MALTA in the 19th CENTURY


During the 19th century

The early years

The British hoisted the Union Jack for the first time in Malta at Bieb il-Bombi, Floriana, once the French were forced into surrender on the September 5, 1800. The capitulation of the French, with full military honours, was signed by General Pigot and Captain George Martin, for the British side, and General Vaubois and Admiral Villeneuve, for the French side. It is very telling that no Maltese official from the insurgents’ side that had fought the French for two whole years was present, let alone allowed to be a signatory of this surrender (B. Blouet, 1981). Similarly this  act was of great regret to Ferdinand, King of the Two Sicilies, because this monarch claimed Malta as his rightful possession through royal lineage that could be retraced to Charles V of Spain. It had been Charles V who ceded Malta to the Order of St John in 1524. A while after the Maltese blockaded the French in Valletta, the insurgents had pleaded with Ferdinand to help them oust the French troops from Malta. Because Ferdinand was unable to do so he had asked Admiral Horatio Nelson to assist the Maltese with their military blockade in his stead.

Following the liberation of Malta, Nelson was initially undecided as to whether he should retain the Maltese islands. At the time, he believed that Malta was not worth keeping, because the islands were located too far away from France and so the British navy would be unable to keep any effective surveillance on the French fleet based as it was in the ports of Toulon and Marseille. Moreover, Nelson was aware that the Maltese were divided in their allegiances and their views as to who they should allow to take possession of Malta. Some of the Maltese actually desired to see the Order of St. John return to Malta as the legitimate rulers. There were others who were staunch sympathisers of the French Republican ideals. The Maltese leaders who had taken up politic Amiens 2arms against the French opted for the British to stay because they felt that they were the best guarantee to keep the French away. Those who held such views wanted to maintain such protection under a British administration while envisaging a degree of political liberty vested among their own Maltese leaders. These aspirations were emphatically stated by the Maltese leaders’ ‘Declaration of Rights’ that they dispatched to King George III, on June 15th June 1802. This declaration followed the signing of the Treaty of Amien on 25th March because Article 10 of the Treaty stated that Malta was to be transferred back to the Order of St John and was to be provided guarantees by Austria, Britain, France, Russia, Spain and Prussia. In their declaration the Maltese implored the king that they would rather remain as a British ‘protectorate’ while being conceded a Consiglio Popolare (B. Blouet 1981).

Meanwhile, in London, many began to realize how strategically important Malta would prove, especially as an entrepôt for merchandise when ships plied the Mediterranean Sea to reach Egypt and beyond. With Malta under British hands the Grand Harbour was to become a hub of maritime activity. Indeed, in the following years, trade started to flourish. It is estimated that in 1812 alone, some 3000 ships entered Malta’s ports. Unfortunately, with incremental trade, in April of 1813, an epidemic of the deadly bubonic plague broke out in Malta. This eventually led to the death of some 4,600 of all those afflicted. Poverty and misery fell all over the archipelago because now, all commercial activity was adversely affected and no vessels dared to anchor inside Malta’s harbours lest the crew would contract the disease.

main guard DichiarazzioFinally, in the Treaty of Paris of 1814, England formally declared that it would keep Malta to be administered as a ‘Crown Colony’. Thus began a new era, where Malta became a valid haven and a stepping stone to a great part of the ever-growing maritime activities in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of soldiers from different regiments were stationed in Malta, and with them a sizeable retinue of administrators and their families. Thousands of sailors regularly landed on Malta’s shores as their ships laid anchor in the Grand Harbour for a while. Over the years, Maltese regiments were created to become part of the military establishment. Hundreds of Maltese were increasingly being employed as ancillaries with the British Navy. This apart from the hundreds of those involved on shore who provided logistical supplies and repairs necessary to keep the ships seaworthy. Consequently, artisans, but also farmers and herdsmen, especially those in the Cottonera towns and Valletta, started to thrive financially from the services they provided to the British fleet.

Relationship between the British and the Maltese

When in 1812 a Royal Commission was sent to Malta to study the local situation, the commissioners claimed that the Maltese were unfit to be part of the political system of the islands. Thus they recommended that the Consiglio Popolare desired by the Maltese should not be established. Such a council might also prove to be a thorn in the side of the administrators in that it might well whip up anti-British sentiments.

