Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 7(1979)4(385-388)
A.P. Vella, Storja ta' Malta Vol. II (KKM Editors, Interprint Ltd., Malta) 394 pp., 138 illus., analytical index.
In this second volume of the Storja ta' Malta, Prof. Vella has sought to analyse the vicissitudes of the Maltese people under the knights Hospitallers. The book could be described as a concise and comprehensive study of Malta's history and each chapter is substantiated with references. In fact, it could be said that Vella has sought to provide the reader eager for further research, with references to both primary and secondary sources. Further amplifications are also included in many of these notes.
The volume is divided into two sections. The first section is divided into eleven chapters, in which, while presenting and analysing patches and events in a historical perspective, Vella seeks to be critical and subjective, and to give due importance to the part played by various Maltese notables wherever this was possible in the light of various research material available to the author. Besides, Vella has attempted, to place Maltese history within a European background thus helping the student of History to realize that no historical development can be understood in isolation.
The book begins with a chapter about Malta's revival after the Great Siege. Great importance is given to the projects involved in the building of Valletta, consequently bringing to the fore the part played by Laparelli and Cassar, while a detailed historical description of St. John's Conventual Church is presented as if to crown the achievement of the Order in creating a monument in stone in memory of their great victory over the Turk: the building of Valletta could in fact be understood as the 'Europeanisation' of the Maltese islands.
This is the point of departure of the History of Malta for the next two hundred years: ecclesiastical development, the institution of the Inquisition, the development of [p.386] educational institutions, the religious Orders, the building of fortifications and the strengthening of the Order's position in the Island, all indicate Malta's tie with Europe and the Hospitallers' persistence in trying to defend their neutrality and independence within a Christian European context as then understood.
Mgr. Dusina's visit to the Island is another landmark in Malta's history: it doesn't simply indicate another milestone in the Order's annals with regard to its perennial squabbles with the local ecclesiastical authorities; it heralded the institution of an independent and formidable Tribunal of the Inquisition; it throws light on the educational level of the clergy during the 16th century and leads to the coming of the Jesuits to Malta and the official foundation of their college in 1592. However, it seems that more importance could have been given to the system of elementary education, even if crude, that existed in the parishes, while as far as the Court of the Inquisition is concerned, it must be realized that a 'locum tormentis' is constantly referred to in the proceedings of the Tribunal.
In another chapter, Vella analyses relations between the Inquisition and the Order: problems of ecclesiastical immunity, rights of jurisdiction, precedence and ethical questions multiplied as decades passed by and the events that were provided by the vexatious questions raised by the trinal juridical authorities in Malta - Grand Master, Bishop and Inquisitor - must have been incidents of topical news and gossip for the Maltese. Vella had already publisher a monograph on this subject.
The Island's government and development are analysed in other chapters. The Grand Master was considered to be the Prince of the Island, but in Verdalle's time, his position was further strengthened with the support of papal briefs. Various Grand Masters strove to assert their position over the Order and the Island, and it seems that they sought to do so by various subterfuges as well as by attempting to leave something standing in their memory: GM Garzes instituted the Monte di Pieta and the Cumulo di Carita; GM Wignacourt legalized corsairing by establishing the Magistrate degli Armamenti and the Monte di Redenzione as well as by building a number of coastal towers; De Redin, Lascaris, the Cotoner brothers and Vilhena added various towers and fortifications. Against this background, we learn of the sufferings of the people during the various plague epidemics; the heroic achievements of naval ventures such as the attacks on the fortresses of Patras and Passava; and the achievements of various Maltese personalities as ishop Cagliares, Thomas Dingli, Fra Salvatore Imbroll, Nicola Mangion (who set up the Fabbrica di San Pietro), Antonio Bosio, Fra Gian Matteo Rispoli and Gian Francesco Abela.
