From 1530 to 1798, Malta had been ruled by the Order of Saint John. The Order was ousted during the War of the Second Coalition and Malta was occupied by Napoleon. The Maltese rebelled after a couple of months of French rule and asked Britain for help.
Eventually, the French capitulated in 1800 and Malta voluntarily became a British protectorate. Britain was then supposed to evacuate the island according to the terms of the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, but failed to keep this obligation – one of several mutual cases of non-adherence to the treaty, which eventually led to its collapse and the resumption of war between Britain and France a year later. Read more
Malta became a Crown Colony on 23 July 1813, when Sir Thomas Maitland was appointed as Governor of Malta. That year, Malta was granted the Bathurst Constitution. Malta’s status as a Crown Colony was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1814, which was itself reaffirmed by the Congress of Vienna of 1815.
The plague broke out in Malta in March 1813, when a British merchant ship infected with the disease arrived from Alexandria. The disease began to spread especially in Valletta and the Grand Harbour area, and when Governor Maitland arrived, stricter quarantine measures were enforced. The plague spread to Gozo by January 1814, but the islands were free of the disease by March of that year. Overall, 4,486 people were killed which amounted to 4% of the total population.
After the eradication of the plague, Maitland made several reforms. He was autocratic since he refused to form an advisory council made up of Maltese representatives, and so he was informally known as “King Tom”. He formed the Malta Police Force in 1814, while the local Italian-speaking Università was dissolved in 1819. Various reforms were undertaken in taxation and the law courts as well. Maitland remained Governor until his death on 17 January 1824.
19th and early 20th centuries (1824–1914)
In 1825, the Maltese scudo and the other circulating currencies at the time were officially replaced by the pound sterling. Despite this, scudi and other foreign coinage continued to circulate in limited amounts, and the last scudi were withdrawn over 60 years later in October and November 1886.
During the Greek War of Independence, Malta became an important base for British, French and Russian naval forces, especially after the Battle of Navarino of 1827. The local economy improved and there was a boom in business, but shortly after the war ended in 1832 there was an economic decline.
The year 1828 saw the revocation of the right of sanctuary, following the Vatican Church-State proclamation. Three years later, the See of Malta was made independent of the See of Palermo. In 1839, press censorship was abolished, and the construction of the Anglican St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral began.
Following the 1846 Carnival riots, in 1849 a Council of Government with elected members under British rule was set up. In 1870 a referendum was held on ecclesiastics serving on Council of Government, and in 1881 an Executive Council under British rule was created; in 1887, the Council of Government was entrusted with “dual control” under British rule. In 1878 a Royal Commission (the Rowsell-Julyan-Keenan Commission) recommended in its report the Anglicisation of the educational and judicial systems. A backlash came in 1903, with the Return to the 1849 form of Council of Government under British rule.
Despite this, home rule was refused to the Maltese until 1921, and the locals sometimes suffered considerable poverty. This was due to the island being overpopulated and largely dependent on British military expenditure which varied with the demands of war. Throughout the 19th century, the British administration instituted several liberal constitutional reforms which were generally resisted by the Church and the Maltese elite who preferred to cling to their feudal privileges. Political organisations, like the Nationalist Party, were created to protect the Italian language in Malta.
The last quarter of the century saw technical and financial progress in line with the Belle Epoque: the following years saw the foundation of the Anglo-Egyptian Bank (1882) and the beginning of operation of the Malta Railway (1883); the first definitive postage stamps were issued in 1885, and in 1904 tram service begun. In 1886 Surgeon Major David Bruce discovered the microbe causing the Malta Fever, and in 1905 Themistocles Zammit discovered the fever’s sources. Finally, in 1912, Dun Karm Psaila wrote his first poem in Maltese.
World War I and the Interwar period (1914–1940)
During World War I, Malta became known as the Nurse of the Mediterranean due to the number of wounded soldiers who came to be treated.
