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6 Maltese Population, 1530–1798 The arrival of the Order of Saint John on October 26, 1530, was an important turning point in Maltese history. It was the first time that Malta’s rulers had been resident on the island since the time of the little-known cultures of the Neolithic period. Curiously, the local Maltese population almost entirely disappeared from the historical record in this period, during which the emphasis was on the Order of Saint John and its European members, who spent only limited time on the island. The fate of the Maltese can be read between the lines, however, and a general picture can be acquired through the obscure references to “the locals.” The following paragraphs are a preliminary attempt to shed light on the effects of the Order’s rule on Malta and the Maltese. The first impression of the Order’s inspectors (as described in chapter 3) was not favorable: the Maltese Islands lacked foodstuffs, fortifications, and the people necessary for a defensive force. The Knights were almost forced to accept this “gift” from Charles V, with the understanding that they were to build the infrastructure they would need, including fortifications, hospitals, palaces, residential areas, and religious centers. Fortifications such as Fort Sant’Angelo and the landward defenses that surrounded Birgu were erected within a few decades of the arrival of the Order in Malta. The Order of Saint John was one of the most prosperous religious institutions in Europe, especially in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Order’s investment in Malta created an economic vitality on the island and new job opportunities in construction and ancillary businesses that provided food and luxury items for the Knights who resided there. The Maltese population increased fivefold during the Order’s rule, and new trades and industries were developed to meet the financial and material requirements of this population.1 Trade contacts with the North African coast were renewed, and warrants of safe conduct were issued to Muslim and Christian merchants. The major expenditures of the Order were the maintenance of the galley squadron, salaries of the office holders, expenses of the Lazzaretto, and construction and maintenance fees for the fortifications. In addition to the income from European estates, the major sources of income for the Knights were prizes taken by the galleys, entry fees to the Order, and the ransom and sale of slaves. The prizes and slaves were sold in Maltese markets and constituted the major ex- Maltese Population, 1530–1798 167 change goods of Malta. Corsairs were expected to bring their prizes to Malta unless the condition of the captured ship dictated its sale in another harbor. All of this suggests a generally positive impact on the island, but part of the Maltese population, especially the local nobility and the Maltese middle class, deeply resented the Order’s rule. Prior to the arrival of the Knights, this population formed a microsociety, albeit one enjoying “little money, little prestige , and little power.”2 The grant of the Maltese Islands to the Order in 1530 alarmed the inhabitants, particularly the ruling class. Although rule by the Aragonese crown had not always been positive, the Maltese were distinctly concerned about what the Order’s rule might bring. The local governing bodies , the università, objected strongly to the transfer of sovereignty, but in the end they had to settle for an assurance from the Order that their traditional rights and powers would be respected.3 The Maltese, therefore, found themselves the subjects of a new ruler: the Grandmaster of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. According to the initial agreements, the Grandmaster was expected to act with the advice of the Order’s council and in accordance with its statutes. But in his dealings with the Maltese people, he was not so restricted, and the ancient privileges and liberties of the islanders were never to restrain his authority greatly.4 The day-to-day running of the administration remained in the hands of the università, consisting of two to four jurats (giurati), or aldermen , assisted by several officials. Based on Bezzina’s study of the università in Gozo, during the Knights’ period, the major responsibilities of this institution were to organize the food shipments from Sicily, arrange the sanitary and cleaning services in the town centers, and administer the schools on the island .5 One of the main disagreements was that before 1530 the coast guards (le guarde maritime) had been under the jurisdiction of...


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