Manoel Island quarantine cemeteries could force change in project’s plans

The discovery of a cemetery, containing graves of people who died in quarantine on Manoel Island, has raised questions about what is to happen to this part of the site, given that it has been earmarked for an underground car park which will require excavation

The existence of the cemeteries as well as other remains is well documented and has been flagged by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage during the permit evaluation process
The existence of the cemeteries as well as other remains is well documented and has been flagged by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage during the permit evaluation process

The presence of cemeteries containing graves of people who died in quarantine on Manoel Island could force a change in plans for the development of the island, if the remains are deemed to be of archaeological importance.  

Photos seen by MaltaToday appear to show the outlines of a number of graves exposed by recent work.

The discovery of the cemetery, which appears to have been found with all tombs preserved, raises questions about what is to happen to this part of the site, given that it has been earmarked for an underground car park which will require excavation.

For centuries, Manoel Island was used as a place of quarantine to control the periodic influx of new diseases from war and merchant vessels. Those who died on the island would need to be buried there in order to limit the spread of the disease.

The MIDI consortium, which has been granted a concession to develop the island, was granted an outline permit in March this year after submitting new plans for the project.

The plans have been welcomed as an improvement over plans originally submitted in 1999, however some residents and NGOs remain concerned over the loss of views and the potential effect of works on archaeological remains.

The existence of the cemeteries as well as other remains is well documented and has been flagged by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage during the permit evaluation process. It has insisted that investigations be completed before a full application permit is requested in order to allow for “mitigation measures to be put in place from the onset should any archaeological remains be uncovered”.

The superintendence has recommended that the areas where the cemeteries and other remains are located be “kept as reserved matters” until an assessment has been completed.

A spokesperson for MIDI clarified that the “current works [were] considered archaeological works and are being monitored by a recognised archaeologist in accordance with the terms of reference issued by the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage”.

The spokesperson said the extent of the remains of the cemetery was still unclear but noted that “the discovery of cultural heritage feature may require the amendment of approved plans and the rerouting of services”.

“MIDI will amend its plans as required by the Superintendence in order to preserve finds which are of cultural heritage importance,” the spokesperson said.

They confirmed that the superintendence’s assessment was ongoing and did not specify when a decision was to be expected. Efforts to reach the superintendence proved unsuccessful but according to the Cultural Heritage Act, for an object to be deemed to form part of the country’s cultural heritage it must be at least 50 years old or be an object of “cultural, artistic, historical, ethnographic, scientific or industrial value that is worth preserving”.

The first documented use of the island as an area of quarantine dates back to the 16th century. In 1592, the Lazzaretto hospital was built, following an outbreak of the plague in Malta.

A more permanent structure was constructed in 1643 and the Lazzaretto remained in use as a hospital until 1939 when it started to be used for military purposes.

The Lazzaretto saw extensive use during the plague epidemic of 1813, the cholera epidemic of 1865 and the plague of 1937.

After the war, it was once again used as a hospital before being abandoned and falling into disrepair in the 1970s.

MIDI was granted a 99-year concession on the island in 2000 with the latest submitted plans including an extensive 600-apartment residential complex, a five-star hotel located in the Lazzaretto complex and an 8,449sq.m retail complex. The project will also include a marina with 183 berths and 3,595sq.m of sports facilities.

The consortium has promised to restore several heritage sites and include some 80,000 sq.m of parks and open spaces on Manoel Island.
The latest plans will see an increase in the number of residential units over the original plans but also include a decrease of 8,000sq.m in the total gross floor area.

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