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A Part of Empire

The Maltese Islands have a long and fascinating history and indeed pre-history. But what mattered to the British in the early nineteenth century was the main island's strategic value — though even that was hardly apparent at first. Napoleon had easily captured Malta from the Knights of the Order of St John in 1798, and, having been approached by the Maltese for help, the British sent in warships and troops to assist in a blockade of the Grand Harbour.

Left: The Grand Harbour, which the British fleet blockaded in 1798. William Scamp extended it by about 90 acres of water space from 1860. Right: The Portes des Bombes, Floriana, doubled by Colonel E. W. Durnford in 1868 "for the greater convenience of the people."

When the French surrendered in Gozo, the second largest island, it was the Sicilian flag, rather than the British, that flew from the ramparts, because nominally the Order had held Malta in fief from the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies" (Naples and Sicily). The final surrender of the French took place in 1800, the armistice being signed near the Portes des Bombes, Floriana. The British and the Maltese celebrated their victory in the Auberge de Castille, the Grand Master's flamboyantly baroque eighteenth-century palace. The British were then ready to move on: by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, Malta was to be returned to a reformed Order, under Sicilian protection. However, while the British were there trade had begun to recover after the blockade, and the people "had become accustomed to British protection " (Grech 28). A deputation was sent to George III, and eventually, by the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Malta became a British Crown colony. By now the British were very well aware of Malta's value as a military and naval base.

Left: "The Main Guard in Palace Square, Valletta; the portico was added by the British in 1814. Right: Close-up of the royal coat of arms over the portico of the Main Guard: the inscription records the granting of Malta to Britain by the desire of the Maltese, and with the consent of Europe.

Left: St John's Bastion by the City Gate, leading round eventually to more bastions and the high, stout curtain wall protecting Valletta: "such vast masses, bulky mountain-breasted heights" (Coleridge's Collected Letters, 2: 600). Right: The picturesque aspect of Malta: a long climb up from the waterfront (note the balconies above the left side of the steps, a particular feature of traditional Maltese homes).

Early Visitors

Left to right: (a) The Lazzaretto where Disraeli and Sir Walter Scott were both quarantined. (b) The baroque façade of the Auberge de Castille, extensively reconstructed 1741-45, and used as the British Army HQ after 1800 (it is now the Prime Minister's office).

Malta now became a place for the British to visit, especially for its warm climate. The first visitors were quite amazed by what they found. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, having accepted a friend's invitation, went out for health reasons in 1804. He found the heavy fortifications, steep and uneven grid-patterned roads, long flights of steps and flat-roofed houses all quite extraordinary. The natural environment too was totally unfamiliar, leading him to remark later upon the "noiseless dews of Malta, where rain comes seldom and no regular streams are to be met with" (Letters 7). Nevertheless, he came to understand the place, and stayed several years, becoming Private and then Public Secretary to Captain Alexander Ball, Britain's first governor there. The poet praised Ball highly as "the abstract Idea of a wise & good Governor," but was to confide that the machinery of colonial government was "awkward & wicked" (Collected Letters 2: 668,1178 ). He appears to have taken little interest in Valletta's richly baroque architectural heritage (see Ashton 228). He returned in 1807 no better in health, and now firmly addicted to opium. Another early visitor was Lord Byron, who found Malta a useful staging-post on his travels, visiting it in 1809 and 1811, and describing it once as his "perpetual post-office, from which my letters are forwarded to all habitable parts of the globe" (Moore 180). He stayed there long enough to have a brief flirtation with the wife of a minister at Constantinople (the woman who inspired Florence in Childe Harold [Nichol 56]), and nearly had a duel with an officer over some trivial misunderstanding. Valletta had already become a garrison town with a colourful colonial ambience. But those endless stone steps were a particular problem for Byron, and, unfortunately, he fell ill with a fever there on his way home.

Left to right: (a) An example of the "richly baroque" churches encountered by the British visitors: St Lawrence in Vittoriosa, from Dockyard Creek, by Lorenzo Gafa (1638-1704) — the most noted and probably most prolific of Malta's church architects under the Knights. (b) View of the former capital, Mdina. Its great domed cathedral of 1703 was Gafa's masterpiece.

