?Prior to the Order’s arrival in Malta, a number of commissioners on were sent on the Order’s behalf to draw a report assessing the islands’ feasibility as the new base for the Order. The report gives a very vivid albeit bleak description of Malta at the time. It describes a sparsely-populated and mostly barren archipelago with serious shortcomings in the islands’ agriculture (particularly in Mata), economy, water supply and defensive capabilities.
When taking into consideration that neighbouring Italy and most of mainland Europe were at the height of the renaissance; Malta must have been a particularly harsh place to live in even by the standards of the time. In fact the Order were reluctant to accept Charles V’s offer of settling on the islands in 1524 and opted to remain vagrant for another six years before finally accepting his offer. 1530 may well be considered as the arrival of the European renaissance to Malta. Over the next 268 years Malta would undergo an almost complete transformation and it would certainly have been unrecognisable from that early report drawn up by the Order’s commissioners.The first major change caused by the Order’s arrival in Malta was to the island’s demographics.
The commissioners’ report had estimated the total population of Malta and Gozo to be of around 17,000 with just 12,000 inhabitants residing in Malta . Only a few hundred knights arrived in Malta but they were accompanied by an entourage of servants and soldiers as well as by several hundred Rhodiots who chose to follow the Order to Malta . This influx immediately boosted the islands’ population by around 5,000 inhabitants and the multinational nature of the newcomers instantly transformed the islands’ society into a much more cosmopolitan one. In just sixty years’ time, in 1590 it is estimated that the total population of the Maltese islands had grown to over 30,000 and would eventually reach around 100,000 inhabitants by the time of the Order’s departure in 1798 . This represents an annual population growth rate of approximately 0.7% per annum over the 268 year period under review which is quite staggering when compared to the European population growth rate at the time but also with that of more modern times .It wasn’t just the size of the population that was affected, but also its distribution around the country.
In the 1530s the vast majority of the Maltese population lived in inland rural areas and only some ten percent of the islanders lived in towns . There was only one city on mainland Malta – Mdina and this was already in a dilapidated state with ‘the miserable walls which surrounded it … open thirty paces in breadth’ . A cursory look at Quintinus’ map of Malta of 1536 gives a sense of just how empty the island was at the time – with the only major settlements outside of Mdina being based around the Birgu side of the Grand Harbour. The rest of the population lived in small rural dispersed settlements inland and well away from the coast and the ever-present danger of corsair raids . On their arrival the Knights immediately established themselves around the Grand Harbour mainly due to the requirements of their sizeable naval fleet, but also as a means of avoiding diplomatic and political trouble with the local universita headquartered in Mdina. The area surrounding the harbour rapidly became the island’s centre of activity and the establishment of the three cities and Valletta further encouraged the local population to abandon the rural villages and settle within the area – the main incentives being the security offered by the cities’ walls and defences and the ever-increasing economic activity surrounding the area.
This was to such an extent that Mdina was almost entirely abandoned until the early eighteenth century. It is well worth considering that to the local population the Order was not only the ruler of the islands but also the major employer so it follows logically that the islands’ population would naturally relocate closer to the Order’s administrative centres leading to the almost complete desertion of the islands’ smaller villages and hamlets by the beginning of the seventeenth century .Choosing Birgu and the Grand Harbour as their base of operations meant that Order was placing all of its proverbial eggs in one (very poorly defended basket), so the need of establishing a proper system of fortifications around the island was a very pressing one. Birgu was the first town to be fortified along with the construction of Fort St Michael in Senglea and Fort St Elmo on the Sciberras Peninsula. Eventually the Great Siege of 1565 would place sufficient pressure on the Order and (perhaps more importantly) on their wealthier benefactors in Europe to lead to the construction of Valletta and eventually the Cottonera lines and a coastal defence system spanning the entire East coast of Malta.
These were massive projects that employed a large portion of the population and the result of which was at the pinnacle of military engineering and architecture of the time. In 1560s to 1570s the Knights would often complain that the labour force in Malta was too small and attempts at hiring labourers from Sicily were unsuccessful owing mainly to the recent Siege and the state of disrepair of the islands’ fortifications . The situation appears to have improved substantially by the beginning of the 17th Century most probably due to the then-recently constructed city of Valletta and the security it promised.
This in turn meant that even more ambitious projects could be pursued and that by 1798 Malta was a virtually impregnable island fortress. Its harbours had gone from having ‘no other defence than a small castle … which was partly in ruins’ to being protected from all sides by Fort St Angelo, Birgu, Senglea, the Cottonera lines, Fort Ricasoli, Valletta, Fort Tigne and Fort Manoel most of which still stand to this very day. The shifts in the islands’ demographics, the new regulatory structure introduced by the Order along with the new harbour fortifications led to a very significant change in the islands’ economy over the years. At the time of the Order’s arrival, Malta’s economy was almost exclusively based on agriculture