The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

The British imperial island - Part 7

Noel Grima Sunday, 19 July 2020, 17:00 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

Although peace as always brought with it a certain economic relapse, the push to create an all-steam, ironclad fleet based on the lessons of the recent war in Crimea carried with it a fresh focus on the improvement of Valletta's dockyards.

Technology in ships, guns and fortifications generally was about to inaugurate an era of great military bases in a modern sense and Malta was to be Britain's prime Mediterranean exemplar.

Malta now uncoupled its old economic links with North Africa, although Maltese migrant labour continued to head there.


The island definitively assumed a more stable though always contested identity as a British imperial island. New forms of modernity came with it. Valletta's streets were gas-lit from 1857. Suburbs spread outwards from the baroque capital, especially towards Sliema, the first part of the island "to adopt an Anglicised style and subculture".

It is worth dwelling on a picture-postcard description of "British" Malta as seen in the early 1860s by a young naval officer: "Then there is the Naval Commander-in-Chief, who has a house in Strada Mezzodi (South Street) ... and lives on shore in the winter; the Dockyard Admiral; and the officers of the ships, with a number of wives and families. The military also (have) a general commanding the troops, engineers, artillery, and two or three line regiments, with a great many wives and families. Besides these there is the Colonial Secretary; the Maltese Nobility, who ... are generally not Maltese at all, but old Spanish, Italian and Sicilian families who have settled in Malta. Lastly, there are minor officials, elected Members of Council, etc., etc. As the sailors have little to do, and the soldiers ... comparatively nothing, there are a great many entertainments and everybody meets everybody else at least twice a day."

Here was a more refined atmosphere than had prevailed since the rougher days of Alexander Ball and Thomas Maitland. The rawness of occupation had taken many years to fade, but by circa 1860 an Anglo-Maltese brawl around the opera house was an unlikely event. But although this was becoming an identifiably British colonial society, it was also one that remained distinctively Latin. This complexity was to define Maltese political culture for decades ahead.

A very different trajectory was being played out in the Ionian Islands. The islands played no strategic role in the Crimean War. Where many Maltese cheered allied troopships steaming out of the Grand Harbour, Ionians actually celebrated news of allied setbacks against what they regarded as fellow Orthodox.

After the Franco-Prussian war and Napoleon III's defeat and capture in September 1870, there arose a heightened emphasis on the value of Britain's fortresses in the Mediterranean as points of strength, but also the necessity to ensure that they were equipped with the most up-to-date defences.

This applied especially to Malta, the centrality of which had been underlined by its role in allowing naval oversight of recent Mediterranean emergencies. It became axiomatic that if England herself was ever attacked, this would be preceded by aggression against one of her Mediterranean vantage points. It followed that there had to be a sufficient force in situ since under the circumstances rapid reinforcement would not be possible.

"Malta is more important for us now," the First Lord of the Admiralty remarked, "and our whole strength must be concentrated there".

This meant more extensive dockyards to meet the needs of the all-ironclad fleet, and bigger and better guns. The later 1860 and the first half of the 1870s witnessed the modernisation of Malta's facilities as a great naval and imperial base. The Admiralty took over French Creek, an indentation of the Grand Harbour, opening Somerset Dock in 1871; Valletta at this point provided more space than the naval dockyards at Portsmouth. A new commercial harbour was built at Marsa, just in time to allow the island to cope with the boost of activity generated by the Suez Canal.

These installations, and the Grand Harbour itself, needed fresh layers of defence in an age of hardening military power. Here there were two main considerations.

The first was the scale of modern naval gunnery, so that an enemy fleet might cause severe damage to the Grand Harbour from a considerable distance out to sea. The second was the recrudescence of what had been the fear of Grand Masters before 1800, that is, an attack overland by hostile forces coming ashore elsewhere on the island.

The latter threat was met by the construction of the Victoria Lines and associated fortifications lying across the centre of the island (today they offer an interesting walking trail for energetic tourists).

Enhanced danger from out to sea was catered for by a new series of forts with thoroughly modern armament. The first of these was the Sliema Point Battery, a fan-shaped structure allowing artillery to cover both the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. Subsequently Rinella and Cambridge forts were constructed, the former half-sunk into the ground for better protection, and housing a 100-ton muzzle-loading Armstrong capable of firing a one-ton explosive up to a distance of eight miles. Commanding the entrance to the Grand Harbour, this monster weapon still draws admiring visitors as "The World's Largest Cannon".

When a War Office inspector visited in February 1878, he stated that, in contrast to Gibraltar, essentially still a small and open roadstead, Malta now provided "a secure and safe point for the largest ships and extensive refitting and repair establishments, without which ... it would be impossible to maintain the British fleet in the Mediterranean unless its place were supplied through an alliance with one of the maritime powers. He considered it essential ... that the defence of Malta should be self-contained so that the fleet could be free to act (in other directions)".

