Just over 90 years ago, on November 1, 1921, Malta’s first responsible government was inaugurated by Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. It was an event all Maltese had hoped for after more than a century of British rule.
More than 115 stamps related to constitutional history
Although the Maltese had enjoyed some representation on a council of government since 1849, the executive power rested with the British Governor.
After the Sette Giugno riots (June 7, 1919) and the recommendations of the National Assembly presided over by Filippo Sciberras, on November 20, 1919, the Secretary of State informed the House of Commons that Britain was ready to grant limited responsible government to Malta.
The announcement was also made by Lord Plumer, who had just been apppointed Governor of Malta, from the Palace balcony to an enthusiastic crowd gathered on St George’s Square. This important event was later recorded with a marble tablet in the Palace entrance which was reproduced on a postage stamp in 1996 to mark its 75th anniversary.
The Milner Constitution of 1921 granted Malta a two-chamber government, with certain “reserved matters”, which included defence and public order coming under the direct responsibility of the Governor.
The Upper House or Senate was composed of 17 members, 10 of whom were “special” members, with two each representing the chamber of commerce, graduates, the nobility, clergy and trade unions. The other seven, called “general members” were elected directly by voters with special property qualifications.
The Lower House, or Legislative Assembly, consisted of 32 members directly elected by voters from seven districts in Malta and one in Gozo.
As part of preparations for this great event, the government decided to mark this occasion by issuing a special set of postage stamps. The idea of using postage stamps to mark outstanding events had been around since 1870, when Peru marked the 20th anniversary of the Lima-Calao railway service by issuing the world’s first commemorative set. Since then, postal authorities around the globe started issuing what are now known as “commemorative stamps”.
On June 17, 1921, the Malta Post Office invited Edward Caruana Dingli and Gianni Vella, two leading artists, to design a set of stamps to mark the grant of responsible government. This was to be the first Maltese commemorative stamp set.
The Caruana Dingli designs featured an allegorical figure wearing an ornamental helmet, holding a rudder with her right hand. A seascape was used as background, with the Fort St Elmo lighthouse on the left and a Gozo boat on the right. Two shields, one showing the Union Jack and the other the eight-pointed cross on the Maltese red and white flag were included in the lower corners.
The Vella design was to be used for the shillings value (one, two and 10) showing two symbolic figures, a man representing Britain, holding a shield with the Union Jack with his left hand resting on a young lady (representing Malta) holding an olive branch. The design highlighted the care, protection and friendly relations between the two countries. The Maltese coat-of-arms was included in the lower left corner while a series of small Maltese crosses formed the outer frame. The date 1921 in Roman numerals (MCMXXI) was included in the upper segment of the central design.
Although the Maltese were eager to have these stamps ready for the inauguration of the new parliament on November 1, the Crown Agents in London, who catered for all works and acquisitions for British colonies, informed the Malta Post Office that they could not deliver the new stamps in time, mostly because of the delicate process of engaving the presented designs. The large workload at the De La Rue Company, which was to print the stamps, was another reason for the delay.
The Malta postal authorities had no other choice but to resort to a temporary measure and mark the occasion by overprinting SELF-GOVERNMENT on the current King George V stamps issued in 1919 and 1920. This emergency device had already been used before in 1902, when the two-and-half-penny stamp of Queen Victoriawas overprinted ‘One Penny’ owing to the very great demand for the lower value.
The overprint in 1921 was printed diagonally from bottom left to top right in black ink on all values except the two and 10 shillings value which were printed in red. All overprinting was done at the Government Printing Press at the Palace, Valletta. The complete set consisted of 17 stamps released on five different dates between January 12 and April 29, 1922.
The Self-Government definitive set known as the Melita Set was also issued in parts. The five lower values (half-penny, one penny, sixpence, one shilling and two shillings) were made available on August 1, 1922. The complete set, which was the first commemorative one to be issued, had a long lifespan, lasting till 1926.
New rates of postage and registration and the depletion of stocks created the need for new values in different colours. But there was criticism in local papers about some details in these stamps.
On August 4, 1922, the designer, Edward Caruana Dingli, expressed his dissatisfaction in the daily Il Popolo di Malta on the execution of his design.
He wrote: “After correcting the first proofs and suggesting certain artistic retouching, I regret to say, that the result still fell short of my expectations. My original was copied by hand and alter-ations were introduced resulting in a totally different effect from that originally intended.”
He also mentioned how the flowing part of the mantle behind the figure was suppressed and the bright sun lost much of its intensity.
However, the strongest criticism was about the way the St Elmo lighthouse was remodelled to make it look more like a bee-hive or a “Mosta dome” by the seaside.
Caruana Dingli also complained that he was never consulted about the colours used.
To justify his criticism, he exhibited an enlargement of his original design at the Public Library in Valletta.
Further constitutional developments also feature prominently in the Malta stamp collection. The self-government Constitution granted in 1947 was commemorated a year later, on November 25, 1948, by an overprint on the King George VI 1938 definitive set.
Emvin Cremona in his definitive set of 1965 marks the several stages of Malta’s constitutional development. The 1921 self-government is represented by the Tapestry Chamber at the Palace, where the Legislative Assembly (later the House of Representatives) used to meet until 1976. Cremona included a stamp in this definitive set to recall the State of Malta proclaimed by the Blood Constitution of 1961.
He also produced a set of six stamps in 1964 to mark Malta’s independence, three other stamps for the birth of the Republic in 1974 and another set to mark the closing down of the British military base in 1979.
The collection was also enriched with a new set for Malta’s accession to the European Union in 2004 while its anniversaries were also commemorated. In all, more than 115 stamps were issued related to our constitutional history.
Last Friday, Maltapost issued a stamp that will be set within a miniature sheet having in the background the Grand Masters’ Palace, where the first sessions of the Senate and the Legislative Assembly were held in 1921.
The stamp itself replicates the 1922 stamp showing the allegorical representation of Melita by Edward Caruana Dingli.
Looking back at these 90 years, even as depicted in Malta’s postal history, one sees the efforts of the Maltese and their social and political achievements which have moulded the nation as it is today.
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