In his Histoire de Malte, (published in 1841), Dominique Miège, the French Consul for Malta, gives a detailed description of the sea borne communication system that existed in the Grand Harbour towns, during his time in Malta. Miège compares the hustle and bustle of the traffic between the towns of the Cottonera and Valletta to that of Venice. Boats were constantly available to provide their service thus ensuring the much required communication between Birgu, Senglea, Cospicua and Valletta. Such transport service at the time was of ultimate importance to the daily business between the harbour towns. Equally important, albeit not so intense, was the passenger boat service in Marsamxett which at the time served exclusively as quarantine harbour.

What follows is a brief resumé translated from the French text of Miège’s report. This is accompanied frequently by my own comments in [square brackets] whenever the need to elaborate further is necessary.

Grand Harbour Givoanni Schranz scene pic
19th century depiction of the Grand Harbour by Edward Caruana Dingli

Regulations for boat owners – The Grand Harbour

Miège states that at the time of writing, there were some 1,200 boats being operated by some 3,000 oarsmen, [Maltese. barklori] in between the harbour towns. All the boat owners providing this ancient taxi service in the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett were obliged to register and carry an identification number. The owners of the boats were responsible for all safety issues as well as for any faults committed by them or any oarsmen that they employed in their stead. According to Miège, all passenger boats that operated were to be built in the same shape and size and had to be certified sea worthy. [From contemporary paintings of the Grand Harbour scenery, one will note that back in the early decades of the 19th century passenger boats were built in the style of the traditional dgħajsa, albeit boat seems slightly broader from its sides than the ones  extant today].

Regulations for oarsmen

It was prohibited for oarsmen to take on more passengers than the seating capacity allowed. It was also not permissible for boatmen to ply their trade after 10 pm during the summer months and after 8 pm in the winter months.  Once night fell, those oarsmen permitted to work after dusk were to see to it that their boat carried a lamp that allowed the boat to be visible during trips to avoid any mishaps. Miège also adds that it was ‘strictly prohibited’ for oarsmen to insult, threaten or else be aggressive in any way towards passengers!

Charles Frederick de Brocktorff dghajsa
Depiction of a passenger boat by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff


Fixed tarrifs

Fixed tariffs were established by the authorities for fixed trips, both in the Grand Harbour as well as in Marsamxett. These fares could be increased by a third once the trip took longer than half an hour. The tariff doubled once the service was extended further than two hours after the firing of the gun. [At the time a gun was fired daily one hour before dusk from the Upper Barrakka Saluting Battery to alert one and all that the Valletta gates, namely those of Del Monte, Porta Reale and Marsaxmett Gate would at some time be closed and thus those needing to exit Valletta or enter were to do so at the earliest].

The same higher fare was also permissible on occasions whenever the boats operated in rough seas. Apart from the transfer of passengers from fixed points in the harbour towns, boats were also regularly hired to transfer passengers and cargo from ship to shore. [Miège does not furnish the tariffs for such transportation]. He states that pontoons were floated and aligned to the vessels, for cargo to be loaded from ships onto boats. These pontoons were provided at a charge according to rates as established by the authorities. [These rates are also not quantified in Miège’s account].

Fixed tariffs for boat trips as established by the authorities*:


FULL DAY    manned by one oarsman

manned by two oarsmen


HALF DAY          ”              one     ”

”             two      ”

1 / 4 DAY

2 hours






One boat




2 skudi, 6 tari

1 skud,  6 tari


1 skud, 3 tari

9 tari

8 tari

4 tari


From Valletta to Senglea Point

From      ”        to Senglea, Burmola to Birgu

From Senglea to Burmola to Birgu






1 grano

2 grani

1 grano




From Valletta to Senglea, Vittoriosa  and Burmola

From Valletta to Senglea Point









6 tari

4 tari


Boats trips in Marsamxett Harbour

In Marsamxett Harbour, [then serving exclusively as quarantine harbour], most passenger boats were based close to the office of the Department of Health which served also as the maritime Police Station.  [It is known that the earliest health clinics all over Malta in the 19th century served from within the precinct of the district police station].

Marsamxett side (2)
Marsamxett Quay (late 19th century) with Police station

Miège states that the oarsmen operating here were obliged to be registered with the Department of Health. Once the boatsmen were on duty they were obliged to carry with them a bill of health and were required to fly a red pendant on their boat’s stern as an identification of hazard when transferring goods and passengers to and from the Lazzaretto quarantine centre on Manoel island. When conducting such transfers, two oarsmen were obliged to man the boat. [No reason is stated for this].

[Trips were often made from the Valletta side to and from the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island to serve detained passengers arriving from the East and from all ports known to be affected by an  epidemic. It is known that throughout the 19th century, detained passengers could order their food if they preferred from a Valletta catering establishment and this would be delivered to them by boat].

Boats also crossed over to Tigné Point and Sliema, then still a sparsely built-up seaside resort for the well-to-do. Other departure and arrival points mentioned by Miège were, the Jewish Sally Port on the Valletta side and the inner part of Pietà.

Marsamxett Sa Maison Pieta
Dgħajsa boats plying in Marsamxett Harbour (mid-19th century?)

The tariffs for passengers in Marsamxett Harbour, were different than those applicable in the Grand Harbour. There were again tariffs based on boats hired for groups and tariffs based on individuals who hired the boat for their own exclusive trip. When hiring a boat for exclusive use, the tariff was 6 tari for the first half hour, while the rate for the next half hour would be 4 tari. Based on a half hour duration, trips to the various points mentioned above varied from as little as 12 grani, if the trip was from Jewish Sally Port to Tigne Point, to 6 tari if the trip was from the Valletta side to Lazzaretto. When travelling in groups, then each passenger could pay as little as 3 grani, if travelling from Jewish Sally Port to Tigne Point – to 15 grani, if travelling to or from Msida Creek.


*  It should be noted that the British had already officially introduced their own currency on Malta by 1825, and indeed minted a special coin for local use, the third farthing, (ħabba). Yet, Miège opted to record the fares in Maltese currency, calling the skud as ecu and the ħabba as grano.

1 skud:  12-il tari (1 shilling 8 pence) or 240 ħabba.

1 tari:  10 ħabbiet (sing. ħabba = pl. ħbub – It. grano)

Martin Morana


For further reading please click here on the subject of transportation, this time on land, also written by Miège, please click here:

Fort other articles both in English as well as in Maltese please click here:

To know more about publications by same author please click here:

‘Ajjut ….!’ … ‘Help …!’

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

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.

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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