Quite recently, Arnold Cassola discovered in a foreign repository an important hoard of hitherto unknown Melitensia: watercolours, Victorian photographs, literature and engravings.

These were put together by an inquisitive and wealthy foreign student who came to Malta, presumably to learn English, like the thousands of continental students who today choke Paceville to study what English they can fit in between a booze-up and a snog. New research and a separate publication should soon address this trove. This short preview only relates to one curious early 1850s photo from which some stories hang.

The single, most iconic marker of the British period in Malta is probably the Latin inscription prominent on the portico of the Main Guard, facing the Palace in Valletta in old St George’s Square, now Misraħ il-Palazz, the one known to historians as the Magnæ et Invictæ Britanniæ. Yet the truth is that we know so little about it. Who ordered it? Why? Who composed it? Has it always remained there? I will try to give answers, some rather tentative.

During the rule of the Order of St John, the central building opposite the Palace served as a station for the personal guards of the Grand Masters, the Reggimento di guardia. When the British formally took over Malta in 1814, the building kept serving the same purpose – to accommodate the guards in charge of the British Governor – hence, the Main Guard. Governor Sir Thomas Maitland added a well-balanced neoclassical portico to the rather unpretentious façade.

The genial and kindly military engineer Sir George Whitmore has been credited with the Doric-style design, but I have good reasons to believe that Giorgio Pullicino (1775-1851), known for his penchant for Doric architecture, would have been the real architect. Maitland seems to have requested more than one proposal for the projected improvements to that façade. In a private collection I found one of these autograph variants, almost certainly by the hand of Pullicino, and definitely not by Whitmore. And in his highly discursive published memoirs, Whitmore does not claim the authorship of the portico.

One of Whitmore’s own watercolours of Palace Square, the Viaticum, shows the new Doric portico before the royal coat of arms was added, together with three massive ‘Mondion’ trophy finials which were later removed, very much as shown in the ‘Pullicino’ elevation. The first of the many mysteries surrounding the Main Guard building.

Britain’s title to the sovereignty of Malta was nothing if not iffy. British military forces had come to the aid of the Maltese insurgents against the French – but as troops of the King of Naples, the legitimate sovereign of Malta. Sir Alexander Ball, in charge of them in Malta, presented and signed himself as the representative of the King of the Two Sicilies, and raised the Neapolitan, not the Union, flag. Naples and Britain were then formal and mutually-trusting friends, allied against Napoleon, and when the Maltese insurgents requested military assistance from their sovereign in Naples, the King asked his friends and military allies, the British forces, to come to the relief of his Maltese subjects – but as Neapolitan troops, paid for by the Neapolitan treasury.

How British politicians took advantage of that opportunity – to seize Malta for themselves, to betray the Neapolitan monarch, their ally and collaborator and, from his friends and guests, morph into his usurpers, is one of the more shameful treacheries in history. They somehow had to justify this blatant act of plunder – not against an enemy, but against a friend. They did this by spinning ‘the love of the Maltese’ so insistently and intensely that they almost convinced themselves and others that their base betrayal was, in fact, solely an act of magnanimity to delight the natives.

The Main Guard in the 1870s, after the Royal Arms were reconstructed, and showing the first electric clock in Malta.The Main Guard in the 1870s, after the Royal Arms were reconstructed, and showing the first electric clock in Malta.

In 1814, the British government, head of the victorious alliances against Napoleon, and at that time the dominant power in Europe, found little resistance when it arm-twisted the Congress of Paris to formally divest the monarchy of Sicily (and Naples) from its millennial sovereignty over Malta, to hand it over to the British Crown. Maitland, the first British Governor, immediately started rewriting history. He ordered that all the coats of arms the Order (vassals of the King of Sicily) that had survived the French onslaught, be removed from public view (the French, in their very short and troubled rule, had started the process and had defaced several. Maitland did not settle for half-measures. He ordered – not their defacement but their total removal). The Order of St John had held Malta as ‘tenants’ of the Kingdom of Sicily, in the name of the Sicilian monarch, the ultimate sovereign for over 260 years.

To manipulate history even more thoroughly, Maitland had a Latin inscription set up prominently on the new Doric portico of the Main Guard. And he also ordered that two large coats of arms of the new British sovereign, George III, be displayed, one over the Palace courtyard, and the other over the new inscription on the Main Guard. Shortly later, as an afterthought, he had another two large British arms displayed in Valletta, one on the Del Monte Marina Gate, and the other of the Marsamuxetto Gate. Of these four, the latter two no longer exist, obliterated with the demolition of the two gates.

