Knights of Malta

Knights of Malta

Malta, Knights of: see Knights Hospitalers.
Knights of Malta and Knights of Rhodes: see Knights Hospitalers.
Malta has been inhabited since around 5200 BC from the Italian island of Sicily. Later came the arrival of the Phoenicians and the Greeks who named the island Μελίτη (Melite) meaning "honey sweet".

Abbreviated Timeline

*(debatable 870-1049: According to a document by a Medieval historian, Al-Himjari, found recently these new conquerors ransacked the island, took every person as a slave or prisoner and the island was not inhabited until 1049 (this is subject to debate since there is no other document, not even from the conquerers, that supports Al-Himjari's allegations; however some historians claim that they find no reason why the Medieval historian should provide inaccurate or false documentations).


Malta stands on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily. At some time in the distant past Malta was submerged, as shown by marine fossils embedded in rock in the highest points of Malta. As the ridge was pushed up and the straits of Gibraltar closed through tectonic activity, the sea level was lower, and Malta was on a bridge of dry land that extended between the two continents, surrounded by large lakes. Some caverns in Malta have revealed bones of elephants, hippopotami, and other large animals now found in Africa, while others have revealed animals native to Europe.


Man first arrived in Malta around 5200 BC. These first Neolithic people probably arrived from Sicily (about 100 kilometres/60 miles north), and were mainly farming and fishing communities, with some evidence of hunting activities. They apparently lived in caves and open dwellings. During the centuries that followed there is evidence of further contacts with other cultures, which left their influence on the local communities, evidenced by their pottery designs and colours.

One of the most notable periods of Malta's history is the temple period, starting around 3600 BC. The Ggantia Prehistoric Temple in Gozo are the oldest free-standing buildings in the world (photo). Many of the temples are in the form of five semicircular rooms connected at the centre. It has been suggested that these might have represented the head, arms and legs of a deity, since one of the commonest kinds of statue found in these temples is a fat woman — a symbol of fertility. The Temple period lasted until about 2500 BC, at which point the civilization that raised these huge monoliths seems to have disappeared. There is much speculation about what might have happened and whether they were completely wiped out or assimilated.

After the Temple period came the Bronze Age. From this period there remains of a number of settlements and villages, as well as dolmens — altar-like structures made out of very large slabs of stone. One surviving menhir, which was used to build temples, still stands at Kirkop; it is one of the few still in good condition. Among the most interesting and mysterious remnants of this era are the so-called cart ruts as they can be seen at a place on Malta called Clapham Junction. These are pairs of parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock, and extending for considerable distances, often in an exactly straight line. Their exact use is unknown. One suggestion is that beasts of burden used to pull carts along, and these channels would guide the carts and prevent the animals from straying.

Phoenicians and Greeks

The society that built these structures eventually died out or at any rate disappeared. Phoenicians from Tyre colonized the islands around 1000 BC, using them as an outpost from which they expanded sea explorations and trade in the Mediterranean.

In the late 8th century BC, a Greek colony called Melite (from the Doric Greek word for "honeybee") was founded on the main island.

Carthage and Rome

The islands later came under the control of Carthage (400 BC) and then of Rome (218 BC). The islands prospered under Roman rule, during which time they were considered a Municipium and a Foederata Civitas. Many Roman antiquities still exist, testifying to the close link between the Maltese inhabitants and the people of Rome. In AD 60, the islands were visited by Saint Paul, who is said to have been shipwrecked on the shores of the aptly-named "Saint Paul's Bay". Studies of the currents and prevalent winds at the time however, render it more likely that the shipwreck occurred in or around St. Thomas Bay in Marsaskala.

In 440 the island was captured by the Vandals, which had recently occupied the Roman province of Africa. It was recovered by the east Roman general Belisarius in 533, along with the other Vandal possessions, and remained a part of the east Roman province of Sicily for the next 340 years.

Arab Period

Malta was occupied by the Sicilian Arabs who were Aghlabids from Kairouan in Tunisia in AD 870. The following 220 years of Arab rule was influential on the existing civilization. The Arabs introduced cotton, oranges and lemons and many new techniques in irrigation, some of which like the noria, or waterwheel are still used, unchanged, today. Many placenames in Malta also date to this period. The city of Mdina, extensively modified in this period, also bears resemblance to towns found in the North of Africa.

Middle ages

In 1091, count Roger I of Sicily, made an initial attempt to establish Norman rule of Malta. In 1127, his son Roger II of Sicily succeeded. This marked the gradual change from an Arab cultural influence to a European one. In 1191, Tancred of Sicily appointed Margaritus of Brindisi the first Count of Malta.

Until the 13th century, however, there remained a strong Muslim segment of society. Malta was an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Angevin, Aragon, Castile, and Spain. Eventually Aragon, who then ruled Malta, joined with Castile in 1479, and Malta became part of the Spanish Empire.

Malta's administration thus fell in the hands of the local nobility, mostly of Sicilian and Spanish origins, who formed a governing body called the Università.

