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Coleridge, Material Culture, and Malta


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Russell Palmer
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Ghent University
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Vol. 27, No. 1, 512, 2014
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RUSSELL PALMER

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Ghent University

Coleridge, Material Culture, and Malta

Maltajack assesCatsCocksBellsDay criesNight bellowingsGuns


(Coleridge, Notebooks 2:K.24)
On Friday, May 18, 1804,1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived in Malta, an island that was to be
his home and place of work for the next two years (Sultana 142). He was to take up the post of
undersecretary to Alexander Ball and later the role of public secretary. While much has been written
on Coleridges time in Maltahis voyage to Malta (see Hayter 108), his role in British colonial
administration (Hugh and Davies 2010; Sultana 1969), or the effects the climate had on his bodily
and mental state (Cassar 1982; Kooy 2012)his observations and characterization of the islands
material environment and its inhabitants have received considerably less attention.2 In this article,
I shall attempt to construct an account of the physical surroundings and the inhabitants of early
nineteenth-century Malta from Coleridges recorded observations. Drawing on his notebooks and
letters for the years 18041805, I will thematically cluster those observations that relate to the traditional materialist concerns (objects, architecture, and bodies) and aspects of invisible (Upton 52)
material culture, such as sounds and religious practices. As part of the experience of the lived environment, sounds and beliefs inform understandings of the world in which we live, and any material
narrative is incomplete without their consideration. Finally, I will situate Coleridges accounts within
a broader context, positing Coleridge as colonial observer.
In the early nineteenth century, the Mediterranean Sea played host to a battle of supremacy
between the major European powers, in which central Malta became a strategic pawn. Though ousted
from Malta in 1800 by a Maltese and British blockade, French vessels and other privateers were
still at large, taking captives and bounty where they could. Coleridges successful voyage to Malta
was, therefore, far from certain (Letters 2: 600, 1136). In fact, when harbored at Gibraltar he heard
tales of ships such as the Hindostan, a British cargo ship sunk by French vessels en route to Malta
(Hayter 108). A situation, he notes, that continued (Letters 2: 60910) and necessitated traveling on
an American ship from Leghorn (Livorno) to England in June 1806 (Letters 2: 620).
Malta also acted as a central point of quarantine, both for goods and for people. The island
experienced several epidemics of contagious diseases such as cholera, bubonic plague, and yellow
fever during the nineteenth century, and Coleridge notes several ships that were forced back out
to sea when trying to dock in Maltas harbors: Of the Ragusae All his men dead or dying of the
yellow fever & forced out to sea from Malta (Notebooks 2: 21.496). Unlike other literati of his day,
such as Lord Byron or Walter Scott (whom Peter Vassallo has studied), Coleridge does not appear to
have been significantly affected by his time in the Lazaretto, or quarantine station, with only a brief
description of the quarantine apartments (Notebooks 2: 21.586).
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Town and Country


Upon his arrival, Coleridge was pleasantly impressed with the shining stone structures of the
harbor, for his notebook entry of that day describes the Harbour of Malta as one of the finest in
the world (Notebooks 2: 10.3). The curious shapes of the Grand and Marsamxett harbors, each with
its own system of creeks, and divided only by the peninsula on which Valletta stands, is described
vividly in a letter to Sara Coleridge: The Harbour at Valletta is narrow as the neck of a Bottle in the
entrance; but instantly opens out into a Lake with tongues of Land, capes, one little Island, &c &c
(Letters 2: 1137). The lake-like qualities of the harbors often induced Coleridge to draw comparisons
with the landscape of the Lake District, and of home (Notebooks 2: 10.4; Letters 2: 619).
The buildings around the harbor are the first that Coleridge sees. His initial impression is
that although the freshness of the Sand-free stone (local Globigerina limestone) contributes to
their neatness, the dark holes created by positioning the windowpanes deep within the window
recesses draw an unflattering allusion to a burnt out place (original italics; Notebooks 2: 10.3).
As he starts to explore Valletta and the urban environment around the harbors, Coleridge is bewildered at the Maltese use of limestone for every kind of constructionhouse, street, and walla
centuries-old tradition born from the lack of other natural resources on the island (Blouet 18).
However, he warms to the environment, comparing it favorably to the grandeur of Georgian Bath,
only still whiter & newer-looking (original italics; Letters 2: 1137). And while Bath and other
British cities are the result of organic growth over centuries, the planned structure of Valletta and its
Renaissance-inspired orthogonal layout give rise to Streets all strait & at right angles to each other
(Notebooks 2: 10.3).
The extended use of quarried limestone for street surfacing in Valletta contributes to the stark
appearance in which street blends into building. With an elevated central promontory running the
length of the Valletta peninsula, land drops steeply away to both sides before plummeting to sea level.
Therefore, the streets running the width, rather than length, of the peninsula are often exceedingly
steep, all none quite level and of the steep Streets some [are] all stepped with a smooth artificial
Stone, some having the footpath on each side in stone steps, the middle left for carriages (Notebooks
2: 10.3). Valletta is not the only place to come under criticism for its steep terrain. While walking
along the Cottonera Lines,3 Coleridge observes a rude ascentin fact, everywhere seems to be all
Heights, Slopes, and Bottoms (Notebooks 2: 17.23).
In a letter to Sara Coleridge, we learn that Valletta contains about 110 Streets . . . each having
from 12 to 50 houses and that the good Houses are built with a courtyard in the centre (Letters 2:
1137). The rooms of both town and country good houses have lofty ceilings and are described as
being lavishly furnished with wall-hangings and artworks:
I met General Valette & delivered my Letter to him a striking room very high, 3/4ths of
its height from the ground hung with rich crimson Silk or velvet; & the 1/4th above a
mass of colours, pictures in compartments rudely and without perspective of art, but yet
very impressively & imagination stirringly representing all the events & exploits of the
Ordersome fine pictures. (Notebooks 2: 10.4)
We are furnished with very few passing remarks pertaining to the housing of the non-elite and
poor. Some pauper houses in Vittoriosa, called the Ramp, caught Coleridges eye (Notebooks 2:
17.23), but there is no mention as to the interior living conditions.

