Emily’s resting place

Emily’s resting place

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Last weekend, I took a visiting friend to a quiet corner of Floriana, to the aptly named Garden of Rest.  Run by Malta’s National Trust, Din l-Art Helwa, the garden lies on the site of Malta’s first Protestant cemetery built during the early decades of the British period until it reached full capacity and was replaced by the larger Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta.

The site is lovingly and tastefully maintained and presented and features the final resting place of more than 500 people including the Maltese patriot and scholar Mikiel Anton Vassalli and the British diplomat and author John Hookham Frere.

The graves of great men and women aside, whilst walking along the garden paths, I was particularly struck by a simple headstone marking the resting place of a little English girl of eleven who died in Valletta on the 29th May 1837. A little girl called Emily Greig.  The details on the headstone are scant.  It tells us Emily’s age, her place and date of death and her father’s name: Sir Hector Greig.  It also tells us that she was Sir Hector’s only child.

Intrigued by this information I took a few pictures of this memorial and continued on my tour of the cemetery.

Upon my return home I decided to look for information on Sir Hector Greig.   My research told me that his first appointment in Malta was that of Superintendent of Quarantine and that he was subsequently appointed as Chief Secretary to the British Government of Malta by Governor Henry Bouverie in 1837.  He also served as Chief Secretary under the Governorship of Patrick Stuart until he resigned in September 1846, presumably to return to England.  Other responsibilities of his while in Malta included serving on the Board of Health and the Committee of the Charitable Institutions.

My curiosity also unearthed another small piece of history: an envelope for sale on Ebay bearing a postmark dated November 15, 1866 and bearing the handwriting of Sir Hector Grieg: little Emily’s father.  A small memento which suddenly became a tangible link to a forgotten girl’s resting place and which now lies in my proud possession!

The front of the envelope contains some very useful information.  It is addressed to a Mr Baden of the North British Mercantile Insurance Office in Threadneedle Street in the City of London, the same street which houses the Bank of England.  An addendum in somebody else’s handwriting at the top of the envelope notes that Sir Hector, “has been Chief Secretary at Malta” and that he had been “created Knight Commander – 1839”.  This latter piece of information indicates that he was Knighted while serving in Malta and this could be due to services he rendered to Her Majesty Queen Adelaide during her visit and stay in Malta between 1838 and 1839.  This was the first ever visit of an English Queen to Malta.

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The front of the envelope tells us even more!  It was posted  in 1866, twenty years after Sir Hector’s departure from Malta and twenty nine years after little Emily’s premature demise.  The stamp on the Victorian Penny Red stamp indicates that it was posted in London SW18, a postcode which includes Battersea and Wandsworth, suggesting that Sir Hector resided in this part of London upon his return to his country.

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The opened flap at the back of the envelope contains some more information in Sir Hector’s own script.  It is a short message “with Sir Hector Greig’s compliments to Mr Baden” indicating the enclosure of payment covering “premium on life insurance due 18th November” (1866) for “£27″ 3/4d” which I interpret to signify 27 shillings and three quarters of a penny or one pound and thirty five and three quarters pence in today’s sterling currency.  This would be equivalent to a £152 insurance premium in 2017 currency after taking inflation between 1866 and today into account.

It all started off with a casual walk on a sunny autumn morning around a cemetery on a Floriana bastion constructed by the Knights of Malta.  A walk during which my attention was drawn to a little foreign girl’s final resting place on a Mediterranean island so far away from her home.  And it evolved into my learning a few interesting facts about her father’s sojourn in Malta and my acquiring a small memento bearing his handwriting.

I plan to revisit little Emily’s resting place in the coming weeks.  And I will be sure to carry her dear father’s memento with me to place it on her grave so that I can briefly help them reunite again by intersecting across space and time.

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Comino: the island of singular experiences

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Comino: the island of singular experiences

It all depends on how you look at it of course. Barren, empty, crying out for development according to some.  Precious, pristine, untouchable according to others.  I find myself leaning towards this latter viewpoint.

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Comino: three square kilometres of parched upper coralline limestone deprived of the perched aquifers providing liquid sustenance to its larger siblings.  High cliffs,  miniscule inlets and its own brood of smaller islets: a mini archipelago within an archipelago.  Together with its magnificent Blue Lagoon which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

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Elsewhere such a small rock would have probably been ignored.  But not in Malta, where every square kilometre of territory has its own story to tell!  Roman and Punic burials, ancient shipwrecks, finds of pottery and coins and troglodyte structures all point to a millenary human presence on this tiny island.

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Comino was also an island of exile as evidenced by Cabbalist’s Abraham Abulafia’s thirteenth century solitary confinement there after managing to attract the combined wrath and fear of Christian and Jewish religious leaders with his teachings.  The island’s solitude was also exploited by Barbary pirates raiding shipping between Malta and Gozo and smugglers from Sicily seeking to evade the Maltese quarantine authorities during times of plague on the Italian island.  The reaction to this was the building of the imposing Santa Maria Tower to stem piracy and the small Police Station in Santa Maria Bay to deter smuggling.

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Its isolation also attracted the building of a Hospital by the British following a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century on the site of an older eighteenth century Knights’ period residential structure called il-Palazz and the more recent, twentieth century pig-farm to help Malta re-populate its swine population following a deadly outbreak of African Swine Fever.

