The revolution ushered in by 20-foot containers (TEU) and roll-on, roll-off coincided with the Maltese period in Grand Harbour’s history. The first loaded TEU left Malta in September 1969; ro-ro service by custom-built ferry started in November 1971. After Malta’s military base agreement was renegotiated in 1972, the Admiralty managed the remaining facilities on a care and maintenance basis until 1979. The first container ship berthed at Marsaxlokk Freeport in August 1983.
Except on busy days when cruise ships are in, the view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, as fantastic as ever, inevitably brings to mind the contrast with the way the harbour used to be and the way it is now – which is generally empty, much cleaner and, with the advent of better communications, quieter. These days, the only siren you are likely to hear is from a departing cruise ship. The asthmatic, wheezing steam whistles are gone.
As impressive as they are, cruise ships are under increasing scrutiny as major sources of pollution in harbours. Shipping in general is already being obliged to burn low-sulphur fuel in several northern European ports. When in port, cruise ships continue to run highly polluting machinery that is hazardous to people living in city harbours whose attractions and history draw them there in the first place. There is a move to make these ships turn off their highly polluting machinery and connect to the local grid while in port. It is a matter of time before Mediterranean city harbours, including our own, are obliged to follow suit.
Another significant change is the dearth of naval ships in harbour. After 1979 there was a lull in naval visits but they picked up as the years went by; these were courtesy visits to show the flag and give crews a well-deserved rest. As far as the Royal Navy was concerned, the age-old friendship stood, and many Maltese welcomed ships with the waving of flags, and queuing to go aboard when ships were open to visitors. Since then, there has been a marked change; naval ship calls pass unnoticed, except for a small group of naval enthusiasts who continue the tradition of taking photographs from vantage points around the harbour. Naval visits are also on the decline because the 21st-century Royal Navy is but a shadow of its former self.
Visits by US Navy warships are now also rare, partly because Malta does not participate in the Status of Forces Agreement, an amendment to Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme that regulates the status of foreign forces while on the territory of another State. As a result, not only are there hardly any calls, but shipyards like Palumbo, which have taken over from Malta Shipyards, are unable to bid for US Navy ship repair contracts. These days the only warships visiting Grand Harbour are small patrol craft on Frontex and Triton migrant rescue operations and the occasional sail training ship.
In the heyday of the Royal Navy, the ubiquitous dgħajsas were the most visible service providers in harbour; they milled round the ships for custom, assisted with the berthing, got in the way, sometimes with tragic consequences, and were continuously being photographed and remarked upon – one of the sights visitors recalled after leaving Malta. Join the navy and see the world also applied to dgħajsas embarked on Royal Navy warships that sailed on summer cruises.
One wonders what locals in Venice, Naples or Trieste made of this strange craft that ferried officers ashore. Fortunately, it is still possible to see some dgħajsas at work. The introduction of outboard motors promised relief to the hard work of rowing, except that they came in the twilight years of the Royal Navy in Malta. The pound sterling and its Maltese equivalent went separate ways in the 1970s and the exchange rate eroded boatmen’s (barklori, from the Italian barcaiolo) blind trust in the British currency.
It was part of harbour practice for every merchant ship at anchor to have its own dgħajsas to ferry the crew and stevedores and occasionally bring ‘guests’ aboard. His pay may not have amounted to much but the barklor got free food and more (paint, cutlery, cigarettes, rope), depending on the largesse of the bosun, chief officer or master, and the bond that grew from regular visits. Much business was carried out on the side; many a time, police and Customs guards turned a blind eye; live and let live was a much respected axiom. Overcharging for services was also the norm; it would not hurt visitors whom one was unlikely to see again.
Gash (gaxin), leftover food of dubious provenance, fed families around the harbour; hidden with the gaxin were choice cuts of meat, spirited off the ship by arrangement with the cook or quartermaster who was in on the scam. It was not theft – merely helping oneself to crumbs from the king’s table and the largesse of Empire. Everything changed when ships started to berth at quays; even the bumboat men (gadrajja) packed up; their dgħajsas used to be loaded with goods to sell, souvenirs and exquisite mats purportedly woven in Malta, that, when the ship was safely out at sea, were found to be made in Manchester. Change also came to the harbour pilots who, for decades, had also used dgħajsas for their work; they now use fast, custom-built launches.
For a look at the changing face of the Grand Harbour it is useful to identify 10 distinct areas (numbered on the map). This division, albeit arbitrary, is based on current facilities and usage as well as likely future potential. These areas are, clockwise from top, right:
• Fort Ricasoli, Rinella Bay/Creek (1);
• Bighi and Kalkara Bay/Creek (2);
• Fort St Angelo and Grand Harbour Marina (3);
• No. 1 Dock and environs (4);
• French Creek: Palumbo Malta Shipyard/Yacht Yard, Boiler Wharf (5);
• Magazine/Laboratory Wharf and Corradino to Fuel Wharf (6);
• Marsa: power stations/ Malta Shipbuilding Co./Menqa (7);
• Deep Water Quay and Virtù Ferries terminal (8);
• Valletta Cruise Port/Valletta Waterfront (9);
• Customs House, Barriera Wharf to Fort St Elmo (10).
