A Few Detectives Would Be Very Useful: Crime, Immorality, and Policing in Valletta, 1881-1914

By Knepper, Paul | Journal of Social History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

A Few Detectives Would Be Very Useful: Crime, Immorality, and Policing in Valletta, 1881-1914


Knepper, Paul, Journal of Social History


For the administrators of British colonies, dealing with crime amongst colonial populations presented a dilemma. On the one hand, the administration of government in an imagined social entity that was the British Empire suggested the need for a uniform system of policing. Models imported from England would be extended to populations across the world as a means of bringing the benefits of "civilization" and solving problems in colonial societies. (1) On the other hand, British administrators were far from convinced that English models worked equally well across the continents. Perceptions of local populations, shaped by imperial social attitudes, led to the idea that people differed in one or more ways from English people, and called for improvisation. This was no clearer than in India where British authorities "discovered" criminal tribes and invented fingerprint identification as a means of surveillance. (2)

In Malta, the authorities encountered a society where criminal activity rarely occurred. British travelers from the late eighteenth century throughout most of the nineteenth century commented on the absence of crime. The Maltese were understood to be reserved and hard-working, tempted by criminality only when faced with the prospect of starvation owing to severe economic conditions. By the late nineteenth century, however, Malta was thought to have developed a crime problem. The problem occurred in Valletta, the capital, where drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling jeopardized military and political ambitions. Furthermore, it had become apparent that this was not an indigenous problem, but rather had been provoked by the large number of British sailors and soldiers in the city. While the British could, and did, see their own government as solving Valletta's crime problem, it also became more dilficult to avoid acknowledging the British presence as the cause of the problem.

This essay reviews crime, immorality, and policing in Valletta during the last decades of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century. The discussion examines the nature and scope of the city's "crime problem", the alleged sources of the problem, and the solutions proposed to address it. Reference is made throughout this discussion to the domestic English context which informed authorities in Malta, although public immorality presented a concern for different reasons in Valletta than cities in England. First, some background about the city and crime and policing during the British period.

Valletta, Crime and Policing

Malta is a small island located in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily, north of Tunisia, and about midway between Gibraltar and Jerusalem. From 1530 until 1798, it was ruled by the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Pope Pius IV gave the Knights permission to fortify Malta and provided financial support for building a capital city. The Vatican dispatched its top civil engineer, and the monarchs of Spain, Portugal and France sent cash and equipment. Grand Master Jean de la Valette chose a promontory rising steeply from the sea, and overlooking deep blue-water harbors on each side, Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour. The Knights used the abundant local supply of honey-colored limestone to build fortifications, aqueducts, palaces, plazas, churches, colonnades, hospitals and grand houses. The plans called for straight streets and regular blocks of buildings, to enable defense against Moorish or Turkish invaders. (3)

Most of the buildings went up in the late sixteenth century. The Order of St John drew its membership from the leading families of Europe, and each of the nationalities built their own auberges or palaces. Italian and Spanish Knights located their auberges inside Porta Reale (the city gate), the French knights along Strada Reale (the main thoroughfare), and the German Knights chose the north end, not far from the Jewish ghetto. Valette built his palace, in the center of the city, and subsequent grand masters surrounded it with their own projects. …

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