MILLIONS of years ago the Mediterranean Sea was apparently no more than a series of shallow inland lakes. Then, owing to some unknown natural cataclysm, the ocean swept in. Almost the only remnant of the continuation of the Italian isthmus hitherto joining Europe to Africa was the tiny Maltese archipelago, comprising Malta, Gozo, and Comino, with a total land area of 122 square miles. Proof of this great prehistoric event can be found in the caves of Malta, where the bones of giant extinct animals still abound, marooned when groping their way slowly southward to Africa as the Ice Age in Europe advanced.

The Phoenicians formed the first colony sixteen hundred years before Christ; they were followed by the ancient Greeks, and they by the Carthaginians, who here, as elsewhere, fell at last to the Romans. On the downfall of the Roman Empire, Vandals and Goths fought over the spoils.

As the Dark Ages began to recede, Malta was loosely reattached to what remained of the fragmented Roman Empire in Byzantium. The relief from barbarism lasted only a short time before marauding Arabs took over. In 1090 the Count of Sicily, and after him a whole series of European nobles and monarchs, extended their nominal sovereignty over the island, leaving the people to look after themselves.

In 1530 the Emperor Charles V of Spain magnanimously, according to his lights, gave Malta as the private possession of the Christian Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, to be held by them in perpetuity as compensation for the loss at Saracen hands of their older, traditional homeland in Rhodes. Thus Malta remains the only example in the world of a country once owned by a religious order, whose sway continued until Napoleon’s sudden assault and the long British rule that followed his downfall.

During all these troubled centuries three crises stand out. The first was in 1565, when the Christian Knights and their Maltese subjects successfully resisted a long, bloody siege by superior Turkish forces bent, in a final desperate fling, on replacing the Cross with the Mohammedan Crescent within Western Europe.

The second was in 1798, when the unarmed peasant inhabitants, on their own initiative, rose against Napoleon’s occupying army and fought and beat it almost to a standstill before the invading British forces were landed to assist them and become their last foreign “patrons.”

The third was during the last world war. The unexampled heroism of the forces stationed there and of all the inhabitants, who refused to surrender, although often near starvation, to endless heavy bombing attacks by Nazi and fascist planes, earned the Maltese their proudest possession. This, the George Cross, Britain’s highest decoration — awarded by King George VI not, as usual, to individuals, but to the whole island and its people forever—is now embodied in their new national flag. Thereafter, a long climb to sovereign independence began.

The road to freedom

The fact that the process of full freedom has taken so long is due to several factors. The islands have always held such a strategic, indeed commanding, position in the Mediterranean that Britain has never felt able to contemplate yielding control to any hostile or potentially hostile power. The population, too, is so small — about 330,000 men, women, and children — and the natural resources of the islands so negligible that remorseless economic needs have for centuries driven the Maltese to accept their protection and sustenance from outside. All they have had, and still have, to offer in exchange has been their militarily strategic situation.

This problem has still not been resolved for them; perhaps it never will be. Indeed, to some extent it has become more crucial, because with the decline of traditional naval power requiring large-scale dockyards and refueling facilities, the price that they can demand for their loyalty has in itself inevitably been reduced. Even so, on the attainment of Maltese independence, Britain, with the support of NATO, has thought it well worthwhile, in the interests of its own as well as Western security generally, to conclude a strong mutual defense treaty, to last at least for the next decade.

The role of the Church

Religion is fundamental in Malta. St. Paul, shipwrecked there in a.d. 60, found enthusiastic converts to the Christian faith. Ever since, Malta has been insulated from many of the doubts that have beset so much of the Christian world. Ninety-nine percent Roman Catholic and nearly all actively practicing their faith, the inhabitants today still find it difficult to define exactly what should belong to God and what to Caesar.

The Roman Catholic Church continues to play a pre-eminent role in every aspect of Malta’s being. Again and again this has caused friction between the Church and the left, or radical, forces of the day, because to succeed against the Establishment the opposition had to be anticlerical. Yet to be anticlerical in Malta is bound to lead to frustration and still further bitterness.