Fort Ricasoli and Rinella Bay/Creek
With Fort St Elmo as Grand Harbour guardian, Fort Ricasoli is now best known as a film set and miniature movie production town. It is now easy to forget its history: pirates’ corpses hung at Ricasoli Point – Punta dell Orsi, as a stark reminder to errant seafarers; the Froberg Mutiny of 1807; as the birthplace, in 1812, of one of the Governors of Malta, Sir Charles Thomas van Straubenzee (1872-1878); as the stone frigate HMS Ricasoli; as a fleet bathing lido; as a Customs house enciente. The fort was badly damaged during World War II; weathering, winter gales and general abandon have done the rest.
The smaller of the two breakwaters at the harbour entrance was begun at Ricasoli Point in 1903. The foundation stone, laid by King Edward VII, is dated April 18 but the ceremony was postponed to the 20th as a gregale was blowing on the day. It was as if nature wanted to protest at the proposed artificial barrier. Another gregale later destroyed the works but the breakwater was completed as planned. Ricasoli breakwater continues to bear the brunt of winter gales; the sight of huge waves striking the mole and shooting several metres high in the sky is one of the highlights of winter at Valletta.
The installation of a tank cleaning plant in 1965, consisting of a jetty and slops processing plant hidden in the moat of the fort, was necessary for Malta Drydocks, but hampered efforts to rehabilitate the fort, apart from occasional pollution and nauseating smells. The plant continues to operate under private ownership. Much-needed change awaits the fort; repairs to the seaward side of the fort are urgently required.
Meanwhile, after the closure of Malta Shipyards in 2010, a significant reduction in the size and number of tanker cleaning slops at Ricasoli has given a new lease of life to Rinella Bay, the only extant sandy beach in Grand Harbour. Well before our time there would have been similar sandy beaches at Kalkara, Cospicua, Għajn Dwieli and Marsa. After the war, sections of Admiralty Floating Dock No. 8 were broken up at Rinella after they were salvaged at Magazine Wharf. Rinella Bay escaped development as a yacht yard; it continues to be treasured as the only sandy beach in Grand Harbour, a convenient bathing place for the people of Kalkara and Cottonera.
Bighi and Kalkara Bay/Creek
In 1831, the Royal Navy got its state-of-the-art naval hospital, transposing the neo-classic style on a baroque harbour; nobody minded at the time and the main buildings, to which were added two wings early in the 20th century, continues to please the eye and provide opportunites for reuse. A cot lift completed facilities; the sick were landed by boat and taken directly to the wards.
The hospital overlooked Bighi Bay, the deepest part of the harbour. Patients and nurses bathed on the foreshore below the hospital; one of the original masonry bathing huts, a humpback structure in Maltese stone, can still be seen where the bay meets Kalkara Creek. When the breakwaters were built in 1903-1909, the navy secured berths for its largest ships in the bay.
Kalkara Creek, once known as English Port, escaped the clutches of the Admiralty, no doubt due to the presence of the naval hospital. At the head of the creek were ship and boat builders; dgħajsas, speronaras, lateen boats and several types of local craft were built there. The connection with small craft continues; the Delceppo family now operates a boat yard and yacht marina. There are plans for a small breakwater. Beyond the cot lift was an old government grain store later used for officers’ accommodation. After the war the building fell into disuse and suffered severe structural damage. The dilapidated building is to reappear as interactive science centre Esplora.
Other interesting buildings in the creek are Villa Portelli and Bruno Stores. At one time the latter was used by the Royal Naval Armament Depot, a dangerous undertaking if only the people of Kalkara knew! On the Vittoriosa side there used to be another potentially dangerous building where petroleum was stored.
The buoys in Kalkara Creek used to serve as layup berths for ships. While the solitary watchman was asleep, brass items disappeared from the engine room, overboard, as a matter of course – the citizens of Vittoriosa and Kalkara were very good swimmers. At one time there were two notable ‘residents’, the gun boats Dee and Don; sister ships and companions in obsolescence, the ships gave rise to the Maltese sobriquet qisek id-di u d-do (you resemble Dee and Don), said of two people who hang around together all the time, inseparable.
In the 1970s three obsolete Sea Malta ships spent years laid up in the creek. Also, in the final years of the military base, the Royal Navy, having ceded most of the harbour for commercial development, berthed its aircraft carriers there, access to Fort St Angelo being provided by pontoon bridges.
Fort St Angelo, Grand Harbour Marina
Fort St Angelo has been the iconic face of the Grand Harbour for centuries. In the fort, the Church of the Nativity dates back to 1090. The fort later served as a shelter for the population during incursions by pirates. After the Great Siege of 1565, the remains of some of the fallen were interred in a cemetery in the fort.
