A Brief History of Malta

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Chloe Annabel

Ancient Malta

During the last Ice Age Malta was a high mountain joined to Italy by land. However, when the Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago the sea level rose and Malta became a group of islands. However, about 5,200 BC Stone Age farmers arrived in Malta from Sicily and they began to farm the soil.

The earliest farmers in Malta made simple tools of stone and wood. They also made pottery. Despite their primitive tools, the Stone Age farmers created an advanced society. From about 3,600 BC to about 2,500 BC they built great temples in Malta including those at Tarxien. They also carved the Hypogeum, a series of underground chambers, out of the rock.

The temple-building culture in Malta ended about 2,500 BC. We do not know why. On the other hand, the Maltese began to use bronze tools and weapons. It is not clear if a new race migrated to Malta at that time or if the Stone Age farmers learned to use bronze from other peoples around the Mediterranean.

About 800 BC the Phoenicians sailed to Malta. The Phoenicians were a highly civilized people from what is now Lebanon. They were great sailors and traders and they gave Malta its name. They called it Malet, which means shelter or haven. About 480 BC the Phoenicians founded a city called Carthage on the north coast of Africa. From about 400 BC The Carthaginians ruled Malta. They ruled for about 250 years until 218 BC when the Romans conquered Malta.

Malta flourished under Roman rule and it was known for honey and sailcloth. Meanwhile, about 60 AD Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while he was sailing to Rome. He converted Publius, the Roman ruler to Christianity. Gradually the rest of the Maltese followed. By the 3rd century AD, most of the Maltese were Christians.

Then in the 4th century, the Roman Empire split into two halves, East and West. Malta was ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire.

However, in 870 AD Malta was conquered by the Arabs. The Arabs ruled Malta for more than 200 years and in that time the Maltese were heavily influenced by Arab civilization. In particular, the Maltese language was largely shaped by the Arabic language.

Malta in the Middle Ages

Arab rule was ended by the Normans. In 1090 a Norman named Count Roger captured Malta. By 1091 he had also driven the Arabs out of Sicily. For a time Malta became part of the Kingdom of Sicily. However, the Sicilian kings took little interest in Malta and largely left the Maltese to run their affairs. Then in 1266 Malta and Sicily were captured by the French. However, in 1283 Malta was captured by the Aragonese (Aragon was part of Spain).

In 1412 Malta passed to the kings of Castile (another part of Spain) but it made no difference to the ordinary Maltese. For them, life went on as normal. Eventually, Castile and Aragon were united and Malta became part of the powerful Spanish Empire.

However, Malta changed hands again in 1530. The Spanish king granted Malta to the Knights of St John. Who were they? In the 11th century, Europeans went on journeys called pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In 1048 some Italian merchants founded an order of monks called the Order of St John of Jerusalem. They cared for sick pilgrims. In 1113 the order was formally recognized by the Pope.

However, at that time the Christians were fighting the Crusades against the Muslims. The Order of St John began to fight Muslims as well as care for sick pilgrims. So they became the Knights of St John.

However, in 1291 the Muslims drove the Christians out of Israel. The Knights of St John first went to Cyprus but in 1310 they moved to Rhodes. However, in 1523 the Turks captured Rhodes, and the Knights were left without a home until the Spanish king gave them Malta in 1530. It was not much of a prize. Malta was arid and infertile and fresh water was scarce. The people were poor. Nevertheless, the Knights of St John made Malta their home.

In 1562 the Inquisition was established in Malta. The job of this evil organization was to hunt down and punish ‘heretics’ (anybody who did not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church). The Maltese Inquisition was not abolished until 1798.

The Siege of Malta

The Knights of St John continued to fight the Turks so finally, in 1565 the Turks decided to try and capture Malta. They sent a fleet of 81 ships with more than 30,000 soldiers on board. The Turkish armada arrived at Malta on 18 May 1565 and sailed into the Bay of Marsaxlokk. Their soldiers disembarked and camped on the Plain of Marsa.

In 1565 the Grand Master of the Knights of St John was a Frenchman called Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). He was 70 years old but he was valiant. Still, the Maltese could only muster a force of about 9,000. All of them fled to the shelter of walled cities, Birgu (Vittoriosa), L’Isla (Senglea), and Mdina. They took their domestic animals with them.

Firstly the Turks decided to capture the fort of St Elmo, which stood alone on the Sciberras Peninsula on the site of Valletta. They bombarded the fort, which bravely resisted until 23 June 1565. Even though the Turks eventually captured the fort it was a Pyrrhic Victory. They lost 8,000 men, about a quarter of their whole army in the siege. Their commander, Dragut Rais was among the dead.

Afterward, the Turks beheaded 4 Knights they had captured and nailed them to crosses. They sent them floating across the harbor to Fort St Angelo. Grand Master la Valette then beheaded Turkish prisoners and fired their heads from cannons. The Turks then tried to capture Birgu (Vittoriosa) and L’Isla (Senglea) but they failed and suffered heavy losses. A relief force of 8,000 Sicilians arrived in Northeast Malta on 7 September and shortly afterward the Turks abandoned the siege and withdrew.

