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The Republic of Malta (whose capital is Valletta) in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North Africa includes the smaller island of Gozo and, located between them, the tiny islet of Comino. Malta’s history of foreign domination, prior to a period of colonial settlement, commenced in the 16th century when it became the stronghold of the wealthy Knights of St John after they had been forced to flee the island of Rhodes.

Despite widespread opposition, they eventually resettled in Malta, where they remained from 1590–1790. Antagonism against the Knights’ occupation abated when these skilled artisans demonstrated their prowess in building construction and similar activities.

The Knights military power during the Great Siege of 1565 helped to repel invasion by the Ottoman Empire by defeating the marauding Turks after months of fierce fighting. The event preceded four turbulent centuries during which the island fortress became a British Crown colony in 1814. A brief period of self-government, introduced in 1921 after major unrest, was subsequently suspended. It was reinstated in 1947 as a reward for endurance during months of German and Italian aerial bombardment in World War II. Independence was attained in 1964.

First stamp usage From 1855 to 1884, all overseas mail required the use of contemporary Great Britain stamps. These are readily identified by the wavy line obliterator in use between 1855 and 1856, the distinctive ‘M’ cancellation introduced in 1857 and the A25 obliterator in use from 1859.

Malta’s first stamp in 1860, on unwatermarked paper, was printed by De La Rue, who provided all the colony’s stamps until 1926. Local delivery of printed material remained free of charge, whereas a ½d. denomination, portraying Queen Victoria, was issued for inland letters.

Remarkably, this low rate remained until 1947. The value was reissued in 1863 on Crown CC paper and in 1882 on Crown CC paper. There are 28 recorded variations in the ½d. stamp; including numerous unplanned shades ranging from yellow-buff to yellow and even orange. In 1885, Universal Postal Union regulations required a new printing of the ½d. denomination in green (20). British stamps were simultaneously replaced by newly designed 1d., 2½d., 4d. and 1s. denominations for use on overseas mail.

A larger format 5s. was added in 1886. Designs of these and most subsequent issues incorporate the Maltese Cross, emblem of the Knights of St John. An innovative series of exceptionally fine ¼d., 4½d., 5d., 2s.6d. and 10s. engraved pictorials was placed on sale between 1899 and 1901.

The ¼d. denomination, required for inland posting of printed paper, depicts a splendid view of Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Other values show images of a Gozo fishing boat, an ancient galley and the allegorical figure of ‘Melita’ derived from the ancient fortress town Melite (now Mdina). The 10s. features a striking painting of St Paul’s shipwreck off Malta.

A temporary shortage caused by reductions in overseas postal tariffs in 1902 was met by ‘One Penny’ surcharges on 2½d. stamps. Until 1948, this and subsequent overprints were undertaken by Government Printing Office. Several typesetting flaws included ‘One Penny’, row 9/2 (36b, 37a). Several positional blocks of the apparently prearranged ‘error’ were sold under the counter by Valletta’s postmaster.

King Edward VII

The frame of Malta’s first stamp was adapted for seven King Edward VII portraits from ½d. to 1s. issued in 1903– 4. Several were soon reprinted with Multiple Crown CA watermarks; in other amendments from 1904, single colours were introduced for 1d., 2d., 2½d. and 1s. values, along with new printings of the acclaimed ¼d., 4½d. and 5d. pictorials. Subsequently, 4½d. (58) and 5d. (59) values were issued in changed colours.

In 1911, the larger format Victorian 5s. was replaced with the Edwardian portrait. To introduce King George V, De La Rue’s stock design on contemporary stamps of British Honduras, British Solomon Islands, Grenada and St Lucia was repeated from 1914–20 on the majority of new ¼d. to 1s. definitive; a long-overdue replacement for the Edwardian 3d. denomination was added in 1920. Acclaimed 1899–1901 pictorial images were retained for 4d. and 2s.6d. denominations, whereas additional 2s. and 5s. stamps were adapted from the large type ‘Nyasaland’ key plate.

As for most British colonies, a wartime levy was introduced in 1917–18 with ‘WAR TAX’ overprints on sheets of current ½d. and 3d. stamps by De La Rue. King Edward VII 3d, stamps astonishingly continued in use until 1920. The 1899 ‘Shipwreck of St Paul’ design was modified in 1919 for a new 10s. (96), claimed to be Malta’s most expensive stamp (listed by Stanley Gibbons at £3250, £4750). It was reprinted in 1922 on Multiple Script CA watermarked paper along with new printings of ¼d., ½d., 1d., 2½d., 6d. and 2s. stamps.

The 1921 2d. (100) was issued with a redesigned frame. The year 1922 is notable for several issues marking constitutional changes following years of post-war unrest largely due to unemployment. The failure of local artists Dingli and Vella to fulfil a contract to deliver acceptable designs led to local ‘SELF-GOVERNMENT’ overprints on available stamps. Included were ½d., 2½d., 6d. and 2s. denominations with both single and multiple CA watermarks.

A shortage of 10s. stamps was alleviated by overprinting leftover sheets from the 1899 printing (35). Insufficient supplies of overprinted stamps prompted an emergency ‘One Farthing’ surcharge on the 2d. value (122). Later in the year, the short-lived overprints were replaced by Dingli and Vella’s two very different images of Melita – the personification of Malta. Higher denominations from 1s. to £1 symbolically depict the continuation of Malta’s dependence on Britain. An engraved £1 superbly complemented the typographic ¼d. to 10s. denominations. A revision of postal tariffs led to 1d. and 3d. colour changes and an additional 1½d. stamp.

Reduced postal tariffs in 1925 led to a ‘Twopence halfpenny’ surcharge on different 3d. stamps (141/42) while awaiting a replacement 2½d. (129). A decision in 1926 terminating the dual role to include revenue usage resulted in ‘POSTAGE’ overprints on the current ‘patriotic’ series, excluding the £1 value. There was little justification for the overprints because imaginative designs inscribed postage were already on hand when some higher provisional denominations were withdrawn after just one week.