Graffiti: an unofficial legacy to former servicemen in Malta

Baroque Architecture researcher and illustrator Denis A. Darmanin zooms in on examples of military graffiti spread out across the Maltese islands.

Galleon of the Order of St John, Wied il-Qlejgha, l/o Mosta.
Galleon of the Order of St John, Wied il-Qlejgha, l/o Mosta.


One may not consider graffiti of having any historical value, but rather as an act of vandalism, which in its rightful perspective is very true.

Whether scratched, written or daubed with paint, graffiti is a means by which the perpetrator passes a message, leaves a statement or produces a likeness of something on an external surface.

Those most common are usually those left by some young lovers where the lad scratches his name and of his girlfriend along with a heart. Others more common until recently were politically orientated, while a great number just show a name or nickname, and possibly a date.

However, graffiti in the soft Maltese limestone goes back much farther in time, probably to the pre-historic period of our islands. My good friend Joseph Muscat had dedicated a good part of his life researching and giving us numerous publications on ships' graffiti from the era of the Order of St John in Malta. He was partially instrumental in kindling this interest in me, but it is also a by-product of the wide spectrum that I cherish when it comes to Malta's vast military heritage, especially of the British era.

Many of these early graffiti come in the form of a likeness of some galley or man-of-war of the Order and concentrated on the external walls of chapels and churches, very likely the result of an ex-voto by some Maltese sailor for having returned safely home after completing a 'corso', or voyage. Others could have been inspired by his safe return after an engagement with an enemy while at sea, or by his reaching safe harbour in the aftermath of some bad storm.

More are commonly found in former residences of similar seamen from the villages who had wished to record a likeness of the ship that they had served on. Some of my favourite graffiti of this era are located on the exterior of the Sarria Chapel in Floriana, of the post office at Zurrieq, the Cathedral in Gozo, the Victory Chapel in Qormi and a number of rural dwellings scattered around the island. These ship graffiti give a first-hand impression of what some of these vessels had looked like in the eyes of the person who had etched them, some in great detail, but also in learning some of the names of soldiers and sailors of the Armed Forces of the Order of St John of the time.

With the coming of the British and Malta becoming a Crown possession, this habit did not stop, but rather exploded. Naval and maritime graffiti in the form of sailing ships and warships remained, but now became more concentrated around the Grand Harbour area. Luckily, many of these graffiti have survived time, war and progress. Of recently, the restoration and cleaning of the façade of the National Library or the Bibliotheca, brought to light an array of graffiti that were previously unknown or unnoticeable. Many of these show vessels of the early 19th century, but others depict children playing, coat of arms, dates and even names. Obviously, a larger quantity is concentrated on the fortifications, forts and other former establishments used by the British while in Malta, including some of their environs, just like those of ships dating to the end of the 19th century outside of Verdala Barracks.

For the last decade or so, I have been recording and studying these more recent graffiti and other military heraldry carved in the Maltese stones, a subject by which I have become quite fascinated.

If we are to stop at the time of the Order of St. John and deny these later graffiti, we will be doing our history a great injustice as although in modern terms graffiti is an act of vandalism, these later ones and in the context in which they appear, are pages from our history that cannot be found written or recorded in any book.

Due to Malta's strategic position as Britain's major garrison, ship repair, transit, bunkering and victualing station in the Mediterranean, our islands enjoyed the movement of many ships, both naval and commercial, and the movement of thousands of soldiers from all corners of the Empire.

Apart from the Mediterranean Fleet, other ships of the Royal Navy and its auxiliaries called regularly at our harbours or were stationed here in duration.

Therefore, considering the number of naval establishments in Malta with their own personnel and the additional crews billeted while their ships are being repaired or who were just in transit, it is not difficult to find that many sailors left a statement to their presence on the island. Among my favourites in former Royal Navy establishments can be found at Manoel Island, Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo and Verdala Barracks.

Graffiti were not the product of seamen and sailors alone, as many others were left by soldiers.

During the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, Malta is recorded as having been the station or transit point of as many as 20,000 British, colonial and allied troops.

A number of them were stationed here as a garrison force, plus our own Maltese regiments serving under the British Crown or as better known, the Maltese Corps of the British Army.

Many of these soldiers were stationed in the same barracks within the forts and fortifications built by the Order where conditions were squalid and very much confined, so graffiti by British soldiers also adorn the walls of many of these old buildings.