In 1919, the Sette Giugno riots over the excessive price of bread led to greater autonomy for the locals during the 1920s. After Filippo Sciberras had convened a National Assembly, in 1921 self-government was granted under British rule. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (later abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly. Joseph Howard was named Prime Minister. In 1923 the Innu Malti was played for the first time in public, and the same year Francesco Buhagiar became Prime Minister, followed in 1924 by Sir Ugo Pasquale Mifsud and in 1927 by Sir Gerald Strickland.
The 1930s saw a period of instability in the relations between the Maltese political elite, the Maltese church, and the British rulers; the 1921 Constitution was suspended twice. First in 1930–32, following a clash between the governing Constitutional Party and Church and the latter’s subsequent imposition of mortal sin on voters of the party and its allies, thus making a free and fair election impossible. Again, in 1933 the Constitution was withdrawn over the Government’s budgetary vote for the teaching of Italian in elementary schools. Malta thus reverted to the Crown Colony status it held in 1813.
Before the arrival of the British, the official language for hundreds of years, and the one of the educated elite, had been Italian, but this was downgraded by the increased use of English. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages. That year only about 15% of the population could speak Italian fluently. This meant that out of 58,000 males qualified by age to be jurors, only 767 could qualify by language, as only Italian had until then been used in the courts.
In 1936 the Constitution was revised to provide for the nomination of members to Executive Council under British rule, and in 1939 to provide again for an elected Council of Government under British rule.
British History Tour Details
This tour is dedicated to Malta’s British history. During the tour we will discuss why the British came to Malta, what happened and why they left.
After pickup the tour will begin in Vittoriosa where we will see the fortifications which date back to the times of the Knights, and were later used by the British for their defensive purpose.
We will visit the maze like, underground Air Raid shelters and relive the conditions of what has been referred to as the Second Great Siege of Malta. These subterranean bomb shelters were excavated in the solid rock and were extended as the war progressed.
After a short walk of Vittoriosa we will drive to Valletta by bus. We will walk to the upper Barrakka Garden which enjoys a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour (the largest natural harbour of the Mediterranean Sea), which was a British military base and the main reason why Malta came under fire as soon as Mussolini declared war on the Allied forces.
A walk around the streets of Valletta will take us by the Palace which was used by Napoleon Bonaparte, the second world war Victory (Soup) Kitchen, Queen Victoria’s statue and the ruins of the Royal Opera House which was destroyed at the peak of the bombings in Malta.
After some free time for a lunch break we will walk to the lower level of Valletta to the Malta War Museum. The museum itself is situated at Fort St. Elmo, an original defensive system built by the Knights which also was modified to serve the British military purpose. Among the numerous exhibits are the fuselage of one of the legendary Gloster Gladiators and well as the E-boat (human torpedo).
Back to: British Malta War Tour
British Heritage Visible Today
When we think of historical buildings in Malta, we tend to think first of the defences and architecture bequeathed us by the Knights of St John. But the British era left a significant mark too – sometimes altering or adding on to the work of the Knights, but also developing afresh.
The colonial housing and barracks at Pembroke, the Garrison Church (now the Stock Exchange), in Valletta and the elegant Chamber of Commerce building in lower Republic Street, also in the capital, are examples of notable British architecture – practical but nonetheless with architectural merit. Tigne’ Point has incorporated the arcaded barracks into its development near the Point shopping centre, and you can easily spot Victorian influence in the massive, gothic-style building near Balluta Bay, and in the house on Mdina’s main cathedral square. Read more
The British took over the Maltese islands as a protectorate in 1800, and later as a colony in 1813. They initially used the Hospitaller fortifications without any alterations. Under the military theory of the time, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was regarded as the most reliable protection against invasion, and in fact the British Civil Commissioner, Henry Pigot, wanted to demolish the majority of Valletta’s fortifications in 1801, although this was never done.
During the British period, the various forts of the Order were rearmed, refitted and altered a number of times to keep up with the latest military technology. Read more