Malta Study Center
||Brief History of Malta|
Electronic facsimiles on
Vivarium, from the collection of the Malta Study Center
Giovanfrancesco Abela, Della descrittione di Malta
isola nel mare Siciliano con le sve antichita, ed altre
notitie, libri quattro (Malta : Paolo Bonacota, 1647)
On-line full text
Malta Historical Society,
publisher of Melita Historica and Proceedings of
History Week, available online and in full text.
Other websites of interest
Fortress Explorer, hosted
by the Fortress Explorer Society Website. Also includes ARX,
Online Journal of Military Architecture:
http://www.fortress-explorer.org/ Information about modern Malta The Government of Malta Online (in Maltese and English) Links to 15 Maltese newspapers published in English and Maltese
This is a brief outline of the history of Malta, with some suggestions for further reading and research. The bibliography is based on the readings for the course "Medieval and Early Modern Malta," which was offered Spring 2001 at the University of Minnesota. The bibliography has been updated to include new online resources and recent publications.
Chronology of Maltese History
Prehistory (5000 BCE-218 CE)
The oldest megaliths in the world are located on the islands of Malta and Gozo. Archeologists have dated the stone structures of Ggantija (the Giant's Tower), Hagar Qim, Tarxien, and Mnajdra to about 5200 BCE. The first settlers arrived on Malta and Gozo around 5000 BCE from Sicily. The cave Ghar Dalam contains archeological evidence of a layer of Neolithic inhabitation on top of earlier strata of fossilized remains of pygmy hippos and deer from Africa. Malta's early settlers were farmers who grew barley, wheat, and leguminous plants, and raised pigs, cattle, sheep and goats. Their pottery is on display in the Archeological Museum in Valletta.
The prehistoric population of Malta was not self-sustaining, and new groups of people migrated to the island. By 2300 B.C.E., the Tarxien Cemetery people were the dominant culture on the island. They came from Southern Italy. Around 1450 B.C.E., the Borg in-Nadur arrived on the island. They eventually assimilated the Tarxien Cemetery people into their culture. The Bahrija settlers arrived in 900 B.C.E. The two groups lived on the island together but little is known about their coexistence.
There is evidence that the Phoenicians were on the island of Malta around 800 B.C.E. The Phoenicians traded throughout the Western Mediterranean, including Malta. The Phoenicians moved to Carthage when they lost control of their base in the Levant. The Carthaginians colonized the Maltese islands in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. The islanders lived in relative peace until the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome in the third century BCE. During the first Punic War (262-242 B.C.E.), Malta was a Carthaginian naval base, but by 218 B.C.E., the Maltese islands were a Roman colony.
One of the constant factors in human occupation of Malta is the scarcity of fresh water. Malta lacks a river, and until recently it obtained its drinking water from storing winter rainfalls in cisterns. Rooftop cisterns are still common on the islands today, although Malta now has a modern desalinization plant.
Romans (218 BCE-5th century CE)
As part of the Roman Empire, the Maltese islands enjoyed economic prosperity. The islands became well-known for quality textiles. Malta's new rulers incorporated the islands into the province of Sicily and introduced Roman political and military organization. The Maltese received Roman citizenship in the first century B.C.E. The Romans built a fortified capital on the site of present-day Mdina and Rabat, and developed port facilities in the Marsa area. Excavations at Ghajn Tuffieha discovered Roman baths that are in a reasonable state of preservation.
Malta entertained some prominent visitors during its Roman period. Cicero planned to visit the island during his period of political disgrace, but never actually got there. The most influential visitor, however, was St. Paul, who was shipwrecked on the island in 60 CE on his way to Rome. According to tradition, he converted the Roman governor, Publius, who later became the first bishop of Malta.
At the time of St. Paul's shipwreck, after nearly two hundred and seventy years of Roman rule, the Maltese spoke neither Greek nor Latin. It is possible that the Maltese continued to speak a dialect of the Phoenician language until the Arab conquest in 870 CE, long after the Roman economic and political influence subsided. Roman culture did not leave a lasting mark on Malta.
Byzantine and Muslim Malta (5th Century C.E. -1090)
The decline of the Roman Empire in the west affected the islands of Malta. Like other parts of the Roman empire in the west, Malta became part of the new Germanic kingdoms. Malta, with Sicily, was ruled by the Vandals and the Visigoths in the 5th century.
