The Malta Independent 3 August 2020, Monday

Britain and Malta – economic growth in time of war - Part 3

Noel Grima Tuesday, 23 June 2020, 10:41 Last update: about 2 months ago

Blue-water empire

Author: Robert Holland
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 439pp

Around 1815, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Bathurst told his Cabinet colleagues that the later stages of the war "have occasioned a material change in the actual value of Malta... As a Military Post, as a secure Place of Depot for British merchants, there appears no spot in the south of Europe so well calculated to fix the influence and extend the interests of Great Britain as the Island of Malta".


Situated so as to command the central Mediterranean narrows between Sicily and Cape Bon on the northern tip of Tunisia, the value of the island was clear enough, though even in 1815 the full implications of its centrality in the Mediterranean were still only vaguely apprehended.

British rulers in Malta since its occupation in 1800 had continued to be called "Civil Commissioners", but in 1813 it had been decided to appoint a fully-fledged Governor. The post had gone to a hard-bitten Scottish soldier and ex-Governor of Ceylon, Sir Thomas Maitland.

Arriving in Valletta on 30 October that year, he had issued a proclamation annexing the island to the British Crown. The armorial bearings and assorted emblems of the old Order of the Knights of St John had been definitely removed from all public buildings and replaced by the British Royal Arms. By the time that British possession was recognised at the Treaty of Paris British rule was already firmly in place.

One of the tasks imposed by his colleagues on Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh at the Vienna conference was to get the formal British takeover of Malta recognised by the other powers. The rather bereft representatives of the Knights lodged a formal protest, but, as one writer states, "they could have spared themselves the bother".

But there was still a price to be paid in the irritation caused to other European states. Prime Minister Liverpool captured something of this when remarking that Britain's allies had no choice but to accept Britain's pocketing of Malta, but that doing the same with Sicily "could not fail greatly to revolt them".

The temptation to keep Sicily, where after all many more British troops had been stationed in the recent war than in Malta, and which possessed the considerable fortress of Messina, was ultimately resisted.

European distaste boiled down to resentment that Great Britain, while having its own strongly expressed views on continental questions, was disinclined to listen to anybody else when maritime and colonial topics were discussed. Over the coming years this sentiment would be crystallised in the phrase "perfidious Albion".

By late 1816 Sir Thomas Maitland, already Governor of Malta, had also been appointed as Lord High Commissioner in the Ionian Islands. He was described by an otherwise friendly subordinate as "a rough old despot" and by his fierce Radical critic in the Westminster Parliament, Joseph Hume, as "a disgrace to England".

Glaswegian irascibility, a heavy consumption of liquor and not much interest in his personal appearance were part of the alleged disgrace.

He was later to be criticised for spending too much time in the Ionians, which he preferred to knightly, more refined Valletta. But while Malta could be controlled from Corfu, Corfu and the Islands - inherently unstable - could not be controlled from Malta.

When Maitland had first arrived in Malta in 1813, the island was above all in need of protection from the plague. Disease had followed the supplies and shipping criss-crossing the Mediterranean with increasing intensity during the war years.

The new Governor had immediately cordoned off all towns into districts, stopped movement between them, scoured and disinfected all houses, confined the infected to the lazaretto and effectively reduced Valletta to a prison.

Such abrasive measures were novel and not always welcomed by those whose interests were affected. By September 1814, however, it had been possible to relax these restrictions, even when the plague was still raging in Gibraltar and elsewhere.

Out of a population of 118,000, fatalities had totalled 4,500 (the British garrison being relatively unscathed). Maitland's taming of the plague in Malta earned him a gratitude that few other achievements could have done. His personal authority when peace came and the Ionians took him away to other duties was partly secure for this reason.

Poverty, however, was a more continuous threat to Malta than disease. Overpopulation, above all relative to food resources, was aggravated by the rapid ebbing of the artificial prosperity of the war.

The restoration of the old pattern of Mediterranean trade brought recovery to Leghorn and Genoa, but the reverse for Malta (and to some extent for Gibraltar).

