We don't hear much about Malta these days.
When was the last time you read a news dispatch from Valleta, the capital?
I asked four handy people what they knew about it and three mentioned the
Bogart movie "The Maltese Falcon." The other was a coin collector.
This is a tiny country. The main island has only 95 square miles, the other big island, Gozo, has 26, and the rest of the territory consists of a handful of uninhabited rocks. Nearby Sicily, with almost 10,000 square miles, could hold close to 100 Maltas. But throughout recorded history this has been a crucial spot in the world, and as recently as WWII people were anxiously listening to the radio for the news that Fortress Malta had withstood the barbarians yet another day.
The Maltese story is a long one, mostly of military movements, and includes the high romance of the eponymous knights who used the island as their base for a quarter millennium. And I have been interestingly surprised to find, over the decades, that numismatic relics circulate in the collector's market in numbers far in excess of what one would naturally expect. Let's take a closer look.
A land bridge connected Malta with Sicily some 100,000+ years ago, but there are no signs that people were there to use it. Evidence of human habitation begins about 7000 years ago. The settlers would seem to have sailed from southwestern Asia, which is to say the Holy Land. This was before the emergence of the Egyptian and Semitic civilizations in the Middle East. These people were neolithic farmers. They grew wheat and lentils, raised cattle and sheep, and made glazed pottery. By the 4th millennium BCE, evidently several centuries in advance anywhere else in the world, they were starting to build in stone.
There was an early connection with Sicily, seen in the succession of pottery styles in the archeological record, A sizable migration from the neighboring island took place around 4000 BCE, the one of many such movements. The newcomers seemed to get along with the old folks, and their cultures, as far as the evidence shows, converged.
Monumental architecture in stone was well established by 3500 BCE or so, seemingly earlier than anyplace else in the world. The most impressive remains are of temples dedicated to the Neolithic mother goddess. They consist of enormous dressed stone blocks, well fitted to form handsome compounds and rooms. There are also tombs elaborately cut in rock, the later ones adorned with lintels and columns. The building of these monuments occupied relatively large numbers of people for extended periods of time, implying a higher degree of social organization and stability that extended over a period of at least five hundred years. There is no evidence of any military activity during this period.
Maltese peace was shattered around 2500 BCE with the arrival of invaders from the Greek islands. The newcomers seem to have had a lower level of social organization, but they were warlike, and they had bronze. The old civilization collapsed soon after their arrival, the temples falling into ruin in the wake of a massive decline in population. Details of the calamity are unknown; war, disease, and climate change are all possible contributing causes.
For a couple of centuries the invaders eked out their squalid existence, making crude pottery and bronze, but no fancy stone buildings like their predecessors. Then, around 1000 BCE, a small migration from Sicily brought iron working to the island.
History proper began about a century later when a Phoenician ship, it's skipper using the new technique of celestial navigation, sailed west over the horizon and made landfall on Malta. The utility of the island; its convenient location close to both Sicily and Africa, and its fine harbors, was immediately apparent to this sailor, and it quickly became a major port of call on the western routes. Phoenicians came to trade, then more and more of them came to stay, to the point that they came to constitute the majority of the population. Malta became an outpost of Phoenician culture, and today the native Maltese are considered the purest example of the survival of the ancient Phoenician type. The modern Maltese language retains significant Phoenician elements, and even some cultural remnants are to be seen, such as the burning of an effigy of a child on St. John's Day, a disquieting reminder of the child sacrifice of which the ancient Phoenicians were so fond.
Politically bound to nearby Carthage near modern Tunis, Malta served as a staging point for the Punic operations in Sicily. It was during that struggle that Carthage decided that coinage was a good idea, at least for trade with the coin using Greeks.
A few coppers were struck on Malta during the late 3rd century BCE with Punic legends. The subjects were religious, including references to the Egyptian cult of the dead god Osiris. These coins have received low prices in the major catalogs, but that is no indication of their availability. They are actually quite rare.
