Malta Diary A long-standing romance in a marriage of convenience
I am ready to bet my last cent that every seafaring sailor throughout the ranks of the British Royal Navy between 1900 and 1960 at some time or other during their seafaring days sailed or steamed into Valletta’s Grand Harbour and set foot on Malta’s shores.
I would stage a similar wager that between those same years there was not one single Maltese or Gozitan family that did not have a close relative that joined the RN.
For over 150 years, the two islands, one administering the world’s largest known empire and the other, a pebble in the Mediterranean, were inextricable. Estate Agents tout the slogan “it’s all about location” and that was Malta’s role in a veritable marriage of convenience.
In 1798, the French fleet on the way to Egypt forced their way into Malta’s Grand Harbour in Valletta demanding water supplies and replenishment of victuals. The ‘temporary’ visit became permanent followed by a vastly unpopular two-year occupation.
During these two years Maltese rebellion reached fever pitch, the main plot originating in the even smaller island of Gozo where a ‘council’ secretly met to establish a counter-revolution against the French. Several dispatches passed between Maltese leaders (including members of the clergy) and Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson anchored with the British fleet in nearby Sicily.
This finally culminated in an ‘invitation’ to the British fleet to invade Malta and the British Admiralty readily agreed. In late 1800, the occupying French had been routed by the Maltese and as Nelson sailed into the Harbour, the Maltese tore down French flags and flew the Union Jack.
Malta thus became a British ‘possession’ and a part of the vast British Empire although much healthy debate followed for many years as to whether the British had militarily ‘taken’ Malta or whether their sojourn was by ‘invitation’, a matter of technical interpretation because of its own resource Malta could never have resisted the British anyway.
Be that as it may, Malta became a ‘Protectorate’ and the British stayed until 1979 even though Malta was declared Independent in 1964. Britain’s military tenure came to an end on 31st March of 1979 when the last RN ship, HMS London, sailed out of Valletta’s Grand Harbour with many thousands lining the Valletta Bastions to wave a last fond farewell, including the late malta President Dr Anton Buttigieg and his wife.
There were tumultuous times and two World Wars to boot during which Malta proved to be an invaluable asset to the Crown and earned it three particular nicknames:
During the First World War (1914 – 1918) Malta became Britain’s ‘Nurse in the Mediterranean’, a recovery hospital for the thousands of British and Empire troops badly wounded in the Gallipoli battlefields and at sea in the Mediterranean.
The Royal Navy regarded Malta as its ‘Battleship in the Mediterranean’ and the British Army regarded Malta as ‘Britain’s Garrison in the Mediterranean’.
Prior to the growing popularity of aviation, besides commanding the Central Mediterranean, Malta was an essential stop-over on the route to Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea and thence to India and the rest of Asia. It was also an inroad into North Africa and the rest of the African continent. This was prior to the growing links in the Atlantic between Britain and the United States.
Westminster had of course plotted craftily with a commanding role in the highly important Mediterranean Sea. It held Gibraltar as the eastern entry point into the Mediterranean, Malta slap-bang in the central part and Cyprus to the west.
The two islands also had an extensive sea-faring history, in Malta’s case an island that had attracted multiple invasions by foreign seafarers and the Maltese themselves traversing the high seas. The enormous galleys commanded by the Knights of St John were almost entirely Maltese manned either involuntarily as convicts being sentenced to serve their term on the oars at sea or voluntarily as recruits. Additionally, the Maltese were also privateers with their own ships, holding a licence from the Knights giving them piracy rights on the strict condition that Christian ships were not to be attacked.
The arrival of the British fleet was thus a godsend for Malta’s seafarers providing an outlet for naval and merchant shipping with many, many thousands enlisting and making a career at sea. The other positive side of the coin was the brunt of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet being based in Malta, acting as a great boost to the islands’ economy in various forms – including the Red Light districts of Valletta’s Strait Street and the Gzira and Marsa seafronts.
All these thoughts came to mind recently with the arrival of Britain’s currently largest battleship HMS Ocean on a courtesy call on its way home to Plymouth after six months of Red Sea and Suez patrols. This was probably her last visit to Malta as after 20 years of service the ship is due to be decommissioned in March of next year.
HMS Ocean is an amphibious helicopter carrier and has a hanger that can accommodate 12 large helicopters and has a displacement of 22,000 tonnes. The ship’s crew numbers 393 but it can easily accommodate 1,100 people and has enough provisions to cover 55 whole days at sea.
Needless to say, many thousands went down to the Valletta waterfront to see this enormous sea monster as well as to reminisce for old times’ sake when the Harbour was filled with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean flotilla.