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A basic description of the geography and landscape of the islandone of the very fewis to
be found, again, in a letter to Sara Coleridge (Letters 2: 1138):
Malta is about 20 miles by 12a mere rock of free stone in digging out this they
find huge quantities of vegetable soilthey separate it with the stones they build their
Houses, & gardens & field wallsall of enormous thicknessthe fields seldom so much
as half an acre [square][.]
Of the countryside, Coleridge notes that fields are enclosed by dry-stone walls to keep the Soil
from the rains (Notebooks 2: 10.4), so that everything grows on huge garden Pots, & the whole
Island looks like one monstrous fortification (Letters 2: 1138). Although seemingly desolate, the
ground is fertile: you almost see things grow (Letters 2: 1138). In many instances, attention is
devoted to listing horticultural features4 in the garden of the country house at St. Antonio (Notebooks
2:10.4 and 2.10.5) or the Trees loaded with Oranges, now in the state for picking (Letters 2:
1157). Built features such as stone balconies and windmills are occasionally deemed noteworthy
(Notebooks 2: 21.454). Coleridge creates an impression of a desolate rural landscape, dominated
by limestone peppered with fruit-trees and nothing else: Maltese no Taste but for Stone & Fruit
(Notebooks 2: 15.132). The mingling of natural features and the human environment is recurrent. His
disapproving account of the lack of streamsMaltas semi-arid climate gives rise only to widien,
seasonal waterways that run only part of the year (Anderson 112)quickly turns into a description
of water supply, aqueducts, reservoirs, and pipes (Letters 2: 1137).
As compact as Malta is, Coleridge manages to distinguish not only between town (Valletta)
and countryside, but also to recognize the satellite functions of Bormola and Floriana, which
are to Valetta [sic] what Borough is to London (Letters 2: 1137; Unpub. Letters 147). Collectively,
Valletta, Floriana, Cospicua (Bormla), Senglea, and Vittoriosa, all nestled around the Grand Harbour,
made up the urban part of the island. Coleridges awareness of the topography and urbanization,
according to Sultana, was the result of the many frequent trips he had to make from town to country
and back in the course of his official duties (Sultana 39). During Coleridges time, there was not a
great choice of transport. Goods were often transported inland by donkey and cart, and vice versa.
Those privileged, such a Coleridge, traveled longer distances on horseback (Notebooks 2: 2101 10.4),
in carriages (Notebooks 2: 10.3), or were ferried across the harbors in dghajsa, traditional Maltese
boats (Muscat; Notebooks 2: 17.23).
The Inhabitants
The Malta in which Coleridge arrives has a large population but an economy based on producing cash crops, including cotton and tobacco, rather than edible produce; therefore the deficit
[of food] is procured by the growth and spinning of cotton, for which corn could not be substituted from the nature of the soil (The Friend 577). The population not only consisted of native
Maltese5 but also, according to colonial records, an array of foreign residents and a large number of civil and military British personnel. According to Donald Sultana, in contrast to the small
number of merchants and sailors, and in keeping with Maltas importance as a fortress, there was a
large garrisonabout 8,000 mendistributed in Valletta and the outlying fortifications (34). The
earliest entry in the Malta Blue Books (MBB)annual British colonial recordsdetails the number of troops as only 3,198 (1825). These early accounts do not record any women (wives and

