Malta was a British possession from 1800 – 1964
In 1800, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but failed to keep this obligation – one of several mutual cases of non-adherence to the treaty, which eventually led to its collapse and the resumption of war between Britain and France.
Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British, especially after the opening of the Suez canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet.
Home rule was refused to the Maltese until 1921 although a partly elected legislative council was created as early as 1849, and the locals sometimes suffered considerable poverty. This was due to the island being overpopulated and largely dependent on British military expenditure which varied with the demands of war.
Throughout the 19th century, the British administration instituted several liberal constitutional reforms which were generally resisted by the Church and the Maltese elite who preferred to cling to their feudal privileges. Political organizations, like the Nationalist Party, were created or had as one of their aims, the protection of the italian language in Malta.
In 1919, there were riots over the excessive price of bread. These would lead to greater autonomy for the locals. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly. The Constitution was suspended twice. In 1930 it was suspended that a free and fair election would not be possible following a clash between the governing Constitutional Party and the Church and the latter’s subsequent imposition of mortal sin on voters of the party and its allies. In 1934 the Constitution was revoked over the Government’s budgetary vote for the teaching of Italian in elementary schools.
Before the arrival of the British, the official language since 1530 (and the one of the educated elite) had been Italian, however this was downgraded by the increased use of English.
In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages.
In 1934, only about 15% of the population could speak Italian fluently. This meant that out of 58,000 males qualified by age to be jurors, only 767 could qualify by language, as only Italian had till then been used in the courts.
Malta during WW2
Before World War II, Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet’s headquarters. However, despite Winston Churchill’s objections, the command was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, early in the war. At the time of the Italian declaration of war (10 June 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than four thousand soldiers and about five weeks’ of food supplies for the population of about three hundred thousand. In addition, Malta’s air defences consisted of about forty-two anti-aircraft guns (thirty-four “heavy” and eight “light”) and four Gloster Gladiators, for which three pilots were available.
Being a British colony, situated close to Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italian and German air forces. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic.
The first air raids against Malta occurred on 11 June 1940; there were six attacks that day. The island’s biplanes were unable to defend due to the Luqa Airfield being unfinished; however, the airfield was ready by the seventh attack. Initially, the Italians would fly at about 5,500 m, then they dropped down to three thousand metres (in order to improve the accuracy of their bombs). Major Paine stated, “, we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at.
Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate.”
Mabel Strickland would state, “The Italians decided they didn’t like (the Gladiators and AA guns), so they dropped their bombs [thirty kilometres] off Malta and went back.”
By the end of August, the Gladiators were reinforced by twelve Hawker Hurricanes which had arrived via HMS Argus. During the first five months of combat, the island’s aircraft destroyed or damaged about thirty-seven Italian aircraft. Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera observed, “Malta was really a big problem for us—very well-defended.” On Malta, 330 people had been killed and 297 were seriously wounded. In January 1941, the German X. Fliegerkorps arrived in Sicily as the Afrika Korps arrived in Libya.
On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) “to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders.” President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta “one tiny bright flame in the darkness.”
Integration with Britain
After World War II, the islands achieved self-rule, with the Malta Labour Party (MLP) of Dom Mintoff seeking either full integration with the UK or else “self-determination (independence), and the Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) of Dr. George Borg Olivier favouring independence, with the same “dominion status” that Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoyed.
In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.
Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands’ main source of employment. A referendum was held on 14 February 1956, in which 77.02 per cent of voters were in favour of the proposal, but owing to a boycott by the Nationalist Party, only 59.17 per cent of the electorate voted, thereby rendering the result inconclusive.
In addition, the decreasing strategic importance of Malta to the Royal Navy meant that the British government was increasingly reluctant to maintain the naval dockyards. Following a decision by the Admiralty to dismiss 40 workers at the dockyard, Mintoff declared that “representatives of the Maltese people in Parliament declare that they are no longer bound by agreements and obligations toward the British government…” In response, the Colonial Secretary sent a cable to Mintoff, stating that he had “recklessly hazarded” the whole integration plan. This led to the islands being placed under direct rule from London, with the MLP abandoning support for integration and now advocating independence.
While France had implemented a similar policy in its colonies, some of which became overseas departments, the status offered to Malta from Britain constituted a unique exception. Malta was the only British colony where integration with the UK was seriously considered, and subsequent British governments have ruled out integration for remaining overseas territories, such as Gibraltar.
Malta achieved its independence on 21 September 1964 (Independence Day) after intense negotiations with the United Kingdom, led by Maltese Prime Minister George Borg Olivier.
Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta and thus Head of State, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf. In 1971, the Malta Labour Party led by Dom Mintoff won the General Elections, resulting in Malta declaring itself a republic on 13 December 1974 (Republic Day) within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state. A defence agreement signed soon after independence (and re-negotiated in 1972) expired on 31 March 1979.
Malta adopted a policy of neutrality in 1980. In 1989, Malta was the venue of a summit between US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, their first face-to-face encounter, which signalled the end of the Cold War.
On 16 July 1990, Malta, through its foreign minister, Guido de Marco, applied to join the European Union. After tough negotiations, a referendum was held on 8 March 2003, which resulted in a favourable vote. General Elections held on 12 April 2003, gave a clear mandate to the Prime Minister, Eddie Fenech Adami, to sign the Treaty of accession to the European Union on 16 April 2003 in Athens, Greece. Malta joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. Following the European Council of 21–22 June 2007, Malta joined the Eurozone on 1 January 2008.
Malta was a British colony from 1800 to 1964, and continues with left-hand traffic, with local vehicles being right-hand drive. Owing to its proximity to Italy left-hand drive vehicles are commonplace. All road signs are in English and road markings are similar to those used in the United Kingdom.
English is still an official language of Malta, with government business being carried out in both English and Maltese. Most Maltese learn English in school, this being obligatory in most cases.
Secondary and tertiary education are given exclusively in English. 88% of Malta’s population speak English. Aside from Maltese, English is the only other official language of the country.