Ubiquitous dgħajsas, steam ferries and a fish market: features of a traditional city harbour.Ubiquitous dgħajsas, steam ferries and a fish market: features of a traditional city harbour.

In ‘Malta’s submerged landscape’ (Times of Malta, January 4, 2013), marine geologist Aaron Bugeja revealed that during the last Ice Age the Maltese archipelago was two-and-a-half times larger and formed part of a raised plateau and land bridge to Sicily. The ensuing rise in sea level inundated the plateau and created Grand Harbour, one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world.

Google puts Sydney, Cape Town and other harbours at the top of the list but, as far as Malta is concerned, the Grand Harbour is the most beautiful. Even after allowing for patriotic hyperbole, this sentiment is universally shared by visitors to the Upper Barrakka Gardens who are enthralled by the panorama, a pleasure to the eye, a sight that lingers in memory.

Cruise liner stewards used to knock on cabin doors as the ship approached Grand Harbour, advising passengers: “This is something you should see”. The attraction remains, and passengers crowd the decks to watch the morning arrival in harbour. A late afternoon de­par­ture offers a different experience: the light changes and the fortifications take on a different hue.

There is a personal touch to ship spotting in Grand Harbour, a feeling of being there with the pilots and tug boat crews during movements, whose skill and performance is watched by many from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, Senglea Point and the bastions. This explains why many Maltese living around the harbour can be counted on to give a good description of the place, its history and annual events: the Cottonera feasts, the September 8 regatta, the Rolex Middle Sea Race, the International Fireworks Festival.

Sadly, there is no Port Day that celebrates the harbour and brings together users, as is done in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Imagine a celebratory parade during which tugs, the Maritime Squadron, Malta pilots, small craft and racing boats, yachts, fishing vessels, conveyance vessels and bunkering tankers steam slowly past the bastions and round the creek. After the parade there would be a static display at Valletta Cruise Port; visitors would be able to visit the different craft and learn about the harbour and the way it continues to change.

TEUs consigned breakbulk cargo handling to the history books.TEUs consigned breakbulk cargo handling to the history books.

Most cargo is carried by sea, more than half of which, in 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs), better known as intermodal containers. In 2006, the transport industry celebrated a half-century since the start of containerisation. With this seamless system the same box is carried on ship, train or trailer lorry directly from manufacturer/producer to recipient, door to door. There is now almost no limit to what can be carried in containers; even reefer business for the carriage of fruit, frozen meat and fish is slowly bowing out to refrigerated containers that are plugged into the ship’s power supply for the voyage.

To complete the cargo revolution, TEUs are also carried on roll-on, roll-off vessels (RoRos). On a container ship, TEUs are stored in holds with cellular guides or lashed on deck; in the case of RoRos they are driven on large garage decks. Human intervention in cargo handling has been considerably reduced and stevedores’ jobs have been lost.

Containerisation has also been largely responsible for the phenomenon of globalisation, making it cheaper to buy a T-shirt made in Bangla­desh. In the world of containers, few city harbours have sufficient land area for handling, stacking and storage; in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Bilbao, Bordeaux, Helsinki and Marseilles, to name but a few, cargo handling has migrated to new, artificial, deep-water ports. Apart from space, city harbours lack capital for the massive infrastructure by containerisation: longer quays, dredging, and expensive equipment such as gantry cranes and straddle carriers.

For each container at sea there are two on land, one at the manufacturing end, the other being delivered. Container ships have grown exponentially, the largest now being able to carry more than 20,000 TEUs. These monsters of the sea have left container ports struggling to cope.

Efficiency is measured in the number of container moves per crane per hour. Based on six cranes to a ship, some 3,500 containers can be handled every 24 hours. This is patently impossible in Grand Harbour, which has been eclipsed by Marsaxlokk. The latter port is now an international TEU/RoRo and oil transhipment hub; its annual throughput includes Malta cargo.

The heyday of the Mediterranean Fleet.The heyday of the Mediterranean Fleet.

City harbours epitomise human interaction on a grand scale. Located on rivers or bays, they link continents, countries and islands. People live cheek by jowl with ships in an intimacy absent at container ports. Cargo in barrels, crates and pallets, collectively called ‘break bulk’, used to be handled on quays within walking distance of churches, bars, brothels, hotels, theatres, music halls, seamen’s clubs, railway lines and warehouses. Ships and crews required services from chandlery to repair and bunkering.

Talk of sailors having ‘a wife in every port’ (and probably children) was not wide of the mark. Everything was on a human scale and harbours were zones of prosperity and human intercourse. Street names reflected the internationalisation of ports. In Grand Harbour, Cardiff, Newcastle, Hartle­pool and Swansea, streets recall the brief, intense boom in coal bunkering; tramp stea­mers brought coal from these ports and occasionally signed on Maltese crews, some of whom form­ed little Maltas in Wales and Northumberland.

In Grand Harbour, schools overlooked creeks and enchanted pupils with images of big ships from all nations and the big wide world. There were also lifts, dgħajsas, steam ferries and hospitals; the sense of compactness and connection was overwhelming.