The military refurbishment of Malta after 1870 also set off local political vibrations. Increased "imperial" spending encouraged British officialdom to ride roughshod over any obstacles that got in their way.

In 1864, amid the Risorgimento afterglow, a Liberal Colonial Secretary in London, Lord Cardwell, had laid down the rule in Maltese administration that in domestic matters the opinions of elected members of the Governor's Council should be given special weight.

Indeed, Sir Henry Storks, after ceasing to be High Commissioner in the Ionian Islands, had been sent to Malta as Governor to bring his experience of handling fickle Mediterranean opinion.

Storks followed Cardwell's guidelines in paying close attention to Maltese views on public affairs. But his successors after May 1867, General Sir Patrick Grant to May 1872, and then Sir Charles Thomas van Straubenzee to May 1878, proved much less responsive.

Legislation such as that to extend drainage schemes in Valletta's expanding suburbs ("improvements" that Maltese politicians by no means supported, because of the expense involved) were rammed through by official majority in the legislature. The Cardwell principle ceased in practice to function. As such, a period of a liberalised British approach to Malta's governance had faded away, replaced by a more self-consciously imperial supervision.

Such an assertive tendency interacted with shifts in Maltese politics. Just as the creation of an independent Greek state had earlier stimulated Hellenic consciousness in the Ionian archipelago, so there was a subdued version in Malta whereby the Risorgimento underpinned a revival of Italianita'.

Whereas in the Ionians, however, the British had never been able to shape any local cadres in their own cultural image, in Malta such a transformation got under way, centred above all in the dockyards.

A series of commissions sent from England in the mid-1870s looked at taxation, the public service and education, pressing forward a "reform" programme. Tension and division invariably arose from fresh tampering with established interests.

The Rowell Commission on taxation in Malta, for example, sought to broaden the range of taxes paid by the population, while seeking economy by reducing the pension rights of local civil servants. As a result, 2,000 protesters gathered in Valletta, carrying placards vilifying Rowell himself, and, having smashed the windows, they invaded the Council Chamber.

A heightened emphasis on the Anglicisation of Maltese life gained highly controversial expression in the report on education, completed in June 1879. The principle of parity between the English and Italian languages was laid out. Given the social and Imperial dynamics of the island, however, Italian might in practice all too easily lose its place.

From this point onwards the language question occupied the centre ground of Maltese politics.

Yet behind these anxieties there was something larger: a contest between two opposing conceptions of the island. One was a Latin Mediterranean vision with a cultural, if not political, loyalty to Italianita' as a key identifier. The other was defined by an imperial orientation linked to a military raison d'etre and the distinctively "modern" Anglo-Maltese society encrusted around it.

Meanwhile the everyday spoken medium of the island was neither English nor Italian, but Maltese. At this stage, however, the latter lacked a written form, and only years later did it find its own place in the tangled language politics of the island.

Still, any such fissures were easily enough covered over so long as Royal Navy ships gathered in strength in the Grand Harbour, embodying British power and guaranteeing Maltese living standards. From mid-1875 the Mediterranean Fleet was concentrated there in force, following a rebellion in Bosnia. This outbreak triggered a new phase of Ottoman disintegration. For the first time the British Cabinet actively discussed the desirability of occupying a vantage point closer to the scene: Crete, Rhodes and Egypt were again among the potential targets.

In late January 1877, with Russia and Turkey at war again, the Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, was dispatched from Valletta to the Dardanelles. This was the usual sign of crisis ahead and the squadron was shortly reinforced further.

It was around this time that a novel possibility slipped in through the back door: Cyprus. Admittedly not much was known about an otherwise obscure island, one the Ottomans themselves had never made into a military base.

It was true that perennially isolated Cyprus did not have a good port. But there were several wide bays dotting the coast, especially at Famagusta, which Hornby said "could be made capable of sheltering more ironclads than the Grand Harbour of Malta".

The acquisition of Cyprus sealed the identity of Britain as a pan-Mediterranean power with a permanent reach from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Levant. This command no longer fluctuated with events, prone to successive panics, but had become embedded in the life of the region.

It was a reflection of growing power and occasionally direct imposition, but the picture of Sicilians calling for British succour in 1848-9 and again in 1860, Maltese crowding Valletta's battlements to view the comings and goings of a British Fleet embodying their own hopes of employment and freedom from deprivation, Cretans hailing an English Protectorate as a possible way out of their miseries, or Cypriots welcoming General Wolseley in Larnaca as an end to Ottoman rule, suggested something deeper.

In such cases British intervention was part of the shock of the new and the hopefulness that went with it, deceived though subsequent expectations often were. 

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