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nurses) and/or children accompanying the troops, officers servants, or nonmilitary personnel in
the employ of the army. Nonmilitary personnel, later documented as Persons connected with the
Troops not being Soldiers, along with wives, children, and nonmilitary British residents, make up
between 39 and 58 percent of the British6 population in the years 18281835, the earliest years that
the Malta Blue Books cover such specific population data. The number of troops recorded for the
years 18231835 range from 3,198 to 1,719, figures far below Sultanas 8,000 (MBB 18231835,
Population).7 Even if we assume that Sultanas figure did not include the array of nonmilitary personnel, the additional average of 45 percent we may add takes the total of British civil and military
personnel to a maximum of 4,367.8 Only at the height of the Crimean War, in which Malta served as
a central depot and launch point for British forces, did the number of troops recorded reach Sultanas
estimation (MBB, Population 1855). While it is not impossible that there may have been an especially high population of troops in Malta in the first few years of government, the number is likely to
be significantly lower than Sultana suggests, accounting for the fact that regiments were not stationary and frequently moved from post to post. This means that as soon as Coleridge left the confines
of Valletta, he would have been faced with an overwhelmingly Maltese population.
In describing the Maltese people, Coleridge makes generalizations relating to physical anatomical characteristics, contributing to contemporaneous colonial discourses of racialization just as early
ethnologists, such as L. H. Dudley Buxton, were to do one hundred years later: The inhabitants
very dark, some almost black, but straight clean limbed lively active/cannot speak in praise of
their cleanlinessChildren very fair (Notebooks 2: 10.3). Although Coleridge and others may
have considered some of the population very dark-skinned, a distinction was made between dark
skin color and being racially black, which is recorded in the Malta Blue Books. Up until 1835,
the population columns free blacks and slaves were left blank, as was the replacement column
coloured population (1837) after this date. In 1885 and in all subsequent entries, racially oriented
columnswhites, coloured populationwere marked Does not apply to Malta.
With regard to dress, Coleridge observes that in both town and country, the dominant female
garb was the faldetto, or cloak[,] hooding their Heads as Women in England in a Shower throw over
their aprons, which from the use of always holding it down to one side of the face, apparently
gave women a permanent languishing way of holding their heads one waya look that does not
wholly impress him: picturesque enough, not pretty, and shockingly insipid (Notebooks 2: 10.3).
Coleridge is sensible of the sensory as well as the physical environment in which he finds himself. The apparent noisiness of Valletta receives the most comments; the sounds of the noise can
be categorized as either relating to the human inhabitants or church bells. His comments regarding human utterances not only refer to their loudness, but the language he uses to describe them
also invokes a subhuman, almost animalistic qualityshot up, broad & bulky noises, sudden and
violent (Notebooks 2: 10.3)a feature common in the colonial discourse of the day (see Gallant
1619). He observes that the Maltese are
the noisiest race under Heaven, & Valetta the noisiest placesudden shot-up explosive
Bellowsno cries you ever heard in London would give you the faintest Idea of it.
Even when you pass by a fruit stall, the fellow will put his Hand like a speaking Trumpet
to his mouth & shoot such a Thunder bolt of Sound full at you (Letters 2: 1139)
By contrast, soldiers and sailors appear audibly clearer, swearing in a drunken squabble and exclaiming, Damn your eyes! (Notebooks 2: 21.331). As gifted a linguist as Coleridge may have been, his
views are likely to be have been influenced by what he did not understand. Most soldiers and sailors

