AGRICULTURE in MALTA in the early 19th CENTURY – A detailed account by D. Miége

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The following is a synoptic account of a what Dominique Miége, resident consul for Malta in the 1830’s, collated and published in his  L’Histoire de Malte, (1841).

rural ploughing the fields mdina

Getting  it all straight

Book CoverMiége starts his report on Maltese agriculture by stating that farmers prepared the land by first getting rid of weeds, cutting, crushing and burning unwanted vegetation. Then they levelled uneven ground with crushed rocks and pebbles to keep the soil flat. Soil would be collected from the vicinity and dispersed onto the chosen bare rocky terrain. This would be watered extensively to dampen the soil into mud. Manure  was added at the lower level to ensure that that the soil remained damp and fertile. When all was ready, a field wall was erected to surround and protect the precious soil. The soil would be shifted every five years in order to avoid clotting and so allow water to percolate.

Miége differentiated between a field and a garden as follows; the former referred to any arable land in the countryside, the latter to a small field usually close to the inhabited areas. While a field required to be constantly taken care of by several labourers, a garden was tended to by one person. Unlike a field in the countryside, a garden could be irrigated with more ease throughout the whole year.

Water mills

It was not unusual that a farmer, once creating his fields, would dig down into the rock and seek his supply of water by penetrating an artisian well. These wells were sometimes located quite close by to the surface, at a depth of 2 – 5 metres, at other times they would be 30 to 50 metres deep. The farmer would adopt, what Miége called, a’ hydraulic machine’, a Maltese version of a water mill, [Maltese: sienja].  This contraption consisted of a vertical wheel with buckets attached to its rim that dipped into a well to haul up water. The wheel was attached by a an axle to another horizontal wooden  wheel.  A mule or donkey was strapped by a yoke below the latter wheel and made to trudge in circles, thus turning the large wheel that dipped buckets into the well. The buckets hauled up water and emptied their contents into a cistern, [Malt: giebja]. From the giebja water flowed down irrigation channels [Maltese: qana] made of carved stone slabs, to reach the fields and water the crops.

Sienja u hmar.jpg

Landowners, farmers and labourers

Miége states that the farmer was not always the owner of the land he so laboriously tended. More often than not, he would lease his land a landowner. The lease would either cover a short period of between one and eight years, or else constituted a contract that generally stipulated a longer tenure of between nine to 101 years. Traditionally, the lease was signed in August, but the land was handed over to the farmer normally on November 11, [feast of Saint Martin]. In between, the land would still be retained and worked by the previous farmer. If the new lessee took over the land containing the unharvested crops of the previous farmer, then he was to compensate for the produce.

The proprietor would normally lease the land in units of not less than 10 salmi (17 hectares – a square with 100 metre sides). If he did not own that much land he would most likely work the land himself. In the case of a short lease the farmer was not be allowed to sublet the land to other farmers. This was only permitted when the farmer leased the land for the longer duration. The farmer paid his rent by yielding two thirds of the agricultural harvest to the landowner. Such payment was effected on a regular basis, three times a year, that is, on August 15, on December 25 and at Easter. (PHOTO 2: Measures of Agricultural land) Accompanying text: The various terms by which the agricultural land was measured. In order of size from largest to smallest there were the, modd, kejla, tomna, siegħ, qasba.


Planting and harvesting of crops

Miége states that where the soil was of good quality the farmer worked the land on a three year rotation basis. For instance, he would sow cotton or melons in one year, in May or June, which he would then harvest in August and October respectively. The following year the farmer would not need to sow cotton again as the plant would lay dormant to grow of its own volition a year or two later. While this cycle was allowed to take its course, the farmer would sow other crops in between, such as wheat or barley. If the cotton plant would not lay dormant in the following year, the farmer could still sow peas and broad beans in January, so that by the time the cotton plant sprouted in May, he would already have harvested the peas or broad beans as planned.

Category of farmers

Miége divided the rural work force into four categories: a) the proprietor, cum, farmer working his own land; b) the farmer who worked the fields under lease from the proprietor; c) the labourers who helped the farmer all year round and d) the casual workers who constituted the mass of helping hands in the fields according to the needs of the farmer. The proprietor, or those farmers who worked 10 salmi (17 hectares **) of land or more were bound to employ at least two labourers all the year round, in order to keep up with the daily requirements. Each was paid between 100 and 200 scudi yearly as well as a daily provision of food for daily consumption. From May to June the number of workers increased multifold as casual labourers (Fr. journaliers) were employed. [This was the season when cotton was sown and cared for in its early stages]. However, in December, January and February, hardly any  casual labourers were employed in the fields. During the months of March, April, July, August, September, October and November, all the workforce remained idle as there was no need for any helping hands in the fields. To compensate for this, following harvesting of cotton, many, but especially female labourers and children, were actively employed at home, processing of cotton into yarn.

Miége noted that farmers could work the fields so assiduously from sunrise to sunset, especially during the hot summer months. Throughout the day, two short breaks were taken, firstly, for half an hour at 8 a.m., and the second time at 11 until midday, in the winter months and an extra hour, from 11 until one o’clock in the summer months. The farmer and his team would sit under a fig tree, or close to a field wall to partake in a frugal meal. According to Miége, farmers packed up to return home only when the village church bells signalled sunset [the Angelus].

 Growing crops  

The most important crop that farmers sowed was cotton. This was planted either in April or May. The healthy growth of the plant and its harvesting was guaranteed once it rained in the early stages that the plant was sown. If this was lacking, then the farmer had to to irrigate or the plant would simply wilt and the crop would be lost. As the cotton plant sprouted the farmer would hoe around it two or three times. Once it grew a few centimetres in height, the farmer trimmed the plant so that it would not grow too fast. The rest was up to nature to take its course until the cotton was harvested in October or in November. Following harvesting, the cotton plant would be left to wilt in anticipation of it regenerating growth of its own accord in the following year and the year thereafter.

qotton pjanta

Wheat and barley were sown at the end of November after the cotton harvest. Wheat was harvested in May. Barley was often grown together with wheat as it was a hardier crop and it served to protect the wheat plant from the scirocco. Barley was sown at the end of September,beginning of October. The Maltese called this faraina; it was harvested in January or February.

Melons, radishes and sesame were sown in April. Miége remarked that strangely enough, sesame was not grown to extract oil from its seed as in India and Egypt, but was simply added as a condiment to flavour bread. In the months of February and March some farmers would sow melons, cabbages and fennel.

Following the three-year cotton cycle, the farmer would on the fourth refrain from growing the same crop and instead, opted for clover [Malt. silla] which he would sow in August. This would sprout once the first rain fell and was harvested the following May. Clover served as excellent fodder during the following winter months.

Some farmers preferred to leave the fields fallow until March 12, when they would sow melons of various types. On May 11 they would then sow cabbages, turnips and French turnips.


Miége was puzzled by the fact that there was very little viticulture. Grapes were mostly grown to be consumed at table. He attributes this to the fact that good quality wine was easily obtainable from Sicily. He also opined that Maltese farmers were somewhat afraid that the growing of vines would be detrimental to other agricultural activity. He suspected local farmers lacked the will and competence required to cultivate vines.

It is quite baffling why Miége in his very detailed report makes no mention of olive trees, tomatoes, potatoes and bee-keeping.

The above is an extract from an article published on the Times of Malta of August 11, 2019.

You may read the whole article by clicking here:

Further reading on related subjects please visit:

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This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

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Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95. Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshops.

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.


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