A Brief History of Malta

A Brief History of Malta

A Brief History of Malta

There is nothing brief about the History of Malta!  As an island nation (actually it is three islands), it has always been insufficiently large to withstand the aggressive intent of larger nations and empires.

However, its strategic location at the centre of the Mediterranean has only served to increase the likelihood of it becoming involved in great events. The history of Malta is dramatic and the vital role that this country has played in the outcome of World and European History far surpasses its size and resources.

Roman Times and Before

Malta had been inhabited from a much early time but it was the arrival of the Phoenicians around 800 BC that can be considered as the start of the history of Malta.

The Phoenicians were a highly civilized people who came from the region that is now called Lebanon. They were great sailors and traders and they gave Malta its name. They called it Malet, which means shelter or haven.

400 years later, the Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage on the north coast of Africa from where they became the great competitors of the Romans for Mediterranean supremacy. Malta remained part of this empire until 218 BC when the Romans conquered Malta.

Malta History: The Romans capture Malta

The Romans and Carthaginians fought for control of the Mediterranean

Malta flourished under Roman rule and become known for honey and for sailcloth.

In about 60 AD St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta whilst on his way to Rome. He converted Publius, the Roman ruler of Malta to Christianity. Gradually the rest of the Maltese followed. By the 3rd century AD most Maltese were Christians.

In the 4th century the Roman Empire split into two halves, East and West. Malta found itself in the Eastern Roman Empire which was based in (modern-day) Istanbul and became known as the Byzantine Empire.

However in 870 AD Malta was conquered by the Arabs. They ruled Malta for over 200 years and in that time Malta was heavily influenced by Arab civilization. In particular the Maltese language was largely shaped by the Arabic tongue.

The Middle Ages

Arab rule was ended by the Normans in 1090 when Count Roger captured Malta. He also drove the Arabs out of Sicily. For a time Malta became part of the kingdom of Sicily. However the Sicilian kings took little interest in Malta and the Maltese were largely left to run their own affairs.

The Catholic Church (rather than the Orthodox Church) was reinstated as the state religion with Malta under the See of Palermo. Remains of Norman architecture are from this period especially in the ancient capital Mdina.

Count Roger of Sicily & Malta

Count Roger of Sicily and Malta

One hundred years on and The kingdom of Sicily passed to the Hohenstaufen Dynasty (1194 until 1266).  They were the Holy Roman Emperors during this period.  Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor decreed in 1249 that all Muslims living on Malta should be expelled from the island if they were not prepared to convert to Christianity. Also, Frederick II re-organised his Sicilian kingdom to the extent that Western culture and religion becoming more influential in Malta.

However, because of its strategic position, Malta had become little more than a fortified garrison and it remained an object of desire for many dynasties. The consequence was that its trade was totally ruined.

Then in 1266 Malta and Sicily were captured by the French and the kingdom passed, briefly, to the House of Anjou.  But this dynasty was unpopular largely due to high taxes they imposed. A large revolt resulted on Sicily known as the Sicilian Vespers that saw the separation of Sicily and Malta from the Kingdom of Naples.

Soon afterwards (in 1283) Malta was captured by the Aragonese from Barcelona (Aragon became one of the main constituent parts of the future Kingdom of Spain being only surpassed in size and influence within that country by Castile).

Indeed by 1412 Malta had been passed to the Kings of Castile but this made little difference to the people of Malta. For them life went on as before. In due course, Castile and Aragon were united and Malta became part of the powerful Spanish Empire.

Malta History: The Crusades

Malta History is perhaps influenced more by the Crusades than any other event.

The Crusades

Malta was to change hands again in 1530 when the Spanish King granted Malta to the Order of St John, an order of monks, recognized by the Pope in 1113, that cared for sick pilgrims mainly going to the Holy Lands in Israel.

The reason for this action lay in the Crusades, a war waged by Catholic Christians in an attempt to prevent the takeover of Israel (especially Jerusalem) by Muslims, principally the Ottomans and the Turks (“Ottoman Turks”). The Order of St John now began to fight the Ottoman Turks as well as caring for sick pilgrims and so developed the Order of the Knights of St John.