The Main Guard inscription is a remarkable (if flawed) exercise in concise, epigrammatic writing: Magnæ et invictæ Britanniæ/Melitensium amor et Europæ vox/has insulas confirmat. A.D. 1814. Which roughly translates as “The love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe assigned these Islands to great and unconquered Britain. A.D. 1814”.

This inscription cast in stone the two roots of Britain’s claim to sovereignty over Malta: the love of the Maltese population and the consensus of the European powers. It is most noteworthy in that it does not mention the third claim: that Malta belonged to Britain by dint of military conquest. Memories were then too fresh to base a claim to sovereignty over Malta on an occupation by force of arms, when thousands of Maltese had died to regain Malta from the French, and not a single British soldier was killed in action. The ‘conquest’ claim only started being played later. The inscription is more important in what it omits saying, than it is truthful in what it says.

Phase 1 of the Main Guard. Giorgio Pullicino (?), the portico with three trophy finials, but without the inscription or the Royal Arms. Private Collection, Malta.Phase 1 of the Main Guard. Giorgio Pullicino (?), the portico with three trophy finials, but without the inscription or the Royal Arms. Private Collection, Malta.

All this apart, a splendid piece of political spin. Pity that the concepts engraved on it are so thoroughly unsupported by historical truth. Obviously, the subject is “the love of the Maltese”. How was that love measured? Was a referendum held? Were elections organised? Were political parties consulted? Were democratic polls in place to establish what the popular consensus was?  Not on your life.

By far the great majority of the Maltese were then totally disenfranchised. They had absolutely no voice and no say in anything, one way or the other, so it is unbridled historical chicanery to attribute anything to ‘the Maltese’. Very small sectarian cliques of power-seekers spoke, loudly and in their own interests, without any democratic validation, not even the flimsiest. The village notary and the convent’s doctor, the aristocrat who had bought his nobility in cash and the brassy businessman who equally bought the ministers in cash, pushed their personal interests and those of their own faction. They surely did not represent ‘the Maltese’. No one really represented ‘the Maltese’, in love or otherwise.

A splendid piece of political spin. Pity the concepts engraved on it are so thoroughly unsupported by historical truth

The British authorities had a charmingly empirical way of dealing with these issues. They usually handpicked a small number of pliant lackeys, bought their loyalty or their subservience with small jobs and smaller preferment, and, when it suited them, referred to this handful of anointed stooges as ‘the Maltese’.

When these tiny minorities said they favoured British interests, they were branded as ‘the Maltese’. When they opposed British interests, they were dismissed as “a small clique that only represents itself”. Right: a small clique that only represented itself. So much for the unhistorical self-advertisement that Maitland wanted carved in stone: “the love of the Maltese”.

Who composed that undeniably striking inscription? Certainly not Maitland himself, a virtual illiterate, a lout, a drunkard and an unrepentant lecher who died in bed while cuckolding his best friend. Archival research has not, so far, established the author with any certainty. The historian Dr Carmel Testa attributed its authorship to Emanuele Ricaud, but sadly failed to reference the source of this information. Personally, I would discard this attribution, and it’s a pity, as Ricaud passes muster as a most, let’s say colourful, character.

Phase 2 of the Main Guard. George Whitmore, detail of the Viaticum, showing the Main Guard with the inscription and the Royal Arms, and with the two side trophy finials still in place. Courtesy of Marquis Nicholas De Piro.Phase 2 of the Main Guard. George Whitmore, detail of the Viaticum, showing the Main Guard with the inscription and the Royal Arms, and with the two side trophy finials still in place. Courtesy of Marquis Nicholas De Piro.

A former Capuchin monk, Ricaud (1763-1835), who lived in Żejtun, had ditched his religious order to become a highly strident advocate for a future British connection, not before ensuring for himself a minor job with the British authorities. In 1802, with the defeat of the French, he more or less got himself appointed to travel to London, together with a small group of pro-British activists handpicked by the British in Malta, to plead for Malta to be taken over by Great Britain. He expected a triumphant welcome in England. But the political compass had meanwhile swerved and, by the time the Maltese reached London, Britain had changed its mind and was keener to appease France than to annex Malta.

In London, Ricaud and his group were perceived as an embarrassment to official British policy, and, instead of being applauded, Ricaud ended snubbed and chastised by the British for putting spokes in the wheels of a new Anglo-French détente. He and the rest of the Testaferrata delegation were virtually hounded out of London, and his new anti-British resentment now knew no bounds.

Ricaud “suffered himself to be carried away by the violence of his indignation and expressed himself in terms the most energetic and perhaps the most uncourtly”. Sounds like he resorted to well-tested profanities in Maltese, though he prided himself being one of the first Maltese to learn English. Those are not the right credentials to author a classic inscription in elegant Latin.

