It seems the the eighties are dying. The forgotten pop icons, musicians, entrepreneurs and politicians that made the “me generation” what it was are leaving us. And like the others, Malta’s Dom Mintoff was long forgotten until his obituary.
Malta, the island where St Paul allegedly threw a snake in the fire, was a strategic base in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, if not longer. The tiny Maltese Republic includes Gobo and other islands, all covered in quasi-historical folklore of knights who fought dragons and had other adventures.
When they were expelled from their Eastern base, the Knights of St. John, made up of adventurers from throughout Europe, used Malta as a base. They later became known as the Knights of Malta.
The Knights fought a heroic battle against the Ottoman fleet there in a life or death struggle known as The Siege of Malta.
Dragut, seen by many as the founder of Tripoli, had defeated the Knights in modern Libya. Dragut couldn’t touch them in Malta, but he died trying.
Malta, like the knights who lived there, remained a thorn in the side of the Ottoman navy until 1798, when Napoleon took the island on his way to Egypt. The defeated Knights sent representatives to the Russian Tsar, who made a claim on the island.
The French made many reforms, including the introcuction of a representative assembly. But they didn’t hold onto Malta long. After a long siege, the island came under British rule in 1800. It was to be administered by the British military, represented by Alexander Ball.
The first British ruler was never given an official title. Though Ball had the power of a military dictator, he lobbied His Majesty’s Government for Maltese sovereignty. The Maltese had enjoyed a form of assembly under the French, and Alexander Ball thought it would be a good idea to return it to them. But subsequent leaders did not respect Maltese sovereignty as much as Ball did.
Meanwhile, Malta’s long emnity with the Muslim world had come to an end. It now became the destination of exiled members of the Karamanli (or Qaramanli) family, the pseudo royals of Tripoli (Libya) who claimed decent from one of Dragut’s men.
When Napoleon stopped in Malta on his way to Egypt, he had released some Muslim captives held by the Knights. He sent these released captives to various parts of the Ottoman empire, including Tripoli, to try and create goodwill among the Muslims.
The British, also vying for the favor of the Ottomans and others in the Napoleonic wars, kept Napoleon’s policy of trying to bridge the former enemies.
Malta was seen as a “free port”, technically it was meant to allow ships from all countries to stop there. Maltese independence was meant to be secured, with an interim military government in place only to protect it from French re-invasion. (In practice, however, it was already part of the British empire from the time it was liberated.)
The free port was useful to other nations. The US used Malta as a base in it’s war against the Barbary pirates, while the Barbary pirates of Tripoli (Libya) traded openly with Malta in order to supply the British military with foodstuffs.
American sailors didn’t feel Malta always treated them fairly, and soon a new commodore decided to use Italian bases instead. Other countries were kept in the “free” port for long delays. The reasoning made sense, but some of the quarantines were questionable, and ships from some nations didn’t have to meet the same requirements asked of others.
Both Russia and the Ottoman empire had ships coming to Malta. Corruption within the community, including with British officials who lived in Malta, helped add to this asymmetry.
It’s with this background that we see Malta in the time of Dom Mintoff, beginning at the end of the second world war. Malta had long awaited independence, but the time never seemed right. It became a key base for allies in two world wars, and was useful in opposition to the Axis stranglehold in North Africa.
In the cold war, Russia showed itself to be an expansionist power, and the Mediterranean was a key sea.
It may seem ironic to those who know Malta’s history, then, that Dom Mintoff, the man who is said to be Malta’s first prime minister, should have turned to both Russia and Libya.
Nelson reportedly didn’t see it’s strategic value as being very great.
But Malta proved its worth in World War II, a base that fought hard.
It was after the war, the United Nations brought forward a policy of decolonialization and self rule, that Dom Mintoff first rose to prominence. In 1947 Malta was given a new constitution, and it started a period of limited self rule. During the war, Malta had been given food subsidy. Now, the British parliament wanted the money back.
Mintoff represented Malta in asking to keep the food subsidy. But the British Parliament gave a few reasons for not taking him seriously.
1) The Maltese representatives (two including Mintoff) chose their own time to come to Britain.
2) They didn’t do the necessary paperwork, and didn’t fill in all the forms needed (not answering any of parliament’s paperwork questions, apparently, apart from the one on the food subsidy.)
3) They brought no “experts” with them to substantiate their claims.
A few in the British parliament worried about how the Maltese would react to the fact that Parliament was asking for a return of the food subsidy. Other factors also made the Maltese angry. Malta was the most open part of Europe to refugees during the war: apparently Malta did not turn away a single one of the Jews who fled Hitler. After the war, however, when Maltese wanted to leave to other parts of the British empire to look for work, the His Majesty’s Parliament often denied them those opportunities.
The reasoning was often logical. Locals might resent European competition. However, mainland Englishmen and white South Africans were apparently not given the same restrictions as the Maltese.
Malta had other complaints against British rule, many of these economic. The Maltese government asked for funds from the Marshall plan, but this apparently was denied by the British parliament.
Eventually, Malta asked for full independence. And part of the way it showed its independence was by allowing Britain’s old rivals, the Russians, to use its ports.
It also turned to Libya eventually. This may seem surprising, as before Napoleon’s arrival, Libya was considered a main rival of the Maltese. However, under de facto British rule, both were part of one empire. The two countries had traded since 1800 in one way or another, with Libya openly supplying food for Malta since the first decade of the 19th century.
Perhaps Mintoff’s relationship with Gadaffi will have the knights of Malta turning in their grave. In 1979, Gadaffi laid the foundation stone for a Mosque on that island. Gadaffi helped subsidize Malta’s economy so that Malta no longer needed a British military base to survive.
In hindsight, Mintoff’s policy seems ill advised. Malta’s economy declined. After the nineteen eighties, especially at the end of the cold war, Malta faded into relative obscurity. Even Gadaffi saw the diminishing importance of the little island. The last time Gadaffi visited was in 1984.
Eventually, it joined the European Union, where it is the smallest member (and joined the Euro in 2008). It reached the news briefly with the refugee crisis that resulted from the so-called Arab Spring, when Maltese and Italian ports refused any more boat people. But during the commotion Malta helped evacuate foreign nationals from Libya, including 33 Australians. And it seemed a great defection destination for many of Gadaffi’s aids and supporters. This reminded me of the stories of the Libyan Prince who escaped to Malta 200 years previously. And that Prince’s nephews and grand nephews who escaped later, only to return and fight the Ottoman occupation.
Now the brave little islands of the Maltese Republic are taking a well deserved rest from the front pages of history.
And past issues of historic British Newspapers.
The British Newspaper Archive is a partner of the British Library and set up to digitise their collection of over 300 years of newspapers. Now accessible to the public, with market leading search functionality, it offers access to over 4 million pages of historical newspapers. A great source for hobby historians, students, reporters and editors – what will you discover?
Book sources include:
And many other books accessed at the National Library of Wales, University of Wales Aberystwyth, Royal Library of Belgium and Ceredigion Public Library. (Full bibliography coming soon.)
Knight: © William Attard Mccarthy| Dreamstime.com, Malta from space: based on an image by NASA, Alexander Ball image: based on an image at the Royal Museums of Greenwich.