Anglikan xxxNevertheless, the 19th century all High Commissioners, Governors, Lieutenant Governors that were posted in Malta always endeavoured as much as they could to maintain good relations with the Maltese in general, and constantly showed due respect towards the Maltese bishops, the clergy and the Roman Catholic religion that the population so faithfully practised. They knew that the clergy provided not only spiritual leadership, but was also able to influence the populace and control the sympathies of the population towards the British. Thus, the British authorities ensured that the newly elected bishops were to be Maltese and to their approval. They even consulted with the Vatican so that the Maltese Church would break away from the authority of the Diocese of Palermo. The separation of the two dioceses took place in 1831.

Yet, over the years not everyone was content with the way the Maltese wwere being treated. Oddly enough, the first to show such dissent was a certain William Eton who was the superintendent of the Quarantine Harbour at the Lazzaretto. This British official had fronted the Maltese cause for formal participation in the administration of the islands. Later, as from the third decade onwards George Mitrovich, a Maltese businessman, and the Maltese nobleman Camillo Sciberras, a man with great experience in the French military, started their own endeavours to speak out for the political aspirations of the Maltese. Together with others the two set up the Comitato Generale Maltese to seek local participation in the administration of the Maltese islands.

After many representations from this committee, both locally as well as in London, in 1835, a select group of prominent Maltese people, were appointed to sit on an advisory committee to the Governor. Yet, these held no authoritative powers whatsoever. In 1836, a Royal Commission was sent from London to study the general situation in Malta. However, the political status remained unchanged up until 1849.

The mid-19th century

Then, in 1849, after various manifestations of discontent, the British government granted a new constitution that allowed for a new Government Council to discuss administrative matters. This council was made up of eighteen members, of whom eight were to be democratically elected by a select franchise made up of just 3,700 voters (D. Fenech 2021). Those that were elected hailed from various classes of society, namely, the nobility, the clergy, the business community and other prominent people who possessed landed property. The ten other members were chosen by the Governor himself, thus, the ex officio members were in a majority and could outvote the elected members. Amongst these selected members there was the Lieutenant Governor, in command of the British armed forces in Malta.

In spite of this new development in Malta’s political sphere, the standard of living of the Maltese was to remain a dire one indeed. Malta’s commerce was all tied up to the presence of the British troops and the British Royal Navy and there were little viable commercial options except agriculture or else emigration to the North African countries. The economic activities would surge and ebb according to the presence or lack of the Royal Navy in Maltese harbours. This presence would increase substantially whenever there were any signs of conflict in the Mediterranean that affected Britain’s geopolitical interests. Whenever such situations arose, thousands of British troops would land in Malta in preparation for any intervention required elsewhere. The Crimean War (1854 – 1856) was such an example when Malta served as an outpost, a forward station of sorts, and thus trade flourished for a couple of years as never before.

The late 19th century

In 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, and this increased shipping in the Mediterranean. Now, Malta obtained a more important strategic role because many vessels, mainly those powered with coal, stopped for bunkering before continuing on their way to their given destination. In 1880 the tonnage of vessels that entered Malta had increased to around 5 million from 1.5 million in 1865. This tonnage was equivalent to over 2,000 sailing vessels and 3000 steam ships.

In 1877, another Royal Commission was sent to Malta to tackle the administrative, commercial and education issues that Malta was beset with. Among other things, the commissioners stressed that one of the best ways that the Maltese could improve their lot was by upgrading the education system. For this to happen it was necessary that the English language be given more prominence over Italian, especially in elementary schools. This was a valid argument because with a sound knowledge of the English Ġubilew LLETTA-3dlanguage one would stand to gain a higher post in the administrative sector. However, this recommendation found great resistance by many representatives in the Legislative Council. A long winded dispute arose and the councillors soon split into two opposing factions, those in favour and those against the proposals related too education. The party that was in favour of such reforms was thus labelled the Reformisti. This was led by the progressive politician Sigisimondo Savona. Those who were against the proposed reforms were labelled as ‘Anti-reformisti‘. These were led by the conservative Fortunato Mizzi who staunchly believed that the Maltese nation was firmly bound to the Italian culture, and thus Italian must remain the predominant language in schools. These two factions eventually metamorphosed into two distinct but unofficial political parties. Savona’s party became known as the Partito Popolare and Mizzi’s as the Partito Nazionale. Alongside these there was another political figure, namely that of Count Gerald Strickland considered at the time to be an Imperialist and an ultra-progressive politician who in between 1889 – 1896  acted as Chief Secretary on the Council of Government.