At the last elections, the two principal parties—Nationalist, supported by the Church, and Socialist, opposed by it as representing political ideas associated with the archenemy Communism — fought it out with no holds barred. Labor spokesmen alleged that the time had come for the priests to “get off the backs” of the people.

The Church reacted by virtually making it a mortal sin, with all that entails for devout Catholics, to vote for the Malta Labor Party. The Nationalists won: and the Premier whom they defeated, the fiery Dom Mintoff, left-wing agnostic leader of the Labor Party, has never forgiven his political enemies for his defeat.

When Mintoff was Premier, impelled not by any particular love of the British but probably by a desire to escape Church domination by one route or another, he proposed complete integration of the island with the United Kingdom, with ties to Britain comparable with those of Northern Ireland. Under this system Malta would have sent four M.P.’s to Westminster and Mintoff’s foes on the island would clearly have had their influence reduced in many important matters.

The average Maltese approved the proposal, simply because the people of the island feel a strong emotional kinship with Britain. Indeed, thousands of them have emigrated to the United Kingdom, and many more do so each year. The local Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, never really favored the integration scheme, since they dreaded the ultimate consequences to the Church if Malta’s 330,000 Roman Catholics become absorbed in Protestant England’s 50 million, with wholly different ideas on marriage, divorce, and other issues.

Despite clerical and political opposition, the enthusiasm of the Maltese people was so positive that the integration plan nearly succeeded. But it died when Mintoff and his Labor Party supporters began to have misgivings on finding that integration, pressed to its logical conclusion, would mean not only that they would receive British social welfare benefits and economic advantages but that they would have to pay a British income tax as well.

A small handful of British politicians helped to block the plan, because they did not like to see the House of Commons involved in such a drastic constitutional innovation as admitting M.P.’s from outside the United Kingdom. They were fearful that similar demands would come from other small British nonEuropean colonies.

Constitutional compromise

In forming the new constitution the leadership had to bear in mind two important factors. The first was to take full account of the special position of the Church, not only in matters affecting marriage and social customs but also in relation to the tendency of the clergy to speak out fearlessly on purely political subjects whenever they seemed to run counter to the practice of the Christian faith, in a much more contentious manner than would be acceptable in other Western societies. States, the Soviet Union, or Nasser’s Egypt. Mintoff also objects to Malta’s remaining a monarchy and adopting the British Queen as its own, not so much because of any ideological feeling on what is nowadays a matter more of form than of substance, but simply because his Nationalist foes and the islanders generally who support the Church are deeply royalist in sentiment and are especially attached to Queen Elizabeth, and to Prince Philip, who lived in the islands for some time during his active service in the British Navy.

The auctioneering policy of Mintoff on his country’s future was never very seriously regarded by the population, because everyone, including Mintoff, knew well enough that the threat to turn to the Communists for aid was unthinkable in so staunch a Roman Catholic society.

The economic challenge

As it is, Malta goes forward, one of few former colonies to gain independence with an unashamed conservative regime, openly attached to the West in actions and outlook. There is one shadow on the horizon. Britain’s annual retainer of $15 million, large though this may seem in the context of so small a population, is not enough in itself to maintain the comparatively high standards of living to which the islands have become accustomed under direct British rule.

To fill the gap, discarded naval dockyards are being converted to handle mercantile repair and refitting with already promising results. Tourism, too, is being developed, to put to good use amenities akin to what one finds in the Caribbean, in the hope that it will provide another way to ensure increasing prosperity.

If, owing to global conditions quite outside Malta’s control, these efforts should falter and the present governing party should become unpopular, there is as yet, unhappily, no alternative for the people to turn to other than resentful, frustrated Dom Mintoff, still dreaming of the downfall of the Church and the rising in Malta of a Marxist dawn.