TROOPS AND JOBS IN MALTA
AT anchor in the harbour of Valetta! Awake in my berth, missing the usual lullaby, the roaring of the waves, and thumping of the engine, I heard the rain as it came pattering down on the deck. There was clear sky in the morning and a brilliant sun. The harbour was astir; Coldstream and Grenadier Guards crowned the windows of the houses, and the veranda of the Lazaretto, the decks of the troop-ships recently arrived, were red, black and white with soldiers, in every state of dress and undress; gay boats were at work, dancing about upon the surf between the shore and ships, carrying to land soldiers, who stepped out in full parade dress, boat-load after boat-load, from among the motley crowds of their companions. There was much cheering and laughter floating fitfully about. I meant to make myself at home in Malta for at least a fortnight, and was very much disposed to do so. It was then Sunday morning, in March, and I said to myself, I will put on my boots and go ashore to breakfast.
Let the geographer describe Valetta; to do that is not my task. I went up the Strada St. Lucia to look for the Imperial Hotel – a caravanserai beloved by midshipmen, and therefore methought a very good place for a gentleman unattached. Thither, accordingly, I went, and there had breakfast in the coffee-room, with half-a-dozen guardsmen and sea-captains. All were possessed by a most eager curiosity for news; and, as our vessel brought none of importance, there was great disappointment. Nobody knew when the Russians were to be attacked. That being settled, all joined in a general assault upon the trenchers of eggs, fowls, ham, and legs of mutton, served in London style, at London prices. The Imperial Hotel might, for anything that I saw foreign about it, be the Cock in Fleet Street.
I made haste out, therefore, into the streets, and soon saw that it was not England when I got into the bustle of the Strada Reale. The whole pavement, and portions of the road as well, were occupied with people; the inhabitants of Valetta and of the surrounding villages were there in Sunday dress, going to mass, coming from mass, or killing time between one mass and another; walking about, standing about, leaning against walls or closed shop shutters, very many of them busily engaged – women especially – in looking at and talking about, the blue-coated, red-coated, and gold-laced strangers. Broad-brimmed priests walked to and fro like kings, parting the crowds before them as they went, and as indignant at the tokens which surrounded them of a crusade in favour of the infidels, as the old knights of Malta would themselves have been, if they could have broken through the mosaic floors of the churches in which they lie, and have come out to see what was afloat under the sun. The female population of the town and neighborhood had turned out, to a woman, for a good Sunday inspection of the newly-arrived troops. Maltese ladies of rank generally dress in ordinary European style, only with more decided preference for warm and sombre colors. Natives belonging to the middle and the lower classes commonly adhere to the old island costume, wearing black dresses, white collars, and large black shawls, gathered into a great many folds at one side, and drawn so far over the head, as to throw the face into shadow. The old women are quite interesting for their ugliness, the young ones for their beauty, and for exposing the English forces to considerable peril; many of our soldiers will, I fear, leave Malta vanquished men.
I have fairly fulfilled my design of spending fourteen days in Malta, and at the end of them I now set down my notes of Maltese experience, and of the talk that I have heard commonly among the people. I may repeat much that is incorrect, for I am no more than I reporter of opinions and tales that I found current in the place. But, as they are opinions and tales that I have found universally accredited, I think it proper to make them known.
Though the Maltese air seemed to me – coming as I did from the smoke of London – genial and bracing, the weather sunny and most delightful, the Maltese themselves were grumbling about the cold. The winder had been severe, and the spring they said was late; then again, prices were so high that they thought a famine was impending. I need give no details about the climate, for I am not describing Malta. I did find the nights extremely cold and damp; and, granting it to be true as everybody said, that there was no necessity for such exposure, I did think it was a wrong thing that any of our soldiers should be sleeping under canvas.
They will have plenty of unavoidable hardships to endure, time enough hereafter for “roughing it.” Why not let them be well lodged, if good lodging exist? The fears of famine are now over. An advance in the prices soon allured to Malta, fowls and vegetables from Sicily, and beef from Tunis. Some fragments of the beef from Tunis are, I believe, to this hour clinging between my teeth. It was good wholesome beef, and had the texture of the toughest gristle. The soldiers in Malta must take what provisions they can get; but as to lodging accommodation, people want to know why the demand does not produce a sufficient supply. The material, it is said, exists. On a former occasion, when a concentration of troops took place at Malta, house-room was found in the town and forts, for twenty-five thousand men. Since that period, government has spent much money on spacious public buildings, yet when there were only twelve thousand soldiers in the island during the present spring, house-room was declared to be exhausted. Will any one account for this? Every private person in Valetta seemed to be quite able to account for it. It is thought better that the soldiers should sleep out of doors than that petty clerk A, who would be well lodged in two rooms, should be deprived of any of his twelve, or that superior clerk B. should not have ample stabling. The civil service has nine-tenths of the law: - possession. Large buildings are let out at absurd and nominal rents to favourites and clients of the local government; or, so the little world of Malta said they were. Even the troops lodged under canvas, says this world, are lodged in many cases on a shameful principle. The civil government has impounded schools and hospitals to make room for the troops, has stopped the course of religion, of education, and charity, rather than encroach an inch upon the overgrown borders of its own members and friends.