The oldest hospital was the Sacra Infermeria on St Lazarus Bastion; after 1831, Royal Navy sailors recovering at Bighi Hospital would look wistfully at ships in harbour. Perhaps the most poignant was Sir Paul Boffa Hospital, formerly King George V Merchant Seamen’s Memorial Hospital, on Kalkara Bastion, literally within a stone’s throw away of Valletta Cruise Port; here the terminally ill had a view of passengers lounging on deck chairs, bathing in the pools, sipping cocktails or enjoying al fresco buffets.

Centuries of human intervention on the original topography has been so massive and widespread that a 15th century visitor would not recognise the place

Below the hospital is Crucifix Hill, a post-war improvement on what used to be a steep, dangerous descent from Floriana; on arrival at the bottom of the hill between the old power station building and The First And Last Lodging House (destroyed in the war), the choice for wheeled transport was between a drastic left or right turn to Lascaris Wharf or a dip into the harbour.

After the war, when emigration to Australia peaked, cruise ships and emigrant liners anchor­ed next to each other at Barriera Wharf; here the harbour’s intimacy laid bare the contrast between travel for leisure and desperate need. From aboard emigrant liners there would have been envious glances at the loungers on cruise ships; it was a time when cruising was for the very rich.

The 13,798 TEU capacity MSC Irene, photographed at Malta Freeport Terminal II.The 13,798 TEU capacity MSC Irene, photographed at Malta Freeport Terminal II.

Where has containerisation left Grand Harbour? City harbours have common features, albeit with vastly differing historical baggage; their history is often the catalyst of change and re-invention, much in the same way as when sail gave way to steam, wood to iron and steel and steam to diesel. Despite the winds of change, part of Grand Harbour continues to be a working port with facilities for cargo handling, including break bulk, TEU, RoRo, cement and grain silos as well as ship and yacht repair.

In Grand Harbour, centuries of human intervention on the original topography has been so massive and widespread that a 15th century visitor would not recognise the place, save perhaps for the creeks and Imgherbeb Point, the promontory below the Lower Barrakka Gardens; for reasons that probably had to do with rough seas in winter, this promontory, a navigational hazard, was never blasted away despite being technically doable. Elsewhere, it is also possible to trace the original shoreline in the outer reaches of the harbour from Barriera Wharf to St Elmo breakwater and from Ricasoli breakwater to Fort St Angelo.

There are three defining periods in the harbour’s history: the building of Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities, and contiguous fortifications and harbour facilities by the Order of St John (1530-1798); the British Admiralty period (1800-1979); and Maltese intervention (1964-present).

The Order laid the foundation of a modern port shared by galleys, ships of the line and the mercantile community. A despotic administration and common ground on issues of sanitation, quarantine, the Muslim nemesis, piracy and trade with Italian states, France and Spain contributed to general harmony among port users.

Arsenals were built in a number of sites without success before the central creek in Grand Harbour was developed into the main galley port. French Creek was reserved for the mercantile community and ship builders. Warehousing was provided on the Valletta/Floriana waterfront. This set-up changed little over the years; by the time of the French interlude, steam propulsion was already making inroads, although it would be years before it would seriously challenge sail.

When Britain ousted the French in 1800 and Malta invited the usurpers as guests, neither party could have foreseen that the Royal Navy would eventually become the largest in the world, and the British Empire, the largest of its time. For the Grand Harbour, the consequences would be far-reaching and game-changing.

City harbours: where mariners’ skills are constantly under the public eye.City harbours: where mariners’ skills are constantly under the public eye.

Governor Sir Thomas Maitland set the tone when he spoke of conquest, ignoring the fact that Malta had requested British protection; buildings that served the military and naval branches of the Order of St John automatically devolved to the respective forces of His Majesty – as perpetual user properties, rent free. The entire Marina Grande at Vittoriosa was taken over by the Agent Victualler. The amount of property taken over beggared belief. Imagine the entire fortification network devolving to the army for a start.

In Aesop’s fable of the camel, the Arab wakes up to find himself out in the cold and his camel safely ensconced in the warmth of his tent. The Arab had yielded to seemingly reasonable requests for access to the tent; first the nose, then the head, forelegs, body and hind legs, until the camel pushed his master out. There were no such requests in Grand Harbour. The War Department and the Admiralty expropriated land and water space as need arose. Except for Senglea waterfront, most of Dockyard Creek was taken over by the middle of the 19th century.

In 1851, Admiral Parker, the commander-in-chief, Mediterranean, decided that merchant shipping was fast becoming a nuisance and hindrance to naval operations. Subsequently, the so-called Parker’s Arrangement delineated naval waters: most of the port, save for French Creek. Merchant ships had right of passage through naval waters. In 1859, the Admiralty turned to French Creek; here the mercantile community was gradually nudged out and moved to a new harbour created at Marsa.

