as seen by foreigners
Malta, located as it is in the centre of the Mediterranean served many a time as a haven that provided a momentary respite for voyagers during their long journey across the Mediterranean and beyond. Some disembarked from their ship to explore the island in a span of a few hours or days. Others stayed longer, sometimes, weeks, months and even years. A few who wrote about Malta were erudite scholars who wrote from their knowledge about the islands without having set foot there. A considerable number wanted to put their personal impressions of their stay on paper and so they jotted down notes on their diary, or else wrote a memoir which they then published. Hereunder is a series of comments about Malta and the Maltese, as described by numerous personalities.
MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO In 70 B.C., the Roman lawyer, scholar and statesman of great fame, levelled accusations at Caius Verres, the governor of Sicily, regarding numerous offences. Amongst other things, Cicero accused Verres of robbing the then famous temple of Juno [at Marsaxlokk?], of its treasures (Cicero, Verr. II, 4. 103). Cicero also mentions that the same temple had been also robbed of its ivory tasks by an admiral from Numidia (in Algeria). The latter had taken these to his king, Massinissa. Source: Malta – Phoenician, Punic, and Roman, Anthony Bonanno, p.p. 145-148. Cicero then accused Verres of having turned the town of Melite into one whole textiles factory, producing women’s clothing for his own sake. Similarly, Diodorus Siculus mentions that in Malta there were, ‘[…] important artisans who weave linen […] Source: Encounters with Malta – E. w. M.), Thomas Freller, p. 22-23.
ST LUKE The evangelist who accompanied Saint Paul on his sea journey from Jerusalem to Rome recounts the perilous tempest and the shipwreck on Malta’s shore. After leaving Crete, the ship that they were travelling on was caught in a violent storm and after fourteen days, the 250 crew members and passengers barely escaped drowning when their ship caught a reef at an unknown place in Malta. Saint Luke writes: ‘[…] Once safely ashore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness […] Source: Acts 28.
AL IDRISI In 1154, King Roger the Norman of Sicily, son of Count Roger, ordered his geographer, Abu Abdallah Muhammad, better known as Al Idrisi, to provide him with a detailed description of the world. What ensued was the Kitab al Rujar (Roger’s Book) written in various volumes. In his fourth volume, Al Idrisi gives the geographical position of the Maltese islands. ‘[…] One hundred miles to the East of Pantelleria one finds the island of Gozo. From Gozo one goes to a small island Kamuna. From there to the east one finds Malta. It is large and has a sheltered harbour on its eastern side. Malta has a town and abounds in pastures, sheep, fruit and honey ‘[…]. Malta – The Medieval Millenium, Charles Dalli, pp. 27-28; & Encounters with Malta (E. w. M.), Thomas Freller, p.p. 31-32.
JEAN QUINTIN D’AUTUN Quintinus, as he is also known, was a French knight who served as uditore to L’Isle Adam. He came to Malta in 1530, months prior to the arrival of the main body of the Order, and thus was able to report on the local situation to the Grand Master. In his observations that were later published in his tome, Insulae Melitae Descriptio (1536), D’Autun gives an extensive account about the Maltese islands. Amongst other information he states: ‘[…] The people are very devoted to their religion. Malta is consecrated to St. Paul […]. He also states […] Its religion is wonderfully practised in the whole island, both privately and publicly. Shrines are found all over the island […]’. Source: The Language Question, Geoffrey Hull, p. 340. See also, E.w.M, Thomas Freller, p. 67.
GEORGE SANDYS An English scholar and intellectual. While on his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean he reached Malta on June 2, 1611 while on his return journey. He extended his stay in order to assist to the celebrations in honour of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Order, a feast that was celebrated on June 23. He recalls, ‘[…] The Palace, Temples and Auberges and other principal houses were stuck round on the outside with lamps the evening before; and among other solemnities, they honoured the day with discharge of their artillery. The forts put forth their banners and every Auberge the ensign of his nation; at night having bonfires before them; five great ones being made in the court of the Palace; the first was kindled by the Great Maister [Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt], the second by the Bishop, the third by the Prior, the fourth and the fifth by the Marshall and the Admiral […]’. Source: A Relation of a Journey begun An Dom 1610. (printed 1615), p. 234.
