My daily habit of logging on to the Times of Malta website has become depressing of late. The ongoing migrant crisis, and the ships that are refused the right to dock; the failures and delays in bringing the killers of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia to justice, and now the news that almost 500 trees on the island have been cut down this year, to make room for road-widening schemes and even more building. The environmental disaster continues, and the state does nothing to stop it.
On a politically polarised island, trees too are political, and afforestation projects – the one thing you would imagine everyone could agree about – deeply controversial.
In my dreams I often return to St Edward’s College, Malta, a place I have not seen since I was 12. This must be a sign of getting old. Our history teacher there was the inspiring Helen Vella Bonavita, who told us that in the medieval period the once fertile island was despoiled by pirates who cut down all the trees. This led to soil erosion and the emergence of the present rocky (and in many ways beautiful) landscape, apart from a few surviving pockets of fertility in the valleys. As a result, Malta ceased to be able to feed itself at some point in the 16th century.
The Knights of Malta employed a “wheat ambassador” to buy the staple abroad. By the late 18th century, Malta’s wheat came from Russia. The Russians took an unhealthy interest in the island and its superb harbour, which in turn led to the French and the British both trying to keep them out. The result was Malta falling under French domination in 1798, and then under British control from 1800.
At the start of World War II, Malta was importing 85 per cent of its food. Thus, during the siege by the Luftwaffe, the island came close to starvation. As a child, I well remember older people talking about how they had had nothing to eat but tomatoes for months before the Santa Maria convoy arrived on August 15, 1942. Nowadays the Russian connection is back – as Daphne Caruana Galizia let us know.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection