The Malta Independent 3 August 2020, Monday

Melitensium Amor (Part 1)

Noel Grima Thursday, 11 June 2020, 12:33 Last update: about 3 months ago

Blue-water Empire - The British in the Mediterranean since 1800. Author: Robert Holland. Publisher: Allen Lane / 2012. Pages: 439pp

This will not be the normal book review as any that I have been writing on these pages. The reason is that in my opinion the book under review offers a novel point of view on Malta's history in the 19th century, one that is usually not available in accounts of Maltese history written by Maltese writers, although the book is full of quotations from Maltese authors.

The book offers history from the perspective of Britain. The point of view of Maltese authors is valid but sometimes that perspective gets lost in the mist of patriotic rhetoric. Of course, the opposite can also be true - the British can have their biased interpretations too.


The famous inscription and coat of arms in Palace Square Valletta is an example of the pro-British take of what led the Maltese to choose to be under the British. It was not only 'the love of the Maltese' (Melitensium Amor) in all those years of cohabitation.

At the same time, after all those years, one still wonders how this British adventure in the Med came to be, this sea being so far away from the shores of Britain, how Britain came to be so involved in the lives of people so disparate as Greeks and Egyptians, Sicilians and inhabitants of Gibraltar.

One must also acknowledge that the British presence brought with it a refreshing air of democracy and modernity, many times unfortunately snuffed when the British had to leave.

In all this, Malta was central and from time to time was a hospital, then a centre for the repair of ships, then a mustering point for the troops, etc.

In this book review, I will focus on the history of Malta as it results from the book up till 1921. There is more information in the book on what happened after and on the other places which came under British influence, all very interesting, which space forces me to leave out.

The author is described as one of the world's leading historians of the Mediterranean and the author of many books on the subject. He is also a professor at the Centre of Hellenic Studies at King's College, London.

At some point or other in these years, Britain held power over Gibraltar, Malta. Corfu, the other Ionian Islands, Cyprus, Egypt (Mediterranean Egypt), and Palestine. At the beginning of this period, Minorca and Corsica were coming out of their 'English decade' while Sicily had her own after 1806.

While after 1945, the international system came under the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, nothing has quite replaced the Anglo-Mediterranean order, although every so often the current President of France calls for a more united Mediterranean, which always fall flat.

After 1800, the British brought to the Mediterranean their ambition, instinct for domination, penny-pinching, grating superiority, etc but at the same time they also brought much needed protection against other predators and would-be successors to regional primacy, more secure food supplies, hopes of prosperity, and accelerating social change.

On 27 August 1800 the French warships Diana and La Justice, (both survivors of Nelson's smashing victory at the Battle of the Nile two years earlier) made a sudden dash out of the Grand Harbour. The light summer air had given way to a strong breeze, providing a sudden opportunity to escape from a close two-year British blockade of the French-held island. La Justice made it to the open sea and back to France, Diana was raked with shot, dismasted and escorted by HMS Superb to the harbour. From dispatches found on board, it was confirmed that the prolonged resistance of the French garrison was about to crack.

On 5 September General Charles Henri Vaubois and Admiral Charles de Villeneuve (later Nelson's adversary at Trafalgar) capitulated. Immediately redcoats occupied the forts held tenaciously by the French ever since a Maltese rebellion had broken out on receipt of the news of the destruction of Napoleon's fleet in Egyptian waters. The Royal Navy now took over the ample anchorage, Valletta became its greatest overseas base and it was not to leave for 178 years.

Captain Alexander Ball, who had been sent ashore by Nelson in October 1798 to liaise with the Maltese, made a formal entry into the city, retracing Napoleon's steps along Strada Reale. A Te Deum was sung in St John's and the gates of Valletta were swung open to admit the general population, though, as Vaubois had insisted, no armed persons were allowed among them.

On 8 September the French garrison, its semi-starvation eased by British military rations, was evacuated. It did so with honour, drums beating, colours flying, accompanied to the rear by two-pound cannon with matches alight.

Yet whenever the British occupied Mediterranean territory, a degree of misunderstanding invariably prevailed. Malta's inhabitants, who under Ball's command had been besieging the French from the landward side, welcomed the British occupying force and wanted it to stay. A British presence offered protection, and guarantees of food whereas war had brought acute deprivation. The last thing desired was any return of the feudal Knights of St John who, before Napoleon's invasion, had lorded it over the island for hundreds of years.

Yet at the same time the Maltese believed that their own fighters had played the main role in defeating the French, and that the British (without losing a single soldier in the siege) had simply delivered the coup de grace. This belief - according to which Malta became British by a 'deed of gift' on the part of the inhabitants and not by conquest - ultimately came to form the bedrock of an evolving Maltese political consciousness.

The British held to their version of events. More than 100 soldiers had died in blockading duties. Inspection showed that the artillery of the Maltese irregular militia had done very little damage to the fortifications of Valletta. The British therefore contended that the French garrison had in the end only been reduced by an acute shortage of supplies, that is by the blockade, as Vaubois himself confessed.

The laurels of victory therefore lay, the British argued, with the British Navy, and Malta's liberation from French arms (and French looting) became a mere coda to Nelson's successes.

The British Commander-in-Chief, General Henry Pigot, saw to it that the Union Jack was raised over the fortress and harbour, paying no heed to other claimants - especially Sicilian and Russian - to lordship over the island.

The Anglo-Maltese relationship, while in many ways unusually intimate in colonial terms, was also to be incorrigibly quarrelsome, and such differences of interpretation went back to these earliest moments of British occupation.

 (To be continued)


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