Nearly one-half of Valetta is government property, and yet the government has not borrowed the use of a single house from one of its own favourites. I mean, of course, the local government at Malta. The same government that is letting a palace to a friend for about fifty pounds a year, pays for a small house twenty-five pounds a month, in order to get quarters for the officers. Schools and hospitals are broken up, but the Union Club, which is not much better than a gaming-house, retains the full use of its spacious premises. A good many years ago, there was a commission of inquiry into the Maltese abuses. It did good, but there is already need for another, unless the doings of the civil government are very much belied. I have heard enough to make me think that there is due to our soldiers here a sever and uncompromising scrutiny into the alleged jobbery of placemen, with especial reference to the practice of making buildings that are public property subservient to private purposes. One building, I know – a palace in itself – is let at a nominal rent to a club; another is used by a subordinate functionary, who contrives so to magnify himself that he fills up the whole. His work used to be done by his predecessor in two little rooms over the shop of the librarian; the business of the office under its present holder has very much decreased, but how much has the required space been amplified?
I will tell two or three stories as I heard them, not vouching for their accuracy, since my stay in Malta was so short that I have no right to speak positively on such matters. I tell them because they show what sort of stories I found current, and because even if they be exaggerated, as I think they are – though it is vowed to me that they are literally true, - I have seen enough to make me sure that they are not wholly without foundation.
Some years ago, and within common memory, there lived in Valetta, as government architect, surveyor of roads, &c., a gentleman much respected, who modestly and faithfully performed his duties for a salary of one hundred and fifty pounds a year. He dies, and the home government had to send out a successor. There was then an assistant in the shop of a London house-decorator, say of a Mr. Fletcher, of Bond Street, a young man, say James Mutton, who was said by the scandalous to be the natural son of a cabinet minister. Certainly James Mutton, when the little vacancy occurred in Malta, was discovered by the English government to have a genius for architecture, and was sent out accordingly to Valetta as a member of the civil service of one of her Majesty’s colonies. Ashamed of his own plebeian name he borrowed help from that of his old master, and arrived at Malta as James Mutton Fletcher, Esquire, government architect, surveyor of roads, and so forth. He at once displayed considerable genius for spending money, and discovered very soon that he had not salary enough to maintain him properly in the position of a gentleman.
Representations having been made at home to that effect, his salary was increased by two hundred pounds. This addiction to his income increased his responsibilities. Though he build nothing to speak of, but his own fortunes, still, as builder of them, he found his old offices too small, and therefore obtained a large government building in town as official residence, and another as a country villa. He also obtained certain allotments of land for the nominal rent of three pounds six shillings a year, upon which he erected his first buildings, stables of his own. The land being near the town these stables were let out at rents that further added one hundred and fifty pounds to Mr. James Mutton Fletcher’s income. The success of this official thus became so great that it was presently proposed to make him a present of a thousand pounds out of the public funds. Then, however, there arose out of doors the strongest opposition. Government desired to make the grant, and Government commanded the decision of the council, but the determined nature of the opposition to the job make it necessary to appoint a committee of inquiry. It had been said that the architect was entitled to a per-centage on all money spent on public works. It was replied that all his money had been spent only on private maintenance and profit, that there were no public works to show, and that the report of the committee favoured this opinion. The local government reported to the home government all these proceedings, and asked whether they should nevertheless give Mr. James Mutton Fletcher the money. The reply was in effect, Yes; give Mr. James Mutton Fletcher the money. So Mr. Fletcher had it. Then a fresh storm arose, and there were petitions sent to England, which resulted in the retirement of Mr. James Mutton Fletcher for two years on sick leave from his very arduous duties. I know no more of the tale.
Tom Log came to Valetta, mysteriously, on board ship; young, fat, and stupid: with a letter for a high official, which he omitted to deliver for some time. He began by spending what money he had, at an hotel, then he ran into debt, then sank into distress and tears, and was a Valetta mystery until somebody discovered that he had a letter of introduction undelivered. When the high official read it, Tom Log’s debts were paid, and Tom was appointed to a clerkship. The head clerk in less than a week wrote to the high official indignantly protesting that his new subordinate could neither read nor write. The reply was, “Teach him!” Tom was taught, and Tom was helped, and Tom has prospered. Tom married two rich women, (in succession, I hope), and is now one of our consuls somewhere.
Doctor Basket was a doctor’s boy, who picked up no more than a few sweepings of physic. His master was an Examiner, who used to boast that he could pass his house-dog if he liked to have him for a colleague, and he wished so to befriend young Basket. Nevertheless, Basket was rejected – his ignorance being too actively gross – and so, as nothing could be done with him on shore, he was sent out as a ship surgeon. Afloat he proved himself so unqualified, even for the rudest kind of ship surgery, that he was held prisoner on board his vessel in the harbour of Valetta, and condemned to ride the boom. Appeals were made on his behalf; the high official inquired whether he knew anything of anything; and it was found that he could speak Maltese and English. Then he was the very man his Excellency required to go about with him as interpreter! As such, he was installed, and he became very useful in the house; he went to market for the high official’s lady, cheapened provisions, served sometimes in the capacity of courier, and made himself so generally useful and agreeable that it was determined to do something for him under Government. Accordingly, one morning Dr. Basket was appointed Medical President; Chief Medical Officer on the Island! Uprose the profession, and resisted the insult. The decree was cancelled; a new place was expressly made for the favourite; a salary of three hundred a year was attached to it; he was to be “Head of all the Charities.” But, it was said, every charity has its own Board of Guardians, and the Bishop presides over them all. His Excellency replied, “Never mind. If the charities are provided for, let him look after the prisoners.” But it was said again, the Superintendent of Police gets five hundred a year for doing that. It did not matter. Dr. Basket had his salary, and was supposed to look after the prisoners.
Now, I found the people in all directions telling me in Malta that this is the sort of civil government to which they are accustomed. Lazy dogs keep the mangers and the stables too, while there are your horses with a hard day’s work before them made to lie down in the road. Ought anybody to look into the matter?
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