Charles J. Farrugia

National Archives of Malta

Archival Insights from Malta

In proportion to their size, Malta and Gozo must house some of the vastest archives in the world. The long history of the island and its location along the main trade routes has produced a distinctively rich and diverse range of evidence, ranging from fossils to bits, testifying to and depicting the cultural, religious, political, economic and social aspects of life in Malta.

The earliest archives
The earliest archival records that relate to Malta date back to the fifteenth century. A wealth of information lies in foreign territories, primarily in nearby Sicily. In his study about medieval Malta, extensively researched in the State Archives of Palermo, professor Stanley Fiorini highlights the case of Leonardus Calavà. In the fifteenth century, Calavà occupied various positions including that of notary to the captain’s court and archivist to the same. He petitioned the viceroy that his son Raynerius be jointly appointed with him in these offices so that, whoever of them died first would be succeeded by the other, for life, in these offices. This request was acceded to. Stanley Fiorini, Documentary Sources of Maltese History, Part II (Documents of the State Archives of Palermo), no. 3 (Cancelleria Regia 1460–1485) (Msida, Malta: University of Malta, 1996), 267.

The pre-1530 documents held locally are kept in the National Library in Valletta (with records starting from 1107), the Notarial Archives in Valletta (from the mid-fifteenth century on) and the Cathedral Museum in Mdina, whose minutes of the cathedral chapter date back to 1419.Notum Sit Omnibus … A Selection of Documents from Public and Private Archives in Malta and Gozo (Malta: Department of Libraries and Archives, 2002). Of particular importance from this period are the records of the university which acted as the Malta Town Council.

The arrival in Malta of the Knights of St John in 1530 brought new methods of administration and new ways of life. Although historians rightly resist the notion of rapid changes in society, for practicality, documents pre-dating 1530 are often labelled as relating to medieval Malta.

The last years of the order’s rule in Malta were characterized by decadence and a lack of purpose at almost all levels of the hierarchy of the monastic order. This attitude paved the way for Napoleon to take possession of Malta in June 1798. Eager to destroy all evidence supporting claims of nobility and other possessions, the French administration issued an order instructing that all those documents not considered useful to the state be destroyed. However, luckily enough, through the delaying tactics of uditore Gaetano Bruno, ex-secretary of the Chancery, most of the records were preserved. The uprising of the Maltese against the French, and the subsequent blockade meant that Malta’s archival records were saved.

The September 1798 uprising against the French led to a status quo in which the French were blockaded in Valletta and the Maltese ruled the countryside. The aid of the British was solicited by the Maltese, enabling Britain to take rule of Malta not as a colonizer winning over the territory, but taking over the administration of the island in conformity with the wishes of the local population.

One of the first moves aimed at centralising the government archives during the British rule was to set up a ‘records room’ in the office of the chief secretary to government in 1851. A government notice was issued by Henry Lushington on 27 June 1851 instructing that the books and documents of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and the suppressed universities of Malta were to be moved to the new records room. Dr Luigi Vella, government archivist and notary, took charge of the archives and was authorised to attest and authenticate all copies and extracts for public use.Malta Government Gazette (MGG), 27 June 1851, no. 1715.

In 1921 Malta was granted the Self-Government Constitution. This meant that the office of head of ministry and various departments and ministries were set up. Each ministry had its own registry filing system. This practice continued up to 1933 when Crown colony government was reintroduced. The Second World War severely undermined the social fabric of Maltese society, and the country had to be rebuilt physically, economically and politically. At this juncture, the Maltese archives sector benefitted from the visit to Malta of Sir Hilary Jenkinson (1882–1961), one of the most renowned and leading British theorists in archival science. He arrived in Malta on 6 May 1944, visited a number of public archives, and presented a report which was later discussed by the local authorities.National Archives of Malta (NAM), CSG1/1400/1944.

