Malta: A Traveller’s Anthology, edited by Deborah Manley.
Oxford, Signal Books, 2010. Pb, 256 pp, ISBN 1 904955 70 3. £12.99.
This tour de force by Deborah Manley is a treat for those of us with a lively interest in Malta but with still a lot to learn about its history and its cultural life. A judiciously picked selection from no less than eighty-one different visitors or residents, as well as respected local authors, provides a varied and extensive account. The author’s appreciation of the islands, and her keen observations from her own short visits, make this a particularly pleasurable anthology.
There are few quotable sources for the early history of the archipelago—Malta, Gozo and a couple of smaller islands. The story comes to life with the arrival of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, who settled in Malta in 1530. In 1531 one of several Turkish invasions of the island was seen off by an English Knight, Nicholas Upton, leading thirty Knights and 400 Maltese horsemen. Although gallant, he is described by F.N. Weston,
a later British resident, as very corpulent. As soon as the fighting was over, the exertions of the day in the saddle under a July sun in heavy armour became too much for him, and he died a few hours later.
A foot soldier of the Knights’ Army, Francisco Balbi di Correggio, records that the number ofTurkish troops in their armada of 1565 sent by Suleiman the Magnificent included 28,000 fighting men. Excerpts from his journal cover the most
significant events of the very hard-fought Great Siege. Ernle Bradford, author of The Great Siege of Malta, noted that church bells rang out all over Europe, including Protestant London, at the news that Malta had been relieved and the Sultan defeated.
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte entered Valletta en route to Egypt and left a garrison of 5000, ‘carrying off an equal number of natives’. The tyranny of the Knights, expelled by Napoleon, was replaced by another. When the soldiers plundered the churches, the Maltese besieged them in Valletta. Sir Themistocles Zammit, a Maltese historian and archaeologist writing in the 1920s, noted that after the departure of the French in 1800, Sir Ralph Abercrombie was influential in the Maltese choosing to opt for the protection of the British. Admiral Nelson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both recognized the strategic importance of the island in the early 19th century.
The most striking visual heritage left by the Knights is that of their beautiful palaces, today housing, inter alia, the offices of the President, the Prime Minister and the Archaeological Museum. Malcolm Billings, broadcaster and author of books on the crusades, walking in the villages south of Grand Harbour in the year 2000, reminds us that the English auberge from before the Great Siege is still standing, as is Dockyard Creek, where the war galleys of the Knights tied up.
The Second Siege followed heavy bombardment by the Italians and Germans. Convoys to relieve the island suffered heavy losses, and by early 1942 the Maltese, showing great fortitude, were facing starvation. Manley does not dwell on this period, which is familiar to British readers. Instead she moves on to provide us with descriptions of Valletta, including Malcolm Billings’s ‘a superb example of a living renaissance city in the middle of the Mediterranean’, and a comment by Edward Lear: ‘The harbours are very interesting, but I don’t love the water well enough to portray such scenes characteristically’.
A section on Gozo includes a description by Joseph Attard Tabone, a local historian, of life in the villages, each with its patron saint carried shoulder high on the day of the festa and with churches embellished by rich works of art. David Trump, the former Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of Malta, gives a short description of the Ggantija temple, the earliest free standing stone building in the world. The anthology concludes with Byron’s Farewell to Malta.