FRA CAMILLO SPRETI He was a knight of the Order of St John. In 1763, he passed an observation about the Maltese, ‘[…] They are rude and barbarous in their ways, and their language makes them seem more rough than they really are, it being much akin to Turkish, since the Turk and Maltese can understand one another […]’. Spreti is obviously referring to the Arabic language being akin to Maltese and not the Turkish one. Source: An Account and an Appreciation of Malta – (AAM), Sir Harry Luke, p. 133.
PATRICK BRYDONE A Scottish traveller who came to Malta in 1770. He eventually published a book about his travels entitled, A Tour through Sicily and Malta, in a Series of Letters to William Beckford, Esq., of Somerly in Suffolk. This was published in 1773. Having been in Sicily prior to coming to Malta, Brydone made the following comparisons: […] The streets in Valletta are crowded with well dressed people, who have all the appearance of health and affluence, whereas at Syracuse there was scare a creature to be seen, and even those few had the appearance of disease and wretchedness […]. Further on, he wrote about the Grand Master who was ‘[…] more comfortably and commodiously lodged in his palace in Valletta than any prince in Europe […]’. Source: Hospitaller Malta – 1530 – 1798, Victor Mallia Milanes, p. 38, 39.
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE Writing his memoirs more than 20 years after having briefly stayed in Valletta, Napoleon did not forget his Maltese interlude. He reserved his highest esteem for Valletta: ‘[…] Valletta has the best harbour in the Mediterranean, 30,000 inhabitants, nice houses, beautiful quays, magnificent grain silos, lovely fountains. Freestone built bastions are well maintained while numerous constructions, batteries and the forts pile up one behind the other […]’. Source: Bonaparte wrote Malta’s first political and social constitution in Valletta’, Charles Xuereb, Times of Malta, May 2, 2022.
HORATIO NELSON Three years after the expulsion of the French troops from Malta, and the takeover by Britain as a protectorate, Lord Horatio Nelson wrote to the British Prime Minister, Henry Addington, ‘[…] I now declare that I consider Malta as an important outpost to India, that it will give us great influence in the Levant and indeed all the southern parts of Italy. In this view I hope we shall never give it up […]’. Source: British Malta, Vol. I, A.V. Laferla, p. 35.
ALEXANDER BALL Appointed in Malta as Britain’s first Civil Commissioner, in his Memorandum on Malta, dated March 6, 1801, he reports on the economic situation of the island, while proposing requirements for the future upkeep that were necessary. In the same memorandum he touched, albeit lightly, upon agricultural matters, stating amongst other things, ‘[…] the figs of Malta are most delicious. They have a species of melons different in taste and superior in quality. The apples, pears, peaches etc., are not equal in quality as of colder climates […]’ and ‘[…] the cultivation of potatoes is now introduced and will prove of great advantage to the inhabitants […]’. The latter statement proves that potatoes were introduced as an innovative agricultural product by the British in the very first years that they had taken possession of Malta. Source: Sir Alexander Ball and Malta – The Beginning of an Era, Michael Galea, p. 194.
COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR This man of letters served as Private Secretary to Alexander Ball between July 1804 and January 1805, as well as Public Secretary to the Government of Malta between January and September of 1805, after which period he returned to England. Coleridge calls the fortifications in the Grand Harbour as, ‘[…] The bulky mountain-breasted heights […]’. Source: Hospitaller Malta, 1530 – 1798, p. 14., Victor Mallia Milanes. He also described Valletta as, ‘[…] all high and depth […]’. E. w. M., p. 230. See also: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, pp. 160 – 163.
LORD BYRON George Gordon Byron, the famous poet, visited Malta twice, once when on his way to Greece, in August of 1809 and later on when on his return journey to England in the early summer of 1811. He expresses his feelings according to his experience when in Malta, in the poem, Farewell to Malta.
Adieu, ye joys of La Vallette!