Left: The baroque interior of St John's Co-Cathedral, described by Scott as "magnificent." Right: The arcaded walk of the Lower Barracca Gardens, Valletta, where Sir Alexander Ball is commemorated in a little neo-classical temple, restored in 1884. The much newer monument visible beside the garden is the Siege Bell. This commemorates not the Great Siege that so fascinated Scott, but what became known as the Second Siege of Malta during World War II; it also commemorates the award of the George Cross to "Fortress Malta" for its heroism then. Note the repairs to St Lazarus's curtain wall at the right.

In the 1830s, two other important visitors were much more responsive to the new Crown Colony. One was a young Benjamin Disraeli, who was there in the summer of 1830. He was thrilled by Valletta: "The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets, that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz" (61), he enthused. In the following year, the older and ailing Sir Walter Scott went even further, seeing Malta as "an island, or rather a city, like no other in the world." Like Disraeli, on first arriving he was quarantined at the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island, a building he described as "spacious and splendid, but not comfortable; the rooms connected with one another by an arcade, into which they all open, and which form a delightful walk." Once allowed into Valletta, Scott thought the place "a splendid town," relishing the irregularity and variety of its gradients, and the "singularity of the various buildings, leaning on each other in such a bold, picturesque, and uncommon manner" — he said that it gave him ideas for finishing Abbotsford with a screen and a "fanciful wall decorated with towers." Perhaps because he was less anti-Catholic than Coleridge, he responded to the town's splendours as readily as Disraeli, greatly admiring the rich interior of St John's Co-Cathedral, which he described as "by far the most magnificent place I ever saw in my life" (565-8). A great ball was thrown in his honour, with about four hundred guests — mostly British officers and officials, he recalled, but including attractive Maltese women as well. He was taken around the island to see all the places of interest, which would surely have included the former capital of Mdina, on which the Knights of St John had lavished their resources in the early eighteenth century. Fascinated by the history of the Order, Scott wrote The Siege of Malta, one of his two last, long-unpublished works, about that key event in earlier Maltese history.

Such visitors would only have met the élite of Maltese society. Towards the end of their stewardship, the Knights had become corrupt and impoverished (see Hough and Davis 56). During the blockade, the French had done more damage to the economy, looting and plundering the palaces, churches and other grand buildings, and breaking up Maltese ships for firewood. The picturesquely crowded houses that drew Scott's eye were often crowded inside too, with people living several to a room. Other people, poorer still, would have toiled up the endless stone steps that bothered Byron, to beg in the main streets of the city. Beggars were a common sight everywhere. In the mid-1830s, for example, "there were as many as 2,500 beggars reported in the villages alone" (Mallia-Milanes 181n.). Along with its strategic position, its baroque and natural wonders, its fascinating history and its potential for a lively colonial life-style, Malta presented its new government with many challenges. Would the machinery of government prove as "awkward & wicked" as Coleridge supposed? What kind of legacy would the Victorians leave this "fortress island"?

Links to related material


Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters, Vol. 2 (1801-6). Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.

_____. Letters, Conversations, and Recollections. Ed. James Allsop. 2nd ed. London: Groombrige & Son, 1858.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Home Letters Written by the Late Earl of Beaconsfield in 1830 and 1831. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004.

Grech, Jesmond. British Heritage in Malta. Sesto Florentino (Fi): Centro Stampa Editoriale (Plurigraf), 2003.

Hough, Barry, and Howard Davis. Coleridge's Laws: A Study of Coleridge in Malta. Cambridge: Open Book, 2010.

Mallia-Milanes, Victor. The British Colonial Experience, 1800-1964: The Impact on Maltese Society. Msida, Malta: Mireva, 1988.

Moore, Thomas, ed. Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of His Life. Vol. 1. New York: Harper, 1830.

Nichol, John. Byron. New York & London: Harper, 1899.

Scott, Sir Walter. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott: From the Original Manuscript at Abbotsford. Vol. 2. New York: Harper, 1891.

Created 23 March 2010

Last modified 14 July 2022