There was an opportunity cost: prosperity and employment at a price. The system bred a culture of dependency; Grand Harbour was gradually weaned of its entrepot business and embraced the senior service. When the fleet was in, the harbour prospered, when it sailed out, people went hungry. The boom/bust cycle had started.

Imgherbeb Point and changed attitudes: naval visits no longer generate interest, as on this special, August 15, 1996, visit of HMS Brazen.Imgherbeb Point and changed attitudes: naval visits no longer generate interest, as on this special, August 15, 1996, visit of HMS Brazen.

The New Port – Portu Novu – at Marsa, consisted of two basins, the northwest (Il-Menqa) and the larger southwest; it was of about the same size as French Creek but the separate basins never made up for the loss of the single stretch of water between Senglea and Corradino. The move from French Creek marked the end of local shipbuilding; Maltese shipwrights declined to build iron and steel hulls instead of timber. Nevertheless small ‘bicycle’ workshops thrived and their successors continue working there to this day.

The new port prospered while the coal boom lasted, but,within a few years large merchant ships could not berth there; they were relegated to the harbour’s outer reaches where they anchored on the mud bottom (a method called Mediterranean mooring), between Imgherbeb Point (Barriera Wharf) and Gun Wharf, Floriana.

P&O started a regular service to the Mediterranean after 1837; the famous company, incorporated by Royal Charter, was given its own moorings at Marsamxett Harbour, where it remained until the start of World War I.

Imgherbeb Point: also a place of heartbreak for emigrants and their families.Imgherbeb Point: also a place of heartbreak for emigrants and their families.

Meanwhile, the camel asked for more; taking over part of the new port was mooted, even to build a graving dock for the Royal Navy there. It was hinted that the mercantile community should move to new facilities at Marsamxett. By 1879, the Mediterranean Fleet included four large warships and several minor craft. At the turn of the century the advent of destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines required even more space: they were berthed in Marsamxett Harbour, at Lazzaretto Creek and Sliema Creek.

In 1904 there were 10 battleships, puny warships compared to what followed after the entry of HMS Dreadnought into service. These giant ships wowed locals with their big guns, marine bands and marines; they epitomised Britain’s mastery of the sea (God is almost certainly British) and tranquilised some of the population into subservient, unquestioning admiration.

This was an additional take on the symbiosis between people and ships in traditional city harbours. The heyday was reached between the wars; in 1929 the Mediterranean Fleet reached its peak. On the station were 10 battleships and 86 other warships, from cruisers and destroyers to minesweepers and submarines.

In Grand Harbour, the clutter and traffic was astonishing; dgħajsas were run down as a matter of course and merchant ships collided with the fast destroyers and torpedo boats. There was a cacophony of sirens, hooting, steam whistles; housewives kept windows shut to keep out smoke and soot. The mercantile community was left to its own devices as long as it did not get in the way. When the red flag was hoisted at Castille Signalling Station, merchant ships and other craft wisely gave way to the spectacle of the movements of the big ships, now unforgettable time capsules captured in photographs.

The harbour and its environs prospered, but little thought was given to the needs of commerce. There were no quays or cranes; cargo continued to be handled in time-honoured ways: from ship’s hold to lighter, from there to bonded store or cast-iron sheds (called verandahs) and thence to client. It was only after the Suez Canal debacle in 1956 and the ongoing process of decolonisation that the needs of the mercantile community started to be addressed.

The Royal Navy: a stone dropped in the water, big ripples – but after a while the surface is placid again.The Royal Navy: a stone dropped in the water, big ripples – but after a while the surface is placid again.

Part of the Dockyard was divested to commercial operation; it was to be the start of a painful restructuring process that ended in 2010 with the closure of Malta Shipyards. There was another learning curve at Marsa. The Deep Water Quay was begun in 1959 but did not become operational until 1965; unloading on quays challenged stevedores’ vested rights and work practices. After independence in 1964 the Royal Navy held on to facilities on diminishing budgets.

The last Malta-based warships – tiny, wooden minesweepers – left in 1969. It would be left to Malta to ring the changes in Grand Harbour. Apart from four graving docks in French Creek, giant holes in the ground, largely invisible, the general layout and the odd dockside crane, there is no reminder that this was once the largest naval dockyard outside the UK.

In Dockyard Creek there is Scamp’s Bakery and No.1 Dock. At Corradino are tunnels, an underground power station and workshops that kept the dockyard on its feet during the worst of the Blitz. Perhaps the most lasting, visible and useful legacies of the Royal Navy are the breakwaters at the harbour entrance and the former naval hospital at Bighi. Both remain valuable assets. Other than that, the 179-year British impact has been like a stone dropped in the water; there are some ripples, maybe quite big ones, but after a while the surface is placid again.

On the other hand, the legacy of the Order has endured despite decades of pruning to accommodate the needs of the Admiralty and the depredations of the war. The last Grandmaster, Ferdinand von Hompesch, would probably recognise much of the harbour that is largely unchanged since the day of his forced departure.

(To be continued)

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 info@bdlbooks.com or mikscas@gmail.com.

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

Support Us