This is the third book in a series researched and produced by Patrick Staines respecting the earliest phases of British government in Malta. Over the first half of the eighteen hundreds. The first book spanned the phase from 1800 to 1813; the second book extended the coverage to 1835, and this Book III now goes further to 1851. The three books closely complement each other.
The first book reviews the systems of administration, which remained basically the ways of administration of the Order of St John. The scheming of William Eton to unseat Civil Commissioner Alexander Ball plays a large part in the narration of events, but the more important features of the time centre on Malta’s role as the hub of economic activity in Britain’s measures in the Mediterranean to counter the effects of Napoleon’s Continental System. The period winds up with a comprehensive scrutiny of the prevailing systems of government, undertaken by the Royal Commission of 1812. And finally too there was the deadly onset of the Plague in 1813 which the Book describes in great detail.
The Maitland years set the direction of the second book, which also covers the Hastings and Ponsonby administrations. Maitland initiated the assumption of British Sovereignty, brought the ravages of the Plague to an end, put into effect the elements of reform, especially Judicial and financial, recommended by the 1812 Royal Commission, and sought to adapt the Maltese economy to the difficult circumstances brought about by the end of the Napoleonic wars. Administratively Maitland’s term of office represented the shedding of the old ways of the Knights, and the reordering of governing systems on the basis of British principles of administration. His appointment in 1816 to the Ionian Islands certainly diluted his impact on Malta thereafter, but even so he did leave an indelible imprint of his time.
Hasting’s time in Malta prioritised the generation of employment, but he died much too early to achieve much in this respect. Ponsonby’s time, on the other hand, was much longer, though his authority as Governor was greatly diminished by a positive flood of controls which spread out of London after 1820, and by the appropriation to imperial use of large portions of revenue which could have been put to better use for Malta’s benefit, at a time when expenditure by government was Malta’s primary economic impulse. An interesting aspect of Ponsonby’s time was the re-awakening of political demands by Maltese activists. These demands in fact had a direct bearing on the appointment of a Council of Government in 1835, and the sending out to Malta of the 1836-38 Royal Commission, as indeed we see in this Third Book.
The third Book closely examines the working of the 1836 Royal Commission, which inter alia reflected on alternative possibilities of constitutional reform, though its suggestions were inordinately late and never distinctly defined. Indeed no reform emerged. Nevertheless the situation was to some extent rendered tolerable by the enactment of the 1839 Press Freedom Ordinance, which allowed freedom of political comment and criticism, where previously no such freedom existed.
The 1835-1851 period was however not solely or even mainly about political advancement. There was the critical water shortage resulting from the rain water drought of 1839-1841. There was the return of the Jesuits to Malta in a teaching capacity, and their departure again after a short while in unfortunate circumstances. Prominent during this period was the confused Currency situation which bore heavily on market operations; and interesting reforms were introduced bearing on the extension countrywide of the public health system. Formal Censal population measurements were also made, and emigration became a feature of population balance.
But of course the principal event of the forties was the 1849 Constitution, a major event very much to More O’Ferral’s credit which seems to have fully met political expectations. Finally, one must mention a project which might have been but did not happen. Governor Reid’s project of constructing a Canal/Tunnel connecting the Great Harbour and Marsamuscetto Harbours. This plan failed to materialise because Maltese representatives in the Council of Government considered that the proposed routing of the Canal/Tunnel was biased in favour of military and naval interests and did not give sufficient heed to commercial interests.