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E - 34 : Why Maltese also Speak English

A few weeks ago, I talked about Malta being the only nation in the European Union where people speak a Semitic language. It would be an ideal bridge to the Arab world. But it is not. After becoming English in 1800, the island linked its destiny to Europe. Why was the British Empire interested in this tiny rock with no economic potential?

Next to pubs and red letter boxes, the English Telephone Cabins are the most visible British legacy on the island.

We find the answer not in the Mediterranean but in the Atlantic where the great powers Spain, England, and France jockeyed for influence and territory. With the discovery of the Americas in 1492 and the opening of a direct route to India in 1498, the world economy’s center of gravity shifted decisively to the West. The time of the Atlantic started.

  1. The profit from trading with Asia now accumulated in Lisbon, Amsterdam, and London instead of Istanbul, Cairo, Venice, and Genoa.

  2. The huge quantities of silver from Bolivia stimulated the world economy. The trade volume with Asia increased, military and civilian technology made serious progress and cities became large again: Amsterdam, London, Paris are good examples.

  3. New products from the Americas were hugely profitable: sugar from the Caribbean, fish, and timber from the North American coast

The powerful Spanish Ship of the Line, the Santa Anna

In the beginning, Spain was all dominant. Its fleet was powerful. No other nation could challenge it openly. For 100 years, Spain controlled the Atlantic. With the failed invasion of England in 1588 (Spanish Armada) and Spain’s weakening in the 30-Years War (1618 – 1648), things started to change though. From 1600 to 1800, the three nations fought over a dozen big wars, both on land and on sea. Territorial gains in Europe were often exchanged for Caribbean islands with their lucrative sugar. Eventually they became French and English.

The heavily fortified Spanish Naval Base and town of Cartagena in the Mediterranean

In this context, England got drawn into the Mediterranean, a sea it did not have any strategic interest in before. France and Spain both had important naval bases in the Mediterranean which the Royal Navy tried to blockade during wars. Toulon, Cartagena, Gibraltar, and Cadiz are some of them. For this reason, the Royal Navy started to keep a large number of ships in the Mediterranean.

The equally heavy fortified French Naval Base of Toulon

The logistics for such an undertaking were daunting. Sailing from South Hampton to Gibraltar (1374 nm) takes two weeks under the best circumstances, from Gibraltar to Malta (1’145 nm) another 12 days. To resupply, a Royal Navy ship would have to sail one month back and another month to return. To make matters worse, in the age of sail, a ship’s bottom had to be inspected every 2 years and its copper coating replaced every 5 years. In a nutshell, keeping a permanent fleet in the Mediterranean without a naval base was extremely difficult.

General at Sea Robert Blake (1598 - 1657)

Since 1654, the Royal Navy had a “Commander in Chief” in the Mediterranean, the first one being the famous General at Sea Robert Blake, the father of the modern Royal Navy. He was the first to blockage Cadiz during winter and showed how vulnerable Spain was in the Mediterranean. Finding a fleet base in the Mediterranean was one of the highest priorities for the Royal Navy. It was successful in 1704 with the conquest of Gibraltar. The British heavily fortified it. Over the next 100 years, Gibraltar was besieged multiple times – less for Spanish pride than for the necessity to get the Royal Navy out of the Mediterranean. But all efforts failed. Today, Gibraltar is still British. But Brexit may do what the Spanish guns failed to achieve.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar in 1782 - Spain attacks the

Rock by land and sea

Gibraltar with its open harbor and its location at the western end of the Mediterranean was less than ideal. The British Empire needed a more central naval base. The problem was that none of the existing harbors would do. Finding a base could not be done by simple treaty with one of the existing powers. Most Mediterranean harbors were built for galleys with a shallow draft. They were not deep enough. A ship like the HMS Victory had a draft of 8.67 meters, however. The Royal Navy needed a deep seawater port.

The HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's Flagship at Trafalgar, in the Portmouth

In 1708, a British-Dutch Force conquered the island of Menorca. England built the giant Fort St Philip at the tip of the north-eastern inlet. But Menorca was close to the mainland and difficult to defend – also it had no infrastructure. The British had to build wharfs, depots, and barracks. They – together with the ruins of the fort - still stand. Between 1756 – 1762, the island was back in Spanish hands again and permanently lost in 1782. When the Royal Navy needed the port most – during the big wars – it was in enemy hands.

Spanish Troops retaking Fort St Philip on Menorca in 1756 - the harbour is to the left

Napoleon’s conquest of Malta thus provided England with a unique opportunity. To conduct his campaign in Egypt and the Levant, Bonaparte could not afford to leave a big garrison behind. Not surprisingly, British Forces attacked once Admiral Nelson sunk the French fleet in Abukir in 1798. By 1800, Malta was English. And would remain so until 1964. Finally, England had what it needed. A deep-water port - well fortified and easy to defend.

View of the Grand Harbour in the 18th century - as Napoleon and the British saw it

Immediately, the Royal Navy put its new port to good use. The Mediterranean Command became the biggest and the Royal Navy’s most prestigious command. Wharfs were built and docks deepened to accommodate the big Ships of the Line – the main battle ships of 80 to 100 guns. Finally, they did not have to return to England for maintenance & refitting.

The Docks of Malta's Great Harbour were all built by the Royal Navy - today they maintain the luxury yachts of the world's billionaires

Within a few years, the Royal Navy became Malta’s biggest employer. Poor people who had lived on subsistence farms suddenly found decently paid jobs. La Valetta began to expand beyond its walls. The industrial revolution accelerated the process. Ships now made of steel and propelled by steam engines required engineers, welders, machinists, electricians. The British had to train their own workforce. To do so, they revamped the entire education system, created new businesses, and introduced common law which still prevails today. With the large industrial work force came a strong Labour Movement which would dominate Malta in the years after independence. Also, thousands of young Maltese enlisted with the Royal Navy who always was looking for skilled sailors and officers.

Part of the Royal Navy in the Grand Harbour during the early 1960s

Whilst Maltese remained the spoken language, English became the language for business, education, and government. There were – and still are – many English restaurants and pubs. Beer became the national drink and is measured in pints – not liters. People in Malta switch easily between Maltese and English. It is the island’s second official language. And with the tech industry and remote working booming, it may well have a long future.

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