Knights of St. John

In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire started spreading over the region, reaching South-East Europe. The Spanish king Charles V feared that if Rome fell to the Turks, it would be the end of Christian Europe. In 1522, Suleiman II drove the Knight Hospitallers of St. John out of Rhodes. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe. Wanting to protect Rome from invasion from the South, in 1530, Charles V handed over the island to these Knights.

For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.

The order of the Knights of St. John was originally established to set up outposts along the route to the Holy Land, to assist pilgrims going in either direction. Owing to the many confrontations that took place, one of their main tasks was to provide medical assistance, and even today the eight-pointed cross is still in wide use in ambulances and first aid organisations. In return for the many lives they saved, the Order received many newly conquered territories that had to be defended. Together with the need to defend the pilgrims in their care, this gave rise to the strong military wing of the Knights. Over time, the Order became strong and rich. From hospitallers first and military second, these priorities reversed. Since much of the territory they covered was around the Mediterranean region, they became notable seamen.

  • The Maltese Cross: Technically, this is the cross of the Knights of St John, but the name "Maltese Cross" stuck. It was not used by the order from its inception. Initially a Greek cross with V-shaped ends, the traditional shape with four arrowheads touching at their tips first appears when the Knights were in Malta.

The Great Siege

After several retreats and defeats, including the loss of their last stronghold in Rhodes (at Turkey's doorstep) the Order was offered the island of Malta. From here they resumed their seaborne attacks of Ottoman shipping, and before long the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent ordered a final attack on the Order. By this time the Knights had occupied the city of Birgu, which had excellent harbours to house their fleet. Also Birgu was one of the two major urban places at that time, the other most urban place being Mdina the old capital city of Malta. The defences around Birgu were enhanced and new fortifications built on the other point where now there is Senglea. Also a small fort was built at the tip of the peninsula where now stands the city of Valletta and was named Fort St. Elmo.

On May 18, 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. By the time the Ottoman fleet arrived the Knights were as ready as they could be. First the Ottomans attacked the newly built fort of St. Elmo and after a whole month of fighting the fort was in rubble and the soldiers kept fighting till the Turks ended their lives. After this they started attacking Birgu and the fortifications at Senglea but to no gain.

After a protracted siege ended on September 8 of the same year, which became known in history as "the Great Siege", the Ottoman Empire conceded defeat as the approaching winter storms threatened to prevent them from leaving. The Ottoman empire had expected an easy victory within weeks. They had 40,000 men arrayed against the Knights' nine thousand, most of them Maltese soldiers and simple citizens bearing arms. Their loss of thousands of men was very demoralising. The Ottomans made no further significant military advances in Europe and the Sultan died a few years later.

After the siege

The year after, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other, on a peninsula called Gholja Sciberras which the Ottomans had used as a base during the siege. It was named Valletta after Jean Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test, and today remain one of the best-preserved fortifications of this period.

Unlike other rulers of the island, the Order of St. John did not have a "home country" outside the island. The island became their home, so they invested in it more heavily than any other power. Besides, its members came from noble families, and had amassed considerable fortune due to their services in the route to the Holy Land. The architectural and artistic remains of this period remain among the greatest of Malta's history, especially in their "prize jewel" — the city of Valletta.

However, as their main raison d'être had ceased to exist, the Order's glory days were over.

French conquest

Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; their reign ended when Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet arrived in 1798, en route to his expedition of Egypt. Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and when they refused to supply him with water, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a division to scale the hills of Valletta. Grand Master Hompesch capitulated, and Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days during which he systematically looted the moveable assets of the Order and established an administration controlled by his nominees; however, Napoleon also established a liberal law system based on that of the French Revolution in place of the archaic and feudal system in place, and freed 2000 Muslim slaves kept on the island. He then sailed for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta. Since the Order had also been growing unpopular with the local Maltese, the latter initially viewed the French with optimism. This illusion did not last long. Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French garrison of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the locals to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered.

British rule

In 1800, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, 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.

Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British especially after the opening of the Suez canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. Home rule was refused to the Maltese until 1921 although a partly elected legislative council was created as early as 1849, and the locals sometimes suffered considerable poverty.{Attard P.76}

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{Luke ChVIII} which were generally resisted by the Church and the Maltese elite who preferred to cling to their feudal privileges.{Attard P.64:Luke P.107}

In 1919, there were riots over the excessive price of bread. These would lead to greater autonomy for the locals. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly. The Constitution was often suspended, however, in order that good governance could continue despite interference in politics by the Church{Attard P.128:Luke.P197} and the reluctance of the Italian-speaking elite to allow the Maltese speaking majority to freely use their own language.{LukeP.111}

Language issue

Before the arrival of the British, the language of the educated elite had been Italian, but this was increasingly downgraded by the increased use of English. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages.

In 1934, only about 15% of the population could speak Italian.{Luke P.113} This meant that out of 58,000 males qualified by age to be jurors, only 767 could qualify by language, as only Italian had till then been used in the courts.{Luke P.113} This injustice carried more weight than concerns over Fascism.

