The harbour at the turn of the 19th century

The harbour at the turn of the 19th century

A major chunk of the history of the Mediterranean region, for centuries known as “the cradle of civilisation” before Marco Polo’s long trek to China and the discovery of the Americas, is centred around Malta’s beautiful Grand Harbour. It is the largest natural harbour in Europe and reputed by many to be the largest natural harbour in the world in contrast to Malta and the Maltese being regarded as one of the smallest countries and nations in the world.


It is naturally very deep, deep enough to take the largest ocean-going liners and tankers and equally shore-line expansive and it’s magnet-like formation has certainly been a magnet for major points in history.


Almost 5,000 years ago the Phoenicians sailed into Malta from The Lebanon and established a central Mediterranean trading post to carry out trade with the nearby Mediterranean territories and eventually to sail out of the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic where they cruised up the Iberian coast and eventually landed in Britain.


Since then, every major power has set its sights on the harbour that is until the Second World War when the realisation of nuclear power and the development of long-range aircraft swung the balance away from the massive port and thence decreased its hitherto strategic importance.


The Romans held Malta for several hundreds of years, this being a key to the whole of the North African region where they expanded to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and as far as Morocco.


The Arab Caliphate (the same Caliphate that notorious ISIS is now attempting to re-create in Iraq and Syria) held Malta for 200 years before they were expelled by Count Roger of Normandy.


The next major development was the arrival of the Knights of St John after they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans. At this point, the shores of the Grand Harbour were still sparsely populated with Cospicua, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Marsa being minor hamlets and Valletta not yet built.


The Great Siege by the Ottomans in 1565 was exclusively centred about the Grand Harbour with the Turks seeing Malta as the launch pad for the soft European under-belly and from thence an expansion into middle and northern Europe.


The Siege – which lasted three months – was the real making of the harbour’s importance and the scene of all military and naval encounters and some of them were quite horrific by modern-day standards. In one particular incident the Turks – who made low-lying Marsa as their base – slaughtered their Christian prisoners, nailed them to crucifixes and towed them into the centre of the harbour to have them float towards the three cities.


In angry retaliation, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette ordered the execution of all Turkish prisoners, had them beheaded and used the heads as cannon-fodder to be blasted into the Turkish encampment in Marsa.


Such were the “nicities” of the Middle Ages, atrocities seen as being par for the course at the time.


The development of the British Empire and its expansion into Africa and Asia as well as Napoleon’s quest for European domination coupled with French imperial ambition proved to be the next stepping stone to expansion.


The French Mediterranean fleet on its way to Egypt with Napoleon on the mother ship “L-Orient” blockaded and then entered the harbour and stayed for two years before being expelled by the British and Malta slotted into the British Empire for the next 150 years or so.


The two world wars of the 20th century also brought the Grand Harbour into focus, playing a key part in troop movements during the First war and then becoming one of the Axis main targets in the Second with Hitler and Mussolini determining that the British hold on the Mediterranean region and North Africa would be drastically reduced if they lost Malta.


The 1939-1945 conflict was devastating for the Grand Harbour regions as they bore the brunt of almost continual aerial bombing raids on British ships in the harbour but essentially also to wreak havoc on the dockyard facilities that serviced the British and allied ships in the whole of the Mediterranean.


The Three Cities, Marsa and Valletta suffered extensive damages and most of the inhabitants had to be rehabilitated inland.


The epic period was reached in 1942 when Malta underwent its second Great Siege. Surrounded by the Italian Mediterranean Fleet and continually bombarded by the Nazis, Malta was running short of everything, particularly food but more essentially oil as fuel for aircraft and ships.


In collaboration with the United States, the British mounted “Operation Pedestal”, a fleet of 50 merchant shipping vessels loaded with foodstuffs and oils, accompanied by British Royal Navy escorts. It was deemed essential that the convoy should reach Malta to avoid the drastic consequence of it being over-powered by the Axis powers.


When the fleet entered the Straits of Gibraltar, their sea and aerial bombardment escalated, with Italian submarines taking a particularly heavy toll. Ship after ship was doomed in what has become regarded as the most extensive loss-of-life convoy in marine history.


It seemed that all was lost. However, six or so ships from the original 50 survived and on 15th August 1942, the first of them, the American merchant tanker SS Ohio limped into the Grand Harbour with its precious cargo of oil. It had been hit so badly it listed dangerously and had to be propped up by accompanying naval vessels.


News of Ohio’s imminent arrival had spread like wildfire and thousands of Maltese lined the higher parts of the harbour to cheer the tanker into port. Its arrival was seen as a miracle on a particularly auspicious day because the 15th of August is the feast of The Assumption and this seemed of great significance to the Maltese as being divine intervention, a miracle.


Later in 1942 Malta was awarded the George Cross by King George VI in recognition of the resistance and bravery of the Maltese people and thenceforth became known as Malta GC. That title is rarely used nowadays but the George Cross has become part of the national white and red flag.


Malta survived the war and entered into a new chapter in history, eventually gaining Independence from Britain on 21st September 1964.


The military and strategic attraction of the Grand Harbour had diminished but its extensive natural facilities did not. In the 1970s the Chinese built a massive dock to take the world’s largest oil tankers and the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st has seen Malta develop into an important Mediterranean port for cruise liners.


This in turn led to the development of the Valletta Waterfront packed with restaurants and bars and the refurbishment of the Vittoriosa Waterfront. There are now plans for the refurbishment of the other shores in a similar manner and the future looks bright.