The Malta Independent 3 August 2020, Monday

Britain and Malta – economic growth in time of war - Part 4

Noel Grima Tuesday, 30 June 2020, 09:33 Last update: about 2 months ago

Blue-water empire. Author: Robert Holland. Publisher: Allen Lane Pages: 439

The Catholic Church, however, scarcely welcomed an influx of anti-clerical radicals, and the modus vivendi between Maitland’s regime and the Catholic hierarchy was assisted by a shared suspicion of incoming troublemakers.

In late December 1823 Maitland took possession of the new and impressive Palace of St Michael and St George, built to give future Lord High Commissioners a residence to compare with the knightly edifices surrounding Governors of Malta.


He then left for Valletta, and on 17 January suffered a massive stroke on a rare visit to the army chaplain's house and died that night. His body lay solemnly in the main hall of the great palace, surrounded by lighted tapers and constantly attended. He was buried in the Upper Barracca Gardens overlooking the Grand Harbour. An elegant rotunda was erected in his name on the esplanade of Corfu Town, still a landmark today.

Following the death of Lord Byron (18 April 1824, Missolonghi) and the fall of the Acropolis (6 June 1827) Admiral Sir Edward Coddington, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, was ordered to collect his warships in Valletta harbour, the first truly strategic use of Malta by the Royal Navy.

The build-up led to the battle of Navarino Bay (14 October 1827), the last great battle of sail, which reasserted British strategic leadership in the approaches to the eastern Mediterranean.

Damage to trade stemming from the Greek troubles hurt Malta, where a pattern in which war brought prosperity but peace led to the return of depression was already becoming ingrained.

A British resident of Valletta wrote home in 1828 of the rural situation of Malta: “Figure to yourself crowds of human beings ... some in a state of absolute nudity, with all the others in rags, pouring in from the country to implore a single morsel of bread ... No picture of fictitious distress conveys anything like an adequate idea of the real misery of the unfortunate Maltese”.

Maitland's successor, Viscount Hastings, had appointed a committee to assess the extent of misery, but he had little means at his disposal to relieve it, though some help came with the expenditures associated with the Navarino campaign.

Migration to North Africa, where the Maltese increasingly filled the interstices between “native” traders and European merchants, also afforded modest relief.

For reasons of culture and pride, migration was not an option for the approximately 2,000 Maltese families in the professional and landed classes.

The adult males scrambled for salaried positions, though there were never enough of these to go round. One British resident was able to talk of the “intense hatred” with which some Maltese regarded the English who appropriated the best jobs.

Economic recovery did come gradually. By 1830 there were double the number of vessels calling at Malta than in the plague year of 1813, and the greater use of Valletta harbour by the Royal Navy during the following decade meant more cash and employment.

By 1840, it has been judged, the island was “a little happier, a little less distressed than the Malta of the two previous decades”. But things were improving only slowly and differentially between classes and groups and not on a scale sufficient to ward off discontent with British rule.

Reform politics in Britain itself affected Malta, showing how the island was now more closely related to the metropole. In 1836 a Royal Commission, composed of John Austin, an academic lawyer and George Cornewell Lewis, a political economist, was sent from London to report on the causes and possible solutions.

Lewis likened the administration of colonial Malta to Austrian rule in Lombardy, a comparison which at the time was the most scathing comparison imaginable for anyone of a liberal disposition.

But as in absolutist Europe, aspiration to reform came cheap; executing it was not so easy. Austin and Lewis enjoyed the “full tide” of popularity greeting their arrival, acclaimed by crowds as if they came “with Magna Carta in their pockets”, but they were all too aware that their recommendations were bound to be more modest than local expectations hoped.

Lewis' own condescension and caustic cynicism marked the limits of the English progressive imagination under Mediterranean conditions. He commented that the chief spokesman of Maltese protest, George Mitrovich, “might be bought body and soul for two hundred pounds a year. The people, of course, think him a giant”.

Even the practical reforms advised by the Commission after two years' labour, including a tentative start down the road towards a free press and an encouragement of education through the medium of Maltese, were attacked in Westminster. The aged Duke of Wellington, in his most provocative style, remarked that “we might as well think of planting a free press in the foredeck of the Admiral's flagship or in the casernes of the batteries of Gibraltar ... as of establishing it in Malta”.

Here was the seminal definition of Malta's future as a military base under British rule and in one form or another it was to be repeated many times thereafter.

There was one weak point in these British Mediterranean possessions that showed up early on: interaction between British officialdom and local social hierarchies tended to taper off.

When the young and dandyfied Benjamin Disraeli visited Malta in 1830 he remarked that (as in Gibraltar) the British military “do nothing but play rackets, billiards and cards, race and smoke”, while the local Club was as smart and snobbish as anything in Pall Mall.

English residents nipped across to Naples on small, fast boats (speroni) to attend the San Carlo opera and hobnob with its super-fashionable clientele.

When Austin and Lewis came in 1836 they identified English isolation as a harmful trait (though the process worked both ways, since upper-class Maltese, with a patrician Italianism, sometimes looked down on the common and pedestrian English).

Austin's wife, Sarah, a noted translator of German literature, tried to remedy this by visiting villages, propagating universal education and inviting Maltese to parties at her residence in the Auberge d'Aragon; one Maltese remarked that Sarah (la signora commissaria) was “a mother to us all”.

English Protestant missionaries to the Ionians came from their base in Malta. Malta was seen as a location from which English influence might radiate culturally as well as politically. Lord Bathurst in 1813 had looked forward to “the Diffusion of the English language among the inhabitants (of Malta) and the promotion of every method by which the English language may be brought to supersede the Italian language”.

Maitland cannily avoided such matters and as Mediterranean trade reverted to pre-war patterns, Italian reasserted itself over English in commerce. A Chair of Italian was established at the university, while italianita dominated lower schooling under the supervision of the clergy, who despised English as “a shortcut to Protestantism”.

Yet the new reality of Malta made the medium of English a valuable commodity. It was the language of government at the top, if not lower down. The expanding employment linked to the Royal Navy and the British garrison necessitated facility in English, so that its popularity spread among workers while being studiously avoided by Maltese country gentry and a professional middle class.

It is quite conceivable that if the usage of English, Italian and indigenous Maltese (which everybody spoke, but which still no written form) had been left to freely adjust from their separate bastions in law, salon, bank, shipping agency, dockyard and farmyard, a workable equilibrium might have emerged in time.

But in 1840 Governor Henry Bouverie introduced a legal code with the ruling that English would henceforth be “the authoritative text”. Here were the first glimmerings of a struggle over language that was to define a great deal of Maltese politics.

Even at this stage in Malta, then, there were the perceptible outlines of an island caught between the opportunities of a better life that having the British planted in their midst – with their warships, cash and modern ways – brought with them, and the displacements and misunderstandings that were also part of the process.

On the one hand there were occasions like nights at the opera house in Valletta ending in a brawl between English and Maltese, the legs allegedly being ripped off the chair in the naval Commander-in-Chief's box as a weapon.

On the other hand, there were dignified occasions like that when Queen Adelaide, the widow of William IV, visited Valletta in 1838 to inaugurate the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul's. At this celebration the Catholic Archbishop and representatives of Maltese society attended receptions in her honour, the colourful military parades enjoyed by large, animated and “loyal” crowds.

This was the start of a tie between the island and British royalty that encapsulates the ambivalence of the island's development.

To be continued

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