World War II

Before World War II, Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet's headquarters. However, despite Winston Churchill's objections, the command was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, early in the war.[Elliot] At the time of the Italian declaration of war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than four thousand soldiers and about five weeks' of food supplies for the population of about three hundred thousand. In addition, Malta's air defences consisted of about forty-two anti-aircraft guns (thirty-four "heavy" and eight "light") and four Gloster Gladiators, for which three pilots were available.

Being a British colony, situated close to Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italian and German air forces. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic.

The first air raids against Malta occurred on 11 June 1940; there were six attacks that day. The island's biplanes were unable to defend due to the Luqa Airfield being unfinished; however, the airfield was ready by the seventh attack. Initially, the Italians would fly at about 5,500 m, then they dropped down to three thousand metres (in order to improve the accuracy of their bombs). Major Paine stated, "[After they dropped down], we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at [six thousand metres]. Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate." Mabel Strickland would state, "The Italians decided they didn't like [the Gladiators and AA guns], so they dropped their bombs [thirty kilometres] off Malta and went back."

By the end of August, the Gladiators were reinforced by twelve Hawker Hurricanes which had arrived via HMS Argus. During the first five months of combat, the island's aircraft destroyed or damaged about thirty-seven Italian aircraft. Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera observed, "Malta was really a big problem for us—very well-defended." On Malta, 330 people had been killed and 297 were seriously wounded. In January 1941, the German Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily as the Afrika Korps arrived in Libya.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness."

Attempted integration with the United Kingdom

After the war, the islands were given self-rule, with the Maltese Labour Party (MLP) of Dom Mintoff favouring closer integration with the United Kingdom, and the Nationalist Party (PN) of Dr. George Borg Olivier favouring further independence.

In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.

Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands' main source of employment. Although this received large support in a referendum on 14 February 1956, a boycott by the PN and the Roman Catholic Church meant that the result was inconclusive.

In addition, the decreasing strategic importance of Malta to the Royal Navy meant that the British government was increasingly reluctant to maintain the naval dockyards. Following a decision by the Admiralty to dismiss 40 workers at the dockyard, Mintoff declared that "representatives of the Maltese people in Parliament declare that they are no longer bound by agreements and obligations toward the British government..." In response, the Colonial Secretary sent a cable to Mintoff, stating that he had "recklessly hazarded" the whole integration plan. This led to the islands being placed under direct rule from London, with the MLP abandoning support for integration and now advocating independence.

While France had implemented a similar policy in its colonies, some of which became overseas departments, the status offered to Malta from Britain constituted a unique exception. Malta was the only British colony where integration with the UK was seriously considered, and subsequent British governments have ruled out integration for remaining overseas territories, such as Gibraltar.


On 21 September 1964, Malta became an independent state. This is celebrated as Independence Day or Jum l-Indipendenza in Maltese. Malta remained in the Commonwealth and recognised the Queen as head of state. The British kept under their control some utilities and sizeable parts of Malta. The Maltese pound - renamed the Maltese lira (LM) - ended its link with the pound sterling later on in the 1970s. Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister again in 1971 and moved towards loosening ties with the United Kingdom and pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy, establishing close ties with Libya. Malta became a republic on December 13, 1974, with the last Governor-General, Sir Anthony Mamo, as its first President. In 1979 the last British forces left the island.

The controversial 1981 general election saw the PN gain an absolute majority vote, yet also the MLP win a majority of Parliamentary seats. Mintoff remained Prime Minister, and the PN , led by Eddie Fenech Adami, went through a tough campaign for a change in constitution to reflect democratic majority. Mintoff resigned from Prime Minister in 1984, when Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici took over the seat. Once again, the PN achieved majority for the 1987 general election, and due to constitutional changes effected in order to ensure the 1981 situation would not repeat itself, the PN took Government. The PN sought to improve Malta's ties with Western Europe and the United States.

EU membership

The PN, fronted by its leader Fenech Adami, together with vice-leader Guido deMarco, advocated Malta's membership in the European Union (EU).

This became a divisive issue, with Labour being opposed. Labour won the 1996 general election, and Labour's Alfred Sant, now Prime Minister, froze Malta's application for EU membership. However, in 1998 the Labour Government was forced to call early elections, after an internal land-lease controversy with former Labour PM and leader, Dom Mintoff. The PN won the 1998 election, and reactivated the application for EU membership. A referendum on EU membership in 2003 saw a majority of over 19,000 votes in favour of membership from 91% of those who had right to vote.

Labour stated that it would not be bound by the result were it returned to power in the forthcoming general election that year. However, the PN won absolute majority again, and Malta joined the EU in May 2004. In January 2008, Malta adopted the Euro; two months later, the PN won a third straight victory.

See also

External links


  • Stephenson, Charles. The Fortifications of Malta 1530-1945. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2004.
  • Attard, Joseph. Britain and Malta. Malta: PEG Ltd.1988.
  • Luke, Sir Harry. Malta - An Account and an Appreciation. Great Britain: Harrap, 1949.
  • Elliot, Peter. The Cross and the Ensign. Great Britain. Patrick Stephens. 1980.

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