Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 7(1979)4(383-385)

ALISON HOPPEN, The Fortification of Malta by the Order of St. John 1530-1798 (Scottish Academic Press) xiv +221 pp, appendix, glossary of terms, bibliography notes and index. 11 figures in the text and 12 plates. £6 stg.

This is the first analysis in depth of the evolution of the magnificent defences built in Malta by the Order of St. John. The fortifications are important because: (1) they are - in spite of neglect and ill-conceived •developments' - a striking feature of the Maltese landscape; (2) their construction contributed significantly to the evolution of Maltese society and to the development of the economy; and, (3) they were designed by some of the foremost military engineers of the day and are some of the finest examples of bastioned fortifications in Europe.

The book consists of three parts. The first briefly traces the history and organisation of the Order and the evolution of gunpowder fortifications. Part two is the main body of the book and covers the construction of the Maltese defences under the following headings: (1) the pre-1565 defences; (2) the fortification of the Sciberras peninsula 1566-1798; (3) the fortification of the harbour - Sta. Margherita and Cottonera lines (with St. Angelo, Birgu and Senglea) - Sta. Margherita and Cottonera lines in the eighteenth century - Fort Ricasoli - Fort Manoel - Fort Tigne; (4) Citta Vecchia; (5) the coastal defences; and (6) Gozo. In part three Dr Hoppen discusses the administration of the fortifications, building methods and materials in Malta, and, the financing of the fortifications. The last two chapters deal with the surrender of Malta to Napoleon and comment, generally, on the impact of Malta's society and economy of the prodigious expenditure on defence by the Knights.

Defence played such an important part in the history of Malta under the Order - as indeed it did during the British occupation - that the serious student of Maltese history cannot afford to ignore it. This book will help him understand the scale on which the Knights built and the way in which the Maltese were affected - both adversely and beneficially.

Dr Hoppen has used major primary sources in Malta, Italy and Britain. Between them these cover the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in great detail. It is strange though that she does not refer to the important collection of original plans in the National Library of Malta. Some of the plans could have bean used as illustrations. One of the weaknesses of the book is the over-simplified plans of the fortifications among the figures.

[p.384] The sixteenth century is less thoroughly covered. The sources in Malta are poor and while Dr Hoppen has drawn heavily on the Codex Laparelli in Florence for the building of Valletta, she has not been able to search the archives of Sicily and Spain for material on the pre-siege period and for the great debate on the design of the Valletta defences.

Not everyone will agree with the way in which the discussion of the evolution of the defences on the Sciberras peninsula is structured separately from those of the harbour - both the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. To my mind this approach produces a fragmented and sometimes confusing narrative. Points that emerge from the detailed (after 1566) narrative are the length of time some of the works took to complete - in fact some were never completed, the extern to which original designs were modified during construction, and, most extraordinary, the way in which the Order vetted the advice given to them by the engineers by inviting comment from others all over Europe.

The willingness of the Knights to undertake more and more programmes of fortification (for the schemes eventually embraced the entire coastlines of Malta and Gozo) meant that enormous amounts of capital had to be found and, also important, created an ever increasing burden on normal income for repairs and maintenance. Ultimately the very number and extent of the defences probably contributed materially to the ignominious collapse of the Order in  1798. The coast defences, which the Knights relied on to prevent an invader from landing without great difficulty, were easily overrun in a day or so. As a result the Order lost confidence in its defences, its troops and its own leadership.

The confusing way the Order managed its finances and the relatively poor records  available make it very difficult to assess the approximate expense on defence from year to year, or to estimate the proportion of the cost (in labour, kind and money) contributed by the Maltese. Certainly there were sporadic protests against the taxes and impositions levied to build some of the major works. Dr Hoppen stresses the undercurrent of opposition to the Order in Malta, which gradually built up over the centuries. However there is a positive side to the coin; the security given to country and the expenditure on defence gradually converted Malta from a poor and sparsely populated appendage of Sicily into a miniature European state with all that this implies.

Dr Hoppen's conclusion is worthy of notice in full here.

An immediately direct benefit derived by the islanders from the defence expenditure of the Order did exist in the money which it channelled into the local economy. Much of the income which reached Malta from the European estates [p.385] was spent in the islands and provided the capital on which was based the economic development of Malta during the knights' rule. The building programme not only attracted extraordinary revenue to the island, it was also a home-based industry with much of the expenditure concentrated in the islands. Builders enjoyed one great advantage denied to all other war industries: their basic raw material, stone, was found locally. The Order employed local craftsmen to build and maintain the fortifications, and the arrival of the knights led to a rapidly expanding construction industry, in answer to both civil and building contracts which the Order issued, and the building craftsmen were but one example of the growing number of Maltese who, under the rule of the Order, became engaged in non-agricultural trades and pursuits.

Roger Vella Bonavita