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You will witness a chapel of medieval origin complete with an Eastern Christian-style wooden iconostasis screen separating the altar from the faithful and a small, enclosed cemetery complete with gnarled cypresses clinging for dear life on a windswept hill pointing to humanity’s religious needs during its short worldly presence and its need to rest in peace in expectation of an afterlife.  Faith, life and death aside, there is also an impressive gun battery to guard shipping movements in the channel facing the extreme northern tip of Malta.

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Look out for scattered evidence of a twentieth century attempt at sustaining a private agricultural colony: terraced fields in miniscule, meandering valleys with their low dry-stone walls struggling to prevent the sparse red soil from being washed away into the nearby sea.  Pines, carobs and olives planted as windbreakers and sources of sustenance and fuel.

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Also an abandoned bakery, complete with stone oven and vats for mixing the dough, for the once-a-week baking of the bread for the farming community.  There once also was a schoolhouse within the confines of the abandoned hospital to educate the colony’s children.  The colony is long gone but one determined permanent household remains, eking a living from agricultural produce.  And from the last half of the twentieth century, the more recent tourism development consisting of the hotel and its handful of bungalows a stone’s throw away.

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There are a couple of water pumping stations that harvest fresh water from the sea-level aquifer whose existence was unknown until the nineteenth century and a few ugly, functional structures, standing like a cancerous blight on the ancient landscape, erected in more recent, insensitive times in connection with the transfer of electric power from Malta to Gozo.

Comino is an island with almost no vehicular traffic and with a few dusty paths for roads.  A place to walk, to sit, to smell and to fill the senses with the aura of nature.  A photographer’s paradise, a nature-lover’s dream, a birdwatcher’s haven.  An island of wild rabbits and scurrying lizards.

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Then there is the sea: that most deep azure of blue seas tempered with the mesmerizing turquoises, which only the unique combination of coralline limestone sand and crystal clear water can create.  The sea which dominates the entire landscape and changes its hue depending on depth, light and shadow. A paradise for divers with natural caves, impeccable water quality, wrecks to explore and diverse marine flora and fauna.

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Finally Comino is mostly about nature.  Vast swathes of virgin garigue, fragrant with Mediterranean thyme and other aromatic species dominate the landscape.   In some areas, the garigue gives way to more verdant steppe where patches of lentisk bushes, treasured for their mastic resin all over the Mediterranean but ignored and unknown over here, are to be found.  There is a small and endangered sand-dune habitat in the hinterland of the miniscule Santa Maria Bay together with isolated communities of cliff-side vegetation supporting shy populations of sea birds amongst the boulder screes.

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My Comino is for the connoisseur: the visitor who is capable of stopping to savour the beauty of an unsophisticated but beautiful landscape and seascape.   It is like an aged distillate to be savoured slowly, not in a rush.  It is the place to slow down your pace, narrow your field of vision, observe what you usually ignore.  A place which you can either dismiss as barren and empty or appreciate in terms of its rich diversity if you bother to adjust your scale.   Once you get to this stage there is really no going back and you will join the ranks of those who dream of its continued protection and isolation.  Dreamers like me.

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The Cypress Tree: the Tree of the Dead

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The Cypress Tree: the Tree of the Dead

A fairly common tree in the Maltese urban and rural landscape is the Italian Cypress tree (Cupressus sempervirens).  The tree is a Mediterranean species from the pine family, although it was probably only introduced in Malta some time in the last 500 years dating it back to the advent of the Knights of St. John to our islands, making it an archaeophyte.

Although it is a fairly recently introduced species, it has managed to establish itself quite well in the wild where it has become naturalized, which is to be expected given its Mediterranean origin.

There are two variants of this tree: the sombre, column-shaped one and the more irregularly shaped one.  Both are variants of the same species and it is mistaken to assume that the seemingly neatly manicured pillar-shaped type is the result of pruning.

This tree grows to impressive heights which makes it quite visible in our landscape in comparison to most of our low-lying species.  Its thick, solid trunk and dense dark foliage give it the true sense of solidity and greatness to be expected from a tree.  It has been known to grow to a height of up to 25 metres although on average most specimens tend to be shorter than this maximum height.  It is a hardy tree which can resist the strong winds which prevail over our archipelago

Each tree produces both male and female flowers.  The fertilised female flowers produce a ball-shaped cone which produces winged seeds after it dries up.

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Besides its official Maltese nomenclature as the Sigra tac-Cipress, the tree is also known as the Sigra tal-Mejtin (tree of the dead) or the Cipress Bikkejja (weeping cypress), given the tradition of planting it in cemeteries, standing sentinel over the graves.  This is an old tradition in the Mediterranean region, possibly dating back to Graeco-Roman times when the Cypress was known as the “Mournful Tree” and was considered a favourite with the Gods of the Underworld.  However, this association with cemeteries may have a more practical application dating back to antiquity.  One explanation I have found links this tree with cemeteries owing to the fragrant resin it produces in the unforgiving summer heat, which resin used to prove useful in masking the stench of decomposition emanating from poorly sealed graves in the past.

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In recent years the tree has been planted in a number of areas in the Maltese countryside amongst which two substantial groves in the Ghajn Tuffieha road and Gnejna Valley.

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