Malta was settled in Neolithic times; the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum is the site of what is believed to be the largest group of prehistoric European rock-cut chamber tombs. The island, anciently called Melita, later belonged successively to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. St. Paul was shipwrecked there (A.D. 60). Arab rule began in A.D. 870; the Normans of Sicily occupied it c.1090. In 1530 the Hapsburg Charles V granted Malta to the Knights Hospitalers. Notwithstanding a determined siege by the Turks in 1565, the knights held it until 1798, when it was surrendered to Napoleon.
The British ousted the French in 1800 and made it a crown colony in 1814. For most of the 19th cent., Malta was ruled by a military governor. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) increased its strategic value, Malta becoming one of the principal coaling stations for steamers bound for India and East Asia. During World War II, Malta was subjected to extremely heavy bombing by Italian and German planes, and in 1942 King George VI awarded its citizens the George Cross for bravery.
Almost from the start of the period of British rule the Maltese agitated for increased political freedom. Considerable self-government was granted in 1921, but this was revoked in 1936. A constitution granted in 1947 was revoked after civil disturbances in 1959. Malta achieved full independence in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. The Labor party, led by Dom Mintoff, was in power from 1971 to 1987. The government of the Nationalist prime minister Edward Fenech Adami was elected in 1987 and was returned to office in 1992 and 1998. Alfred Sant of the Labor party was prime minister from 1996 to 1998. In the 1990s, Malta tried to balance its foreign policy between neighboring Libya and the economically more important Western nations. It applied for full membership in the European Union (EU) in 1990 and embarked on an extensive economic and restructuring program, and Malta joined the EU in 2004.
Fenech Adami and the Nationalist party, strong supporters of EU membership, were returned to power in the Apr., 2003, parliamentary elections. Fenech Adami stepped down in Mar., 2003, and Lawrence Gonzi succeeded him as prime minister. Malta adopted the euro in Jan., 2008. The Nationalist party won a narrow victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections; Gonzi's government fell in Dec., 2012, after it lost its majority. Labor won a majority in the Mar., 2013, elections, and Joseph Muscat became prime minister. In recent years the country has received increasing numbers of Europe-bound illegal African immigrants, most of them rescued at sea by Malta's navy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.