Malta's strategic position in the [p.387] Mediterranean necessitated persistent alertness and efficient organisation for the Order's Navy which played a glorious part in the battle '' Lepanto. The author in fact has showed the Navy's activities in the Mediterranean and distinguished its purpose, organisation and achievements from those of the notorious fleet of Maltese corsairs. The Navy -came an auxiliary to the Spanish fleet, and got involved in a number of piratical raids as from the end of the 16th century. Perhaps, the single notable event in which it participated after Lepanto, however, was the War of Candia. Here Vella gave importance to the capture of a Gran 'Soltana together with a valuable booty and an Ottoman prince, Osman Hibrahim, who subsequently became a Dominican. The Grand Master who then ruled over the Island, Lascaris, feared a siege as a consequence. The Turks' main target, however, was the island of Crete then in the hands the Venetians. The Order's Navy provided its aid till 1669.
Whilst particular attention had to be given to the strategic value of Malta for the sake of Christendom, the Order had to find ways and means whereby it could defend its neutrality and sovereignty. The Order's position was in fact tested several times: the diplomatic astuteness of the Order's ministers in 1674 when Malta was asked to support the Viceroy of Sicily against the Messina rebels who were supported France, is one notable case. In an interesting chapter, with particular reference to the period 1713-1743, Vella shows how, following the Treaty of Utrecht, the Order sought to safeguard its neutrality. Maltese sailors were not permitted to sail under any foreign flag (1718) and from time to time, the Order had to feign financial poverty if not bankruptcy, to escape political entanglement in European affairs. The Grand Masters Perellos, Zondadari and Vilhena, who had Malta's dependence of Sicily and the Order's neutrality much in mind, acted on the defensive on this point.
Perhaps greater research should be done to evaluate the position of GM Pinto, the founder of the Malta University. This Grand Master went on the offensive to defend the Order's sovereignty when Charles IV of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies decided to send a Royal Visitor to Malta. The Visitor was not even allowed to come to Malta, and the Sicilian monarch reacted by issuing sanctions that severely tested the Maltese. Pinto's adamant insistence and Papal intervention helped to solve the issue in favour of the Maltese; however Pinto has to bear the blame for having weakened the Island's economy. As Vella points out, by the second half of the 18th century, the Island was morally, financially and socially bankrupt. The Ximenes administration proved to be catastrophic while GM De Rohan's interlude only helped to stay the storm that was approaching over the Island and the Order itself.
These last chapters seen [p.388] compact with historical data of a complexity of events which deserve extensive studies: Malta's economic development, the establishment of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue in 1783, the institution of Free Masonry and political clubs, and diplomatic concerts with England and Russia. Such events must have helped to draw the attention of various European courts on Malta. Somehow they paved the way for the coming of the French Expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte to occupy Malta.
Vella concludes the first part of his study by a documented analysis of the eventual years of the French occupation of the Islands: here one feels that the author's claim that Dun Mikiel Xerri and other fellow patriots deserve indeed to be remembered as Maltese heroes should be supported. The second part of the book is divided into six chapters and here the author gives a birds' eye view of social and economic aspects of the history of the Maltese people: the development of communities, building of farms and houses, cave dwelling, taverns, costumes, customs and popular superstitions are all outlined. The progressive attention to health, sanitation and medical study are analysed in one chapter where particular importance is given to the establishment of hospitals and the Order's Medical School. As for employment, a substantial proportion or the population depended on the Order's Navy and the Corso for which special courts were instituted; while many others were employed in the arsenal, the armed forces which included foreign recruits, the building of defensive towers, palaces and churches as well as the erection of windmills for the production of flour. It is perhaps pertinent to point out that the Hospitallers felt the need of bringing experts to help them in various ventures and projects which were then entrusted in the hands of members of the Order and trained Maltese subjects.
"Storja ta' Malta" deserves to be recommended to students who wish to take the study of History. It is the first attempt to present a comprehensive, analytical and scientific study of Malta's history in the Maltese language.