Malta was incorporated into the developing Roman world in 218 BC. The administrators did not do much to cultivate the local economy and culture, devoting themselves to the control of the harbors and the taxation of the inhabitants. Tomb inscriptions and other evidence reveal that Punic remained the language of the people throughout the Roman period and even later.
A few coppers, with Greek legends, were struck during the early years of Roman rule, and these, like their Punic predecessors, are very hard to find. For the rest of the Roman period there are no coins.
From the modern point of view the key event of the Roman occupation was the forced landing of the shipwrecked St. Paul in 60 CE. On his way to Rome for the trial that would result in his execution, Paul was stuck on Malta for several months. He evidently got on well with the locals, a substantial number of whom converted.
There is not much in the way of evidence for the events of the late Roman and early post-Roman period. The islands were almost certainly raided, and perhaps briefly occupied by the Vandals during their sweep through Spain and into Africa, and formal control devolved to the Byzantines after the fall of the Western Empire.
By the 9th century CE the armies of Islam had occupied North Africa, Spain, and Sicily, and in 870 they occupied Malta. The inhabitants did not disdain their new masters. A majority converted to Islam, and they aided them in defending the islands from an attempt by the Byzantines to recover their lost territory. Malta became a haven for corsairs preying on Christian shipping.
Muslim rule endured for some four centuries, and has left as its chief inheritance the modern Maltese language, which, though it is written in the Latin alphabet, is substantially Arabic in structure and vocabulary. As far as I know there are no coins of the Islamic period.
The Muslim rulers fell to quarreling among themselves. Administration deteriorated and dissatisfaction grew among the populace. The Norman ruler of Sicily, Roger I, moved on Malta in 1090, and took it essentially without conflict. The Maltese were tired of the incompetent Muslims, and welcomed him. The island now became a bulwark of Christianity, a forward base for raids on North Africa. Indeed, it was the possession of those strategically located islands that made possible the Crusades.
There are no Norman coins struck specifically for Malta.
In the succeeding century control of Malta passed by dynastic inheritance to the Hohenstaufens, then to Charles of Anjou, who lost it in the "Sicilian Vespers" rebellion of 1282. The rebels were suppressed by the armies of Aragon, who remained in occupation until 1410, when it passed to Castile. During all this time there were no coins.
A ROMANTIC DIGRESSION
We must now take a break in the narrow geographic and chronological approach we have been using, and turn our attention to another land and an earlier time. Christians in Europe had been wanting to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land since Roman times, but the general poverty of the so-called "Dark Ages" had prevented more than the merest trickle of travellers. In the 11th century things changed. There was more money, and the trickle became a stream.
Around 1048 a group of merchants from the Italian town of Amalfi applied to the Muslim Caliph Al-Qa'im for permission to establish a hospital in Jerusalem for the care of sick pilgrims. The staff was drawn from the local Benedictine monastery. Permission was granted, and the enterprise thrived.
The local authorities in the Holy Land were Muslims, bound by their faith to tolerate and respect Christians, and there had been no serious problems in the past. But now there were a lot more Christian pilgrims, and their attitude had changed. They had become bumptious and uppity. They were starting to talk about taking back Jerusalem for Christ, and other nasty seditions. Things became tense.
The tension increased with the arrival of a new set of rulers in the Holy Land, the Seljuk Turks. There had been some degree of laissez-faire in the former administration of the Holy Land, but the new guys wanted to get things under control, and they started to license and regulate, especially the pilgrims.
This attempt at administration was interpreted in Europe as repression, and the situation was blown out of proportion by demagogues who ranted about the desecration of the holy sites by "the Infidels." The Europeans whipped themselves into a rage, which was channelled into the First Crusade.
When Jerusalem was captured in 1099 by Godfrey of Bouillon he found the head of the Amalfi Hospitallers, Gerard Tunc, in jail, where he had been placed for safe keeping during the hostilities. Godfrey was impressed with the work of the Hospitallers, and granted them cash and estates for their future income. Gerard thereafter established his organization as the first of the fighting religious orders of Christendom, charged with the protection and care of the pilgrims.
