History of Malta

From Academic Kids

Malta has been inhabited since around 5200 BC and a significant pre-historic civilisation existed on the islands prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians who named the main island Malat, meaning safe haven. The islands later came under the control of first Carthage (400 BC) and then Rome (218 BC). During Roman rule, in A.D. 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta at a place now called St. Paul's Bay. Malta was conquered by Arabs in 870 AD, who would greatly influence local culture, notably in the Maltese language. In 1090 they were finally replaced by the Sicilian Normans, namely by Roger I of Sicily, after which Malta became Christian again.

In 1530 the islands were given to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, who had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire. This militant monastic order, now known as the "Knights of Malta", withstood a siege by the Ottomans in 1565, after which they increased the fortifications, particularly in the city of Valletta. Their reign ended when Napoleon conquered the islands in 1798. The British then took the islands in 1800 and appointed Sir Alexander John Ball governor.

In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, Malta officially became a part of the British Empire and was used as a shipping waystation and the headquarters for the Mediterranean Fleet was based there, until the mid-1930s. Malta played a role during World War II, due to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. After the war, Maltese independence was granted on September 21, 1964. It has remained a member of the Commonwealth, becoming a republic in 1974. In the April 2003 referendum, voters expressed their will to join the European Union, which led to the island joining as a full member on May 1, 2004.



Malta stands on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa up to Sicily in Southern Europe. Millions of years ago the entire island was submerged, as indicated by marine fossils embedded in the rock in the highest points of the island. As the ridge was pushed up and the straits of Gibraltar closed through tectonic activity, the sea level was lower, and Malta was on a bridge of dry land that extended between the two continents, surrounded by large lakes. Some caverns in Malta have revealed the skeletal remains of elephants, hippopotami and other large animals from the African continent, while others reveal the existence of animals from Europe.



Facade of the Neolithic temple of Hagar Qim Malta

Man first arrived in Malta around 5200 BC. These first Neolithic people probably arrived from Sicily (about 60 miles north), and were mainly farming and fishing communities, with some evidence of hunting activities. They apparently lived in caves and open dwellings. During the centuries that followed there is evidence of further contacts with other cultures, which left their influence on the local communities, evidenced by their pottery designs and colours.

One of the most notable periods of Malta's history is the temple period, starting around 3600 BC. Malta's prehistoric temples are the oldest free-standing buildings in the world (photo ( Many of the temples are in the form of five semicircular rooms connected at the centre. It has been suggested that these might have represented the head, arms and legs of a deity, since one of the most common statues found in these temples is that of a fat woman—a symbol of fertility. The Temple period lasted until about 2500 BC, at which point the civilisation that raised these huge monoliths seems to have disappeared. There is a lot of speculation about what might have happened, and whether they were completely wiped out or their numbers fell to such levels that no trace remains of their presence.

After the Temple period came the Bronze Age. From this period we have remains of a number of settlements and villages, as well as dolmens—altar-like structures made out of very large slabs of stone. However one of the most interesting and mysterious remnants of this era are the cart ruts ( These are pairs of parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock, and extending for considerable distances, often in an exactly straight line. Their exact use is unknown. One suggestion is that beasts of burden used to pull carts along, and these channels would guide the "carts" along pre-set routes, preventing the animal from straying.

Roman Era

Malta came under the influence of the Phoenicians probably around the 8th century BC, during which time the Phoenicians dominated trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. A number of temples from this period show a dedication to the goddess Astarte. The Phoenicians called the island "Malat", which means a safe haven. Two candelabra found in Malta bore an inscription in both Phoenician and Greek, which provided the key to deciphering the Phoenician language.

Malta was an important cultic center for earth-mother worship in the 4th millennium B.C. Recent archeological work shows a developed religious center there long before those of Sumer and Egypt. Malta's written history began well before the Christian era. Originally the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians, established ports and trading settlements on the island. During the second Punic war, Malta fell under the control of the Romans, and was incorporated in the Republic of Rome in 218 BC. The Romans called the island Melita, probably a corruption of the Phoenician Malat. There are several remains of the Roman period in Malta, including some mosaics in the city of Melita (modern day Mdina and part of Rabat).

It is during this period that St. Paul, one of the most prominent figures of Christianity, was shipwrecked on the island on his way to Rome. This event was described in the Bible, Acts 28:1-11 ( Tradition has it that St.Paul converted the island to Christianity and that Publius became its first bishop, but there is no historical evidence to support this mass conversion. The first actual evidence of a Christian community on the island dates to the 4th century AD. Locations believed to have been associated with St.Paul's time spent on the island remain popular pilgrimage spots today.


