Malta Diary The Grand Canal Scheme that went askew – and its aftermath
Well yes, there is always a slip twixt the cup and the lip – and the area in lower Valletta still known today as “Il-Mandragg” (originally “Mandaraggio”) is a living example of this where great plans on paper backfired in the reality of implementation.
Work on the building of Malta’s capital city Valletta commenced on 14th March 1566, the brainchild of the French Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette whose immaculate military tactics had defeated and vanquished the marauding and massive Ottoman forces a few months earlier after the epic Great Siege of Malta.
That battle was won by the Knights and the Maltese, but the war was far from over. The Ottoman Empire was still all-powerful and the sting of such a tremendous loss-of-face defeat was sure to fester in Turkish minds. Their return with re-doubled efforts and determination was just a matter of time.
With equal vigour and energy la Valetta set about bolstering Malta’s defence and thus began the construction on Xiberras Hill of a fortified city that was to become Malta’s capital Valletta. Sadly, the Grandmaster died a year later and the city was given his name.
The decision was taken the new city should be built on Bernard Palissy’s grid-iron pattern of criss-crossing parallel lines with all street corners at strict right angles.
The city itself was surrounded by substantial bastions enclosing a set of splendid auberges and palaces from which the Knights would administer Malta and Gozo. The Grand Harbour side was particularly fortified with the strengthening of Fort St. Elmo, opposite Fort St. Angelo and the fortified three cities across the water.
However, the other Valletta side on Marsamxett Harbour was seen to be particularly vulnerable to attack and the Knights needed a safe sea-haven for their fleet, together with building and repair facilities for new fleets.
All those who think that city and urban planning is something new, think again. The Knights had an Officio delle Case (Housing Authority) that oversaw planning and lay-out and was particularly fastidious. Part of the city plan was an inner harbour for galleys and this was set to be on the Marsamxetto side which obviously had to be excavated and quarried to create an artificial harbour.
Those who thought that re-cycling is something new, think again too. The Authority decreed that all the stone excavated was to be used for building the city and its fortifications. Work commenced with great haste and enthusiasm and of course with no mechanical machinery, everything had to be done by hand.
However, over and above the primary scope of a safe inner harbour there were also aspirations of creating a “little Venice” and its Grand Canal with all the necessary embellishments.
Excavation began in different localities within the Marsamxetto area. The surface rock was soft and manageable enough, but as deeper strata of rock were reached, the softness turned to hard and really hard. Spirit and enthusiasm began to flag with the hot summer months setting in.
A re-calculation established that much deeper excavations had to be continued to reach sea level for the water to be able to flow into the new harbour.
Finally it became obvious the whole project was not feasible and resulted in abandonment. However, great holes and craters of varying levels had been built and there was no definite concept of what should be done with them.
Years passed and the ugly massive pot-holes remained. In the meantime the attraction of the new city and its bustling commerce began to increase its population, particularly sea-farers seeking work on the military and commercial galleys. The Knights had built splendid palaces and the rich and noble splendid houses.
The homeless, the poor and the criminal element began to drift towards Marsamxetto and illegal tenements began to spring up like mushrooms. Because of the different levels of holes, there was no real uniformity. Some buildings were as much as eight storeys high and others just one or two storeys.
Now, the meaning of the word “Mandragg” began to take interpretation. It was probable the Knights had coined the name to commemorate the Mandraki port they had in Rhodes and lost to the Turks, a port that still exists today. The local population twisted the name and it popularly became “Mandragg” which probably emanates from the word “mandra”, meaning swill and rubbish.
The buildings were mostly slum tenements without running water or internal sanitary facilities. Four fountains in different areas supplied running water which had to be carried. Sanitary facilities were external troughs and the whole environment was one of stench and filth.
Yet, as with all slum tenements, the “ghetto” inhabitants had their pride and communal spirit of “togetherness in dire straits”. Non-slum tenants were not welcome and viewed with deep suspicion and only ventured there at great peril. In time the area had its own retail and commercial outlets and the women-folk earned a living by taking in laundry washed at one of the four fountains.
Remarkably enough, despite the environmental filth and squalor, the tenants kept spotless living quarters and showed great pride in their embellishment. The cleanliness of the laundry returned became a bye-word and later they were given contracts to launder British military uniforms.
For almost 400 years, the “Mandragg” struggled on mostly unchanged and with little improvement.
The General Election that followed the end of the Second World War saw the country’s Malta Labour Party elected to Government for the very first time under the Premiership of Dr Paul Boffa, a doctor. As his Minister for Public Works he appointed a young architect Dominic Mintoff whose naval cook father was from Valletta.
Bustling with energy and great drive, the young Mintoff decreed the ignominy of the “Mandragg” was to reach its end. All the tenants were ordered to evict the slums within three days and many had to be escorted out by Police, unwilling as they were to leave and temporarily be re-housed with relatives in other areas.
The “Mandragg” was flattened and in its place rows and rows of modern apartments with all facilities sprang up like mushrooms and there they still stand today, the architectural epic of a man who went on to become Malta’s Prime Minister three times and a man who was a magnet for controversy and viewed either with love or hate, according to one’s political views and interpretations.