Attempts by Christians to liberate the Holy Lands effectively came to an end in 1291.  The Knights of St John moved their base from Israel to Cyprus and then in 1310 to Rhodes. But in 1523 the Ottoman Turks captured Rhodes and the Knights were left without a home until the Spanish King gave them Malta in 1530 which then became their permanent home.

Under the Order of St. John, the Inquisition was established in Malta in 1562. This evil organisation (like the Spanish Inquisition) was established to seek out and punish “heretics” which was the description given to anyone who did not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Maltese Inquisition was not abolished until 1798.

Malta History: Seige of Malta 1565

The Seige of Malta

The Seige of Malta

Despite the failure of the Crusades, western European dynasties continued to spasmodically attempt to liberate the Holy Lands. A number of chivalrous orders from various parts of Europe were involved.  These included The Knights of St John whose continued raison d’être was to fight the Ottoman Turks and liberate the Holy Lands.

Fed up with this persistent irritation, the Ottoman Turks in 1565 decided to capture Malta. They sent a fleet of 81 ships with more than 30,000 soldiers on board. Their Armada arrived at Malta on 18 May 1565 and sailed into the Bay of Marsaxlokk. Their soldiers disembarked and camped on the Plain of Marsa.

The Grand Master of the Knights of St John at the time was a Frenchman called Jean Parisot de La Valette (1494-1568). He was 70 years old but he had a reputation of being extremely valiant.

Even with the help of the Maltese population he could only muster a force of about 9,000. Faced with the overwhelming superior size of the Ottoman Turks forces, his troops fled for shelter in the walled cities of Birgu (Vittoriosa), L’Isla (Senglea) and Mdina.

So, as a first move, the Ottoman Turks decided to capture the Fort of St Elmo, which stood alone on the Sceberas Peninsula where today is the City of Valetta. They bombarded the fort, which bravely resisted and held out for over a month.

In trying to capture the fort, the Ottoman Turks lost 8,000 men, about a quarter of their whole army, in the siege. Their commander, Dragut Rais was among the dead.

Afterwards, the Ottoman Turks beheaded 4 Knights they had captured and nailed them to crosses. They sent them floating across the harbour to Fort St Angelo. So Grand Master La Valette beheaded Ottoman Turk prisoners and fired their heads from cannons.

The Ottoman Turks then tried to capture Birgu (Vittoriosa) and L’Isla (Senglea) but they failed and suffered further heavy losses. A relief force of 8,000 Sicilians arrived in Northeast Malta on 7 September and shortly afterwards the Ottoman Turks abandoned the siege and withdrew.

The Knights of St John

The Knights of St John in Malta

At the time of the Seige of Malta, the Sceberas Peninsula, where the city of Valetta now stands, was uninhabited except for Fort St Elmo. After the siege, fearing another Turkish attack, La Valette (the 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta) decided to build new fortifications and a new city on the peninsula. The foundation stone of Valletta was laid on 28 March 1566. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Walls were built to protect the city and a huge ditch was dug across the peninsula. La Valette himself died in 1568 aged 73 but the new city was named after him.

Later in 1634 Grand Master Antoine de Paule made new fortifications across the peninsula south of Valetta. In the 18th century a suburb of Valetta was built between the two lines of fortification and it was called Floriana after him.

The Ottoman Turk threat to Malta remained during the 17th century but by the end of that century the Ottoman Turk Empire was in decline.

Meanwhile the Order of St John had continued to care for the sick. In 1574 they began building a hospital, the Sacra Infermeria in Valetta. And one hundred years later in 1676, Grand Master Cottoner founded the School of Anatomy and Surgery.

However, by the 18th century the Ottoman Turk threat had declined and the Knights of St John had become corrupt. They were duelling, drinking and womanising.  Their increased decadence lost them popularity with Maltese people.

The rule of the Knights was finally ended by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 when the Knights refused to resupply his fleet en-route for Egypt.

So Napoleon captured the Island, removed treasures from the churches and abolished the Inquisition before leaving 4,000 men on the Island as a Garrison.

