Notes from a Visit to Malta

In Malta, “the hub of the Mediterranean,” the past is omnipresent in a physical sense, with remnants of ancient walls everywhere, sometimes with modern structures rising above them. Ubiquitous yellowish limestone, some of it sufficiently soft gives uniformity to the scene. On Gozo, Malta’s neighboring island, you can see stone hard enough to last for millennia at Neolithic Ggantija, a Stonehenge-like temple complex of staggering antiquity, predating Egypt’s pyramids. The islands are sufficiently small that one can glimpse the Mediterranean from any elevated spot.

The British took the island during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, and several years later would occupy another island, Singapore. The British liked to acquire islands; the nation may have lacked soldiers but it had ships in abundance to protect such strategic outposts of empire. Admiral Lord Nelson disliked the idea of a three week voyage from Britain to Malta but saw it as “a most important outwork to India . . . I hope we shall never give it up.” Malta would attract tourists who would follow him. Plaques on the walls of Valletta buildings today recall their sentiments. Poet Edward Lear says “No words can describe its magnificence,” and the novelist Sir Walter Scott would comment “The splendid town [is] quite like a dream.” Tourism today constitutes 30% of Malta’s economy.

Attack and defence are woven into the fabric of Malta’s history; its story is one of heroic resistance, to an onslaught of the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century and again to the aerial assault of the Axis powers during World War II. The British king awarded the George Cross to the Maltese people for their stalwart bravery. And today’s tourists are reminded that Fort St. Angelo “stood as a symbol of resistance in times of war and an irreplaceable icon in Malta’s history.” The fort ultimately would become the site of the final British evacuation in 1979.

Today’s Malta is ambitious and cares deeply about its culture. A massive construction at the City Gate housing a Parliament building and opera house designed by the renowned Renzo Piano is reaching conclusion. And every museum, it seems, has plans for expansion including the Maritime Museum, which is housed in a massive stone-floored early 19th century building that the Royal Navy used as a bakery. In its time it fed Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, turning out tons of ships’ biscuit, that staple of the sailor’s diet.

Highly urbanized, one Maltese town flows into another, a series of towns with no real metropolis, Valletta itself is small, easily walkable as long as you don’t mind steep hills. Malti is the language of common parlance but virtually everyone you encounter speaks English, yet without a British or American accent. I ask why. The reply is “our English teachers are all Italians.”

Singapore offers striking comparisons and contrasts to Malta. Singaporeans speak English with a British accent. Malta and Singapore each enjoy a fine harbor on a highly strategic sea route. Both were colonies of the British at almost exactly the same times, with the British era giving both islands links to a wider world through the empire. Both furnished important naval bases for Britain’s navy; both are now sovereign states. Malta is half the size of Singapore and with 400,000 people less than a tenth the population. In contrast to Malta, virtually nothing remains of Singapore’s shadowy early history, some seven hundred years ago. No monuments of the pre-British era exist there. Thus the two small nations offer the tourist a different experience. But that is not the big difference.

Smallness can be advantageous but it must achieve a critical mass, which Singapore has and Malta lacks. In an increasingly urbanizing world, Singapore can aspire to be a global city participating in the settling of policy issues. Its population is sufficiently large to have the human capital, the levels of business activity and information exchange, as well as the international presence to realize that ambition. Malta, despite its fascinating history and great charms, especially for a maritime historian like me, lacks those requisites.

jcp May 2013


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