In the elections of 1883, the representatives in the Council of Government were elected by as many as 10,000 voters. In 1887, the constitution was changed whereby the Council was made up of a majority of representatives who were to be elected by a wider franchise. Nevertheless, the Governor retained the right to veto laws as he saw fit, in case the Council’s majority votes were adverse to British interests. The 1887 Constitution continued to serve as a basis with which the Council worked for many years. Towards the final years of the century the opposing councillors got entangled in a series of issues which frequently brought into play the language question. The elected members chose to carry out a policy of ‘obstructionism’ over the officially appointed members (J.J. Cremona 1994).

Finally, in 1903 the situation proved too much for the Governor to bear. The Governor and the Secretary of the Colonies, Joe Chamberlain, decided to suspend the constitution and dissolve the council. A new constitution was introduced that was to regress the authority of the council members to the status that had existed in 1849. This meant that the Council now had only members who were hand picked by the Governor. The majority of Maltese politicians shied away from this state of affairs and boycotted the Council. Consequently, the Governor was to administer Malta in an autocratic manner until 1921.

Martin Morana

September 22, 2022

                                   SIGNIFICANT  DATES of the 19th CENTURY

1799 1801              Captain Alexander Ball – Civil commissioner and head of government
1800 Sept, 5           The French capitulate
1800 Sept, 9           French troops leave Malta
1801 – 1802            Sir Charles Cameron – Civil Commissioner
1802 March           Treaty of Amiens
1802 June, 15        Declaration of Rights by Maltese Representatives
1802 1809 Sir        Alexander John Ball returns to Malta as Civil Commissioner
1807 Sept, 18         Ferdinand Mattei, a Maltese prelate elected Bishop of Malta. From now                                   on only Maltese prelates were appointed as bishops
1810 – 1813             Lt. General Sir Hildebrand Oakes as Civil Commissioner
1813 April 16,        First case of the bubonic plague outbreak noted on a girl in Valletta
1812 April, 30        Royal Commission appointed to go to Malta to study cause of political                                     unrest
1813 Oct, 4  – 1824  Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas Maitland first Governor of Malta
1813 October 5,      Governor of Malta – Lt. General Sir Thomas Maitland
1814 July, 12           Police Corps set up. Authority to arrest and detain suspect up to 48                                          hours
1815 February, 1     A Jury Panel was introduced in the judicial system for the first time
1820 until 1825       Estimated British expenditure in Malta on naval establishments and                                       the military – £200,000
1822                          Introduction of mortmain law
1823 January, 14    Commission set up to investigate education system
1824 – 1826              Governor of Malta – General the Marquess of Hastings
1825      July            First steam ship to enter Malta – ‘London Engineer’
1825 January, 19    Report on census shows the Maltese population had reached 97,629
1827- -1836             Governor of Malta – Major General Sir Frederick Ponsonby
1827 Nov, 6             The copper coins still in circulation following the departure of the                                           Order of St John were withdrawn circulation. These were replaced by                                     the English grano
1827                         Notable commercial activity in port was on the rise – Greek War of                                          Independence: Battle of Navarino
1828                         British curtail the right of Ecclesiastical Sanctuary from all churches
1830                         Cotton exports from Malta reached £118,000
1830                         According to a census, the agriculture industry waas the main                                                  economic activity for some 5,200 families, that is, a total of 26,000                                            people
1830                        By the 1830’s there were some 600 Maltese employed in cigars                                                   production industry
1830                        By the end of the 30s there were some 16,800 Maltese employed in                                           various sectors of the maritime industry
1831 June, 20       The Maltese Catholic Church becomes independent                                       from the diocese of Palermo
1834 Jan, 5            Providence Bank of Savings opens in Malta
1835 July, 31         George Mitrovich goes to London to demand Maltese political                                                    involvement in the running of the administration of Malta
1835                      Advisory Council of Government set with the specific role to advise                                         governor in the running of the islands
