Malta is, of course, now a popular tourist destination. Older readers in particular will also know of Malta’s heroic defiance against German attacks during the Second World War and, of course, most people will be aware that Britain has strong connections with this little island nation. Not quite so many, however, will know how those connections came about.
Malta was already well known to us long before we took control here. There were, for example, Knights of Malta from Britain, like English Hospitaller Nicholas Upton, who was commander of the sea defences of Malta in July 1551 when he managed to fight off a surprise attack, only to collapse and die at the end of a long day’s fighting. And in the seventeenth century Admiral Sir John Narborough, leading a squadron in the area for operations against the Barbary Corsairs, decided that he would only salute the knights at Valetta if they would salute him back with their guns. The Knights refused and the Grand Master apparently questioned Narborough’s rank, but eventually the potential conflict was solved in a friendly fashion and Narborough based his squadron in Malta for a while from the middle of 1675.
Indeed our invasion of Malta, if you can call it that, was to be a rather friendly one as well – friendly that is to the Maltese, although considerably less friendly to the French.
In 1798, Napoleon dropped by Malta on his way to attack Egypt. By this time the Knights of Malta seem to have outstayed their welcome with the local Maltese, some of whom petitioned Napoleon to remove power from them. This Napoleon did, and left a French garrison there when he departed. Fairly rapidly, the French became deeply unpopular too and a rebellion started. Which is where we come in again.
We installed a naval blockade of the islands to prevent supplies and reinforcements reaching the French and we sent help to the rebels. In October 1798, Nelson turned up and in the same month the French surrendered the citadel of Gozo. In December 1798, Nelson sent Captain Alexander Ball to assist the rebels and he proved so popular with the locals that he was elected president of the Assembly in February 1799. Much better than just a polite ‘thank you’ or box of chocolates.
Then, in September 1799, 800 British troops under General Thomas Graham arrived, and in June 1800 another 800 British troops under Major General Henry Pigot landed. In September 1800, the French finally decided that they had had enough and surrendered. Under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 we were supposed to evacuate the island, but we didn’t want to. War broke out again in 1803 and we stayed, with Ball returning as our representative. He died here in 1809 and is buried here, and in 1810 the Maltese built a memorial in his memory. There was plenty of support among the Maltese for British control, which in many ways was fortunate because the Treaty of Paris in 1814 confirmed British control. Malta became independent on 21 September 1964.