I believe that Dr Testa, or the unnamed source on who he relied, could have mixed up Ricaud with Rigord. Abbate Luigi Rigord (1737-1823), the most renowned Latinist of his time, was unmatched when it came to terse, elegant and compact Latin verse, some of which he published to great acclaim. If Maitland scouted around for a good Latinist, the first suggestion would obviously have been the blind classical scholar who later became the friend of John Hookham Frere. Don Luigi Rigord, not Ricaud. Another mystery yet unsolved.

However brilliant the author of the inscription was, a grammatical howler still crept into it. The statement has two subjects – the love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe, so the verb should have been plural: confirmant. But, by an unexplainable lapsus, the verb is singular: confirmat. Some thought that the mistake found itself there when the inscription was renewed by a hasty scalpellino, after heavy weathering, in the early 1850s. But no. Several transcriptions of it made before its renewal already register the confirmat error.

But there may be another explanation for this apparent mistake. In Latin epigraphy it is perfectly acceptable to abbreviate words by means of a ‘macron’, a diacritical sign over the last vowel to stand for the missing ‘n’. Thus, confirmant can be properly be contracted to confirmãt. When the stonecutter renewed the inscription in 1851, he may well have missed the small ˜ over the a, giving rise to the error.

The Main Guard in the 1850s, with both the Royal Arms and the side trophy finials removed. Courtesy of Prof. Arnold Cassola and The Gennadius Library, Athens.The Main Guard in the 1850s, with both the Royal Arms and the side trophy finials removed. Courtesy of Prof. Arnold Cassola and The Gennadius Library, Athens.

The Main Guard inscription and Royal Arms as they are today.The Main Guard inscription and Royal Arms as they are today.

When the entire Main Guard square was regenerated in 2009, the inscription was, quite laudably, restored for a second time, with the result that a number of new embarrassing errors sneaked in: invictæ has now become invictaf, Britanniæ turned into Britannia e, and Europæ vox is now Europaevox. But, to compensate, the original howler confirmat still glares at you. Whoever re-engraved it hardly listed classical Latin diphthongs among his specialities.

Andrew Bigelow, a perceptive American who visited Malta in 1827, was neither taken in by the imposture of the inscription nor impressed by its faltering Latin. He had witnessed in British Malta more abject poverty, despair and anti-British resentment than he had seen anywhere else in his wide travels. He rejected both “the Latinity and sentiment” of the inscription over the Main Guard.

It had so far been thought that only the weather-beaten inscription was renewed in 1851. But the photograph recently discovered abroad by Prof. Cassola leaves no doubt that the original royal coat of arms was also entirely removed and replaced around the same time, and that the one currently displayed is not the original one put up in 1814, but an 1850s replica. Today we attribute heavy corrosion in Maltese limestone to atmospheric pollution. Undoubtedly so. But, with no fossil fuel fumes at all choking St George’s Square, the first 1814 version only survived 35 years, and had to be replaced. The second version, notwithstanding the far heavier pollution, is still serviceable today, albeit after heavy conservation interventions.

When the decision was taken to put up new royal arms in the 1850s, the problem obviously arose whether to display those of the late King George III, or use those of Queen Victoria, the current sovereign, instead. The two escutcheons differ considerably, as those of George III have at their centre the arms of his German dominions, Hanover and Brunswick – only in use between 1801 and 1816. Victoria’s arms lack the central German shield. The authorities opted to respect the historical narrative and re-engraved George III’s arms, still visible today, rather than Victoria’s.

The Latin inscription and the royal arms dominated Main Guard square since their erection under Maitland, except for the short break when they had to be removed and substituted in the early 1850s. They presided over most meaningful historical, military or ceremonial events in the annals of Malta. But, when the Maltese government gave the building to Libya in 1974, it became the Libyan Arab Cultural Institute, inaugurated by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi himself on December 21 – and the whole heraldic superstructure and inscription were ‘disappeared’ inside an unsightly zinc and plywood box, there to remain imprisoned until the change of government in 1987.

The Main Guard portico sported what was probably the very first electric clock in Malta. For a combination of reasons, Malta already had public electric clocks at least as early as 1867, shortly after they started coming into use. At first, the Main Guard electric clock formed part of a trapezoid lantern with numerals, but eventually one encased in a drum replaced it. After being out of order for some years, it was repaired in 2009, and it still tallies the hours over St George’s Square today. It must be well over a hundred years old.


Thanks to Prof. Arnold Cassola, Liza Attard, Leonard Callus, Maroma Camilleri, Sarah Chircop and Marquis Nicholas de Piro.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us