In his report Jenkinson discussed Maltese archives under two broad categories: a) governmental, semi-public and private; and b) ecclesiastic. Apart from the detailed analysis of the main archival collections, he made a series of 11 recommendations, advocating amongst others the building of a national archive, the appointment of a head archivist and collaboration with the University of Malta. The full recommendations are reproduced in Maltese in Charles J. Farrugia, L-Arkviji ta’ Malta (Malta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2006), 33. The recommendations in English are listed in the State of Archives Report 2008, which also includes comments on the current state of progress on each recommendation.

Towards a national archive for Malta
A renewed interest in Maltese national identity followed Malta’s independence from Great Britain on 21 September 1964. The efforts made to strengthen the history department of the University of Malta were such a by-product. In March 1971, the history department of the Royal University of Malta organised a conference to examine the related problems of teaching and writing history in Malta and the preservation of source materials on Maltese history.Anna Williams and Roger Vella Bonavita, eds, Maltese History: What Future? Proceedings of the Conference Held at the Royal University of Malta on 19th and 20th March 1971 ([Valletta, Malta]: Royal University of Malta, 1974). Two of the sessions were focused on ‘public records in Malta’ and ‘local and private records’.

The question was debated as to why Malta lacked a national archive or at least a centralised archive service despite the presence of centuries-old institutions with a certain degree of autonomy.

While introducing Adelaide Baviera, director of the State Archives of Palermo, professor Andrew Vella expressed his concern that the lack of a centralised archive in Malta was creating researchers considerable trouble.Dr Baviera was not in Malta for the conference as she had to cancel her participation due to ill health but visited a few months later and gave a lecture at the Aula Magna of the University in Valletta. Her lecture was published with the proceedings. In her lecture ‘La conservazione e la valorizazzione del patrimonio archivistico’ (Preserving and Enriching the Archival Heritage), Dr Baviera looked into the reasons why the concept of a national archive had hitherto not developed in Malta. She argued that in Malta there were:

neither the politico-juridical conditions nor the necessary schools of thought, found in other countries between the mid-eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, leading to state archives as the main institutions where past and present documentary evidence is concentrated in line with modern archival theory.Williams and Vella Bonavita, eds, Maltese History: What Future?, 78. The original was in Italian: ‘né le condizioni politico-giuridiche né le correnti di pensiero, né quell’insieme di spinte che negli altri paesi condussero tra la seconda metà del sec. XVIII e la prima metà del XIX alla istituzione degli archivi centrali di Stato come organi nei quali avrebbero dovuto essere concentrate secondo i canoni della nascente dottrina archivistica, le testimonianze documentarie del passato e quelle che via via andavano formandosi’.

A strong proponent of a national archive for Malta was lawyer and collector Albert Ganado. Ganado argued that while Malta was a British colony it may not have been in the interest of the coloniser to preserve and centralise certain government records. However, after Malta attained self-government in 1921, the Maltese ‘did not care to make use of’ the opportunities that arose, and repeated the same mistake after independence in 1964.Ibid., p. 116. He outlined his vision of a Maltese public record office serving two main purposes: to bring all government records under one roof and subject to the control and superintendence of trained expert staff and to select and appraise the public records.NAM, OPM/937/72. Letter of appointment to Mr Michael Ellul, 14 October 1972.

In October 1972, Michael Ellul, an architect with the antiquities unit of the Public Works Department, was entrusted with the custody and maintenance of a collection of public records. By the end of 1972 all the court records of the Knights of Malta had been transferred from the old law courts to Casa Leone.NAM, MJPA/128/72. Letter from J. Bonello to M. Ellul dated 5 January 1973. In 1974 the collection was moved from Casa Leone to the palace in Valletta. Thus, the records collection found itself back in the same premises where the 1851 records room was originally located.

