Malta Diary Was the first-ever European Union established in Malta over 500 years ago – together with the very first BREXIT?
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My beginning today is from the end and our Maltese saying that “the most excellent essences come in the smallest of bottles”. Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world, in diplomatic, political and economic spheres almost totally insignificant. In fact, when I think about it I am always reminded of the excellent and hilarious Peter Sellars film from the 1960s, “The Mouse that Roared”.
I will not bore with latest economic and financial statistics, that Malta has the second smallest unemployment rate throughout the EU and only second to Germany; that over the last five years 40,000 expatriates have found work and live in Malta swelling the 400,000 or so Maltese population to almost 450,000; that the EU Commission has just announced that Malta has attained the greatest economic growth throughout the EU over the last two years and will remain like that for the next two years. I can go on and on – but better not.
That’s all about the present, but what about the past? Well, Malta and Gozo have the oldest free-standing Neolithic Temples in the world (4,000 years old); that some believe that Malta was the centre of the lost-continent Atlantis; that in the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth I of Britain wrote to the Knights of Malta that the minute island in Europe had saved European Christendom from the Ottoman Turks (one islander to another of course); that the Maltese defied Napoleon and the French and threw them out and in their place invited the British; that Malta has the highest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites in such a small territorial area.
However, there is a most further and much-overlooked other historic fact. Napoleon wanted to unite Europe as one entity – under French control of course! In 1958, six European countries established the Treaty of Rome and pioneered today’s European Union to form the European Common Market which may/may not be in the process of crumbling!
Nothing new for us Maltese because we had already experienced this over 500 years ago and the system worked. How so? Well, when the Knights of St John of Jerusalem were thrown out of Rhodes by the Ottomans they were “given” the island of Malta to relocate and retrench.
Now the Knights were a motley crew hailing from various houses of nobility throughout Europe, commanded by an appointed Grandmaster, yet composed of a babble of tongues and countries of origin, a veritable Tower of Babel!
Housing them together was unthinkable because of different national customs as well as language difficulties.
The best alternative was to establish “langues” and as much as possible keep them apart unless necessary military action was needed to bring them together in common defence – which is what happened.
Therefore when the Knights relocated to Malta, granted to them against an annual payment of a Maltese Falcon (famous Humphrey Bogart film) on every 1st November by Emperor Charles V of Sicily and his Spanish mother Queen Joanna of Castile, the unionisation of Europe came together.
This created greater headaches than that for the Treaty of Rome in 1958. What today we know as Germany, Italy, Spain and a number of other countries were in fact separate provinces held together by language bonds and not as a national entity and their own country relationships were often spiky and war-faring.
The Knights established the following eight “Auberges” which can in common parlance be looked upon as embassies, where the Knights lived, enjoyed their particular cuisine and exercised their own language or dialect language. All were situated in the “new” capital Valletta built in 1568. Many of these were previously situated in Vittoriosa until Valletta was built and they then relocated to be in the capital city.
The Auberge d’Allemagne which sadly was demolished by the British soon after their arrival for the site to host the Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral, which still stands and now, long may it do so.
The Auberge d’Auvergne which was destroyed by enemy bombing during WWII and years later was replaced with Malta’s Law Courts.
The Auberge de France, also sadly bombed to demolition by enemy bombing and now the site of the HQ of Malta’s largest union, the General Workers’ Union.
The Auberge de Castille et Leon, regarded to be the most magnificent of all and now the Office of the Prime Minister.
The Auberge d’Aragon which stands opposite St Paul’s Cathedral and is now a Government Ministry.
The Auberge d’Italie which today houses the offices of the Malta Tourism Authority.
The Auberge de Provence, today the home of the National Archaeological Museum.
The Auberge de Baviere et Angleterre, now Government offices having formerly been used as a school.
These were and are magnificent buildings. Prominent in the Order were French, Spanish, Portughese, Italian and German Knights and from these were chosen the Grandmasters. At the time, Portugal was ruled by Spain and the Portughese were housed in the Spanish langues.
There existed a formal council, but disputes of honour were frequent and settled by gruesome duels in Valletta’s Strait Street, a street for prostitutes and courtesans!
To ENSURE Malta’s first European Union, the Order also had British Knights BUT when Henry VIII decided to break away from the Church in Rome, he withdrew and disbanded the British Order and only one British Knight remained.
Surely, the undisputed forerunner of BREXIT!
“The most excellent of essences come in the smallest of bottles”
Small is beautiful, the smaller, the better.