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Malta, independent republic in the Commonwealth of Nations, consisting of a small group of islands—Malta, Gozo, Comino, Kemmunett, and Filfla— located in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily. The area of the largest island, Malta, is 246 sq km (95 sq mi); Gozo covers 67 sq km (26 sq mi), and Comino has an area of 3 sq km (1.1 sq mi). The total area is 316 sq km (122 sq mi). Malta's population at the 1985 census was 345,418; the 1993 estimate was 364,590, yielding an average density of 1,154 people per sq km (2,988 per sq mi). Average life expectancy in the early 1990s was 74 years for men and 78 years for women. The capital and chief port is Valletta (population, 1990, greater city, 101,749).


Malta is comparatively low lying, the highest point being about 239 m (785 ft) above sea level. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The mean temperature is 19 C (66 F). Average annual rainfall is about 560 mm (22 in).


Malta's gross national product was about US$2.6 billion in the early 1990s, giving an average income per head of about US$7,130 (World Bank figures; 1989-1991 average prices). Agriculture plays an important role in the Maltese economy. About 40 per cent of the land is under cultivation, but because of the country's high population density and poor soils, food must be imported. The principal crops include potatoes, tomatoes, melons, wheat, fruits, and flowers. Small numbers of poultry, rabbits, cattle, goats, and sheep are raised. Ship-repairing in the state-owned dockyards is the leading industry. The manufacturing sector includes food processing; printing and publishing; and the production of textiles and clothing, furniture and wood products, tobacco products, transport equipment (especially ships), machinery, rubber and plastic goods, and chemicals. Tourism is the most important sector generating earnings of about $550 million annually in the early 1990s and providing jobs for about one-third of the labour force.

Malta's annual budget in the early 1990s included revenue of about $1.1 billion and expenditure of $1 billion. Exports earned about $1.2 billion and imports cost about $1.9 billion during the same period. Major exports include clothing, transport equipment, basic manufactures, and machinery; principal imports are machinery, textiles, chemicals, raw materials, fuel, and food. Malta's chief trading partners are Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and Germany. The currency of Malta is the Maltese lira, consisting of 100 cents (0.39 lira equals US$1; 1995).

People and Government

The Maltese are predominantly Roman Catholic and speak a language similar in vocabulary to Arabic, although its alphabet and grammatical structure are derived from Latin. Both Maltese and English are official languages. Italian is widely spoken. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16. The University of Malta (1592) in Msida has approximately 2,500 students (1991 figure).

By the terms of the 1964 constitution, as substantially amended in 1974, Malta is a constitutional republic. The head of state is the president, who is appointed by parliament to serve for five years. Legislative authority is vested in the House of Representatives, composed of 65 members elected to five-year terms by universal adult suffrage on the basis of proportional representation. The head of government is a prime minister appointed by the president from among the members of parliament and responsible to the legislature. The prime minister is assisted by a cabinet.


The many ancient monuments and remains on Malta attest to the great age of its civilization. The islands became a colony of Phoenicia in about 1000 BC. In 736 BC they were occupied by the Greeks, who called the colony Melita. The islands subsequently passed into the possession of Carthage and then Rome. At the division of the Roman Empire in AD 395, Malta was awarded to the eastern empire. The islands were occupied by Arabs in 870. A Norman army defeated the Maltese Arabs in 1090, and Malta was later made a feudal fief of the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (or the Knights Hospitaller), who ruled the islands until the 19th century. After a famous and unsuccessful siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, the Knights fortified Valletta so well that it became one of the greatest Mediterranean strongholds.

British Rule Established

In 1798, during his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon occupied the islands. Unwilling to be ruled by France, the Maltese appealed to Great Britain; in 1799 British naval officer Horatio Nelson besieged Valletta and compelled the withdrawal of the French. By the terms of the 1814 Treaty of Paris Malta became part of the British Empire as a Crown Colony. The Maltese increasingly demanded self-government during the 19th century. In 1921, as a reward for its help during World War I, the colony was given a constitution that provided for a locally elected legislature. Malta's strategic location meant the islands were of great interest to the Mediterranean powers, especially Italy. In 1936, because of increasing Italian influence, Britain revoked the constitution. During World War II, Malta withstood almost daily German and Italian air raids; in 1942 George VI, King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, awarded the colony the George Cross in recognition of the bravery of the Maltese.

Independence Gained

On November 1, 1961, Malta became internally self-governing. In the campaign preceding the first election, the Labour party called for independence outside the Commonwealth, while the Nationalists, the other major party, advocated independence within the Commonwealth. The Nationalists won the election and their leader, George Borg Olivier, became prime minister. Malta became independent on September 21, 1964, and a United Nations member on December 1.

Mintoff's Government

In elections in June 1971, Olivier's Nationalist party was defeated and Dominic (Dom) Mintoff became prime minister of a Labour cabinet. Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1974.

In the following years, as Mintoff's government leaned more and more towards the left, Malta's politics became violently polarized. Declaring Malta's neutrality and non-alignment in international affairs, the government in 1979 declined to renew the agreement under which Britain and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had rented facilities on the island. Malta and Libya cooperated closely in the late 1970s, but relations were strained in 1980 by a dispute over oil-drilling rights in Mediterranean waters. In December 1981, Mintoff's government won a mandate for a third 5-year term. In December 1984 Mintoff resigned and was succeeded in office by his Education Minister Carmelo Mifsud-Bonnici. After 16 years out of power, the Nationalists won the May 1987 election, and their leader, Eddie Fenech Adami, became prime minister. The party retained its majority in the February 1992 election. In 1990 Malta and Libya renewed their bilateral cooperation treaty until 1995. Malta applied for full membership of the European community (now European Union) in 1990. Its application was rejected by the European Commission in 1993, principally because of Malta's small size.