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would have been speaking English, whereas local traders and vendors would have communicated
in Maltese, a language we have no evidence of him attempting to master and that he describes
disparagingly as Arabic corrupted with Italian (Notebooks 2: 10.3).
The sound of bells emanating from Vallettas more than twenty-five churches is something that
no contemporary visitor will fail to notice, and neither did Coleridge. He complains of the endless
Jangling of these cursed Bells &c &c. (Letters 2: 600, 1139), and notes that it is impossible . . . to
be any where out of the Sound of Steeple Clock & Church Bells (Notebooks 2: K.38).
Religion and Superstition
The large number of churches is a key indicator to the centrality of the Catholic faith in Maltese
society (Boissevan 1623). Although some newer additions have occurred, many of the churches
have pre-nineteenth-century origins and would therefore have been present during Coleridges
time. He clearly disapproves of some of the practices associated with Catholicism, including the
omnipresent religious pictures and iconography both in churches and in the streets. Some aspects,
however, he detaches from mainstream Catholicism, viewing them as something more primordial and especially Maltese, such as a cross that has been painted: at the other end in a nitch
a Cross Painted! Was it there before? Or was it in some complaisance to Maltese superstitions?
(Notebooks 2: 10.4). After visiting a hospital, he is moved to write in his journal of the ubiquitous
superstition-infused religion:
again & again to observe the indefatigable ubiquitarian intrusia of the Catholic
Superstition, on every stair-case, by every bed side, in every chamber, along roads, the
traveller cannot help beholding itthe Sailor sees it the first thingContrast these hateful stone caricatures, these rascal-faces, especially that ghastly look of dead-drunkenness
so common in the crucifix Jesuses, with the English Bible and Prayer Book seen in our
Houses and Hospitals. (Notebooks 2: 21.585)
The superstitious nature of the Maltese and other Mediterranean islanders has been commented on by
many visitors, both before and after Coleridge (see Bigelow 200), and often used by colonial rulers
to compare Mediterranean people with non-Western cultures. Thomas Gallant (1534) suggests that
in the Ionian Islands, the British used such unfamiliar cultural practices to construct the inhabitants
not as a dichotomous other, but rather to invoke a system of analogies and comparisons with other
known groups or races, imposing an identity constructed as neither oriental, nor totally occidental.
In the case of the Maltese, a similar position is illustrated by Coleridges regurgitation of Alexander
Balls comment,9
the Catholic religion is better than none/Why, to be sure, it is called a Religion: but the ?
is, is it, a Religion? Sugar of Lead/Well! better that than no Sugar. Put Oil of Vitriol into
my Salladwell, better than no oil at allor a fellow vends a poison under the name lf
Jamess Powderswell! we must get the best we canbetter that than none!So did
not our noble ancestors reason, or feelor we should be Slaves. (Notebooks 2: 21.508)
To the nineteenth-century British imperialist, Catholicism may not have been on the same, superior
and more rational, level as Protestantism, but a recognized, especially Christian, religion was better

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than none. By this statement, Ball refers to religious beliefs that do not conform to monotheistic
ideals, such as those encountered in many of Europes colonies.
Fasting and celebratory feasts, although important parts of the religious calendar, received little
attention. As food was not necessarily the most important of things to Coleridge, his own hunger
often suppressed by opiates, it is unsurprising that he does not provide a detailed account of Maltese
cuisine.10 There are, however, several general comments of interest. He notes that it is the custom
of the Maltese to dress their food out at their doors on pots of Fire (Notebooks 2: 10.7). The
pots of fire refer to the traditional Maltese stove, the kenur, which is either made of limestone,
or a more portable, and later tabletop, ceramic version (kenur tal-fuhhar). Unfavorable comparisons
of Maltese to English food and its makers occur several times and can be seen in the following
notebook entry: The least things how they evidence the superiority of English artisansnow the
Maltese Wafers for instance/that stick to your mouth and fingers almost so as to make it impossible to get them off without squeezing them into a little pellet, and yet will not stick to the paper
(Notebooks 2: 21.569).
Cattle were not reared in nineteenth-century Malta, but goats and pigs were kept in both town
and country (The Friend 577). Unlike the large quantities of dried and salted beef imported from
Britain, Ireland, and even the United States in the early part of the century (The Friend 577, MBB
18211830), the Malta Blue Books (1829) record that the importation of cattle was wholly from
Foreign States (i.e., not Britain or any of her colonies, or the United States). Later records show
that many cattle were imported from the Barbary States, which is likely to have been the case in
Coleridges time. Once on the island, they were fed on cotton seed, which he complains results
in a fat [that] congeals quickly & sticks worse than suet to the roof of the mouth (Notebooks 2:
21.478). Some years after leaving Malta, Coleridge reflected that at least the bread is better and
cheaper on average than in Italy or the coast of Barbary (The Friend 570). There is very little
to learn about drinking habits in Malta from Coleridge, save that he often refers to the benefits of
drinking a few glasses of port wine a day, preferably after dinner (Letters 2: 601).
Moveable Objects
Coleridge does not provide many clear descriptions of moveable objects. In his notebooks and
letters, he usually limits his description to that which is either aesthetically pleasing or abhorrent,
and to that which is, in some way, foreign or unfamiliar. Occasionally, and most probably unintentionally, objects are mentioned in passing when discussing some other topic. For instance, in
expressing his views on the climate, he declares that I have never [fe]lt a moments inconvenience
from the heat, tho it has been hotter for the last fortnight than at Calcutta, or Kingston, so hot
that the Thermometer reached 86 in the Shade (Letters 2: 604, Coburns insertion). However,
the two material possessions over which Coleridge expresses greatest concern are books and money.
References to his increased or potential salary in Malta, and the need to borrow money from others
(Letters 2:1158) are most common, but occasionally the cost of specific goods are noted, Coffee
at 4 or 5 Shillings a pound (Notebooks 2: 21.587). Lost books are of particular concern. The main
problem seems to be books lost in transit, either on their way to Malta (Letters 2: 600, 1139) or
on their return. In fact, he devotes most of a letter to his wife to articulating his disgust at the
loss of a trunk of books at Stangate Creek, Kent, and the negligence of the Customhouse officer
(Unpub. Letters 156). That Coleridges emotional concern for his books is more than mere worry
over property is clearly revealed in his notebooks when he exclaims, It is often said, that Books are
companionsthey are so, dear, very dear, Companions! (Notebooks 2: 21.506).

