Transnational Ecologies in Malta

‘Transnational Ecologies in Malta: How can a critical historical geography approach shed light on the current spring bird hunting issue in Malta?’

Last year I travelled to Gibraltar to understand the ways in which nineteenth-century British military officers practiced ornithology and constructed ideas about migratory birds. Gibraltar emerged as an important site in the European understanding of bird migration. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, English travelling-naturalist Mark Catesby (1683-1749) enlisted his military brother to send specimens from Gibraltar to George Edwards (1694-1773), a well-known British naturalist, who wrote about the migratory nature of birds. Similarly, John White, rector of the garrison, collected and observed birds for his brother Reverend Gilbert White, who published the findings in his best seller Natural History of Selborne (1788-89).

Gibraltar was not the only Mediterranean station which the British acquired as a strategic military and naval post. As part of the artery of the British Empire, Gibraltar consisted of one of ‘four indissoluble links’ with Malta, Egypt, and Aden in ‘the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal,’ which bind ‘the Asian peninsula of three hundred millions [sic] to the small European island of thirty-three millions [sic], much as the spinal cord connects the body with the brain.’ Cyprus, too, emerged as an important territory in Britain’s quest to maintain a stronghold on the trade route to Asia. Maintaining military fitness through field sports and naturalist pursuits was therefore important in sustaining the military body and mind, and in turn imperial aspirations overseas.

With these trajectories in mind, I travelled to Malta this spring to continue work on my doctoral project ‘Red coats and wild birds: military culture and ornithology across the nineteenth-century British Empire,’ which interrogates the intersections between military culture and the practices and ideas of ornithology in the Mediterranean region. The military and ornithological experiences of British military officers illustrate some of the ways imperial expansion provided opportunities for military men to map avian, moral, and racial geographies of the British Empire. The observation of British migratory birds in the Mediterranean regions emerged as another way to connect with avian “landscapes of home’ when on active duty overseas. These sentiments were often solidified and gained influence when British military officers returned’home’ to Britain and published works on British birds.

My purpose in visiting Malta was to conduct archival work at the National Archives of Malta, to see the collections at the Natural History Museum of Malta, to tour the various nineteenth-century British military sites, and to learn about the local networks of Maltese naturalists which British military officers tapped into during their occupation of the territory. Located in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Tunisia and Libya, Malta has been described as the “Mediterranean bridge” between Europe and Africa, and Christianity and Islam. Many empires have historically occupied the islands to secure the Mediterranean trade route for their own purposes – Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans, Knights of Malta, French, British – and the Maltese reflect a mix of cultural influences as evident in their language, which is partly Arabic, Italian, and English. Today, Malta is devoutly Catholic and traces this lineage to the shipwreck of St. Paul in 60 AD in the Acts of the Apostles.

Malta has also been a significant migratory site for many species of migrating birds travelling from Europe to Africa. According to BirdLife Malta, a total of 384 bird species have been recorded in Malta and, of these, 170 occur regularly during spring and autumn migration periods. Malta was therefore an important place for British military officers to observe and collect migratory birds in the Mediterranean Sea.

My investigations revealed how bird hunting is still a hotly contested issue in Malta, as evident in the June 2009 EU elections. Although Malta joined the EU in 2004, it was last year that the EU declared a ban on the killing of migratory birds during the spring season. Under the EU Birds Directive, as well as its amending acts, EU countries must seek to protect, manage and regulate all bird species naturally living in the wild within the European territory of the Member States, including the eggs of these birds, their nests and their habitats; and regulate the exploitation of these species. The Member States must also conserve, maintain or restore the biotopes and habitats of these birds by: creating protection zones; maintaining the habitats; restoring destroyed biotopes; and creating biotopes. Although Maltese government continued to sanction the hunting of the Common Quail and Turtle Doves, the government reversed its decision after Birdlife International and Birdlife Malta lodged a formal complaint with the EU Commission about the failure to ban the spring hunt completely.

Birdlife Malta has been instrumental in establishing bird sanctuaries, scientific monitoring, and public outreach to educate the Maltese on the importance of bird protection. These conservation efforts have proved fruitful with an increase in bird populations and the diversity of species. For example, Birdlife Malta has documented the first confirmed breeding bird of prey in fifteen years. Following this year’s spring hunting ban, a pair of Common Kestrels had successfully bred and raised at least three chicks in the Maltese islands. Furthermore, the host family with whom I was staying described their excitement in seeing Hoopoes that visit Malta, a sight they had not experienced in years. They also described the European Robin that visited their mother’s birdfeeder on a regular basis.

