during such horrible times life does go on, albeit at an abnormal pace, and economic needs remain as real as during times of peace.  The availability of currency, standard or emergency, is of paramount importance to enable economic life to continue as normally as possible for during war people still need to earn, spend, buy and sell.

So, the hostilities of the Second World War not only brought us our first set of emergency paper banknotes for widespread use, but eventually made people get accustomed to the convenience of paper money in lieu of more cumbersome coins.  This changing trend was formalized with the Paper Currency Ordinance of 1949 following which permanent banknotes denominated in a Malta Pound whose exchange rate was on par with the Pound Sterling were issued.  The Malta Pound eventually evolved into the Maltese Lira until Malta joined the Eurozone in 2008.