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Coleridge and the Material


In general, his comments regarding urban architecture are positive. His privileged access to
many of the finest abodes on offer, including his own, give rise to a skewed vision of nineteenthcentury Malta, in which the grandiose living of the imperial elite is brought to the fore. To gain any
insight into the material worlds of non-elite communities, we must rely on his sensory observations.
Beneath the shouting of vendors lies a world of near or complete poverty, a dangerous life threatened periodically by disease and starvation. Coleridges perception of these non-elite inhabitants
is enmeshed within contemporaneous British construction of the Mediterranean people. Coleridge
conceives of a kind of human/cultural hierarchy in which the Maltese are positioned somewhere
below north Europeans and generally below Italians, but, noting their finer qualities (Notebooks 2:
21.447), he promotes them above the inhabitants of Sicily. The considerable parallels with Italian
culture (Notebooks 2: K.24) provide limited atonement as he admits to his notebook that Italians
desire to be English, confirmed to me by the most intelligent (Notebooks 2: K.17).
Coleridges personal and epistolary descriptions, whether intentional or not, are eclipsed in their
fullness by others of his time (e.g., Bigelow 1831; Johns 1842; Scott 1972 [1831] 68390). The lack
of detailed description is at odds with the long time he spent in Malta; many nineteenth-century
visitors spent only months, weeks, or even days in Malta as part of a Mediterranean tour. However,
Coleridge was neither on tour nor writing any kind of a travel journal. Instead, through his notebooks and letters we are privy to some objects and occurrences that he found interesting, different,
or bothersome enough to go with my Pocket-book, & minute its features (Notebooks 2: 17.23). His
letters to Sara Coleridge are the most informative, while his letters to Robert Southey contain very
little that relate to Malta outside of his own personal engagements and relationships. However, even
in his letters to Sara the information is often piecemeal and unintentional. The recurrent use of &c
&c in both letters and his notebooks brings descriptions of landscapes, people, and buildings to an
abrupt end, suggesting that Coleridge himself did not consider that he was in any way documenting
a culture or environment. Nevertheless, the detailed study of his recorded observations and experiences provides a historically valuable glimpse of the material world in early nineteenth-century
Malta.
Notes
1 Coburn

corrects Coleridges original entry, suggesting the month of May instead of April (Notebooks 2: 10.3).
usually pertain to aspects of the natural worldflora and fauna. See Leadbetter.
3 The Cottonera Lines are a perimeter of fortifications on the opposite side of the Grand Harbour to Valletta, containing
the Three Cities: Vittoriosa (Birgu), Senglea (L-Isla), and Cospicua (Bormla).
4 For instance, Notebooks 2: 21.449. He pays particular attention to fruit-bearing trees.
5 As described in the population figures contained in the Malta Blue Books.
6 British here signifies anyone part of the British Empire or her coloniesfor instance, Irish troops.
7 Sultana relies heavily on Hardmans History, in which 8,000 troops are mentioned twice: in Observations on the
Blockade of Malta, and the Defence it is capable of making, dated December 26, 1800 (348), and again by Pluvise, in his
description of la brave garnison de Malte but invoking battle in Italy, not Malta, dated February 5, 1799 (593).
8 This figure comes from multiplying the number of troops recorded in the Malta Blue Book of 1823 (3198) by the
extrapolated mean percentile of non-troop British recorded in the years 18281835.
9 Coleridge writes  , which I have taken to be a reference to Alexander Ball (Notebooks 2: 21.508).
10 Many letters and notebook entries mention the produce grown in Malta, but little information is supplied on how, or
even if, the fruit and vegetables were prepared and eaten.
2 Exceptions

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