The Order became very popular back in Europe. Enormous donations were made, and the Hospitallers of St. John (the Baptist) of Jerusalem became very wealthy and powerful, but they could not hold Jerusalem against the Ayyubid sultan Saladin, who evicted them in 1187. The Knights retired to Acre, where they remained for about 100 years. Finally driven from the Holy Land at the end of the 13th century, the knights made their way to Cyprus, where they remained as guests of Henri de Lusignan for almost two decades. The situation was unstable, however; there were too many knights, and there was no interest in assimilation. The Master of the time, Foulk de Villaret, resolved to take the island of Rhodes, which, though nominally a Byzantine possession, had become the lair of pirates. A fleet set out for the assault, which was crowned with success in 1310.
The Knights embellished and fortified Rhodes, holding it for 200 years as a bulwark against recurrent attacks by the Muslims. Having become territorial sovereigns, they commenced immediately the striking of coins; silver and gold along the lines of contemporary Italian types. These coins of the Knights on Rhodes are very rare, especially the gold ones.
THE KNIGHTS ON MALTA
Sulayman the Magnificent ascended to the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1520. His opening campaign slogan was "First Belgrade, then Rhodes." The first objective obtained in 1521, he immediately set sail for the the second. The Knights had just received a new Grand Master, Philippe de l'Isle Adam, and under his direction the island was masterfully though unsuccessfully defended. The Knights departed Rhodes under duress in 1523, headed for they knew not where.
Eventually they made landfall on the Greek island of Candia, where they were welcomed and invited to stay. Grand Master de l'Isle Adam moved on to Italy, where he consulted with the pope. With support from the Holy See an approach was made to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, for a grant of territory. Charles had plenty of land to spare (he theoretically owned, by virtue of his new American holdings, almost half the world), but wouldn't it be nice, he thought, to have a crack military force like the Knights under his thumb. So his starting position in the negotiations was the fealty of the Order, which l'Isle Adam was unwilling to give. The pope was strongly with the Order though, and after 7 years of palaver the Knights were finally granted Malta, and for good measure, Tripoli in North Africa, free and clear.
Loosely held and with a hostile hinterland, Tripoli looked like like not so good a deal. But Malta looked tolerable. Preparations for the move were begun at once, and the Knights arrived before the year was out.
The traditional histories of the next 250 years concern themselves with the doings of the Knights, who spent a lot of that time harrassing the Muslims or defending against them. But it is useful at this point to consider the point of view of the inhabitants, who found themselves ruled by a monastic order with a mission of military activity. They were thus subject not only to the usual taxes of any common person of the time, but there was also the constant impingement of the military imperative: the support of the Knights in offense, and the certainty of the need for defense more often than would have been the case had the Knights not had their peculiar vocation.
The Knights struck coins on Malta from the time of l'Isle Adam. Not quite every Grand Master is represented from 1530 to the close of the 18th century. There is gold, silver, and copper, most, but not all of which is rare.
The normal type of the early gold was an imitation of the Venetian zecchino, which would be reasonable, since any use gold might have would be in international trade, and the zecchini circulated from England to India. Silver coins came in a range of denominations, and served both locally and in foreign trade. Types included the head of John the Baptist, the Baptist standing, and the Lamb of God. Copper, for local use only, came in a range of sizes too. The coppers were often used as fiat currency, valued above their intrinsic value, and some of them bore the motto "NON AES SED FIDES" (Not money, rather, faith) along with a pair of hands shaking. To the Knights this must have seemed a declaration of their solicitous care for their subjects, but to the modern mind there is more than a hint of irony. Coppers were also countermarked at various times, an indication that fiscal games were played with their values.