Adieu, scirocco, sun and sweat!
Adieu though palace rarely entered!
Adieu, ye mansions where – I’v ventured!
Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs!
(How surely he who mounts you swears!) […]
Source: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, p.p. 163- 167.
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN Denmark’s national poet and world famous author of fairy tales, while on his grand tour, sailed from Sicily to Malta where he made a short stop-over that lasted only one day. The French steamer that he was travelling on, the Leonidas, entered the Grand Harbour March 15, 1841, at 3 am. Once inside the port, Andersen exited his cabin and climbed on deck to enjoy the serene night sky. He marvelled at the brightness of the moon and stars in the sky and remarked in his diary: ‘[…] The stars in the North are but shining glass – here they are precious stones […]’. Source: ‘Hans Christian Andersen in Malta’, Michael Galea, The Sunday Times, March 17, 1991.
BENJAMIN DISRAELI First Earl of Beaconsfield, later Prime Minister of England, author of various novels amongst which, Vivien Grey, Henrietta Temple and many other ‘silver fork’ novels; he later became Prime Minister of England (1868 – February to December, as well as 1874 – 1880). When still a young writer he travelled widely in the Mediterranean (1830-1831), with his sister’s fiancé William Meredith. He stopped at Malta for some while. About Valletta he was full of praise, ‘[…] I walked down Strada Reale, which is almost as good as Regent Street […]’. Source: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, pp. 174 – 178). He also stated, […] one of the most beautiful cities for its architecture and the splendour of its streets, that I know; something between Venice and Cadiz […]’. See also: E. w M. Peter Serracino Inglott. p. 263.
SIR WALTER SCOTT Very soon following Disraeli’s three week’s stay in Malta, in 1831, another famous Scottidsh author, aged 60, and in ill health, stayed in the Beverly Hotel, Strada Ponente, Valletta, as Disraeli had done. He describes Valletta as ‘the splendid town quite like a dream’. Source: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, pp. 178- 181. During his stay he visited amongst others, St John’s Co-Cathedral about which he described enthusiastically, ‘[…] the most magnificent place I ever saw in my life […]’ Source: E. w. M., p. 229. He left Malta on December 14, to Naples, promising himself to write a novel, The Siege of Malta, an opus which he left three quarters complete, as he expired in September of 1832.
GEORGE CORNEWALL LEWIS In 1836, a Royal Commission made up of George Cornwall Lewis, John Austin and his wife Sarah, was sent to Malta to draw a report with recommendations on the political, economic, educational and other major administrative issues. Lewis commented thus, ‘[…] The people are in such a brutish state of ignorance that it is perfectly desésperant to have anything to do with them. Such are the effects of a paternal military despotism, which rules people by keeping them in ignorance and dependence […]’. The Language Question, Geoffrey Hull, p. 15. Cornwall Lewis and John Austin also described the education system, ‘[…] as small in quantity and bad in quality […]’. Source: British Malta, Vol II. p. 28, & Vol I, p. 137-154.
SIR ADOLPHUS SLADE A man with a colourful career in the British Navy, where he ultimately became Rear Admiral. He also later became admiral of the Turkish Navy where he served for seventeen years. In 1837 he travelled to Malta. He published his memoirs that recount his travels in Turkey, Greece and Malta. Amongst other things he states: ‘[…] Little intercourse exists between English and Maltese families […] In part we are to blame […] The Maltese are greatly to blame in refusing to learn English […] Thirty six years under our rule, twenty one years annexed to our empire – yet not more than twenty-six of the natives speak English perfectly […]’. Source: Turkey, Greece and Malta, Vol. 1, Adolphus Slade p. 124, 125.