Maitland struggled to persuade the Colonial Office to provide some financial aid, encourage local cotton production and assist migration, with limited results.

These Mediterranean societies shared one pressing need: institutional reform, particularly of the judiciary. In Malta, the legal system was a morass of tradition in which the ordinary person could sink without trace. Maitland abolished outdated tribunals, insisted on the reading of sentences in open court, eliminated torture, paid judges by fixed salaries rather than fees and introduced the separation of powers (but characteristically left them fused at the top in the Supreme Council of Justice as a control device).

The codification and improved transparency of laws had to wait until the 1830s and 1840s, but Maitland's innovations improved procedures.

Such changes meant there was a risk of colliding with such hallowed props of the old Order as the Catholic Church in Malta or the Greek Church in the Ionian Islands.

Maitland was careful to avoid doing so. In Malta, he focused on preventing Church premises being used as sanctuary from the law, but generally adhered closely to the assurances to the Catholic faith "as by law established" given at the outset of British administration.

Maitland accorded to the Catholic Archbishop a precedence second only to the Governor, while the long-standing claim of the Church of St John's in Valletta to equality with the Cathedral in the ancient capital of Notabile was granted in 1816, winning favour with the clergy.

There was no surer way to popularity in Malta than to reduce the price of bread. Maitland intervened in the opaque working of the grain monopoly (the universita) without going the whole hog of privatisation.

He had an instinct for when to reform, and how far to go. He left the hospitals, a bastion of the old Order, largely untouched, as had Ball before him.

Maitland was especially conscious that to attempt to squeeze out local revenues for British military purposes would be disastrous for good relations and resisted Colonial Office pressure to do so; and he blocked what he contemptuously called "ordnance cocks" in the garrison who called for expensive but unnecessary schemes for new fortifications.

Too much fraternising between British soldiers and locals was also something Maitland believed could cause trouble, so on first arriving in Corfu he arranged for the garrison there - in situ for several years - to be exchanged with that in Malta.

All in all, measures to eradicate plague, shore up commerce, humanise the law, improve institutions and cushion the impact of a British presence defined the essential paradox of Maitland, whereby a domineering style coexisted with a fierce ambition to pull societies out of what he saw as backward feudalism.

Although there is some truth in the portrayal of him as the archetypal precursor of a new British imperial proconsularism after 1815, Maitland's record in these possessions also reflected an older enlightened absolutism in distinguished southern European form.

Yet a "rough old despot" Maitland always remained. Like most British rulers in the Mediterranean before and after him, he could see only the vices in those subject to his authority. "It's impossible for any man who has not seen it", he reported from Corfu, "to believe the extent of duplicity, chicanery and want of principle that uniformly prevail here".

His view of the Maltese was not more charitable. He believed that fear and interest were the sole factors to be played upon. "Interest" above all meant jobs, and it was the essence of Maitland's system that public positions were given to those who espoused loyalty to the new regime.

One means of binding local elites to British rule was to reinvent those cheap recognitions of rank and chivalry used by the Knights.

Maitland established the Order of St Michael and St George, the "big Shewy Star" which might dazzle aspiring Maltese and Ionians.

In Malta, the Order was inaugurated by a banquet in the Grand Master's Palace, now appropriated as the Governor's residence, the ceremony climaxing in a salvo from the fleet in the harbour.

Both Maltese and Ionian aristocracies were not slow to take whatever marks of status were dangled before them, but the political advantage gained was subject to diminishing returns. The response of many older "notables" was to retreat to their palaces.

For the moment, Maitland's goal of squashing opposition to British administration in Malta was achieved with relative ease. Plague, the peacemaking in Europe and commercial depression turned attention in other directions.

Political discontent only revived gradually in the wake of the Neapolitan revolution in 1820. The Neapolitan liberals who fled to Malta were the first of what was to prove a steady flow of refugees from autocratic Italian states, with considerable cultural repercussions in the island.

(To be continued)


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