BRITISH MALTA – the 20th Century



in the

20th Century

The early decades

For Maltese politicians, the twentieth century started on a very low key. In 1903, the Colonial Office suspended the Constitution of Malta, following a series of obstructionism by the elected members over the official members of the Council. The British Governor at the time set up instead, a Legislative Council that was made up of hand-picked ex ufficio members.  The political situation was to remain in limbo until 1921.

Meantime, as from the first decade of the 20th century onwards, the international situation began to lean dangerously towards a belligerent outcome, mainly due to the imperialistic ambitions of various European states, such as Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey, Italy, France and Britain. Between 1908 and 1912, the military spending of these powers had increase by fifty percent. The presence of the British Navy in the Mediterranean was increased and commerce on the Maltese islands thrived. Local trade provided many with money in their pockets, to some, enough to live on, and the population at large was not concerned with the frustrations felt in the political sphere.

pers Dimech a Manwel Dimech 1860 1921
Manwel Dimech

As soon as the First World War broke out in 1914, the political aspirations of the Maltese were crushed completely. To aspire, or even worse, to demand any political rights in such a situation was not acceptable to the British authorities. So much so, that in 1914, the British authorities arrested and exiled Manwel Dimech, seen by the authorities and the local Church as a political upstart, with socialist and liberal ideals. He was arrested under the pretext that he was a spy for Germany. In 1917, Nerik Mizzi, a politician with strong sentiments that favoured Italian culture, was arrested, on being in possession of seditious material that hinted at his political manoevres for Malta to become part of Italy. He was handed down a one year prison sentence that was later commuted to a withdrawal of his warrant to the legal profession.

First World War

100th_Anniv_stamp_59Although the battles of the First World War were being fought far away from Malta, their consequences resonated locally, albeit in a positive way. The war provided job opportunities to many who now joined the British military establishment, mainly by providing logistical support behind the battle front. As the war dragged on, thousands of soldiers who were wounded in the Dardanelles were brought to Malta to be nursed back to health. As a result, twenty seven hospitals were opened in Malta to cope with the situation. The shipyards now employed thousands of Maltese men. Hundreds of females were also employed at military hospitals as carers or cleaners.

However, in 1918, as soon as the war ended, these temporary empolyees were being laid off and widespread unemployment and poverty surfaced. Naval ships called less frequently at Maltese ports and ship repair in the dockyards diminished drastically. The frenetic trade with foreign soldiers and sailors had now come to an end. The price of bread and other utilities had risen sharply during the War years, but now that the hostilities had ceased, prices did not return to the pre-war level. People in every sector of society started to feel the pinch. Social unrest became evident.

The Sette Giugno riots

Maltese politicians were now aspiring to reach a consensus with the Colonial Government to put right what was so far neglected in the last couple of decades, by reinstalling an elected legislative council whereby local matters would be taken care of by the Maltese. Military matters, local security measures and international relations would be the undisputed territory of the Colonial Office and the British Governor of the day. A National Assembly made up of numerous Maltese institutions was thus created and meetings were held to discuss proposals to be presented to the Colonial Office.

sette giugnoobaby martin IMG_2801
Commotion at National Assembly as injured rioter is brought in – artist’s impression

During one such meeting that was held in Valletta, on June 7, 1919, thousands gathered to show their support towards the National Assembly. The crowd was made up of various sectors of society, each of which found it opportune to vent its grievances. After a while, many let their passion rise to fever pitch and soon matters got out of hand as the crowd became more vociferous and aggressive. Part of the crowd split into mobs and some of these turned violent. Stones were pelted at public buildings and various commercial establishments were gutted. Seeing that the local police force was unable to control the situation, British troops were called in. These split into small units to confront the aggressive mobs. At various points where the demonstrations were running riot, some of the British troops opened fire and consequently three Maltese men were killed while many others were wounded. The next day, another person was bayonetted. Mortally wounded, he died some time later.

After these violent incidents, it was decided that consultations between the Maltese representatives of the National Assembly and the British Commission headed by the Hon. L.S. Amery were to start immediately in order to come to equitable terms as to how the Maltese could be handed the administration related to local matters. Finally, a constitution was granted that allowed for an autonomous government that would administer side by side with the British Governor. Yet the Governor still held onto his veto card, in case any particular law enactment was considered to be in conflict with British interests.

