Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 8(1981)2(166-169)

[J.] QUENTIN HUGHES, Britain in the Mediterranean and the Defence of Her Naval Stations, Penpaled Books, London, 1981, 235 pp. + ill. and maps.

This is the story, ably told by Prof. Quentin Hughes, of Britain's naval presence in the Mediterranean and of the bases which harboured her fleets between  the seventeenth  century and the year 1979, When the White Ensign was lowered for the last time on the heights of Fort St Angelo in Malta's Grand Harbour. It is the dramatic story of Britain's strength at sea in the Mediterranean, of the vicissitudes, the fortunes and upheavals of a proud and powerful navy, of brave men, of ambitious empire-builders, of a type of colonialism now out-dated but once accepted as a fact of life, and as necessary for the livelihood of the people who lived in and around the huge establishments which the British fleet required for the upkeep, provisioning, repair and maintenance of its ships.

Quentin Hughes is not only an established historian in his own right, but also one of the foremost living experts on military architecture. In this book he relates at length and in detail the story of battles lost and won both on land and at sea, of the development of military thinking through almost three centuries, of the weapons employed and of the men behind them, and above all of land fortifications as a means of defence against attacking warships.

Hughes devotes nine chapters of the book's eighteen almost exclusively to Malta. He knows and loves Malta well: he served here for two and a half years during the last war, and in 1968 was appointed to the Chair of Architecture at the (then Royal) University of Malta. His books about Malta and her buildings are well [p.167] known: The Building of Malta 1530-1795 has become the standard book on the architecture of the Knights of Malta, and Fortress: Architecture and Military History in Malta relates in word and pictures the almost unique character of an architectural tradition which despite strong outside influences remains peculiarly Maltese.

The book opens in the sixteenth century, when the mighty Ottoman Empire, and the equally powerful but more prosperous Christian states, mostly Spain, the Venice Republic and the Order of St. John were the main contestants for Supremacy in the Mediterranean. Trading had always been the main activity in the Mediterranean, but this soon degenerated into piracy, organized corsairing and coastal raiding. After the favourable outcome of the Siege of Malta in 1565 and the defeat of the Turkish fleet by the combined Christian navies at Lepanto in 1571, Turkish sea-power declined, but its threat to Christianity never really ceased completely.

During this same period Britain had a flourishing trade in the Middle Sea, and the English Levant Company was firmly established in Constantinople by 1581, drawn by the promise of big profits in the spice commerce. The political sagacity of Elizabeth I made her take advantage of the situation caused by piracy, which served as an excuse to push Britain's entry as a naval power in the Mediterranean.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the British established a clearcut Mediterranean policy backed by a powerful and professionally-run fleet with the avowed aim of protecting their trading interests and merchant shipping. In 1651, the British Parliament voted funds for the permanent stationing of a naval squadron. The need for a safe harbour and a well-equipped station became essential. Oliver Cromwell set his eyes on Gibraltar, but the British naval commander was hesitant, and the attempt to capture it was put off. By shrewd political manoeuvreing, however, Britain succeeded in possessing herself of Tangier, an all-weather harbour, in 1662, but which she abandoned in 1683 because it proved to be too big a strain on her resources. The need for bases became more pressing as the British Mediterranean fleet grew larger and stronger, and Gibraltar was captured from Spain in 1704, followed by the occupation of Minorca, the second largest island in the Balearics, with its valuable Port Mahon, in 1708. In 1756 it was the scene of an undecisive naval action between the British and the French, and Spain recovered Minorca in 1782, losing it again to the British in 1802. The quest for more naval bases continued further east, and in 1794 the British took Corsica from the French. In 1796, in what was then described as an eternal disgrace to the Pitt Government, they evacuated Cosica. By the close of the eighteenth century, Britain had thus pulled out of the Mediterranean possessions except for two feeble footholds at Gibraltar and Elba. The position of Britain at this time [p.168] was certainly not one of strength, and her fleet became stretched to the utmost. The Invasion of England by Napoleon became an overriding risk, and the British Government decided to pin the invasion forces in their home ports of Brest and Cadiz. But when news reached the Admiralty in London that the French were massing a large invasion fleet at Toulon, it was realized that the French would either sail west to England, or east to Egypt, and eventually to British India. Nelson, on board the Vanguard and commanding a powerful squadron, was sent by Earl St. Vincent to keep a close watch off Toulon. The British fleet was beset by a series of unfortunate incidents, and Napoleon succeeded in eluding its surveillance. Napoleon landed in Malta on June 11, 1798 and captured the Island from the Knights. On June 19, he left Malta, leaving a small garrison, and sailed with his fleet towards Egypt, with the British under Nelson in hot pursuit. Nelson caught up with Napoleon in Aboukir Bay and destroyed his proud fleet, but Napoleon succeeded to make his way through the coastal strip which is now Israel and reach France. The British navy thus regained dominance of the Mediterranean, a supremacy which Britain retained unchallenged till 1941. Meanwhile in our Island, the Maltese insurgents and the whole population, aided by the British, drove out the French in 1800, and called in Britain as their Protector. The British did not take long in realizing the supreme importance of Malta as their foremost naval base in the Mediterranean. For almost two centuries they strengthened the land defences, built new forts, established a dockyard second to none, and dotted the shore with the best coastal artillery of that time.

With Malta safe under the shadow of the White Ensign, the quest for further stations continued. This time the British cast their eyes further east towards the Ionian islands, and what they were unable to capture by force they obtained at the Conference Table. By the treaty of Paris of 1815, the seven Ionian Islands came under British protection and remained so for the next fifty years. Britain eventually established bases in Alexandria, Suez and Haifa: the Mediterranean became a British lake. But two world wars, an economy completely changed by financial stresses, new concepts in warfare, technological progress, the end of colonialism and of the Empire, changed all this. Britain which came into the Mediterranean like a lion left quietly as a gentle lamb: the last link was with Malta which was only severed in March of 1979 when the last of the British men-of-war which had filled our harbours for almost two centuries left for Home.

It is a story well and truly told, factual and without any emotional recourse to patriotism, or nostalgia for the old days.  The illustrations are well-chosen and most of them are, whilst the large number of maps and sketches gives the book added interest and value. Unfortunately the book has too many misprints, the [p.169] print is too small and close and annoyingly tiring to the eyes. But it is definitely a book which students of Mediterranean affairs and especially of Maltese history cannot afford to do without.

Michael Ellul