The Knights of St John in Malta

In 1565 the Sciberras Peninsula where Valletta now stands was uninhabited except for Fort St Elmo. After the siege, fearing another Turkish attack la Valette decided to build new fortifications and a new city on the peninsula. The foundation stone of Valletta was laid on 28 March 1566. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Walls were built to protect the city and a huge ditch was dug across the peninsula. La Valette himself died in 1568 aged 73 but the new city was named after him.

After 1634 Grand Master Antoine de Paule made new fortifications across the peninsula south of Valletta. They were designed by an Italian named Pietro Paolo Floriani. In the 18th century, a suburb of Valletta was built between the two lines of fortification and it was called Floriana after him. The Turkish threat to Malta remained during the 17th century but by the end of the century, the Turkish Empire was in decline.

Meanwhile, the knights continued to care for the sick. In 1574 they began building a hospital, the Sacra Infermeria in Valletta. In 1676 Grandmaster Cottoner founded the School of Anatomy and Surgery.

In 1693 Malta was devastated by an earthquake but it soon recovered.

However, during the 18th century, the Knights of St John became corrupt. They spent their time dueling, drinking, and chasing women. When the Knights became decadent they lost favor with the Maltese people. The rule of the Knights was finally ended by Napoleon Bonaparte.

While sailing to Egypt French ships anchored off Malta. Napoleon asked for freshwater for his ships but the Knights refused. On 11 June 1798, the French landed and the Knights quickly surrendered – they had lost their fighting spirit. French Knights were allowed to stay in Malta but those from other nations were forced to leave. Napoleon left Malta after 6 days but he left 4,000 men to guard the island. The French removed treasures from churches but they did do one good thing – they abolished the inquisition.

However, on 2 September 1798, the Maltese rose in rebellion against the French at Mdina. The French withdrew to Valetta and the Maltese appealed to the British for help. They imposed a naval blockade of the island. Yet the French held out in Valletta for 2 years. They did not finally surrender until 5 September 1800.

British Malta

In 1802 the British and French made a temporary peace by the Treaty of Amiens. They agreed that the Knights of St John should return to Malta. However, the Maltese did not want the Knights back and they asked the British to stay. In any case, a war between Britain and France began in 1803 before the Knights could return. As a result, the British stayed. In 1814 the other European powers recognized Malta as a British colony by the Treaty of Paris.

The early 19th century was quiet and uneventful for Malta. However, the Crimean War (1853-1856) brought prosperity as Malta was on the route between Britain and soldiers serving in Crimea. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also brought prosperity as it meant that more ships sailed through the Mediterranean and stopped at Malta. In 1883 a railway was opened from Valletta to Mdina.

Meanwhile, the British allowed the Maltese a limited role in government. From 1835 a Council of Government made up of prominent Maltese was formed to advise the British governor. From 1849 the Maltese were allowed to elect some representatives. From 1887 the majority of representatives were elected.

Malta in the 20th Century

Nevertheless, the Maltese were dissatisfied and on 7 June 1919, they rioted. British soldiers shot and killed 4 Maltese. However, in 1921, the British gave Malta a new constitution and Joseph Howard became the first prime minister. Yet political unrest continued in Malta. As a result, the constitution was revoked in 1930. It was reinstated in 1932 but finally revoked in 1933.

Meanwhile during the early 20th century, many dissatisfied Maltese emigrated to Britain and to English-speaking countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia. This migration continued after World War II.

Then on 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain. The next day, 11 June the Italians bombed Malta. At first, Malta was defended by only 3 Gloster Gladiator biplanes called Faith, Hope, and Charity. However the British soon sent hurricanes to Malta. Nevertheless, the Italian bombing continued. The raids grew worse when aircraft from the German Luftwaffe were sent to Malta.

Furthermore, rations in Malta grew very short. However, on 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the entire population of Malta the George Cross. Fortunately, a relief convoy reached Malta on 15 August 1942. The situation improved after November 1942 when the British won the battle of El Alamein in Egypt. The Germans and Italians in North Africa surrendered in May 1943 and in July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily.

In 1947 the British granted Malta another constitution together with 30 million pounds to help repair war damage. Nevertheless, the Maltese pressed for independence, which they gained on 21 September 1964. At first, the Queen was head of state but in 1974 Malta became a republic.

Meanwhile, Dominic (Dom) Mintoff of the Labour Party became prime minister in 1971. He weakened ties with Britain and the USA and the last British servicemen left Malta in 1979. In 1982 Agatha Barbara became the first woman president of Malta. In 1987 the Nationalist Party took power and Eddie Fenech Adami became prime minister.

Malta in the 21st Century

Malta joined the EU in 2004 and in 2008 Malta joined the Euro. Today the main industry in Malta is tourism although there is also an electronics and pharmaceutical industry. Malta suffered in the economic downturn of 2008-2009. However, Malta soon recovered. Today Malta is flourishing and its economy is growing strongly. In 2024 the population of Malta was 419,000.


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Last Revised 2024