On my holidays this year I seem to have been bumping into the long arm of the Georgian navy at every turn. In August and September I wrote about encounters in Canada with Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, and uncle, William IV when he was a naval officer. Last month I visited Malta and, standing in front of the Grand Master’s Palace in the heart of Valletta, found myself looking up at an unmistakable coat of arms on the opposite side of St George’s Square.
Even without seeing the date of 1814, this is clearly a Georgian coat of arms with the white horse of the house of Hanover as the other supporter with the British lion. So what was it doing there? I should have remembered that Malta was one of the Mediterranean islands that fell to the British after the defeat of the French navy at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Translated the motto reads: “The love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe assigned these Islands to great and unconquered Britain. A.D. 1814.” No shortage of self-confidence there…
The Grand Harbour is one of the greatest harbours of the world, as the Knights of St John who had governed Malta for hundreds of years appreciated. In 1798 the French ousted the Knights and took over the supremely strategic island and even after the Battle of the Nile the French clung on to Malta, with some of the surviving ships of the fleet sheltering in the harbour. The British navy promptly blockaded the island. They were helped by the Maltese population who, although they were weary of the Knights’ rule, seem to have liked the French even less. In September 1800 the French ships tried to break out and were captured and the island fell. In 1814, the date on the coat of arms, Malta became a British colony, finally achieving independence in 1964.
Throughout history Malta has been of huge strategic importance in the Mediterranean which has made it all too often the target of fierce fighting – notably under the Knights and during the Second World War where its population endured the most appalling conditions and were awarded the George Cross as a tribute to their courage. With the arrival of the British in 1800 the island found an unexpected peace and prosperity. British merchants came in droves and it became an invaluable distribution point for British exports and the harbour and the presence of the fleet created huge commercial and employment opportunities. Not all was sweetness and light – the history of Anglo-Maltese relations is too complex to explore here – but the British presence for over 160 years has left a deep impression on the island.
The Grand Master’s Palace (below) became the seat of government and the residence of the British Governor.
Opposite is the Main Guard Building (below) which was built by the Knights in 1603 as the guardhouse for the Palace. The neo-classical portico was added, along with the coat of arms, in 1814.
So what was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, perhaps now most famous for his poems The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, to do with this? To my surprise I found a plaque to him on a building on the corner of St George’s Square. Apparently, in 1804, despite health problems and an increasing opium addiction, he travelled to Sicily and then to Malta where he found a post as Acting Public Secretary under the Civil Commissioner, Sir Alexander Bell. Despite being successful in the role he resigned and returned to England in 1806.