AĦMED JOSEF FARIS AL-SHIDYAK A Lebanese scholar, writer and philosopher who lived in Malta for some 14 years, between, 1835 and 1849. In his, booklet, El Wasita fi Magħrfat aħwal Malta, he provides quite an extensive range of information on Malta and its population. The comments about the latter were not always positive. Amongst other things he states: ‘[…] The Maltese brag at the quantity of churches that they have, as otherwise they have nothing else to boast of […]’. Source: Tagħrif dwar Malta tas-seklu dsatax, F.X. Cassar. P. 43. (1985). Elsewhere in the same publication, he states: ‘[…] The Maltese love strolling in front of the Governor’s Palace […] There you will find those who are full of themselves, and the men will eye the women and the women will dress up to catch the attention of the men […]’ ibid. p. 40.
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY Author of Vanity Fair. Thackerey visited Malta while on a tour of the Mediterranean on board the P&O liner, a cruise he was offered for free to help encourage people to travel by sea for leisure. In his Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cario by Way of Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople and Jerusalem, he writes, ‘[…] the entrance to the harbour is one of the most stately and agreeable scenes ever admired by sea sick travellers […].’ Source: Martin Morana, ‘The Genesis of Tourism to Malta – an Overview’, Melita Historica, Vol. 2020. Thackeray also noted: ‘[…] while strolling along Strada Reale, there were, squads of priests, habited after the fashion of Don Basilio in the opera […]’. Sources: E. w. M., Thomas Freller, p. 276.
JOHN GADSBY The son of a Baptist Church pastor, he visited Malta on several occasions between 1846 and 1853 and eventually wrote a memoir, My Wanderings, being Travels in the East in 1846-47, 1850-51, 1852-1853. While he praised the island, ‘[…] Malta, is one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen […] ’ and that the streets were ‘[…] cleaner, far more than those of any town I have seen outside England […]’ he also showed his disdain towards the Maltese folk for the way in which they adhered to their religious customs. He observes that the Maltese were, ‘[…] the most ignorant and superstitious of all Roman Catholics, not even excepting, perhaps, the Mexicans […]’. Source: ‘A Protestant visitor’s View of 19th century Malta’, David Dandria, The Sunday Times, May 25, 2014.
GUSTAVE FLAUBERT This world famous French writer of the Realist school of prose visited Malta on November 4, 1849. When he landed on shore and was ascending one of the hilly streets of Valletta, je noted ‘[…] a street full of vendors of cheese and of dried fish, which prepared us for the stench of the Greek grocers […]’. E. w. M., Thomas Freller, p. 286-288.
EDWARD LEAR The well known English painter of nature who also became famous for his limericks – often nonsense rhymes – visited Malta several times, starting from 1848, the year after, 1853 and then in 1862. In December of 1865, he travelled to Gozo and was greatly impressed by the coastal scenery which he described in his own crazily created adjectives as, ‘[…] truly pomskizillious and gromphiberous being as no other words that can describe its magnificence […]’. Source: E. w. M., p. 277. On a more sarcastic note, he rues the fact that no one in Malta was buying any of his paintings, saying […] For many people Malta ought to be a charming winter residence, for there is every variety of luxury, animal, mineral and vegetable; a Bishop and daughter, peas and artichokes, works in marble and filigree, red mullet, an archdeacon, mandarin oranges, admirals and generals, Marsala wine, 10d a bottle – religious processions, poodles, geraniums, balls, bacon, baboons and what not […]’. Source: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, pp. 185 – 188.
JULES VERNE The famous French author of science fiction novels visited Malta in 1878 and in 1884 on board his yacht San Michel. He describes the harbours of Malta as, ‘[…] the finest in the world, surpassing anything one can imagine […].’ E. w. M., Thomas Freller, p. 290-291.
JOSEPH CHAMBERLAIN British Colonial Secretary (1885 – 1903). In 1902, in his speech to the House of Commons, he claims: ‘[…] We hold Malta solely as a fortress essential to our position in the Mediterranean … In a fortress anything like open agitation against the Government is a thing that cannot be tolerated […]’. Source: The British Colonial Experience, Carmel Cassar, p. 120.
