Malta Maritime Museum Birgu

Malta’s Maritime History & Dry Docks Star in New Museum Exhibit

Written by Albert Fenech
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Dry docks might seem like a dry subject to write about, but hear me out.

In case you don’t realize, dry docks are used in ports all over the world for the construction, maintenance, and repair of ships, boats, and other watercraft. And Malta’s were the backbone of the country’s economic development for almost six centuries, especially given its geophysical position in the centre of the Mediterranean, at the crossroads of empires and exploration.

Malta’s scenic port in Valletta has dry docking facilities that are still the largest in Europe. Additionally, Malta’s maritime history and significance is the subject of a new exhibition, “An Island at the Crossroad”,  now on at the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa.

As always, Malta is full of reasons to go beyond the beach.

Maritime history Malta

Valletta’s Grand Harbour and dry docks are still an important maritime stop in the Mediterranean (Photo by Paul Harrison – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

An Island at the Crossroad Exhibit

The highly illustrated and animated year-long exhibition, entitled “An Island at the Crossroads”, launched in February and skillfully presents Malta’s maritime development down through the centuries and its effects on wars, economic well-being and country development as a whole.

The stunning museum is placed aptly on the Vittoriosa Quay in the city of Vittoriosa, named to commemorate the Knights of St John overwhelming defeat of the Ottoman Empire forces during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.

Vittoriosa is one of The Three Cities: Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea, which are situated around the northeastern rim Valletta’s Grand Harbour, themselves masterpieces of the heritage and worth a visit.

The exhibition took six months to complete and contains audio-visual backing that includes the sound of works, of metal, of ships entering the docks and of cranes swinging overhead – and all their relative hazards.The exhibition also features the recollections of craftsmen and brings back to life a typical working day which, for many, was rife with danger due to the heavy nature of the work, which caused frequent injuries and sometimes tragic deaths among workers.

Other artefacts include a salvaged four-ton Roman anchor, a model of a ship from the time of the Knights in the Middle Ages, models of over 60 boats, a collection of cannons and the Napoleonic figurehead from the 110-gun ship HMS Hibernia.

 

HMS Belfast in Malta’s dry dock after hitting a mine in July 1945

Brief Maritime History

At this point, I must reflect on the maritime history of the Maltese Islands. The Islands are among the smallest in the world, yet Valletta’s Grand Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world.

Since the beginning of recorded history, the Mediterranean was the fulcrum of world power, and the domination of Malta was essential for those who sought to dominate.

The Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who were banished from Rhodes and relocated to Malta in the mid-1500s, relied strongly on their maritime prowess and fleet of ships, and one of their earliest acts was to establish ship repair facilities, which they did on the north-east of the the Grand Harbour.

This was the beginning of Malta’s drydocking facilities and contributed significantly to the growth and evolvement of the Three Cities.

 

Dry dock Growth

From that modest beginning the dry docking facility began to grow and grow mainly in Cospicua and mainly during the British era and proved to be invaluable during World Wars I and II and by the late 1950s it was employing 25,000 persons, the largest-ever industry in the Maltese Islands.

In addition to these immersive and hazardous work conditions mentioned above, these people were at the epicentre of political and sociological changes and troubles, from the 1950s onwards, particularly in 1958 when the Malta Dockyard became a cauldron of political upheavals.

The majority of the 25,000 employees were Labour Party supporters and when the then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff resigned in protest against British Government non-compliance, the drydocks erupted in violence, emphasising his “Pay Up or Go Home” slogan and resulting in violent protests on 28th April 1958.

 

Maritime Malta

Palumbo Shipyards Malta is a one-stop solution for refit, repair, maintenance and conversion of vessels of all types and dimensions (photo byBy Redeemer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

Since then, there were massive changes and adaptations. Dom Mintoff returned to Government in 1971 and following his historic visit to Communist China, the Chinese agreed to overhaul the docks, which became the Red China Dock, capable of handling a capacity of ships of up to 300,000 tonnes, three times the length of a football pitch.

The British company Bailey’s had been drafted in manage and administer the docks and now it is in the hands of Palumbo Shipyards who were appointed in 2009 and are still there. These days, operations are more restricted to smaller vessels but the dry docks are still the largest in Europe and still a huge part of this small island’s history.

Book your tickets for the Maritime Museum “Island at the Crossroad” here

A Grand Harbour cruise is highly recommended for a view of the shipyards, the Three Cities, and general Maltese magnificence.

Plan your trip to Malta at www.VisitMalta.com

***

BeSeeingYou In: Malta

Good To Know: Malta is home to the largest dry docking facility in Europe

WOW! Factor: The dry docks represent 600 years of maritime history in Malta

Tip: Call the shipyards, you might be able to take a tour

 

Author bio: Albert Fenech

Email : salina46af@gmail.com

 

Find more travel inspiration at BeSeeingYou

 

 

Albert Fenech
Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management and Administration with a leading construction company building the Benghazi Hospital in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, Malta’s leading insurance Broker and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees and Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He was Publications Editor for the Malta Football Association for 25 years and has written for a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books.

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