These initial efforts were followed by legislation. A bill to set up a national archive for Malta was introduced in parliament by Honourable Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, MP, Minister of Education, and read for the first time at the sitting of 10 April 1989.(MGG), 23 October 1989, number 15, 193, Section C. It was discussed at the first reading, committee stage and third reading over seven sittings and approved on 23 January 1990.The sessions in parliament were held during sessions 315/316 (4 December) and 317 (5 December 1989), 332 (15 January), 333 (16 January), 335 (22 January) and 336 (23 January 1990).It received presidential assent on 30 January 1990.MGG, 30 January 1990, no. 15, 2333.

After a decade, the same institution started lobbying for another legal reform. In its meeting held on 26 July 2004, the cabinet approved the draft bill to reform the National Archives.The discussion was on Memo 63, ‘Reforming the National Archives – A New Law.’This development paved the way to the debate in parliament, and on 16 September 2004 the minister requested to have the bill presented to parliament for the first reading. Request to parliament by Hon. Louis Galea, 16 September 2004.The bill was discussed in parliament over 13 sittings spanning from October 2004 to May 2005.The sittings were 171 (12 October), 172 (13 October), 173 (18 October), 174 (19 October), 181 (3 November), 195 (29 November), 240 (22 February), 247 (9 March), 254 (13 April), 255 (18 April), 256 (19 April), 258 (15 April) and 265 (10 May).

This legislation is the one under which the entity still functions today. It separated the domain from the libraries sector, established an institution with a distinct legal persona and for the first time appointed the office of national archivist. This legislation enabled specialisation and gave a more tangible contribution towards fostering an archival profession for Malta.

Amongst the records treasured by this institution there are two fonds that have been chosen for the collaboration of this exhibition. These are the Consolato del Mare and the Magna Curia Castellania. The remaining part of this article introduces both fonds and their relevance to historians and the archival community.

Consolato del Mare
The Consolato del Mare of Malta (1697–1814) was a key institution in the development of Malta as a centre of excellence in trade and maritime affairs. It was established to provide swift justice to merchants and mariners as a tribunal made up of their peers.

By the late seventeenth century, Malta was relatively safe from Turkish marauders, and the Valletta harbour had grown into a key Mediterranean shipping hub. Messina was the closest port with a functioning consolato tribunal, but Malta’s geopolitical position was even better. Apart from Maltese shipping, the Maltese consolato evolved into an international adjudicating tribunal that was respected by European Christian states for its efficiency and level of neutrality.

This mercantile tribunal was founded in 1697 by Grand Master Ramon Perellos de Rocaful in response to the merchants and seafarers’ need to better condition their dealings and resolve their disputes. It was modelled on the consolato of Messina, which was based on that of Genoa.

The Consolato del Mare (CDM) records held in the National Archives of Malta records the whole span from its inception until its dissolution in the early years of British rule. The collection is made up of 473 items, 220 of which in bundles preserved in archival boxes and the rest bound volumes. It is in reasonably good condition but requires attention in order to be preserved for posterity.

These records bear witness to the interaction between Malta and the major European centres of international trade and commerce, demonstrating how different customs and habits travelled with these sailors, while also shedding light on the development of international commercial and contractual law.

This collection documents business practices such as insurance, freight, financing, purchasing, trade networks and many other aspects of mercantile life. The records include crew and equipment lists, bills of lading in various harbours including Malta, France, Messina, Trieste and others; inventories of wares, sailors’ wages, lists of spending, harbour spending, appraisals, accounts, testimonials against insurance agents, chartering of vessels, agreements concluded by captains, sailors and merchants, judicial spending, and lists of debtors and creditors.

Most of the litigation involved shipwrecks or vessel damage. Calculations of damage, inventories of wares lost or recovered, witness declarations and insurance disputes can all be found in these fonds.

The basic languages of the Consolato del Mare are Italian and Latin; however, the ‘Testimoniali’ series includes several other European languages, including French, Spanish, English, Swedish, Dutch, Greek, Armenian and Turkish.