D.H. LAWRENCE The renowned but once controversial author whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned by court from circulation in Britain, up until 1962, visited Malta with his wife in May of 1920. On his approaching Malta at dawn, he marvelled at the, ‘[…] rocky pale yellow island …rising magical out of the swift blue sea into the morning radiance. The rocks are almost as pale as butter, the islands were like golden shadows loitering in the midst of the Mediterranean, lonely among all the blue […]’ Source: Histories of Malta – Refelections and Rejections, Vol. V. Giovanni Bonello, pp. 228 – 230. His visit was tainted however, as his stay was meant to last only two days, but instead he was kept in Malta for eight because of a strike by the Sicilian steamer. This might be one of the reasons that his remarks on the nature of the Maltese landscape turned completely sour and highly uncomplimentary, ‘[…] But a horrible island – to me, stone and bath-brick dust, arid, tree-less, desert by the sea … Malta is all pale, softish yellow rock, just like bath-brick: a fearful landscape […]’. Ssource: A. A. M., Sir Harry Luke, pp. 190-192’.
DAVID NIVEN The well known actor who starred in such films as Separate Tables (1958), for which he won an Oscar, Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and The Guns of Navarone (1961), served in Malta with the Highland Light Infantry, between 1929 and 1931. In his memoirs, which he published in his, The Moon is a Balloon (1971), he often expresses his sentiments about the Maltese in a bad light, comparing them to ‘goats’. Among other things he labels Malta as the ‘[…] The Island of yells, bells and smells […]’. Source: E. w. M., p. 339.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW On March 30, 1931, the Irish Nobel Prize Winner for Literature (1925), visited Malta with his wife, while travelling on the Theophile Gautier. The 70 year old playwright had by then published numerous works, many of which were for a long time prohibited from circulating in Malta, although copies of them were kept under lock and key in the Bibliotheca, Valletta. This is where he headed to on arrival, to spend just about one hour perusing through the numerous illuminated manuscripts and incunabula and pouring over many documents dating back to the Order of St John. He is noted to have remarked, ‘[…] I am out of breath amongst so many treasures […]’. Source: ‘George Bernard Shaw at the National Library’, Charles Micallef, The Sunday Times, 27 March, 2001.
WINSTON CHURCHILL Throughout World War II, Churchill was very supportive of Malta and ensured that the much needed military supplies would be constantly forthcoming to save the island from starvation and surrender. Here is what he says about Malta: ‘[…] Since the days of Nelson Malta has stood a faithful British sentinel guarding the narrow and vital sea corridor through the Central Mediterranean. Its strategic importance was never higher than in this the latest war […]’. Source: ‘Churchill recalls Malta’s Role in World War II’, Roger Mifsud, The Times April 15, 1992. About the Santa Maria Convoy, Churchill states: ‘[…] The loss of 350 officers and men of so many of the finest ships in the Merchant Navy was grievous … The reward justified the price exacted […]’. Source: ibid.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II She had lived in Malta from 1949 until 1951 with her husband Philip who was then serving in the Royal Navy. Not long after she became Queen of England, she travelled with Prince Philip on the Royal Yacht, Brittania, visiting numerous Commonwealth countries and made a stop at Malta on May 3, 1953. On disembarking from her yacht, she immediately was driven to the Governor’s Palace, where Prime Minister Dr. George Borg Olivier welcomed her with a speech, to which she replied: ‘[…] Though among the smallest in size, Malta takes an honoured place among the countries which we have visited. Indeed, throughout all the nations of the commonwealth and of the whole world the memory of her heroic stand during the war is still fresh […].’ Source: ‘Queen’s visit to Malta’, Michael Galea, The Sunday Times, May 2, 2004.
CHICK COREA The world famous jazzist played twice in the Malta International Jazz Festival, the first time in 1991 and the second time in 2018. When in Malta, for the first time, he was so enthused to play at Valletta’s Barriera Wharf, close to Ta’ Liesse church, the evening ambience being enhanced by the illuminations that shone from the harbour towns across the sea of the Grand Harbour. While playing on stage, he spontaneously declared to his audience, ‘[…] Until today I have never had the opportunity to play in a postcard […]’.
April 28, 2022
More on articles and publications by same author:
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 Bookshop.
Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.
Very interesting collation of authors – I wonder if there are many other countries biasting such an array of commentators through the ages.