Malta (Ital. Mahl-ta; usually Maulta), a British Mediterranean island, 17 1/2 miles long by 8 1/3 broad, with an area of 95 sq. in. It stands on the submarine plateau which, stretching across from Sicily to Africa, divides the Mediterranean into two basins. From its central position in the Mediterranean Sea, 58 miles S. of Sicily, and 180 ESE. of Cape Bon in Algeria, and from the enormous strength of its fortifications - Disraeli called it' the little military hothouse ' - Malta is a very important British dependency. It is the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet, the principal coaling station in the Mediterranean - between 500,000 and 600,000 tons of coal are imported for use and re-exportation annually - a powerful stronghold (Valetta), a sanatorium for troops employed in the Orient, and an interesting island historically and architecturally. The governorship (area, 117 sq. m.) includes the island of Gozo (q.v.), and several smaller islets. Malta is oval in shape, the north-eastern and eastern shores being broken into several good harbours ; the southern coast rises in picturesque cliffs 400 feet high. The culminating point of the island is 758 feet. Malta has a bare, stony appearance, owing to the absence of trees and the fact that the fields and gardens are enclosed in high walls, to shelter the crops against the violent winds. There are no rivers or lakes ; but water is easily obtained from springs, and since 1880 there are government water-works. The soil is thin, but remarkably fertile; and its fertility is increased by the skilful cultivation and the diligent toil of the inhabitants. Large crops of wheat and potatoes are raised, early varieties of the latter being largely exported to England; maize, barley, cotton, clover, oranges, figs, grapes, carob beans, and peaches and other fruits are also grown. Fine honey is produced; in spring the island is gay with flowers. Filigree ornaments and a little cotton are manufactured. During the summer months the thermometer ranges from 75° to 90° F., during the coldest from 50° to 71°. The annual rainfall is 24.23 inches. When the hot sirocco wind blows - not dry as in Africa, but laden with moisture - the climate is enervating; otherwise Malta is fairly healthy. Earthquakes are not infrequent.
In 1881 Malta (132,129) and Gozo (17,653) contained 149,782 inhabitants; in 1904, 197,070, including about 20,000 British and foreign residents, but excluding imperial troops. The language of the people is a corrupt dialect of Arabic, with a strong admixture of Italian and other (but not Phoenician) words. Most educated Maltese speak Italian ; but in 1899, on a plebiscite, 75 per cent. of the inhabitants chose English as the school language for their children. The Maltese are a sober, industrious race, though quicktempered and ignorant, and are devout Roman Catholics. There are two bishops (Malta, Gozo) and 1200 clergy. Canon law is recognised as the civil law of Malta, and a difficulty about mixed marriages was settled only in 1890. Owing to the rapid growth of the population and its density, large numbers are compelled to emigrate ; 50,000 of them are scattered all over North Africa and the Levant. Education is provided for in a university (over 100 students), a lyceum (530 pupils), and about 130 government schools (18,000 pupils). Causes of discontent have arisen in the ecclesiastical jealousy of the predominant church, and social jealousy between the impoverished native nobility (for the most part counts and marquises created by the Knights of St John, and fully recognised since 1878) and the upper classes of the British. A constitution based on popular representation was conferred in 1887. Legislation is carried on by six official and fourteen elected members, the governor, with the power of veto, being president. There is also an executive council; the crown retains the right to legislate also through orders in council. There is no direct taxation. The government own two-sevenths of the land (the rest is divided about equally between the ecclesiastical establishments and private owners); from the rents of this and other crown property, and from customs, licenses, etc, the annual revenue of £300,000 to £465,000 is derived. The public debt is £79,000 (1894). There is a railway, 8 1/2 miles long, connecting Valetta (q.v.), the present capital, with the old capital Citta Vecchia, founded in 700 B.C., with the cathedral of St Paul (1697). In the south of the island are megalithic Phoenician temples. The traditional scene of St Paul's shipwreck is on the north side of the Bay of St Paul. The imports in 1903-4 amounted to £7,15S,079, and the exports to £6,145,883.
The Hyperion or Ogygia of Homer is sometimes identified with Malta. The Phoenicians colonised the island in the 11th century B.C., and after 700 found rivals in the Greeks, who were driven out about 480. The Romans finally took possession in 216 B.C., retaining the Greek name Melita. During the 5th century a.d. it fell successively under the Vandals and the Goths ; in 533 Belis-arius recovered it for the Byzantine empire; in the 9th century the Arabs occupied it; in 1282 it was conquered by Pedro of Aragon ; and in 1530 given in perpetual sovereignty by Charles V. to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who raised stupendous fortifications, and sustained successfully a three months' siege by the Turks in 1565. The island surrendered to the French in 1798, was occupied by the British during the French war, and in 1814 finally became British.