Carnival activities, so beloved by the Maltese during the time of the Knights of St John, were rudely interrupted when the French troops invaded and occupied the islands.

However, festivities soon resumed not long after the British took over. This brief account of carnival events during the first 100 years of British rule is gleaned mostly from eyewitness accounts of visitors.

The early decades

William Domeier, an English doctor, came to Malta at the beginning of the 19th century to get acquainted with the islands and recommend them as a destination for convalescents.

A painting of Harlequin. Photo: Courtesy of Portale di VeneziaA painting of Harlequin. Photo: Courtesy of Portale di Venezia

In 1810, he published Observations on the Climate, Manners and Amusements of Malta. Among several other subjects, he described events during the festive days of carnival.

He was impressed by the joviality that went on in the streets of Valletta where there were costumed characters who danced or played traditional musical instruments. Some rode in “calesses and large wagons”.

He also recorded individuals who were “speaking by pantomime” and about others “handing out letters to one another”. Domeier surmised that these were probably love letters.

SS Wilson, a Methodist minister, witnessed and recorded impressions of carnival in 1819.

Celebrations started on Saturday with the “sounding of trumpets”. Amid the ongoing frolicking, he was struck by a particular scene, where a small group of people carried a man who posed as a corpse on their shoulders. His face was smeared with ashes to enhance his deathly appearance. Accompanying him were the make-believe “funeral mourners” (bekkejja). 

In February 1827, Andrew Bigelow, an American Unitarian minister, visited Malta during carnival. Bigelow observed that although celebrations were officially announced on Saturday nothing much happened but many hung around in enthusiastic anticipation for the more intense celebrations of the following day.

Cavorting in the streets started in earnest on Sunday afternoon at 2pm.

Bigelow noted carriages being driven to and fro along Strada Reale and in parallel streets. Upper-class family members in costume, and some wearing masks, drove by in their carriages. They not only enjoyed the merriment that was going on but also joined in the melee, throwing dried peas and “sweetmeats” (Maltese perlini?) at passers-by and bystanders. Women did likewise from the balconies of nearby residences, for a lark and to enjoy a good laugh at the children who scrambled to grab as many sweets as possible.

Maturin Murray Ballou, an American author who visited Malta in 1893. Photo: WikipediaMaturin Murray Ballou, an American author who visited Malta in 1893. Photo: Wikipedia

In Strada Vescovo, Bigelow saw a crowd enjoying themselves around a small group of drummers and tambourine players and he observed a priest and his acolytes on their way to a house to administer the last rites to a moribund person.

As a man of the cloth, he was disgusted to note that the revellers simply ignored the priest’s presence and continued with their merry-making.

Bigelow described the costumes the revellers wore during carnival, including the “knave of hearts”, harlequins, buffoons, clowns and satyrs.

Others had smeared themselves in black paint to resemble “Africans and Turks”.

Women in the crowd were dressed in the uniforms of soldiers or sailors. Young people dressed up as old men while real old folk wore clothes to make them look younger. Bigelow also noted a person in a Louis XIV costume and a boy dressed as a Scotsman, kilt and all.

Bigelow also recorded the carnival balls that were held every day, starting at 8pm and lasting until 2am.

Many would dress up as farmers or peasants

Carnival celebrations continued until Tuesday when everything was supposed to end at midnight. However, from his lodgings at The Vicary Hotel, in Strada Vescovo, which overlooked Piazza San Giorgio (St George’s Square), Bigelow noted to his dismay that partying continued until the small hours of Ash Wednesday.

On the following Sunday, he was surprised to see many crossing the Grand Harbour by boat to head towards Żabbar, in pilgrimage to the church of Our Lady of Graces as a way of atonement for the ‘sins’ committed during carnival.

Perlini, the traditional sugar-coated almonds which were showered on revellers during carnival.Perlini, the traditional sugar-coated almonds which were showered on revellers during carnival.

Jousting during carnival

In 1828, the (then) renowned artist Pietro Paolo Caruana painted a particular scene of an event that occurred on Tuesday, the last day of carnival.