Justinian, the sixth-century Byzantine emperor, tried to bring these lost Roman provinces back into the empire. The Greek historian Procopius reports that Belisarius, the Byzantine general, touched at Malta and Gozo in 533, preparatory to the recapture of Sicily in 535. The first evidence for a bishop on Malta dates from 553.
The Muslim raids on the Maltese islands began in the ninth century. The traditional date of the Muslim conquest of Malta is 870, although that was also the year that the Byzantines tried to recapture the islands. It is possible that the inhabitants of the islands fled to Sicily or were taken into captivity.
There are not many existing records from this era. Historians speculate the Muslims introduced citrus fruits and cotton to the island. Like Muslim settlers in North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain, these new settlers understood how to conserve scarce water supplies. The Muslims introduced irrigation machines like the noria, or waterwheel.
The Muslims used Malta's fine harbors as a safe haven for their ships. The Muslims reduced the size of the Roman city and named it Mdina (the Arabic word for city). They built new fortifications at Mdina and constructed a fort on the present site of Fort St. Angelo. They left a lasting influence upon the language and place names of Malta.
Medieval Malta: Normans (1090-1194), Hohenstaufens (1194-1266), and Angevins (1266-1282).
During the eleventh century, Christians and Muslims battled over land throughout the Mediterranean. In Spain, the Christians and Muslims fought over Valencia, Barbastro and Toledo. The First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099. Malta also became a battlefield. Muslim pirates, using Malta as a base, raided southern Europe. Roger I, king of Sicily, retaliated and gained control of Malta in 1090. Thus Malta came under the rule of the Norman kings of Sicily.
Norman control of the island did little to change the way of life of Malta's inhabitants. The Muslims on the island continued to live much as they did before, but now they paid tribute to the Normans. Roger I and Roger II built and enhanced Christian churches in Malta, but the worship of Islam continued on the islands during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Constance, daughter and heir of Roger II, married Frederick II's son Henry under the terms of a treaty signed in 1184. Sicily and Malta became part of the domains of the Hohenstaufen dynasty after Henry succeeded his father as Henry VI in 1194.
The death of Henry VI in 1197 began a period of civil war in Germany marked by disputes with the papacy. His widow, Constance, named Pope Innocent III guardian of their young son, Frederick, upon her death in 1198. Frederick became Holy Roman Emperor (and ruler of the Kingdom of Sicily, including Malta) in 1220. Frederick II went on crusade in 1227 and secured the return of Jerusalem by treaty. He married Isabella, heir to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The papacy opposed his plans to impose Hohenstaufen rule over Italy, and Frederick died excommunicate in 1250. His legitimate son, Conrad IV, died in 1254. His illegitimate son, Manfred, then tried to reconstitute the Hohenstaufen realms. But Pope Clement IV supported the French candidate, Charles of Anjou, who took control of Sicily by defeating Manfred in 1266. Two years later, Charles of Anjou ended the male lineage of the Hohenstaufen dynasty with the execution of Conradin, the son of Conrad IV.
Charles of Anjou invaded Italy with papal support. He successfully took control of Sicily, but the Angevin rule of Sicily did not last long. Charles was unpopular because of high taxes and his reliance on French officials. In 1282, the revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers seriously impaired Angevin government.
Peter of Aragon, son-in-law of the late Manfred, offered aid to the revolt. On 4 December 1282 the Sicilian parliament acclaimed Peter of Aragon the new king. The Angevins retained control of the Italian mainland but the Aragonese now controlled Sicily and Malta.
Under Spanish rule, Malta became part of a loose confederation of states known as the Crown of Aragon. The head of the confederation, the king of Aragon, tried to exploit the islands' resources while also defending it against invasion. The Spanish rulers of Malta awarded the islands to noble followers as a fief. But in the late 14th century the islands served as a base for disaffected Sicilian nobles, and this practice stopped. Twice, the Aragonese crown pawned the islands. The second pawning, to Gonsalvo de Monroy in 1426, provoked a rebellion on the islands. In response Alfonso V (The Magnanimous) promised that Malta would remain under the direct rule of the monarch.