The first Maltese autonomous governments

Jospeh Howard
Joseph Howard – First Prime Minister of Malta

In 1921, elections were held in which the first political parties of the country emerged in a distinct manner. In this election and others that followed, there were coalition governments that were made up of various parties, namely, the Unione Politica Maltese, led by Monsigneur Panzavecchia. (This party eventually splintered into another party, the Partito Democratico Nazionalista, led by Enrico (Nerik) Mizzi. Augusto Bartolo, a pro-British editor and printer who had had his printing press destroyed in the 1919 riots, set up the Anglo-Maltese Party. He later joined forces with Gerald Strickland’s Constitutional Party. There was also the Camera del Lavoro (Labour Party) led by Colonel William Savona. In the first election, Panzavecchia’s Unione Politico Maltese got a majority of votes that enabled it to form a government. Panzavecchia, being a cleric, shied away from becoming prime minister and Joseph Howard, a businessman and industrialist, was chosen as the first Prime Minister of Malta.

There was a priority list on the agenda of the first Maltese government, that had to be seen to, especially concerning health and education matters. Malta was the country in Europe with the largest percentage of deaths of infant mortality – thirty percent out of all births. The infrastructure had many basic deficiencies, especially when it came to water supply, electricity, roads and drainage. Major improvements needed to be applied to the education system.

It was precisely the last mentioned that for many decades had caused a lot of animosity amongst the deputies in the Government Council. Obstinacy about the matter continuously proved to be the bone of contention amongst the political parties of the early Maltese governments. There were two leading factions, one in favour of the teaching of English and the other insisting that Italian should retain its importance as the backbone of Maltese culture, both in schools as well as in the Law Courts. Matters came to a head and eventually, following a suspension of the Constitution in 1930, and an election in 1933, the Governor revoked the 1921 Constitution and resorted to administer Malta by autocratic rule, that is, by a committee that consisted of ex ufficio members.

Given the time when this unstable situation was playing out, Britain was very worried about Mussolini’s overt ambitions about the Mediterranean, Africa and more secretly about Malta in particular. The local authorities suspected that many Maltese, especially those amongst the well-educated class and  the conservative upper crust, tended to sympathise towards Italian culture and hence, possibly towards the Italian Fascist regime.

The Second World War

WW II junkerssOn September 1, the Second World War broke out, as Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared that their intentions to thwart Hitler’s ambitions. After France was successfully overrun by German troops, in May 1940, Mussolini decided that the time was right to join the fray, hoping to gain more territory, by allying himself to Hitler’s Germany. Accordingly, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. On the following  day,  squadrons of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana took off from their base and flew across the Sicilian Channel to bombard Malta. This was the start of several years of blood and tears for the Maltese.

WW II ARP valletta police stationThe destructive forays from Sicily increased, as from January 15, 1941, when the German Luftwaffe sent its Stukas to attack HMS Illustrious, when this docked for repairs at Parlatorio Wharf, below Kordin Heights. As weeks turned into months, but especially between January and April of 1942, the bombardments became constant and more intense. Throughout the war years, Malta received a total of about 3,300 air raids.

It was with the victory of the Allies in Tripoli, in January 1943, and later, with the invasion of Sicily, in July of the same year, that enemy action against Malta ground to a halt. On September 8, Italy surrendered. Malta was no longer in the eye of the storm.

The post war years

With the official termination of the war in 1945, there was an urgent need for Malta to be granted an appropriate constitution, so that the Maltese Parliament would  be reinstated with the same political autonomy as before. Discussions were held amongst the main political parties as well as with various institutions, such as the business community and the unions, to seek a constitution on which to base Malta’s political administration. This time, parliament would no longer function on a bicameral system. According to the 1947 Constitution, members of Parliament were to be elected by universal suffrage that would be admissible to both males and females over the age of 21.

There was also the need for major reconstruction projects, following the extensive destruction caused during the war. This was to provide more job opportunities. Yet, this was offset by less work in the Dockyards as now many Royal Navy assets were being repaired in the United Kingdom.

In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of Maltese who were unemployed were forced to emigrate to seek a decent living.

pers mintufjan
Prime Miniser Dom Mintoff

In the early 1950s, political parties were formed by coalitions. The Nationalist Government pleaded, rather mildly, with Britain to treat Malta not as a colony but as a ‘dominion’, similarly to other ex colonies  such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, that were conceded such a status many years earlier. The request was turned down.

In 1955, the Labour Government was elected by an absolute majority, on the premise that a new political status, namely, integration with Britain would be sought. The then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff was convinced that being integrated with the United Kingdom would be the best way for Malta to become financially stable. This utopian target was never reached because half way through the discussions, both Britain and Malta realised that such co-existence, in practice, was bound to fail. The Maltese referendum held to let the people vote on such an option showed a great degree of dissent. Thus the proposal was soon abandoned by both sides.

Independence from Britain and after

Henceforth, the Maltese Parliament, unanimously, declared a ‘Break with Britain’ resolution. This meant that now the Labour Party abandoned the prospects for integration and instead, resolved to demand independence from Britain. By the late 1950’s Britain had started to seriously consider getting rid of many of its smaller colonies by granting them independence in order to focus on the challenging economic situation at home, following its major involvement in the Second World War.

In 1962, the Nationalist Party was elected to government.  The Prime Minister, George Borg Olivier, strove to pursue total independence from Britain, and after many discussions and much disagreement amongst the local political parties, Britain granted independence to Malta on September 21, 1964.

Prime Minister Ġorġ Borġ Olivier – Indipendence Day 1964

Though for those who voted in favour, this was a day of celebration, it was also a moment of trepidation for many as independence was a huge leap of faith into the unknown. Some of the political parties had all been square against such a venture as they believed that independence might well unleash an economic catastrophe, the likes of which the Maltese were to suffer from.  Apart from the financial aspects there was also the need to ensure security to the nation from any ill-intentioned military power at a time when the Cold War was at its apogee and still sizzling following the Cuban crisis a couple of years earlier. Hence, an agreement was reached with Britain to extend its military stay in Malta beyond Independence Day.

From now on, elected governments would all focus on investing on a liberal commercial market that would be beneficial in attracting foreign firms to base their business in Malta. It was hoped that these would provide new jobs to replace those lost by the run down of the military establishments.  The Nationalist Government, and later, the Labour government, negotiated with Britain so that the withdrawal of British military personnel, which had actually started in the fifties, would be carried out at a slower pace, thus allowing the Maltese government a breathing space to place the newly born economic assets to be placed on a sound footing. Indeed, in 1971, the Labour Government reached an agreement with Britain to make use of Malta as a military base on contract that would elapse in 1979.

Finally the day arrived when the British Forces were to depart for good. It was on March 31, 1979, that the Royal Navy’s, HMS London, was to weigh anchor and sail away from Fort St Angelo in Birgu. The Fort had been the Royal Navy Headquarters in the Mediterranean. In so doing an era of 180 years of British military presence came to an end.