A graffito of extreme interest at Manoel Island shows a hunting horn above a scroll with 'Cesare Terzaghi, 4 Comp, B. I. L.'. Was he a member of the French army during the blockade of 1798-1800, of one of the Anglo-Italian regiments of the Napoleonic Wars or of the Anglo-Italian Legion of the Crimean War? What an excellent subject for further research... but a shame, if the graffiti is lost in the course of the proposed development.

When, towards the middle of the 19th century, the need of building new forts and barracks became evident and commenced, soldiers did not change, and new graffiti began appearing to record their presence and service in the particular place. Whether it was in one of the many barracks, forts, hospitals or depots, graffiti with the names of soldiers, their rank, regiment, place of origin and even a dedication to their favourite superior, was just the norm. Some went further as to carve the badge of their particular regiment, at times very artistically, and thanks to these graffiti one can uncover and record certain events associated with Malta's role as a fortress colony.

To the average person, a graffiti with 'W. HOLLAND' and '2 SR' means nothing, and if noticed at all. But to the military historian it relates the name of a particular soldier, his possible origin, the regiment that he belonged to, when he was in Malta and where he was stationed.

The second part '2 SR' refers to the 2nd Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), a Scottish infantry regiment within the British Army which was stationed in Malta between 1911 and 1914, when it then departed to France on the outbreak of the First World War. Although the surname 'Holland' can be found throughout the British Isles, it was common in Scotland in places such as in Orkney, in Shetland, Stirlingshire and in the parish of Kirkintilloch. This simple graffiti is telling us that this soldier was at St Elmo for some particular reason some time between 1911 and 1914, which will not be found in any book and for further research on Mr Holland, one has to contact with the respective museum of the Regiment in its present designation, and if records of him still exist.

Rather than to compile a list of all the former service properties where these graffiti can be found, it is easier to say 'everywhere'. To list all known graffiti is a near impossible task and there are always others to be found.

Therefore, it would be futile and unjust to pick any particular locations as graffiti etched in stone exist in every nook and cranny of where British and Maltese servicemen were stationed. Giving prominence to or making a comparison with graffiti on Sir David Bruce Hospital and omitting those at the three barracks at Pembroke, comparing those along the Victoria Lines with those on the Cottonera Lines or those at Bieb is-Sultan with those of Pakistani seamen at Verdala, will do an injustice to each of them.

Even though establishments such as Tigne' Barracks have been totally demolished, I am certain that if one was to look hard enough, graffiti can be found on the reconstructed former Sergeants Mess. But my favourite graffiti is at Fort Rinella where the author had made a dedication to his Corporal in such words that only Tommy knew how!

Due to the composition of the Maltese globigerina limestone, the weather and pollutants contribute towards its decay and since many of the graffiti were exposed to the elements, they have either disappeared or have become illegible.

Those that are within certain buildings or even below ground and not subject to dampness have remained intact and one would not believe that some were really made around a century ago. Unfortunately, the war and re-development resulted in the loss of many fine buildings, many of which were bound to have contained a substantial numbers of graffiti. Consequently, the modern - and insensible - practice of either hacking or grit blasting walls to give them that so-called 'rustic' look has resulted in the loss of not only graffiti, but possibly of murals that were covered by layers of paint or whitewash applied to the walls throughout the years.

Others were lost during the process of 'restoration', when attempting to make an old building looking as close as to when originally built did not include recording and the possible salvage of such graffiti, especially if the person responsible from the works did not know enough, care or thought of them as being irrelevant.

Although many of these graffiti can be found within scheduled properties or protected buildings, there isn't enough awareness about this subject and the amount of knowledge that can be obtained from these graffiti. Graffiti can serve to furnish information on a property's former occupants, the role it had played in the past or even if treated as just a novelty.

They are to be respected as part of the historical and cultural elements of the property and an added bonus other to its age, historical and architectural values. Furthermore, awareness and the interpretation of graffiti is to be included as part of the specialist training received by stone restoration students and architects who specialise in this field so that when they're encountered in any property or site, they can understand that they're dealing with an element of Malta's unwritten history.

Denis A. Darmanin will be giving a talk on military graffiti at the lower section of Fort St Elmo in Valletta on 10 January at 18:00, at The Judge M. Caruana Curran Hall, Din l-Art Helwa, 133, Melita Street, Valletta.