Dominique Miége was the resident French consul in Malta in the 1830s, during which time he collated detailed information about a wide-ranging spectrum of life on the island at the time. In his L’Histoire de Malte, (1841) there is an extensive account of agricultural activities and their contribution to the economy. Miége quotes Padre Carlo Giacinto, who he calls Hyacinthus, the University professor of natural history, thereby adding credibility to his narrative.
Miége starts by dismissing the prevalent myth that the soil of the islands was imported from Sicily. Instead, he ascertains that the arable land that provided so much agricultural wealth was mostly due to the diligence of the farmers who were able to make their patch of land thrive.
Farmers prepared the land by first getting rid of weeds, cutting, crushing and burning unwanted vegetation. They then levelled uneven ground with crushed rocks and pebbles to keep the soil flat. Soil would be collected from the vicinity and dispersed onto the chosen bare rocky terrain. This would be watered extensively to dampen the soil into mud. Manure was added at the lower level to ensure that the soil remained damp and fertile. The soil would be shifted every five years in order to avoid clotting and to allow water to percolate.
When all was ready, a field wall was erected to surround and protect the precious soil. (Hence the term għalqa as opposed to raba. While raba means arable land, għalqa is a reference to an enclosure). The field walls were raised up to six or seven feet high for various reasons. They were meant to safeguard crops from foraging by wild or stray animals and to prevent salt-laden winds from ruining the soil. When dry, the soil would also not be carried away as dust by winds. The last, but perhaps most practical reason for such walls was to avoid soil depletion by flash floods that occurred in the rainy season. Miége concluded that the large amount of field walls belied visitors’ impressions that Malta’s countryside was an arid and stony landscape.
Miége differentiated between a field and a garden as follows: the former referred to any arable land in the countryside, the latter to a small field usually close to inhabited areas. While a field required to be constantly taken care of by several labourers, a garden was tended to by only one person. Unlike a field in the countryside, a garden could be irrigated with more ease throughout the whole year. Miége contended that, with the exception of oranges, Maltese farmers were ignorant as to how to prune and graft trees.
It was not unusual that after creating a field, a farmer would dig down into the rock to seek a supply of water by penetrating an artesian well. Sometimes these wells would be quite close by to the surface, at a depth of two to five metres, at other times they would be 30 to 50 metres deep. To draw water from wells farmers would use what Miége called a “hydraulic machine”, a Maltese version of a water mill, (sienja). This contraption consisted of a vertical wheel with buckets attached to its rim that dipped into a well to haul up water. The wheel was attached by an axle to another horizontal wooden wheel. A mule or donkey was strapped by a yoke below the latter wheel and made to trudge in circles, thus turning the large wheel that dipped buckets into the well. The buckets hauled up water and emptied their contents into a cistern (ġiebja). From the ġiebja, water flowed down irrigation channels (qana) made of carved stone slabs, to reach the fields and water the crops.
Miége said farmers did not always own the land they laboriously tended. More often than not, they would lease it from a landowner. The lease would either cover a short period of between one and eight years, or else involve a contract stipulating a longer tenure of between nine and 101 years. Traditionally, leases were signed in August, but the land was normally handed over to the farmers on November 11, the feast of St Martin. In between, the land would be retained and still worked by the previous farmer. If the new lessee took over the land containing the unharvested crops of the previous farmer, he was to compensate the latter for the produce.
The proprietor would normally lease the land in units of not less than 10 salmi (17 hectares – a square with 100 metre sides). If he did not own that much land he would most likely work the land himself. In the case of a short lease the farmer was not allowed to sublet the land to other farmers. This was only permitted when the farmer leased the land for a longer duration. The farmer paid his rent by yielding two-thirds of the agricultural harvest to the landowner. Such payment was effected on a regular basis, three times a year, that is, on August 15, on December 25 and at Easter.
The farming implements were supplied by the farmer himself, not the proprietor. Thus the farmer was encumbered with the acquisition, and where necessary, the purchase of such essentials as a plough (moħriet). A moħriet cost 125 scudi. Another important tool was a wooden grate with large nails for scraping, (xatba). This contraption, held together by criss-crossing wooden planks, was used to comb the field to loosen the soil. It was dragged flat on its side by a mule or ox and a stone was placed on top of it to help the nails dig deeper, while at the same time, keep the wooden platform steady. This implement cost 13 scudi.
Miége contradicted the popular Maltese claim that the land yielded three annual harvests. This was probably an error or an idle boast. He asserted that it was more likely that a field would yield seven harvests every four years: three of cotton, two of wheat or barley, one of clover or wheat and one of melons.
Where the soil was of good quality the farmer worked the land on a three-year rotation basis. He would sow cotton or melons in one year, in May or June, which he would then harvest in August and October respectively. The next year he would not need to sow cotton as the plant would lay dormant and grow of its own volition a year or two later. While this cycle was allowed to take its course, the farmer would sow other crops in between, such as wheat or barley. If the cotton plant would not lay dormant the following year, the farmer could sow peas and broad beans in January, so that by the time the cotton plant sprouted in May, he would already have harvested the peas or broad beans as planned.
Miége divided the rural workforce into four categories: a) proprietor-cum-farmers working their own land; b) farmers who worked the fields under lease from proprietors; c) labourers who helped farmers all year round, and d) casual workers who constituted the mass of helping hands in the fields according to farmers’ needs.
Miége contradicted the popular Maltese claim that the land yielded three annual harvests
Proprietors, or those farmers who worked 10 salmi (17 hectares) of land or more, were bound to employ at least two labourers all year round to keep up with daily requirements. Each was paid between 100 and 200 scudi yearly as well as a daily provision of food for daily consumption. From May to June the number of workers grew multifold as casual labourers were employed. (This was the season when cotton was sown and cared for in its early stages). But in December, January and February, hardly any casual labourers were employed in the fields. During the months of March, April, July, August, September, October and November, all the workforce remained idle as there was no need for any helping hands in the fields. To compensate for this, following harvesting of cotton, many, especially female labourers and children, were actively employed at home, processing of it into yarn.