It was customary for the Maltese to visit the fort on September 8, the anniversary of the raising of the siege. These age-old visiting rights were sometimes restricted by the British; memoranda were then sent to stress that ancient rights had to be respected.
Although the fort is largely remembered for its association with the Royal Navy during the British colonial period, the Senior Service only moved there after the War Department ceded the establishment for use as a naval barracks. The navy had always been nearby on the receiving ships Ceylon, Hibernia and Egmont. Hibernia was broken up in 1902 and the fort was incorporated as HMS Egmont in 1906.
The name was changed to HMS St Angelo in 1933. As a naval ship, a stone frigate, the fort was saluted by visiting warships and by Royal Navy units according to seniority. Merchant ships used to lower the State flag as a gesture of courtesy to a warship. On the main mast, the only one that remains from the stone frigates, Ricasoli, Lascaris, Falcon and Phoenicia, harbour movements were indicated by a red ball for arrivals and two balls for departures.
It was decided to convert Dockyard Creek into the Grand Harbour’s first yacht marina. However, political difficulties delayed plans and, among other reasons, caused the downfall of a government
Wind force was indicated by black balls, three indicating a gregale. At night, the signals were replaced by lighting. A red flag on the main mast signalled danger. As recently as June, 1988, the red flag was raised when anti-nuclear protesters prevented HMS Ark Royal from entering harbour.
Under Royal Navy administration, the fort was turned into the nerve centre of the Mediterranean Fleet, a small city with its own facilities, including barracks and a water distillation plant. St Angelo Wharf was built in 1912; after modifications, this continues to be used for the berthing of super yachts at Grand Harbour Marina.
The fort was the navy’s last foothold when the military facilities agreement expired on March 31, 1979. In an effort to find an alternative use for the fort, it was partly converted for entertainment purposes. These unsightly accretions have since been reversed as part of a massive restoration completed in 2015. The fort hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2015 and subsequently opened to the public as a premier Grand Harbour attraction.
Fort St Angelo was the custodian of Dockyard Creek, the Galley Port of the Order of St John; Dockyard is a British name. In the 19th century, the Order’s buildings were taken over and a new bakery and graving dock built. After 1979, Maltese governments sought alternative uses for Dockyard Creek. The Customs House and the Malta-Sicily ferry were transferred there. Ship demolition was tried and a depot for harbour tugs was set up. Ships were laid up and cruise ships berthed – to the dismay of passengers who had to cross over to Valletta by boat.
There were boat shows and film sets; during the shooting of Cutthroat Island there was an incident during which the Union flag was inadvertently raised on Freedom Monument, in front of St Lawrence Collegiate Church, the exact spot where the British flag was lowered on the night of March 31, 1979.
When cruise ships moved to Pinto Waterfront in the 1990s, it was decided to convert Dockyard Creek into the Grand Harbour’s first yacht marina. The project was intended to breathe new life into Cottonera. However, political difficulties delayed plans and, among other reasons, caused the downfall of a government.
The project took off again in the new millennium; the first pontoon was laid by the Cottonera Waterfront Group in 2003. St Angelo Wharf was realigned in 2005 to take super yachts of up to 100 metres. In 2007 the facility was leased to Grand Harbour Marina plc, with Camper and Nicholson as managers. Some super yacht berths have been leased for 25 years. Other berths are taken up by craft of various sizes.
Seen from Upper Barrakka Gardens, Dockyard Creek presents a spectacle; together with Valletta Cruise Port, it epitomises the changing face of the harbour and its transition from a naval/commercial to a leisure port.
No. 1 Dock and environs
The steel bridge built across the entrance to Dock No. 1 and its revamped surroundings in 2014 marked Cospicua’s return to the status of a traditional maritime city. It was a long, tortuous wait. Ever since a graving dock was built there in 1844, the city was effectively cut in two, separated by high dockyard walls and plagued by the noise, smells and pollution of a naval ship repair yard. Protests were in vain; in the annals of the naval base it was a trade-off – jobs and skills in exchange for loss of land rights and environmental degradation. When the dock grew, the food market was relocated.
Thereafter the wound lingered for decades, but war damage started the process of downsizing at the military base. After the dockyard was turned over for commercial purposes even local ship repairers were initially reluctant to cede the facility. When the dock eventually returned, the facility and its environs were revamped and converted into a much-needed, post-industrial leisure area. The restoration of contiguous buildings will be taken in hand when the area becomes part of the American Institute of Malta campus.
(To be concluded)
Michael Cassar co-authored several books with the late Joseph Bonnici until 2009. He continues to publish books with a social, maritime and transport theme. Past subjects have included the Malta Drydocks, the Malta Buses, HMS Hibernia, Royal Navy tugs and Malta Tugs (in collaboration with Tug Malta). His latest book The Gozo-Malta Connection celebrates the 130th anniversary since the start of the first regular mail service between the islands and the 35th anniversary of Gozo Channel Line. For further information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.