After the Roman Empire collapsed, Malta passed briefly under the hands of the Byzantines before it was occupied by Sicilian Arabs in 870 AD. This period had a very great influence on the existing civilisation. The Arabs introduced many new techniques in irrigation, some of which are still used, unchanged, today. Many place names in Malta also date back to this period. The city of Mdina, which was extensively modified in this period, also bears a resemblance to other towns in North Africa from this period.

The Maltese language probably dates from this period. It is a semitic language, originally derived from Arabic and later extensively influenced by Italian and English. Although today it is written using a Latin alphabet, this is a rather recent addition, and for much of its history it was written using whichever alphabet was used by the ruling power in the island.

Middle Ages

In 1090 count Roger I of Sicily, made an initial attempt to establish Norman rule of Malta, and in 1127 his son Roger II of Sicily succeeded. This marked the gradual change from an Arab cultural influence to a European one.

Until the 13th century however there remained a strong Muslim segment of society. Malta was an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain. Eventually Aragon—then ruling the island—joined with Castile in 1479 and Malta became part of the Spanish Empire.

Malta's administration thus fell in the hands of the local nobility, mostly of Sicilian and Spanish origins, who formed a governing body called the Università.

Knights of St. John

In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire started spreading over the region, reaching South-East Europe. The Spanish king Charles V feared that if Rome fell to the Turks it would be the end of Christian Europe. In 1522, Suleiman II drove the Knight Hospitallers of St. John out of Rhodes. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe. Wanting to protect Rome from invasion from the South, in 1530 Charles V handed over the island to these Knights.

For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.

The Knights of St. John were originally established as an order to set up outposts along the route to the Holy Land, to assist pilgrims going in either directions. Due to the many confrontations that took place, one of their main tasks was to provide medical assistance, and even today the 8-pointed cross is still in wide use in ambulances and first aid organisations. In return for the many lives they saved, the Order received many newly conquered territories that had to be defended. This, together with the need to defend the pilgrims in their care, gave rise to the strong military wing of the Knights. Over time, the Order became strong and rich. From hospitallers first and military second, the priorities changed to military first, and hospitallers second. Since much of the territory they covered was around the mediterranean region they became notable seamen.

The Great Siege

After several retreats and defeats, including the loss of their last stronghold in Rhodes (which was at Turkey's doorstep) the Order was offered the island of Malta. From here they resumed their seaborne attacks of Ottoman shipping, and before long the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent ordered a final attack on the Order. By this time the Knights had occupied the city of Birgu, which had excellent harbours to house their fleet. Also Birgu was one of the two major urban places at that time, the other most urban place being Mdina the old capital city of Malta. The defences around Birgu were enhanced and new fortifications built on the other point where now there is Senglea. Also a small fort was built at the tip of the penisula where now stands the city of Valletta and was named Fort St. Elmo. On May 18, 1565 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. By the time the Ottoman fleet arrived the Knights were as ready as they could be. First the Ottomans attacked the newly built fort of St. Elmo and after a whole month of fighting the fort was in rubble and the soldiers kept fighting till the Turks ended their lives. After this they started attacking Birgu and the fortifications at Senglea but to no gain. After a protracted siege ended on September 8 of the same year, which became known in history as "the Great Siege", the Ottoman Empire conceded defeat as the approaching winter storms threatened to prevent them from leaving. The Ottoman empire had expected an easy victory within weeks. They had 40,000 men arrayed against the Knights' 9,000 most of them Maltese soldiers and simple citizens bearing arms. Their loss of thousands of men was very demoralising. The Ottomans made no further significant military advances in Europe and the Sultan died a few years later.

The year after, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other. It was named Valletta after the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory—Jean Paristot de la Valette. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test and today remain one of the best preserved fortifications of this period.

Unlike other rulers of the island, the Order of St. John did not have a "home country" outside the island. The island became their home, so they invested in it more heavily than any other power. Besides, its members came from noble families, and had amassed considerable fortune due to their services in the route to the Holy Land. The architectural and artistic remains of this period remain among the greatest of Malta's history, especially in their "prize jewel"—the city of Valletta.

However, as their main raison d'etre ceased to exist, the Order's glory days were over.

Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; when Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet arrived in 1798, the Order handed over the island without opposition. Since the Order had also been growing unpopular with the local Maltese, the latter initially viewed the French as their liberators. This illusion did not last long. Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French garrison of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the locals to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered.