jum il helsien IMG_4860
Freedom Day Monument at Birgu

Martin Morana


Significant events that took place during British stay in the 20th century

1901 April, 7 Mass meeting at ll-Bombi in protest against taxes and language (estim. crowd, 2,000)
1903 June, 3 Constitution of 1887 revoked – Chamberlain constitution instead
1911 October, 23 Bishop Pietru Pace issue pastoral letter – condemns Manwel Dimech & those reading Il Bandiera tal-Maltin
1911 October, 13 General Elections: Due to abstention by the majority of those who were previously members of the Government Council, only 3 candidates were elected, these being from the 1st 5th 6th district
1914 August, 30 Manwel Dimech exiled to Sicily – and later to Alexandria, Egypt
1919 June, 7 Sette Giugno riots in Valletta
1921 October, 18 General Elections – Unione Politica Maltese obtained 14 seats in Legislative Assembly, and 4 in the Senate
1921 November, 1 Prince Edward VII inaugurates Maltese Parliament
1921 May, 26 Maltese Constitutional Party founded under Augustus Bartolo
1921 August, 27 Maltese Consitutional Party joins Strickland’s Anglo-Maltese Party
1921 April, 14 First Maltese autonomous government – Joseph Howard PM
1921 April, 17 Manwel Dimech dies in Alexandria, Egypt
1923 Dr. Francesco Buhagiar is elected Prime Minister
1924 Sir Ugo Mifsud elected Prime Minister
1930 May, 1 Prior to elections – Pastoral Letter forbidding Catholics to vote for Strickland
1932 March, 3 Constitution reinstated after suspension in 1930
1932 June, 11 General Elections -. P.N. obtained 21 seats in Legislative Assembly & 5 in Senate. Constitutionals, 10 in Legislative Assrmbly and 2 in Senate
1932 July, 30 Sir Ugo Mifsud – requests Dominion Status on internal matters
1933 November, 1 Constitution suspended
1936 August, 12 Constitution of 1921 revoked – Executive Council set up
1940 June, 11 First air raid on Malta occurred in early morning hours
1941 Jul. 26 Italian E-Boats attack on the Grand Harbour
1941 January, 16 Stukas attack HMS Illustrious at Parlatorio Wharf inside the Grand Harbour – 31 killed in the sacristy at St. Lawrence Church in Birgu
1941 February Conscription proclaimed for all males, 18-41 year olds. Priests & judges exempt
1942 February, 13 42 internees (Italian sympathisers) exiled to Uganda following orders by Governor Dobbie
1942 April, 4 Birgu clocktower destroyed during an air raid
1942 April, 15 King George VI bestows the George Cross Medal to the Maltese nation
1942 April Throughout the month, 6,700 tons of bombs dropped on Malta
1942 May, 7 Br. Governor – Field Marshall Viscount Gort takes over from Gov. Dobbie
1942 August, 15 Tanker Ohio enters Grand Harbour carrying fuel, as one of the few ships that made it in Operation Pedestal.
1944 August, 28 Last air raid on Malta
1947 Aug, 31 MacMichael Constitution – Senate not reconstituted – universal suffrage -40 representatives in Legislative Assembly
1943 September, 8 Italy surrenders – until then 3,334 air raids were sounded in Malta
1947 Nov, 3 General Election: results MLP 24 seats;Nat Party 7; DAP 4; Gozo Party 23; Jones Party 2 seats
1950 Sep. 2 General Elections: Nationalist Party: 12 seats – MLP 11 – Constitutional Party: 4; DAP 1- Nationalists govern in minority.
1955 Feb. 26 General Elections: Labour P. 25 seats – Nationalists 17. Labour has a majority government – Mintoff embarks on Integration with Britain
1958 Apr. 21 Mintoff resigns from Prime Minister and there is no Maltese gov. Interim gubernatorial rule by Governor Laycock
1962 Mar. 3 Blood Constitution
1962 Aug. 20 Malta asks formally for independence
1962 New British Governor – Sir Maurice Dorman
1964 Sep. 21 Malta is celebrates Independence Day
1964 Oct. 30 United Nations accepts Malta as member
1970 Oct. 1 1st Regt. Royal Malta Artillery no longer part of British Forces in Malta – joins Armed Forces of Malta
1971 June. 22 Sir Maurice Dorman resigns from Gov. General to be replaced by Sir Anthony Mamo
1972 Mar. 26 Dom Mintoff and Lord Carrington sign Military Facilities agreement that grants Malta facilities to Britain until 1979
1974 Dec. 13 President of Malta – Sir Anthony Mamo – Malta becomes a Republic
1979 Mar. 31 Departure of last of the British Troops from Malta on H.M.S. London

You may also wish to read about MALTA in the 19th Century …plse click here:



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

Cremona J.J. The Maltese Constitution and Constitutional History Since 1813. PEG. 1994.

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

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

Hull Geoffrey, The Malta Language Question. Said International. 1993.

Laferla A.V., British Malta. Volumes I &  II, A. C. Aquilina & Co. 1938 / 1947.

Manduca John, The Bonham-Carter Diaries 1936 – 1940. PEG. 2004.

Sant Alfred, 28 Ta’ April 1958 – il-ħobż u l-ħelsien. Sensiela Kota Soċjalisti. 1988.

Sant Michael A., Sette Giugno 1919 – Tqanqil u Tibdil. Sensiela Kotba Soċjalisti. 1989.

Zarb-Dimech Anthony, Malta During the First World War 1914-1918. Veritas Press. 2004.

This book is available in paperback form or else on Kindle…

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 on 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.

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