Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 6(1974)3(332-333)
[p.332] HILDA LEE: Malta 1813 - 1914, Progress Press, Malta, 1973, 292 pp.
This book presents a study in the constitutional and strategic development of Malta throughout the 19th century until 1914. It is evident that during the 19th century the British Government appreciated Malta as a strategic base and that it assumed that it was to use the Island in terms of Imperial interests vis-á-vis the power game in the Mediterranean. The fortifications of the Island were utilized to serve the military and naval forces. It was for this reason, for example, that Col. Dickens reported on the state of the Grand Harbour fortifications in 1813. The British thought of the importance of retaining Malta to maintain diplomatic power in the Mediterranean, however, they considered it as a financial liability.
Britain's imperial interests were given priority over the needs of the Island — the claims of the Maltese were consequently given an indifferent reception. The administration of the Island, soon after its taking over from the French, was directly influenced by the Colonial Office: Maitland's efficient though despotic reforms were meant to secure the best interests of Britain in Malta. The government departments provided sinecure offices while legislation, especially during the first half of the 19th century, was based on military despotism. It is worth noting that at one time, the grant of any legislative representation was considered objectionable by Britain. Those who claimed representation were not always considered to be of the most respectable class.
During the years preceding the Crimean War, the economic and social conditions of the people were extremely low. The Island was unable to provide enough food and labour, a heavy tariff system raised the cost of living, quarantine charges impeded the transit trade and French and Italian competition affected the carrying trade. Thus in an Island burdened with over-population, mendicancy and thieving grew to alarming proportions. To soften down the problem, charitable institutions were provided and emigration considered.
The Maltese people desired public discussion and representation. It was assumed that popular legislative power would have helped to solve various local problems. Hence followed the presentation of petitions by C. Sciberras and Mitrovitch which led to the Austen-Lewis Commission. The Maltese liberals demanded freedom of the press, reform of charitable Institutions, education, and the employment of Maltese in executive grades. Throughout the period a tug-of-war between the Maltese people and the British government is evident: the British considered Malta as a vital strategic base and therefore generally opposed Maltese constitutional advance. Thus Wellington wanted a military government for Malta, [p.333] Governor Le Marchant thought of the Maltese as an Asiatic people and led to much antagonism and, J. Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, considered Malta as a fortress entrusted to the interests of the Empire — Malta was equated with a man-of war. The many questions connected with religion, language and taxation have to be seen within this background.
Moreover when following the protests of F. Mizzi and Strickland, the 1887 Constitution was granted to Malta, there were some who still maintained that the legislative system was incompatible with the position of Malta as an Imperial fortress and unsuitable to the circumstances of the Island and the political capacity of the people.
The development of Malta's constitutional history during the 19th century seems to have been determined by Britain's interests in the Mediterranean on the one hand and the political activities of Maltese leaders on the other. During the Crimean crisis the harbour defences were strengthened and precautions were taken to face the iron clad ships that came into being. During the last decades of the 19th century, as the tension which led to the First World War was mounting, the naval strength of the Island was considered in terms of other powers — Lintorn-Simmons even tested the possibility of an invasion. At the outbreak of war, Malta was prepared to fulfil the role of a defensive naval base and, in spite of Britain's unwillingness to grant constitutional demands and political misdemeanours, Maltese loyalty was unquestionable.
Lee's heavily documented hook indicates that Britain's assumption of supremacy in the Mediterranean was based on the efficiency with which the Maltese Islands were turned into an impregnable naval fortress. During the last years of the 19th century, the Franco-Russian alliance necessitated the strengthening of Malta as a base and following the Anglo-French entente this need became vital. In spite of the fact that Maltese constitutional advance was opposed, the Maltese leaders' policy made headway.
Malta 1813-1914 is a historical analysis worth reading.