This was a mock battle held in Piazza San Giorgio, organised by the British military for the merriment of the officers. The painting depicts horsemen jousting in full knights’ armour borrowed from the Palace Armoury. This and other events recorded by visitors show that the British, far from preventing the Maltese from enjoying carnival, generally participated in events of a local and traditional nature.

George Percy Badger, 1838

George Percy Badger, an Englishman who spent a large part of his childhood in Malta with his family, provides additional information on carnival festivities in the first half of the 19th century.

In his Description of Malta and Gozo (1838), he also confirms that carnival would ceremoniously start on a Saturday afternoon, with the traditional Parata dance held in front of the Governor’s palace.

Sir Patrick Stuart, governor of Malta (1845-1847). Photo: Courtesy of The National Archives of MaltaSir Patrick Stuart, governor of Malta (1845-1847). Photo: Courtesy of The National Archives of Malta

The dancers were armed with wooden swords and shields; others waved colourful ribbons.

At a given signal, the troupe would start roaming the streets of Valletta, stopping here and there to perform the same dance repeatedly, usually in front of residences of the upper classes. This was the sole activity of the day that would close with the playing of God Save the King, obviously by a British regimental band.

Badger describes various kinds of costumed maskerati. He was much impressed by those dressed as demons, sporting a pair of horns on their head and a tail on their backs.

He averred that, of late, carnival seemed to have waned in intensity and enthusiasm shown by the public.

When masks were banned on Sunday

Another foreigner who witnessed carnival activities year after year was Ahmed Faris ax Xidyaq, a Lebanese scholar who lived in Malta between 1835 and 1849.

Just like Bigelow, he too was scornful at the irreverent way the Maltese behaved during carnival. He was averse to men dressing up in women's clothes and women dressing up in men’s clothing.

Since ax Xidyaq was on the good and useful books of the local administration, he was often invited to attend the carnival ball held by the British governor.

During the soirée, guests often embarrassed him because, being in traditional Lebanese attire, he was often mistaken for a carnival character. Ax Xidyaq found it unbecoming that guests often hid food in their garments to take home.

Carnival provided a “once-in-a-year joyous experience” for all to replace the daily grind, routine, poverty and hardship.

Thus, when, in 1846, governor Sir Patrick Stuart, a Methodist and a puritan, banned the wearing of masks during carnival celebrations on Sunday, this being the sacred day of the Lord, the people looked askance at such an imposition.

An 1892 painting titled The Humour of Italy featuring the character of Pulcinella by A. Faldi. Photo: WikipediaAn 1892 painting titled The Humour of Italy featuring the character of Pulcinella by A. Faldi. Photo: Wikipedia

While obeying the proclamation to the letter, a sizeable crowd still showed up in the main streets of Valletta, some dragging along their animals,  which had been dressed in carnival masks to circumvent the law.

The crowd in the palace square became more vocal and violent. Soon, a scuffle broke out between the mob and the palace guards who were posted at the portico of the Main Guard opposite the palace building.

Tempers rose: many musical instruments were damaged during the beating of The Retreat. Part of the crowd took off to the residence of the Anglican pastor, a stone’s throw away at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral to demonstrate its anger as it was rumoured that it was at his instigation that the governor had issued the proclamation.

On that day, many ended up arrested and taken to court.

In 1865, Gian Anton Vassallo, one of the earliest pioneering Maltese authors, published a poem entitled, Cliem tal-Poplu − (The People’s Voice) − subtitled Is-Sibt il-Karnival.

In the poem, Vassallo expresses his concern about the hypothetical abolition of carnival. Among other things, Vassallo listed the costumes that were commonly worn at the time. Many would dress up as farmers or peasants, which he interestingly enough dubbed “Żepp, Grezz and Chetrin”. Others would dress as lawyers, sailors, military men, harlequins and pulcinellas.

Another visitor who wrote extensively about carnival in Malta in 1893 was the prolific American traveller and writer of travelogues Maturin Murray Ballou. In his, The Story of Malta, he averred:

“The carnival is also made much of by the common people and, indeed, it would seem that all classes participate ... in a sort of good-natured riot, not always harmless... Ladies are ready to engage in a battle royal from their balconies, using confetti, dried peas, beans and flowers, which they merrily shower upon the passers-by with all possible force. Sometimes, serious quarrels ensue.”

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