However, soon afterwards the Maltese rose in rebellion against the French at Mdina. The French withdrew into Valetta and the Maltese appealed to the British for help. The Royal Navy imposed a blockade on the island but the French held out in Valetta for 2 years before finally surrendering.

Malta History: Napoleon captures Malta

The British remove Napolean and the Kinghts of St John from Malta

Malta under the British

In 1802 the British and the French made a temporary peace with the Treaty of Amiens. They agreed that the Knights of St John should return to Malta. However, the Maltese did not want the Knights back and they asked the British to stay. In 1814 the other European powers recognized Malta as a British colony at the Treaty of Paris.

The early 19th century was quiet and uneventful for Malta. However the Crimean War (1853-1856) brought prosperity as Malta was on the route between Britain and its campaign against Russia in the Crimea. This prosperity was further enhanced with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. More ships now used Valetta harbour on their route through the Mediterranean from Britain to parts of the British Empire especially India.

In 1883 a railway was opened from Valetta to Mdina.

Meanwhile the British allowed the Maltese a limited role in government. From 1835 a Council of Government made up of prominent Maltese was formed to advise the British governor. From 1849 onwards the Maltese were allowed an increasing number of elected representatives.

Malta History in the 20th Century

Following a Maltese Riot in 1919 when British soldiers shot and killed 4 Maltese, the British gave Malta a new constitution and Joseph Howard became the first prime minister. Yet political unrest followed and the constitution was revoked in 1930. It was reinstated in 1932 but was revoked again in 1933.

The early 20th century saw many Maltese emigrated to Britain and to English speaking countries like the USA, Canada and Australia. This migration continued after World War II.

On 10th June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain. The very next day he Italians bombed Malta!  At first Malta was defended only by three Gloucester gladiator bi-planes referred to as Faith, Hope and Charity. However the British soon sent hurricanes and later spitfires arrived to defend the island.

Nevertheless Italian bombing continued. The raids grew worse when aircraft from the German Luftwaffe became involved especially during the period of Rommel’s campaigns in the desert.

Malta had now, unwittingly, become centre-stage in World War II. It was close to Rommel’s supply route from Italy to Tunisia and the Axis Forces did not want Britain to have a base so close from where they could strike at this vital supply line.

Malta History: RAF Spitfires help to defend Malta

RAF Spitfires defend Malta during the Second World War

From a British point of view, the Desert War in Egypt was the key starting point for the Allies strategy for the eventual defeat of Hitler.  And without Malta, their campaign in the desert was bound to fail.

Throughout this period, more bombs were dropped on Malta (especially Valetta) than were dropped on Britain during the Blitz. And with the Axis Forces blocking the seas around Malta, preventing convoys with supplies getting through, rations in Malta grew very short.

The bravery of the people of Malta did not go unappreciated.  On 15 April 1942 King George VI awarded the George Cross to the entire population of Malta.  This is the highest civilian award under the British awards system which equates with the Victoria Cross which is a military award.

In July 1942, the RAF’s premier Fighter Commander was dispatched to Malta. He quickly stopped the bombing and by providing air cover, the first relief convoy reached Malta with much needed supplies on the 15th August 1942.

Air Marshall Keith Park who defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Malta

The situation further improved after November 1942 when the British won the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt. The Germans and Italians in North Africa eventually surrendered in May 1943 and in July 1943 the allies invaded Sicily.

In 1947 the British granted Malta another constitution together with £30 million to help repair war damage. Nevertheless the Maltese pressed for independence, which they gained on 21 September 1964.

At first the Queen was head of state but in 1974 Malta became a republic when Malta’s Labour Prime Minister, Dominic (Dom) Mintoff sought to weaken ties with Britain and the USA.  The last British servicemen left Malta in 1979.

In 1982 Agatha Barbara became the first woman president of Malta. In 1987 the Nationalist Party took power and Eddie Fenech Adami became Prime Minister.

Malta History in the 21st Century

Malta joined the EU in 2004 and in 2008 Malta joined the Euro. Today the main industry in Malta is tourism although there is also an electronics and a pharmaceuticals industry.

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