Spencer Monument in Blata il-Bajda / Hamrun is a well-known landmark in Malta.
What is not so well known is that this monument was erected to commemorate the Hon. Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer, Diana’s great-great uncle.
Robert Cavendish Spencer was born at the Spencer family home in Althorp, Northamptonshire, and died while in quarantine in Malta on 4 November 1830, aged 39.
HMS Madagascar, under Spencer’s command, had just returned from Alexandria and, as was customary, was put in quarantine
Quarantine is derived from the Italian “quaranta” – referring to the number 40 –the customary number of days ships and passengers on board were kept in isolation and not allowed to disembark.
Quarantine was applied strictly, mainly because of the fear of dreaded diseases such as cholera, plague and yellow fever – all still notifiable diseases today.
Indeed, there is a tablet with an inscription stating that on 26 March 1814, gallows were erected for the execution of Felix Camilleri (one of the Lazaretto watchmen) for breaching quarantine regulations (the tablet is now in the National Museum).³
Felix Camilleri was given a royal pardon – but it served as a lesson to would-be offenders.
Various famous visitors to Malta spent time in quarantine.
Even Sir Thomas Maitland was quarantined (much to his annoyance) when came to Malta to take up his post as Governor, and he wrote stating that quarantine was a bad as the plague!
The poet Lord Byron was quarantined when he returned from Greece in 1811 and during this time in isolation wrote Adieu to Malta venting his annoyance in general – and on quarantine in particular;
“Adieu, thou damndest quarantine,
“That gave me fever and the spleen.”
Byron’s name is one of the graffiti carved on one of the terraces of the lazaretto.
Sir Walter Scott was quarantined for nine days in November 1831, as he had sailed from England where cholera was raging.
Disraeli was also quarantined in 1830 at the Lazaretto* and wrote: “I am imprisoned in a vast and solitary building and shunned by all my fellow creatures.”
Cardinal Newman was quarantined in 1832 and wrote “Christmas Without Christ, Malta, 25 December 1832”.
Six months later in June 1833 Newman’s ship was becalmed off Malta and he wrote a more poignant “The Pillar of the Cloud” – known better by its opening lines “Lead kindly Light”.
Captain Robert Cavendish Spencer died on 4 November 1830 – but his body was kept in quarantine for the full 40 days
His body was brought by barge from the Lazaretto and buried in Valletta on 12 December 1830.
The procession entered Valletta through Porta Reale (City Gate) then passed down Strada Mezzodi, (South Street) to the lower Bastion of St Michael for interment where Reverend David Morton, the Chaplain of the ship conducted the service.
This part of the bastion was thereafter called Spencer Bastion – by Royal Decree.
A simple inscription on Spencer’s tomb read
HERE LIES THE
BODY OF CAPTAIN
SIR ROBERT CAVENDISH SPENCER KCH AGED 39 YEARS
WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE ON BOARD AND IN COMMAND OF
HIS MAJESTY’S SHIP MADAGASCAR AT ALEXANDRIA
ON THE 4th DAY OF NOVEMBER 1830
Robert Cavendish Spencer served as private Secretary to the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) from 1827 to 1828 and was knighted for his services to the prince.
He had a distinguished career in the British Navy and was well liked by the men he commanded – it was these sailors who erected the monument in his memory.
Spencer was also cousin to Governor Ponsonby (Ponsonby’s mother was a Spencer – Henrietta Spencer)
Ponsonby’s monument is less than 100 metres away from Spencer’s grave in the lower part of Hastings Gardens. (Ponsonby’s monument is on St Andrew’s Bastion)
However, Ponsonby is not buried here in Malta but in Hampshire (he died in Basingstoke).
Ponsonby’s’ monument was struck by lightning in January 1864.
The Spencer Monument at the junction of Blata il-Bajda / Hamrun itself has a chequered history
Designed by Maltese Architect George Pullicino, it was first erected on Corradino Hill in 1831 (the Hill of Wise Counsel!) and 62 years later – in 1893 – it was moved to Blata il-Bajda on top of Spencer Hill.
The monument was damaged by lightning in 1975 but has been completely restored.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Spencer’s actual burial place, (on Spencer’s bastion at the lower end of South Street overlooking Marsamxett harbour) – the grave is in great disrepair, lying unmarked in the middle of a car park (see picture).
I propose that Spencer’ s grave be restored together with a copy of the original inscription – it would also enhance the area and be an additional feature for Maltese and tourists alike in this great city of Valletta
*The word lazaretto refers to any institution intended for the care and segregation of lepers who were regarded with special concern by St Lazarus – hence the Maltese term ikallzrati
*The Lazaretto on Manoel Island was erected in 1643 during the reign of Grand Master Lascaris, and further extensions were added to it later under Grand Master Cotoner.
Lazaretto is a combined word derived from Lazarus and Nazareth.