Malta: A Long (very long) History

Malta

If you are not a history buff, you may want to skip this blog as it outlines Malta’s very long history. But if you are game, read on.

Malta is a tiny archipelago of a country (122 square miles, 450,000 citizens) with a long, huge and extraordinarily eventful history.

Sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean, in the path between the Dardanelles to the east and Gibraltar to the west, and between Western Europe on the north and North Africa and the Suez Canal on the south, it was in the middle of ancient exploration and trading routes and a strategic naval and military base that every regional power and aspiring power wanted to control.

Given this vulnerability, it is not surprising that its historic cities including Mdina, Vittoiosa,Senglea and the relatively recently founded (only 450 years ago) capital city of Valletta are all walled cities that are crammed with thick-walled limestone buildings and deep basements, catacombs and tunnels in which to seek protection in case of bombardment.

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Malta at War, Again and Again and Again

A film in Valletta, Malta’s capital and largest city, provided an introductory view of the context, if not a complete view of the nation’s turbulent history. According to the somewhat more complete history in Wikipedia, and a detailed history from the War Museum at Fort St. Elmo we pulled together a rough timeline of the events outlined in the film, “The Malta Experience”. Consider, for example, that Malta was generally:

  • Founded about 5,200 BC by Neolithic Sicilian fishermen and farmers, as evidenced by caves and pottery shards, built some of the largest stone temples in the world (about 3,600 BC), and created a massive, 7,000-body, Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, underground, stone ceremonial chamber and burial temple (about 3,500 BC). The civilization did, however, eventually collapse (presumably due to drought);
  • Visited and became home to small settlements of Greeks and Carthaginians over the next thousand or so years;
  • Settled by the Phoenicians as a mining center (tin, lead and silver), source of timber and trading port during the bronze age (from about 750 BC);
  • Fell to the Carthaginians (around 500 BC) and emerged as an important trading center between Italy and Northern Africa;
  • Raided by the Roman Empire in 255 BC and eventually surrendered to and taken over by the Romans in 218 BC, who particularly used the harbors of the island of Gozo as a trading center and gradually developed a skilled and very lucrative weaving trade;
  • Became a refuge site for St. Paul in 60 AD, when the ship he was taking to Rome went down in a storm. His being viewed as a God (after suffering no effects from a normally poisonous snake bite) led to the fervent adoption of Christianity in the islands by 300 AD;
  • Integrated into the Byzantine Empire in 535 AD who expanded its role in shipping and strengthened the islands’ defenses against growing threats from Arabs;
  • Captured by North African Muslims in 870 AD after a long siege which led to a massacre, looting and destruction of established cities. The islands remained largely uninhabited until resettled by Arabs in 1048.
  • Sieged by the Byzantines in 1053, but held by the Arabs who introduced new crops and irrigation techniques;
  • Conquered by the Normans, who brought Christianity back to the islands and established it under Sicilian rule from 1127 to about 1567. (Although during this period, the islands were sold and resold to numerous lords, one of whom aligned with, and brought Malta under control of the Spanish Empire;

Are you still following all of this? But wait, there’s more. Then, as explained in a comprehensive set of War Museum displays, the Ottomans began capturing more and more territory through the 15th and mid 16th centuries, by which time they had captured Constantinople, Egypt, Rhodes and Eastern Europe, where, by 1530, they had reached to just outside of Vienna. It was at this time that Malta, with its strategic Mediterranean location became a key player in the war between Christianity and Islam. As discussed below, the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a renowned company of knights from the Crusades, had established a base in Rhodes. When they were forced to leave:

  • Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor granted the Order the sovereign right to the islands of Malta in return for a tribute of one falcon per year (plus other consideration) in 1530;
  • The Ottomans, recognizing the needs to control Malta, captured the Maltan island of Gozo in 1551 (enslaving about 6,000 residents) and made a threatening incursion into the harbor of the main island, which prompted the Order, now in control of the islands, to build new forts and strengthen defenses.
  • In 1565, the Ottomans laid siege to Valletta’s recently constructed Fort St. Elmo with ships, cannons and a force of 40,000 men against St. Elmo’s force of only 600 knights and 1,800 militia. While Fort Elmo was eventually lost, it took the Ottomans 28 days at a cost of 6,000 men (compared with 1,500 defenders. By holding out this long, however, the defenders provided enough time for the island’s other forts to enhance their defenses and supplies, allowed reinforcements to arrive from Sicily and prompted Europe to invest much more heavily in supporting Malta and its defenses. They also imposed a blockade on Fort Elmo (preventing reinforcements and supplies to get through. About the same time, the Christians navies won a number of important battles, destroying much of the Ottomans’ capabilities and forcing them permanently relinquish territory.

Malta survived this attack and the Order, supported by additional European investments, ruled the country for more than 200 years (see below). The Order, which operated under the control of a succession of Grand Masters and a patronage system that favored nobles, knights and the clergy, used their two-plus centuries of peace and prosperity to deliver a number of benefits to the country and its people. They, for example, began to tax merchants and corsairs (effectively government-sanctioned pirates) and invested many of the proceeds in churches, schools, hospitals, infrastructure (such as the Wignacourt viaduct) and public buildings. They were also patrons of the arts, supporting and granting commissions to notable Italian Baroque artists like Caravaggio and architects such as Cassar.

But, while the island survived the Ottoman threat, its strategic location was enough to guarantee that it would not live peacefully ever after.

  • In 1798, Napoleon blockaded Malta and forced the then Grand Master to surrender. He garrisoned the island with 4,000 troops and began instituting many long overdue reforms. He, for example, abolished feudal rights and Malta’s strict caste system, freed the slaves, created a new legal framework and the island’s first republican government and funded schools, hospitals (especially to treat France’s huge numbers of war-injured soldiers), and the nation’s first science university. He, however, also seized much of the island’s (especially the church’s) wealth to fund his military adventures and ended up losing support of the public, which ended up staging protests and an unsuccessful revolt against French rule.
  • By 1800, the French were on the defensive, both in Malta and in military campaigns. British Admiral Lord Nelson capitalized ion this weakness to intercept and destroy part of the French fleet that was sailing to Malta, blockaded the French fortresses and literally starved the French into submission. By 1802, the Maltese people voted in favor of British rule. Britain used Malta to stage campaigns in the Crimean War and as a transit base between India and England (via the Suez Canal).
  • During WWI, Malta, which had 27 hospitals and more than 20,000 beds (largely attributable to investments by both the Order and the French) became the “Nurse of the Mediterranean, treating not just British, but all Allied wounded—a total of more than 120,000 men throughout the war.
  • In WWII, it again became a target, this time of the Germans and the Italians. While both Britain and France initially defended the island, France was knocked out of the war and Britain was so focused on its own survival that it could spare little help for Malta. Malta not only took growing responsibility for its own defense, but also used its Navy to disrupt Axis shipping, thereby jeopardizing German General Rommel’s North African efforts. While Germany and Italy planned to attack Malta, they were forced to suspend the plan in favor of trying to secure North Africa. By the spring of 1942, however, German and Italians had launched a massive bombing campaign against Malta, undergoing up to 5,000 raids per month that damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 buildings. But due to the country’s extensive network of tunnels and catacombs, relatively few civilians were killed. Its final trial of the war came in the summer of 1942 when, almost out of food and supplies, a small fragment (four of a total of about 20 ships including the critical USS Ohio) of a massive US/UK supply convoy managed to get through intensive German air attacks and rescue Malta. With the island secured, the Allies were able to cut German Mediterranean supply lines, defeat its North African forces and then use Malta as a base for planning and launching Operation Husky, a 2,700-ship attack on Sicily. This was the first critical step toward defeating Italy.
  • After the war, Malta gained self-rule and extensive rebuilding funds, including 30 million pounds from a very grateful England. It gained its independence in 1964, became a republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in 2004.

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