Generally speaking, all Maltese coins of the 16-17th centuries are rare, and you'd be most likely to run into a low grade copper of the lowest denomination - the grano. But the situation changes in the 18th. It is not uncommon to come across later silvers and coppers here and there in the market. The romantic designs of the early gold and silver coins gave way to more standard images of the Grand Master, though the older types persisted in the copper. Silver crowns came into common use, and larger gold denominations were stuck, mostly, it seems, for show and presentation.
The most common coins of the Knights in Malta would be the silver crowns of the long-reigning Emmanuel Pinto, 1741-73, and of the penultimate Master on the island, Emmanuel de Rohan. When I went to look for Maltese coins a few weeks ago I found one of Rohan's silver scudi on my second phone call. It is to me rather astonishing that the issues of this tiny island should be so available, but Order had been the recipient of substantial and continuing donations for centuries.
The rule of the Knights came to an end in 1798. Napoleon, leading an expedition to Egypt on behalf of the revolutionary French government, passed by Malta and, noticing no trace of preparation, picked a fight with the Grand Master, Ferdinand de Hompesch. Hompesch had minimal leadership qualities. He dithered, and Napoleon landed 15,000 troops, who occupied the island in short order.
The Knights were scattered. Many of them went to Russia, for the Tsar Paul I had developed an interest in the Order. In gratitude for the refuge, the Tsar was named Grand Master, but he died in 1801, and his successor, Alexander I, had no interest. The Order effectively ceased to exist, but was reconstituted in 1879 by pope Leo XIII, and it is this restored Order that we know today as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Over the centuries of their rule the Knights had treated their native subjects not badly according to the mores of the time. They did a lot of public building, and the populace supported them, by-and-large, in their holy military endeavors. But the Order had become exceedingly rich, and the Knights grew thoroughly accustomed to their lives of luxury. By the time of Napoleon's appearance the ideas of the Enlightment had penetrated the culture of both the Knights and the Natives. The result was demoralization among the former and disaffection among the latter.
The French made themselves unpopular, however, by exercising the various traditional vices of occupying armies, and the people rose against them in 1800. The British came in to help, and stayed. Malta became a British colony in 1814.
The British saw in Malta what everyone else saw: a critical location for projection of naval power in the Mediterranean. With Malta added to Gibraltar the British controlled the western half of that sea, bottling up the French. They modernized the fortifications and built up their presence.
Coinage of the period was British. They struck those little 1/3 farthings to substitute for the old, small, 1 grano coppers, and they were used nowhere else. It's not too hard to collect a nice example of the British "grain." Pick your monarch.
That Britain held Malta through World War II is one of the miracles of that war, and the island played a key role in the Allied invasion of North Africa.
People had begun talking about independence back in the 1920s, and a movement began to form. Independence activities were put on hold during the War, but accelerated after, culminating in formal independence in 1964.
The island became a republic in 1974, and the British relinquished their military bases in 1979. The country has developed some industry, promotes tourism, and seems to be getting along.
Modern Maltese coinage is struck both for use and for collection. Designs include maritime themes, animals (including insects), and a bunch of modern local heroes. Interestingly, it is not particularly easy to collect all of these coins. Once you start to look for them you pretty much find 1972s. You never see the Franklin Mint sets, and the new design coins of the late '80s-90s are difficult. Only a few of the silver collector coins are out there, and one hardly ever runs into Maltese gold other than the 1972 and 1975 coins. I believe this indicates some degree of home interest.
SOVEREIGN MILITARY ORDER
The reconstituted Order of 1879 had a charitable mission, and established offices in several countries. The Italian office is considered sovereign territory, and the Order maintains diplomatic relations with a number of nations.
Starting in 1961 the Order struck proof coins for presentation and fundraising purposes. The 1965 issue was heavily promoted by Coin Invest Trust of Liechtenstein, and the coins of that year were widely distributed. The Order continued issuing coins through the 1990s, but sales became sluggish as the years passed. 1960s dates are the most common. Formerly fairly common, these show pieces have become hard to find.