During this time, both the Muslims and the plague threatened life on Malta. Muslim pirates and raids remained a constant danger. In the 1420's, the Hafsids of North Africa raided the islands, stealing property and enslaving the inhabitants. The plague barred population growth on Malta. The island's Università, a municipal government based in Mdina, administered local resources.
During the fifteenth century it became clear to the Aragonese crown that the defense of Malta was both essential and expensive. The islanders were unable to assume full responsibility for their own defense. As early as 1450, the Università discussed rumors that the king intended to give the islands to the military religious order of Montessa. The growing threat of the Ottoman Turks to western Europe caused Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, to give Malta to the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1530, for a yearly rent of a Maltese falcon.
Knights of Malta (1530-1798)
After the loss of Rhodes in 1522, the Knights of the Order of St. John were left without a home. In 1530, the Order accepted Charles V's offer to create their new base on Malta. The Knights initially did not think Malta was a good location, citing its rocky landscape and lack of fresh water.
The Knights quickly discovered the benefits of Malta, such as its fine harbors, which sheltered and protected their ships. The Order of St. John began playing an important role in Mediterranean politics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The hospital of the Knights in Valletta was one of the best in Europe. After the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights built the city of Valletta. The Order fortified the islands extensively and eliminated the threat of Muslim raids. The Knights governed Malta until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte took the island from Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch.
See The History of the Order of St. John on the Malta Study Center website
The Maltese islanders initially favored Napoleon's takeover of the island in 1798, because the Knights had resisted many reforms favored by the Enlightenment. Napoleon ended the Inquisition, the use of judicial torture, and privilege based on birth. But the French quickly fell out of favor with the Maltese because they stripped the churches of relics, paintings, gold, and silver. Napoleon shipped the riches of Malta to finance his campaigns in Egypt, but they were lost when the ship sank. Furthermore, the French refused to pay the Knights' debts and pensions to the islanders. This increased interest rates, created new taxes, altered leases, and caused the loss of jobs. The Maltese became angry with the new regime's religious insensitivity and economic exploitation.
The Maltese rebelled in Mdina on 2 September 1798. Napoleon had left only a small garrison in Malta when he continued on to Egypt, so the rebellion quickly spread throughout the countryside. The French troops retreated behind the walls of Valletta, where the Maltese held them under siege. The arrival of a British fleet to blockade the island completed the defeat of the French in 1800.
Malta during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1814)
The British recognized that Malta was essential for the British fleet in the Mediterranean. The work of the Knights had made Valletta's Grand Harbor one of the most extensively fortified ports in Europe. The islands' central location in the Mediterranean made it an essential naval base for both sail and steam ships. The British built a dockyard, warehouses, and a hospital on Malta. Although the Knights attempted to reclaim Malta, the British held the island and in 1814 the Treaty of Paris recognized British sovereignty over the island. The British established a governor on the island, but they permitted Malta to retain its declaration of rights and freedom of religion. It was under the British that English became a dominant language on the island, together with Italian and Maltese.
Malta's service to the British Empire as a naval base is well documented. Malta nobly served during the two World Wars. During World War I, Malta garrisoned seamen from every part of the British Empire and was the site of the largest military hospital in the Mediterranean. Due to its strategic position during World War II, Malta was the target of German and Italian bombing attacks. The island endured the heaviest conventional bombardment of the entire war. To honor the valor of the Maltese people, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the "Island Fortress of Malta" in 1942. The cross appears today on the Maltese flag.
The structure of government in Malta changed periodically during the 150 years of British rule. In 1921, Malta became self-governing while power and responsibility was shared between Britain and Maltese ministers. In 1936, Malta became a colonial regime. Malta earned its independence within the Commonwealth in 1964, became a Republic in 1974, and proclaimed its neutrality in 1979.
Malta during World War II:
Republic of Malta (1974-present)
Today, Malta is a parliamentary democracy. The government is headed by a prime minister with a ceremonial presidency. Italy is an important cultural influence because of the island's proximity to Sicily and the easy reception of Italian television programs. On March 8, 2003, Malta voted to join the European Union in a popular referendum. 53.6% voted in favor; 46.4% voted against (source: Malta Today, Internet edition).
Suggested Reading: "Malta" Britannica Online. http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/370/76.html [Accessed 28 April 1998]. Top of page
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