How the 1837 cholera paved the way for a Maltese anglophile upper class

Dr David Zammit’s study of 19th century outbreaks of plague and cholera in Malta reveals the effects they had on Maltese civil society and government

Sir Adrian Dingli (bust) would later become chief justice. Inset shows governor Thomas Maitland
Sir Adrian Dingli (bust) would later become chief justice. Inset shows governor Thomas Maitland

WILL the COVID-19 pandem­ic expose Malta to profound societal changes as more peo­ple choose to stay inside and an unprecedented economic im­pact is visited upon the island?

Certainly enough, Malta has already grappled with various epidemics in the past. But two epidemics which occurred in the first half of the 19th centu­ry are particularly instructive, because their political manage­ment heralded a change in the way Malta was governed and left a durable influence on Mal­tese society.

The bubonic plague outbreak of 1813/1814 heralded the start of effective British rule in Mal­ta, its transformation into a de jure colony and the authoritar­ian military rule of ‘King Tom’ Maitland.

In 1811, just before the plague broke out, Maltese grievances about the perceived arbitrary and exploitative character of the British Occupation had converged in the drafting of a petition demanding an enlight­ened British reform of the Code de Rohan (the Knight’s period law-code which permitted tor­ture), the introduction of trial by jury, freedom of the press and other rights and liberties enjoyed by British subjects.

It was in this tense period that British rule over Malta was be­ing consolidated, with Malta’s legal status changing from that of a British possession admin­istered by a Civil Commission­er, to a Crown Colony ruled by a Governor.

But fighting the plague was the first task undertaken by the first real British Governor of Malta, General Thomas Mait­land.

And he did so by aggressive authoritarian military means in a context of administrative, legal and social chaos.

The Maltese police force originated as one of Maitland’s tools to fight this bubonic plague epidemic, some 15 years before the London Metropol­itan Police Force was estab­lished.

The plague police was part of a series of disciplinary tech­niques, including fencing off entire villages and shooting to kill plague victims who tried to conceal their infection, by which British disciplinary bio-power was extended in a capillary form throughout Mal­tese territory. These techniques had certain common features, particularly: an authoritarian, military character not subject to judicial review of any form whatsoever; they pitted English soldiers and the Maltese police against the ‘Maltese natives’ in the enclosed villages, who could be shot at sight if they broke quarantine; and they re­sulted in an effective apartheid between the British and the Maltese, such that only one or two British soldiers died when compared to some 5,000 ‘na­tive Maltese’.

An ex-voto of the Plague of 17 Aug 1813 of Anna Lungaro showing the pest Hospital Valletta. The light house on Fort st Elmo can be seen through the arch where an attendant with a mask around his face is fumigating the foul air. (Sanctuary Our Lady of Mellieha)
An ex-voto of the Plague of 17 Aug 1813 of Anna Lungaro showing the pest Hospital Valletta. The light house on Fort st Elmo can be seen through the arch where an attendant with a mask around his face is fumigating the foul air. (Sanctuary Our Lady of Mellieha)

After the plague, a long si­lence fell on Maltese political agitation. A reform of Maltese substantive legislation was postponed for a generation. Instead Sir Thomas felt em­powered to pursue a vigorous agenda of authoritarian angli­cisation of the Maltese state, which involved abolishing the Maltese elected body, the Uni­versità, reforming and anglicis­ing the courts and the trial pro­cess, and the introduction of top British officials in the civil service and the judiciary.

This left a profound and dura­ble influence on Maltese state and society. In fact, Maitland left behind a state which was highly authoritarian and where the native population had been cowed into submission and trained to occupy subordinate positions. They tended to avoid mixing with British soldiers and officials, who also held themselves apart and consid­ered themselves to be superior to the ‘natives’.

The disciplinary techniques through which Maitland fought the plague also left an impact which is still discerni­ble today in an enduring fissure between legislative and judicial activity on the one hand and a police force which remains a tool controlled by a ‘sovereign prime minister’ on the other.

Reforming the civil service

While Maitland fought the bubonic plague as a military campaign, with himself as the general-in-chief, his suc­cessor Sir Henry Bouverie is never mentioned in regard to the cholera epidemic of 1837 which occurred on his watch. Although cholera also killed some 4,000 mainly native Mal­tese people, the British medi­cal authorities were convinced that it was not contagious and consequently limited their in­terventions to the bare mini­mum.

At the same time this out­break also took place in an im­portant period of transition. The cholera of 1837 was the prelude to the implementation of the reforms of the Austin/ Lewis Commission, which put an end to the segregation be­tween an all-British ruling elite of top civil servants and the native Maltese and paved the way for the development of an Anglophile middle/upper class.

A postage stamp bearing a portrait of Sir Adrian Dingli
A postage stamp bearing a portrait of Sir Adrian Dingli

The cholera epidemic actu­ally broke out while the Com­missioners were visiting Malta, and Sarah Austin, the wife of the distinguished jurist John Austin, left a vivid account of the course of this epidemic.

This clearly brings out the sense of distance and hostility between leading British offi­cials on the one hand, the na­tive Maltese physicians who insisted that the cholera was contagious, and the bulk of the population, who suspected that the British government might be trying to poison them through the free medicine it provided.

On the other hand Sir John Stoddart, the English Chief Justice, provided a fascinating account of the cautious precau­tionary measures adopted by the inhabitants of Sliema, who appointed a mixed Anglo-Mal­tese commission to manage the impact of cholera on their lo­cality, and hired a physician to visit all the households, as well as provided free bread to all the poorer inhabitants.

As a result, Stoddart noted, only two individuals died of the cholera in their locality.

The Sliema case anticipated a significant change in Maltese politics and society.

Shortly after the end of the cholera epidemic, the Austin/ Lewis Commission was to rec­ommend the removal of top English civil servants (among them ironically Sir John Stod­dart himself), their replace­ment by Maltese counterparts and the making of significant legal reforms.

These included the granting of liberty of the press and the reform of Maltese substantive legislation.

Thus the cholera epidem­ic marked the transition away from Maitland’s model of top-down Anglicising rule towards a model which, by accepting some of the ‘native Maltese demands’ made possible the careers of individuals like Sir Adrian Dingli, who was simul­taneously a native Maltese ad­vocate and a top Colonial civil servant.

It is highly appropriate in this context, that Dingli’s name is indelibly linked to the locality of Sliema, which was to house the new anglophone Maltese middle class which emerged from the same reform process which made his career possi­ble.

Something to think about the next time one walks down Dingli street or takes a stroll around Dingli Circus!

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