In the sixth article about the history of Birgu we shall see what happened to Birgu during the British Rule.
Birgu was a town past its peak after the Knights left for Valletta.
On June 10, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte on his way to Egypt, reached Valletta. Malta was then under the rule of the German Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim who, knowing his efforts to fight would be useless as the Maltese population was ready to negotiate with Bonaparte, accepted but did not ratify the convention by which the Order accepted governance of Malta by the French. In his very short six-day stay, Bonaparte totally reorganised the Maltese state and church according to the French laws. The Maltese rebelled and fought and the merchants turned to the British foreseeing an opportunity to develop while benefiting from the British support. The treaty of Paris in 1814 and Vienna in 1815 officially sealed Malta to Great Britain and at the Verona Congress in 1822, the Order renounced to any pretension in Malta.
Great Britain, the leading commercial and industrial power in the world, invested heavily in building a complex industrial power and promoted advanced industrial skills, but to develop the naval base, not to support manufacture, and the cotton industry was allowed to die down.
Birgu, with Fort Angelo, represented the launching of Malta as a major overseas, active military base.
The new phase of Birgu’s history sees the beginning of a long process, maturing in the 19 th century that subsumed Birgu’s history into that of the aggregate « Three Cities » which saw a population increase. Even though Valletta had obvious advantages over Birgu, it had no natural inlets whereas the topography of Birgu provided excellent shelter.
The British developed the island as a naval base first and secondly as a fortress. The shipbuilding yard that the Order had built in Birgu quickly became inadequate to serve the rapidly growing requirements of the British Navy, who extended facilities to Marsa. The presence of the British also of course gave a tremendous boost to mercantile activity. 1800-1813 were golden years for external commerce. In 1813, the plague struck and casualties were thirty-three in Birgu. The years after were years of severe recession : the cotton industry declined and the defence sector did not do very well. Therefore, Birgu specialized in sailmaking and rope making and the bastion was called is-sur-tal-kurdara. The Navy carried its hospital from St Christopher’s Street in Valletta to Birgu in 1818. It was soon transferred to Birgu’s Old Armoury and to Bighi in 1832. The Inquisitor’s Palace became an officer’s mess.
By 1830, the « Three Cities » had recovered the population they had before the French invasion and during the 1830s Birgu’s popularity remained stable.
The first dry dock was built at the far end of Dockyard Creek between 1843 and 1848. The wharf of the Marine Grande was named Quai de la Corderie ( « corde » meaning rope in French).
From the 1850s onwards, the mercantile port got moved to Marsa and the « Three Cities » became attractive as residence place. At the same time, the Admirality and the War Department spent a total of over £ 3 million each in Malta. New docks were built to accompany the increased strength of the fleet and the British decided to build the breakwater, an enormous project by Maltese standards as it cost one million pounds. On the military side there was large-scale building of barracks accompanying the equally large-scale building of the garrison and on the civil scale there were the public works projects. Almost twice as much was spent on public works between 1902 and 1906 as the previous five years. These works were, at least in part, also motivated by the growing needs of the British services.
In 1904, Britain entered into an Entente cordiale with France, extending it to include Russia in 1907.
The emergent German naval threat was more likely to engage Great Britain in the Baltic. As Malta became less threatened and the fleet being more useful elsewhere, the British reduced the garrison and fleet in Malta, just when the economic boom was slowing down anyway.
In the next blog we shall learn about the situation in Birgu when the dark clouds of Worl War 2 were on the horizon