Miége wondered how Maltese farmers could work the fields so assiduously from sunrise to sunset, especially in the hot summer months. During the day they took two short breaks, the first for half an hour at 8am and the second from 11am until midday, in the winter months, and an extra hour, from 11am until 1pm in the summer months. The farmer and his team would sit under a fig tree, or close to a field wall to partake in a frugal meal. According to Miége, farmers packed up to return home only when the village church bells signalled sunset (the Angelus).
The daily wage for a casual labourer was four tari (rbajja) and 12 grani (ħabbiet). Payment could either be effected either in cash or in kind, the latter being preferred. In the latter case the norm was for labourers to receive two tumoli (320 millilitres), of wheat and mixed barley, (maħlut). Miége calculated that for a labourer and his family of eight, the annual income averaged 70 scudi a year. If the wife and at least two grown-up children from the family helped in the production of cotton, the income increased by 38 scudi to bring the total to 108 scudi annually.
Miége calculated that this would hardly make ends meet. He maintained that four scudi were required yearly for clothing and three scudi for rent; this would leave a deficit of seven scudi a year in the family budget. When buying clothes, the rule was never to pay cash. Instead the custom was to settle one’s debts in weekly installments of 10 ħabbiet, until it was paid off.
This deficit was made up for by keeping a pig and some fowl at the homestead, once one could afford the space. Otherwise one looked forward to some one-off gainful tasks to come one’s way. Miége hazards that further income was derived by growing vegetables, scavenging for driftwood, as well as collecting and selling all sorts of discarded refuse that one came across. It was mostly children who were employed to carry out this ignoble task. At the time of writing, Miége also noted that begging was also very rampant, as was petty theft from fields and farms.
Farmers’ houses had no furniture to boast of; no tables, chairs or beds. The family slept on straw which was often given to them as charity by farmers. Blankets were made from sacks that normally served to carry vegetables or refuse. Wives were responsible for the management of the house.
The most important crop farmers sowed was cotton. This was planted either in April or May. The healthy growth of the plant and its harvesting was guaranteed once it rained in the early stages that the plant was sown. If this was lacking, the farmer had to irrigate or the plant would wilt and the crop would be lost. As the cotton plant sprouted the farmer would hoe around it two or three times. Once it grew a few centimetres in height, the farmer trimmed the plant so that it would not grow too fast. The rest was up to nature to take its course until the cotton was harvested in October or in November. Following harvesting, the cotton plant would be left to wilt in anticipation of it regenerating growth of its own accord in the following year and the year thereafter.
Wheat and barley was sown at the end of November after the cotton harvest. Wheat was harvested in May. Barley was often grown together with wheat as it was a hardier crop and it served to protect the wheat plant from the scirocco. Barley was sown at the end of September or beginning of October. The Maltese called this faraina; it was harvested in January or February.
Melons, radishes and sesame were sown in April. Miége remarked that, strangely, sesame was not grown to extract oil from its seed as in India and Egypt, but simply added as a condiment to flavour bread. In the months of February and March some farmers would sow melons, cabbages and fennel.
Following the three-year cotton cycle, in the fourth year farmers would refrain from growing the same crop and instead grew clover (silla) which he would sow in August. This would sprout once the first rain fell and was harvested in May. Clover served as excellent fodder during the following winter months.
Some farmers preferred to leave the fields fallow until March 12, when they would sow melons of various types. On May 11 they would then sow cabbages, turnips and French turnips.
Miége was puzzled by the fact that there was very little viticulture on the islands. Grapes were mostly grown to be consumed at table. He attributed this to the fact that good quality wine was easily obtainable from Sicily. He also opined that Maltese farmers were somewhat afraid that the growing of vines would be detrimental to other agricultural activity. He suspected local farmers lacked the will and competence required to cultivate vines.
Bovines were imported from North Africa and fattened locally for meat. According to Miége, grazing on local grass made their meat whiter and the taste exquisite. In Miége’s account it is not clear whether other bovine animals that were imported from Sicily served the farmer to work the fields or else to provide milk. Each head was purchased at 75 scudi and required five tari of fodder daily.
Maltese goats were known for their beauty and for the quantity of milk they produced. Stock was replenished every eight years. Each goat cost five scudi and their daily nourishment cost one rbajja. The sale of milk was one tari (rbajja) four grains (ħabbiet) per cartuccio (1.69 litres).
Sheep cost four scudi each. These also had to be replenished every eight years. The upkeep for sheep was the same as for goats.
Pigs were reared extensively and the meat was very widely consumed. Each head cost 28 scudi and the upkeep was three tari per head.
Chickens were kept by all households. People living in the Grand Harbour area also kept some at home to furnish meat or eggs to ships.
There were plenty of horses used as beasts of burden or for transportation. Most of these were of Arab origin. Miége noted their sturdy legs. Horses cost 80 scudi and required a daily expense of six tari. Mules were the most expensive, costing 200 scudi and required a daily expenditure of seven tari each to keep. Donkeys cost 40 scudi and were the best for transportation as they had very sturdy feet. They cost three tari daily to keep.
One other product mentioned by Miége mentions was salt, albeit not related to agriculture; nevertheless it was another very important product that was used for the preservation and enhancement of food. There was a surplus of salt, as only 4,000 salmi (1,268,000kg) were being consumed locally while the rest, 30,000 salmi (9.5 million kg) was exported.
Thanks to Ġużi Gatt for certain information and sources of photos, and Michael Cassar for editing the article.
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