1836 – 1843          Governor of Malta – Lt. General Sir Henry Bouverie
1836 Oct, 12        Royal Commission arrives in Malta
1837 June, 9        Cholera outbreak – by July 3,382 had died
1837                     There were some 700 land proprietors in Malta and Gozo
1839 Mar, 14      Freedom of the Press granted
1842                    19 primary schools were in operation providing a variety of teaching to                                 1,296 children
1842                     Population census in Malta registered 112,500
1842                    Cotton exports £86,270
1843- -1847        Governor of Malta – Lt General Sir Patrick Stuart
1844 Mar, 22     Census of population: 114,499 (1,161 foreigners – 838 British)
1848 Sept, 9       Inauguration of No 1 dock by Governor More O’Ferrall – cost £60,000 – ed                              H.M.S. Antelope was first steamer to be serviced
1849 May, 11     New Constitution 18 members – 8 elected by popular vote
1849                    British spending in Malta totalled an average £200,000 annually
1847 – 1851          Governor of Malta – Richard More O’Ferrall
1851 – 1858          Governor of Malta – Major General Sir William Reid
1853 May, 3         According to official report – 1,866 sail and 2275 steam ships call in                                          Malta in previous year
1854 July, 1         Cholera outbreak – 348 die – epidemic lasted until Sep of same year
1854                     British spending in Malta c. £400,000 – increase in expenditure most                                       probably related to the start of the Crimean War
1854                     Governor Reid introduced silk worms into Malta – an industry which did                                not succeed
1855 Oct, 4         English currency – is the sole acceptable currency in Malta – yet Maltese                                 still referred in their daily parlance to scudi etc., that dated back to the                                   Order of St John
1856                    British spending in Malta must have totalled c.£800,000 – due to Crimean War
1857 Aug, 1        Foundation stone of dock no 3 Somerset Dock
1858 – 1864        Governor of Malta – Lt General Sir John Gaspard Le Marchand
1864 – 1867        Sir Henry Storks becomes new Governor of Malta
1865 July           Cholera outbreak in Malta 1,873 dead
1867 – 1872       Governor of Malta – General Sir Patrick Grant
1867 Sept, 2      Cholera outbreak 980 infected – 400 dead ends in October
1871 Febr, 16    Somerset Dock inaugurated
1877 Aug, 1       Cholera outbreak – 660 infected of whom 450 died
1872 – 1878       Governor of Malta – General Sir Charles Van Straubenzee
1878- -1884       Governor of Malta – General Sir Arthur Borton
1879                  Royal Commission’s report on education system – 8,565 students in 84                                    government supported institutions
1883 Mar, 2     Eligible franchise extended to those with £6 income from landed property                             – 10,637 total franchise
1884- -1888      Governor of Malta – General Sir Lintorn Simmons
1884                  Sigisimondo Savona introduces pari passu system in schools
1887 Jan, 3       Sigisimondo Savona held a protest meeting in Palace Square demanding                               an elected Responsible Government
1887 Jan 27     Census claims that population of Malta in Jan 1886 was 154,651
1887 Dec, 12   Constitution conceded with an elected majority
1887                 Cholera outbreak
1888 – 1890     Governor of Malta – Lt General Sir Henry Torrens
1889- 1896      Gerald Strickland is Chief Secretary of Government Council
1890- -1893     Governor of Malta – General Sir Henry Smyth
1892 Jun, 27   Foreign Marriage Act-binding all colonies declaring mixed marriages valid                           – this caused much apprehension and resistance by politicians and clergy
1892 Feb, 12   Inauguration of Dock
1893- -1899     Governor of Malta – General Sir Arthur Freemantle
1899- -1903     Governor of Malta – Lt General Lord Grenfell
1899 Oct, 18   Executive government meets after having been reconsituted
1899 Jul, 11    Strike by coal stevedores in Grand Harbour
1899 Aug, 27  Farmers not allowed to herd goats into Valletta – Farmers threaten to strike

AA cover page

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.

Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshop ..

Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle ….. Issa jinsab għal bejgħ bħala ebook fuq Amazon Kindle għal $.7.30.

Malta in the 19th Century – Bibliography

Blouet Brian, The Story of Malta. Progress Press Co. Ltd. 1981.

Cremona J.J., The Maltese Constitution and Constituitional History Since 1813. Publishers Enterprises Group. 1994.

Fenech Dominic, 1921 – Self Government in Malta 1921 – 1933. Midsea Books. 2021.

Galea Michael, Sir Alexander John Ball and Malta. Publishers Enterprises Group. 1990.

Laferla A.V., British Malta Volumes I & II. A.C. Aquilina & Co. 1976 / 1977.

Mallia Milanes Victor (editor), The British Colonial Experience, 1800 – 1964. Mireva Publications. 1988.



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