History of Malta

Marsamxett Harbour
Marsamxett Harbour

Malta is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, 93 km south of Sicily and 288 km east of Tunisia.Since Neolithic times, for over 8,000 years, Malta has been populated and remains of the earliest inhabitants can still be found on the island. The large structures of Neolithic temples are still standing in the south of the island of Malta (Tarxien Temples, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra), and in Gozo (Ggantija).

Scientists reckon that some of these temples were erected around one thousand years before the construction of the famous pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and are believed to be the oldest freestanding monuments in the world. After the Neolithic culture faded away, around 2,000 B.C., the island was conquered by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs respectively.

During the Middle Ages, Malta was involved in the Byzantine-Arab Wars and was invaded by the Arabs, who introduced new irrigation, some fruits and cotton to the island. The Arabs also brought over the Siculo-Arabic language from Sicily, to which Malta was closely affiliated at the time. The language would eventually evolve into current-day Maltese. The Arabs allowed the native Christians to practice their religion but were discriminated against by being charged with an extra tax.

The Normans seized Malta around 1091, and were welcomed by the native Christians, who will have been pleased to see Roman-Catholicism reintroduced as the state religion. The Maltese islands became part of the Kingdom of Sicily, which also covered a large part of present day Italy.

The Order of The Nights of St.John (also known as the Knights of Malta) ruled the islands from 1530 until 1798. The Knights improved living conditions across the Island building hospitals, stimulated trade and commerce and erected strong fortifications. During their rule, the Knights successfully held out for many months throughout the horrific fighting and massive assaults by Ottoman invaders, now coined The Great Siege of 1565.

In 1798 Napoleon’s army conquered the island, easily removing the Knights of St John from power, who had not been prepared for the force with which the French charged. In the six days that followed the conquest a civil code was laid down for Malta. Slavery was abolished and all Turkish slaves were freed. Napoleon himself created a primary and secondary education system and a more scientific based university replaced the old one.

The occupying French forces were unpopular, however, due particularly to their negative attitude towards religion. The financial reforms and the religious reforms did not go down well with the citizens. The Maltese rebelled against them, and the French were forced behind the fortifications. Great Britain, along with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, sent munitions and aid to the rebels. Britain also sent her navy, which instigated a blockade of the islands. The isolated French forces, under General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, surrendered in 1800, and the island became a British Dominion, being presented by several Maltese leaders to Sir Alexander Ball.In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, Malta officially became a part of the British Empire, and was used as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters. Malta's position half-way between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal proved to be its main asset during these years, and it was considered to be a most important stop on the way to India.

In the early 1930s, the British Mediterranean Fleet, which was at the time the main contributor for the commerce on the island, was moved to Alexandria as an economic measure. Malta played an important role during World War II, owing to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. The bravery of the Maltese people in their long struggle against enemy attack moved H.M. King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on a collective basis on 15 April 1942,"to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history". Some historians argue that the award caused Britain to incur disproportionate losses in defending Malta, as British credibility would suffer if Malta was subsequently surrendered to the Axis, as Singapore had been. A replica of the George Cross now appears in the upper hoist corner of the Flag of Malta. The collective award remained unique until April 1999 when the Royal Ulster Constabulary was rewarded shortly before its dissolution in November 2001.
After the war, and after the Malta Labour Party's unsuccessful attempt at Integration with Britain Malta was granted independence on September 21, 1964 (Independence Day). Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf. On December 13, 1974 (Republic Day), however, it became a republic within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state. A defence agreement signed soon after independence (and re-negotiated in 1972) expired on March 31, 1979 (Freedom Day) when the British military forces were withdrawn. Malta adopted an official policy of neutrality in 1980 and, for a brief period was a member of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries. In 1989, Malta was the venue of an important summit between US President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev, their first face-to-face encounter, which signalled the end of the Cold War.Malta joined the European Union on May 1, 2004.