These documents contain the names of merchants and captains from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. They come from Malta, Italy (Genoa, Venice and Veneto, the Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily and Tuscany), France (Marseilles, Martigues in Provence, Cassis, Saint Tropez, Toulouse and Agde in the Languedoc), Spain (primarily from Barcelona and Minorca), England (London and Norfolk), Ireland, Denmark, Sweden (mostly from Stockholm and Gothenburg) and Holland (Amsterdam and Rotterdam).

During the eighteenth century, trading was also conducted in the Americas, in cities such as New Orleans, Havana, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Lima in Peru.

The Magna Curia Castellania
The Magna Curia Castellania was the main secular tribunal (1530–1798) during the Knights of St John’s rule in Malta. The institution was established for the first time in Palestine in 1186, then in Rhodes as the Pragmaticæ Rhodiæ, and it remained active there until the order was expelled from the island in 1522. It was founded in Malta following the arrival of the order on 5 September 1533, during the magistracy of Grand Master Philippe de L’Isle-Adam. The tribunal is also sometimes referred to as the Magnæ Curiæ Caſtellaniæ Melitensis.

It was one of the first institutions found to require reform. The task of drafting the first set of laws for Malta – later established by the grand master – was assigned to Johannes Quintinus. The institution followed the Sicilian legal system, known as the Ritus Magnæ Curiæ Siciliæ.

The institution was composed of the castellano, a knight of the order and two judges; one for the civil court and one for the criminal court. It also included an exchequer, a vice-exchequer, two notaries and several clerks. In the event of an appeal, the case was referred to the appellate court, a different tribunal in the castellania, which was presided over by one judge.

The judges of the castellania were native Maltese and dealt with cases that took place in the district of Valletta, Floriana and the Three Harbour Cities. The fiscal prosecutor presented cases to the judges three days per week. The institution’s decisions were coordinated by a head notary. The cancelliere was in charge of receiving and preserving judicial acts, registering the sentences handed down by the judges and supervising the other court employees.

There was a gran visconte who coordinated the police, and the capitani di notte who implemented the sentences. Other employees included a prison official who ensured that prisoners were treated fairly, archive officials and legal aid advocates.

The advocates were generally Italian-speaking Maltese, as most of the knights and foreigners considered the position for the lower ranks. A weekly report was written and sent to the grand master’s palace, informing him of events presented to the castellania.

The castellania originally had authority over all aspects of life, including public morality and religion, but after a visit to the islands by a Holy See official in the sixteenth century and the discovery of a lack of religious enforcement by the knights, an inquisition was established. The Holy See regarded Malta as a colony with the presence of an inquisition, but the order maintained strict control and sovereignty over Malta through the castellania. Though the inquisition had the authority to impose the death penalty in religious cases such as heresy, fornication and sodomy, the decision was generally left to the discretion of the castellania.

Religious monks, including the bishop of Malta, were not to be subject to castellania’s decisions, but exceptions had to be made in cases of offence to the state.

In the military context, knights were not subject to the castellania. Instead, they were prosecuted at the military tribunal (tribunale militare), which received assistance from the castellania’s higher members, such as the judge of the criminal court.

The grand master issued a bando, which amended the law. Special bandi governed the procedures for treating a seriously injured person, in which the castellania had to be notified by medical practitioners within a day of receiving assistance. The castellania was the supreme court of justice of the islands, hence it was called the ‘gran corte’ or other variants in legal documents. The Magna Curia Castellania was abolished by the French domination in 1798. More than 200 metres of shelving house the documents of the Magna Curia Castellania while 1,141 volumes of the Acta Originalia have been digitized by the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and the Malta Study Centre.

This collaboration is noble in the sense that it preserves the spirit of communication and voyages conveyed by the same records on display. Although the modes of transport and movement of people may have been rather rudimentary, the need to trade, commute and connect has always been an indispensable characteristic of human nature. These instances are well documented in archives all over Europe. This collaboration has given us the opportunity to showcase some of the rich archival heritage we safeguard and to shed some light on two fonds from our holdings as well as the national institution that preserves them.