Needless to say, the ban on the spring hunt has caused an outrage among Maltese bird hunters and trappers who claim that it is their traditional and legal right to pursue spring hunting, which they have done since ‘time memorial’. Although the Federation of Hunting Association advocate for sustainable hunting practices, there remains great resistance to the restrictions imposed on their hunting practices during the spring season. The bird sanctuaries set up to protect migratory birds are often trespassed by bird hunters who kill the protected species as a form of protest. Most alarming are the actions taken by the more resistant group of bird hunters who have uttered death threats, slashed tires, and torched the cars of some of the bird protection advocates. The Federation of Hunting Association has even issued a news release entitled “BirdLife Malta Infiltrates Education Department,” which lambasted the organization for its “gradual ‘brain-washing’ of our children through the supply of misinterpreted and misrepresented material facts, thus depriving them of a fair and unbiased platform about what the environment and conservation should be all about.” For those involved with Birdlife Malta, these types of statements must be extremely frustrating.

How can a critical historical geography approach help to understand the bird hunting issue in Malta? Some have claimed that the European Union is another form of imperialism now imposed on the Maltese, yet again. Restrictions on Malta’s cultural traditions (eg. the use of fireworks at local village feasts) are often seen as interference from the EU. It was not too long ago that Malta gained independence from Britain in 1964, and formally cut ties in 1979 with the removal of British forces by then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. As I observed during my short stay on the islands, the Maltese are ambivalent about Britain’s involvement in Malta. While there remains a significant British expatriate community living in Malta, I often spoke with older Maltese residents about their feelings about the British, who expressed how Malta was never their own during British occupation yet they had good jobs and good pay. Nationalist sentiments can be traced back to the 1880s as many viewed Malta as an extension of Italy rather than as a British colony. These views increased after the Britain expelled numerous nationalists to Uganda for fear of treason during the Second World War.

Animosity towards the British was evident during my field research, as many of the nineteenth-century British military heritage sites are now harder to find, taken over by Maltese institutions, or destroyed for housing developments. The cemetery Ta’ Braxia, which was once the resting place of the nineteenth-century British colonial elite, now lies overgrown with weeds and filled with broken tombstones. Even Queen Elizabeth’s former residence, where she lived for several years after her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, is barely noticeable to British tourists in a run-down part of town.

While bird conservation can be traced back to the Knights of Malta who imposed a closed season for hunting (two Peregrine Falcons were paid as rent to the King of Spain), as well as private hunting grounds for the Grand Masters, it was the British who placed restrictions on local hunting practices by imposing licenses to carry guns for sporting purposes in the nineteenth century. In 1801, the British declared an edict that all military personnel could carry a gun without a license, whereas the Maltese were required to pay 10s per year for an official license. By 1911, British rule had established specific bird laws to protect particular bird species such as the Robin Redbreast (European Robin), the Turtle Dove, and the Common Quail, often represented as quintessentially ‘British’ birds in Britain. Among the British institutions involved, one cannot forget to mention the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which attempted to set up a section in Malta, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an organization steeped in the imperial, humanitarian movement of the nineteenth century.

Today, hundreds of British birders visit Malta on a yearly basis to observe the migration of birds but also to deter local bird hunters from killing them. Since the late 1990s, Birdlife Malta has organized a ‘Raptor Camp’ during the annual autumn raptor migration period for both local and international volunteers to curtail illegal hunting activity. As Birdlife Malta states: ‘This is no bird watching holiday, but a serious conservation effort!’

While I myself advocate for bird conservation and applaud the work of BirdLife Malta and the Natural History Museum of Malta, I write this article in part for a British audience to perhaps shed light on Malta’s British colonial past and illustrate the ways in which telling Maltese bird hunters what to do from a British perspective might aggravate the problem. Furthermore, as this issue reveals, it is important to study the complexity of migratory birds across multiple borders, and local cultures of nature, in order to understand the tensions implicated in people’s claims to a territory’s ‘natural heritage’, and the rights to use or protect it, as their own.

Links:

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply