Joseph Vella in his workshop.
Joseph Vella in his workshop.

What does the English language mean for Malta’s past and present? Capturing Valletta student journalists Sarah Zammit Munro and Gabriel Lia explore the influence of the UK and the English language on the Mediterranean island.

Personal recollections of the British period of Maltese history

A remote warehouse by the sea is the source of comfort for Joseph Vella, whose eyes have seen more than history books can tell. 

The room has memories stored in all corners, with equipment poking from every nook and cranny, photographs of relatives, and fishing competition victories stuck onto the walls.  

The 92-year-old, who lives close to the old Valletta police station, has stories to tell, narrating enough life experiences to write a book – which he would neither be able to read nor write. Joseph poured us a cup of coffee – and poured his heart out about memories of the British who had brought a lively atmosphere to the now secluded area he lives in.

Joseph worked with the British for 36 years in the Royal Navy, as a cook, and as a carpenter. He describes how the colonisers also brought employment in the 1900s. Having never received an education, Joseph was skilful in his ability to mend boats. He would often interact with the British sailors and row them to and fro, across the sea to Sliema and Manoel Island. These were restricted areas, but Joseph remembers the British architecture at their headquarters. 

The British were good to the Maltese, according to Joseph, and they would organise parties for the employees and their families, and supply them with cheaper food at times when the price of food was too expensive for many people. For Joseph, this balanced out was he seesa as the "only injustice" for Maltese people like him: a lower pay.

The British never bothered Maltese culture or imposed their religion on them, Joseph says. His opinion is that the British presence in Malta was beneficial, not only for the economy, but also because of the introduction of the English language. "That is the way the world progresses," says Joseph. "Everyone is learning something. The English language is something that we have in common, and it can be used for everything, especially talking with the tourists; otherwise they wouldn’t come here at all."

When I look at Joseph’s experience, I see how British culture seemed to become a ‘second side’ to Maltese culture. Joseph mentioned language, which got me thinking about the cultural impact of English today – not only in Malta, but also all over the world.

A lot of emphasis is made on teaching children English from a very young age, even in countries where the first language is the mother tongue, since it is an international language. We are from an early age encouraged to read English authors such as Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, Ian McEwan, and many others, and we are heavily influenced by the English language. 

However even in Malta, the relationship between English and Maltese culture isn’t without tension. After achieving independence from the British in 1964, Maltese writers faced a dilemma choosing which language in which to write; the English language was after all integrated so thoroughly into Maltese society and the education system. Literature therefore reflected and continues to reflect Maltese identity. Writing in Maltese is considered patriotic to a certain extent, but writing in English has the potential to lead to worldwide recognition, despite being the language that some people in Malta have at times been striving to be detached from altogether. Today, however. I feel the result is that in Malta we are at last embracing the best of both British and Maltese language and culture.