MALTA, though a political dependency of Great Britain, belongs geographically to Italy, for it rises from the same submarine plateau as Sicily. About fifty miles to the east of the island the depth of the sea exceeds 1,500 fathoms, but in the north, in the direction of Sicily, it hardly amounts to eighty, and there can be no doubt that an isthmus formerly united Malta to continental Europe. Geologists are agreed that the land of which Malta and Gozzo are now the only remains must formerly have been of great extent, for amongst the fossils of its most recent limestone rocks have been found the bones of elephants and other animals which only inhabit continents. Even now the island is slowly wasting away, and its steep cliffs, pierced by numerous grottoes, locally known as ghar, are gradually crumbling. into dust.
Placed in the very centre of the Mediterranean. and possessed of an excellent pert, Malta has at all times been a commercial station of much importance. It has been occupied by all the nations w ho succeeded each other iii the possession of the MediterraneanPhoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Greeks. But long before that time the island must have been inhabited, for we meet with grottoes excavated in the rocks, and with curious edifices resembling the nuraglii of Sardinia, and it is just possible that the descendants of these aborigines still constitute the principal element of the existing population, which, at all events, is very mixed, and during the domination of the Saracens almost became Arab. The language spoken is a very corrupt Italian, containing many Arabic words.
The great military part played by Malta began when the Knights of St. John, after their expulsion from Rhodes in 1522, installed themselves upon the island, and converted it into the bulwark of the Christian world. In the beginning of this century Malta passed into the possession of the English, who may survey thence, as from a watch-tower, the whole of the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Smyrna and Port Said. The excellent port of La Valetta singularly facilitates the military and commercial part which Malta is called upon to play in the world of the Mediterranean. It is sufficiently spacious to shelter two entire fleets, and its approaches are defended by fortifications rendered impregnable by the successive e work of three centuries. There are, besides, all the facilities required by merchant-men, including a careening dock larger than any other in the world. The commerce of the island is rapidly increasing ; it is one of the great centres of steamboat navigation, and submarine telegraphs connect it with all parts of the world.
The city of La Valetta has retained all its ancient picturesqueness, in spite of its straight streets and the walls which surround it. Its high white houses, ornamented with balconies and conscratorics rise amphitheatre-like on the slope of a hill ; stairs lead from landing-place to landing-place to the summit of this hill ; and from every street we behold the blue sea, with its large merchantmen and crowds of smaller vessels. Gondolas, having two huge eyes painted upon the prow-, glide noiselessly over the waters, and curious vehicles roll heavily along the quays. Maltese, English soldiers, and sailors of every nation crowd the streets. Now and then a woman glides rapidly along the walls. Like all Christian women of the East, she wears the faldetta, a sort of black silk domino, which hides her sumptuous dress, and coquettishly conceals her features.
Malta beyond the walls of the town is but a dreary place of abode. The country rises gently towards the south, in the direction of Citta Vecchia and the hills of Ben Gemma. Grey rocks abound, a fine dust covers the vegetation, and the white walls of the village glisten in the sun. There are no trees, except in a few solitary gardens, where the famous mandarin oranges grow. or are there any risers. The soil is scorched, and it is matter for astonishment that it should yield such abundant harvests of cereals, and clover (sulla) growing to the height of a man. Carnation tints delight the eye during the season of flowers. The Maltese peasants, small, wiry, and muscular, are wonderfully industrious. They have brought the whole island under cultivation, the cliffs alone excepted, and, where vegetable soil is wanting, they produce it artificially by triturating the rocks. In former times vessels coming from Sicily were bound to bring a certain quantity of soil as ballast. But in spite of their careful cultivation, the inhabitants of Malta, Gozzo, and Comino (thus named from cumin, which, with cotton, is the principal crop of the island), the produce hardly suffices for six months’ consumption, and the islanders are largely dependent upon Sicily for their food. Navigation and the fisheries contribute likewise towards the means of subsistence, but the Maltese would nevertheless perish on their island if the surplus population did not emigrate to all the coast lands of the Mediterranean, and especially to Algeria, where the Maltese, as everywhere else, are distinguished for thrift and industry.
The tonnage of vessels which enter and clear annually from foreign ports amounts to 4,300.000 tons, the value of dutiable articles imported is nearly £9,000,000 sterling, and the value of the exports about the same.
In winter this exodus is in some measure compensated for by the arrival of many English families, who visit the island for the sake of its dry and mild climate. February is the finest mouth, and the island is then resplendent with verdure, but the scorching heat of summer soon dries up the vegetation.
A governor appointed by the Crown exercises executive functions, and enjoys the privilege of mercy. He is assisted by a Council of seen members, by whom all laws are discussed and voted. The lord-lieutenant of each district is chosen amongst the Maltese nobles, and deputies appointed by the governor manage the affairs of the villages. Italian is the language used in the courts, with the exception of the Supreme Court, into which English was introduced.
The revenues of the island, about £170,000 annually, are not sufficient to cover the military expenses, and the deficiency is made up by the imperial treasury.
Most of the inhabitants are Roman Catholics. The bishop is appointed by the Pope, and enjoys an income of £4,000.