See also:

British Rule

In 1814, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British especially after the opening of the Suez canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. Home rule was refused to the Maltese however, and the locals suffered considerable poverty. In 1919 there were riots over the excessive price of bread. These would lead to greater autonomy for the locals. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly, although the Constitution was often suspended.

Language Issue

Prior to the arrival of the British, the language of the educated elite had been Italian, but this was increasingly downgraded by the increased use of English. In 1934 English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages. The British associated Italian with the Mussolini regime in Italy, which had made territorial claims on the islands, although the use of Italian by nationalists was more out of cultural affinities with Italy than any sympathy with Italian Fascism.

World War II

Prior to World War II, Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet's headquarters. However, despite Winston Churchill's objections, the command was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, during the mid-1930s. At the time of the Italian declaration of war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than 4,000 soldiers and ~5 weeks worth of food supplies for the population of ~300,000. In addition, Malta's air defenses consisted of ~42 anti-aircraft guns (34 "heavy" and 8 "light") and 4 Gloster Gladiators, for which 3 pilots were available.

Being a British colony, situated close Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italians German air forces. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic.

The first air raids against Malta occurred on June 11, 1940; there were 6 attacks that day. The island's biplanes were unable to defend due to the Luqa Airfield being unfinished; however, the airfield was ready by the 7th attack. Initially, the Italians would fly at ~5,500m, then they dropped down to 3,000m (in order to improve the accuracy of their bombs). Major Paine would state, "[After they dropped down], we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at [6000m]. Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate." Mabel Strickland would state, "The Italians decided they didn't like [the Gladiators and AA guns], so they dropped their bombs [30km] off Malta and went back."

By the end of August, the Gladiators were reinforced by 12 Hawker Hurricanes which had arrived via the HMS Argus. During the first five months of combat, the islands aircraft would destroy or damage ~37 Italian aircraft and result in Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera to state, "Malta was really a big problem for us—very well defended." On Malta, 330 people had been killed and 297 were seriously wounded. In January 1941, the German Fliegerkorps X would arrive in Sicily as the Afrika Korps arrived in Libya.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta--its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness."

Attempted Integration with Britain

After the war, the islands were given self-rule, with the Maltese Labour Party (MLP) of Dom Mintoff favouring closer integration with Britain, and the Nationalist Party (PN) of Dr George Borg Olivier favouring further independence.

In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.

Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands' main source of employment. This received overwhelming support in a referendum on February 14, 1956, although a boycott by the PN and the Roman Catholic Church meant that the result was inconclusive. Further disagreement with the MLP over finance lead to the talks breaking down in 1958, with direct rule being imposed by London.


It was soon clear that the locals now favoured independence, and on September 21, 1964, Malta became an independent state. Malta remained in the Commonwealth and recognised the Queen as head of state. Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister again in 1971 and moved towards loosening ties with Britain and pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy, establishing close ties with Libya. The Maltese pound - now called the Maltese Lira (LM) - ended its link with the Pound Sterling. Malta became a republic in 1974, with the last Governor-General, Sir Anthony Mamo, as its first President. In 1979 the last British forces left the island. Mintoff remained Prime Minister until 1984, Labour then lost to the PN in 1987, now led by Eddie Fenech Adami. The PN sought to improve Malta's ties with Western Europe and the United States.

EU Membership

Fenech Adami also advocated Malta's membership of the European Union (EU). This became a divisive issue, with Labour being opposed. The PN government fell in 1996, and Labour's Alfred Sant, now Prime Minister, withdrew Malta's application for EU membership. The PN returned to power in 1998, and reapplied for EU membership. A referendum on EU membership in 2003 saw a small majority in favour of membership, although Labour stated that it would not be bound by the result were it returned to power in the forthcoming general election that year. However, the PN was returned to office, and Malta joined the EU in May 2004.


  • The Maltese Falcon: When Charles V handed the island over to the Knights, one of the conditions attached to the handover was that the Order would send the King a live falcon as an annual tribute. The jewel-encrusted golden falcon of Dashiell Hammett's novel (adapted by John Huston's into a famous 1941 film) is entirely fictitious.
  • The Maltese Cross: Technically, this is the cross of the Order of St John, but the name "Maltese Cross (" stuck. It was not used by the order from its inception. Initially a Greek cross with V-shaped ends, the traditional shape with four arrowheads touching at their tips first appears when the Knights were in Malta.

External links

de:Geschichte Maltas fr:Histoire de Malte sk:Dejiny Malty


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools