06 – Sir Thomas Maitland

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Maitland, GCB, GCH
1759 – 1824

Governor of Malta 1813-1824


Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Maitland, GCB, GCH (1759 – 1824) was a British soldier and colonial governor. He also served as a Member of Parliament for Haddington from 1790-96, 1802-06 and 1812-13. He was made a Privy Councillor on 23 November 1803. He was the third son of James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale and younger brother of James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale.

Military service

Maitland was commissioned into the Edinburgh Light Horse, shortly after his birth, but did not take up his commission until he joined the 78th Foot as a Captain in 1778. He transferred to the 72nd Foot, and then to the 62nd Foot as a Major in 1790. He was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel in 1794 and Colonel and Brigadier-General in 1798.

Historical love story at Ceylon

The governor’s palace, Mount Lavinia, Sri LankaWhilst he was working in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as the governor in charge during the period of 1805–1811, he was attracted to a place at “Galkissa” (Mount Lavinia) and decided to construct his palace there.

During this time the governor Sir Thomas Maitland fell in love with a dancing girl named Lovina who had been born to Portuguese and Sinhalese parents. During the construction, the governor gave instructions for the construction of a secret tunnel to Lovina ‘s house which was located close to the governor’s palace. One end of the tunnel was inside the well of Lovina’s house and the other end was in a wine cellar inside the governor’s palace. When the governor came to reside there the two lovers met secretly using the tunnel.

Sir Thomas Maitland left Ceylon in 1811 and transferred to Malta , where he lived and died as a bachelor. He also served as governor of Corfu during the British administration of the island.

After some time in 1920 the tunnel was sealed up and the Gypsy village that surrounded the Governor’s mansion developed into a modern bustling city. Later the city of “Galkissa” was named as ” Mount Lavinia ” referring to the name of beautiful Lovina.

Important dates during his Governorship

The Bathurst Constitution.
First issue of Gazzetta del Governo di Malta — changed, in 1816, to Malta Government Gazette.

Setting up of the Malta Police Corps
Law Courts Reform

St John’s elevated

to Co-Cathedral

Abolition of Università
(Local Government).

1819 -23
Economic Reforms

Opening of Primary School
in Valletta

Mortmain Law

Maitland in Malta

Administration of Sir Thomas Maitland

Sir Thomas Maitland (1759-1824) was the first British Governor to rule over Malta . He had responsibility for the Ioanian Islands and Gibraltar. Maitland was thus often absent for long periods from Malta . When appointed Governor by Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, he insisted to have free and unfettered power in Malta .

The Council of Government requested by the Maltese

That Commission of 1811 had left to the future Governor the decision whether to appoint an advisory council or not. If such a council was to be constituted, the British members were to be in a majority of 4 to 3. This Council was to have no power to vote and points of discussion were to be put forward by the Governor. Maitland refused to set up an advisory council and kept the entire administration in his own hands and in British officials of his choosing. He believed that for the people government meant simply the provision of material benefits. His autocratic and highhanded way of governing the islands meant that the aspirations of the Maltese liberals to get a share in the Government made no further progress during his administration. His direct involvement in all spheres of the administration soon became known as King Tom. He was admired by some, and hated by others.

The Civil Administration

Maitland was both Governor and Commander-in-Chief with all civil and military powers in his hands. He reorganized the Government Departments and appointed Englishmen to the higher posts of the Civil Service. The Head of the Civil Service was the Chief Secretary to the Government. The other major Government officials were the Treasurer, the Auditor of Public Accounts and the Assessor (or Advocate Fiscal, later known as the Crown Advocate). Trade was under the Superintendent of Quarantine, a Collector of Customs, an Intendant of Marine Police, an Officer of Port Duties and a Collector of Exise Duties Collector of Land Revenue. This last official was responsible for the collection of public rents, supervision of public works and the collection of petty taxes. Gozo was treated as a separate department with its own Commandant, Collector of Land Revenue, Magistrates and Police. To win the loyalty of the Maltese nobles he made six of them Lord-Lieutenants to a group of villages instead of the previous system of headman or syndic left by the Knights. Of course, the power of the nobles was to be only nominal. The police corps was set up in 1814, organized on the English model. It was headed by an Inspector-General directly responsible to the Governor. No person could be arrested by the police for more than 48 hours. Police magistrates had 10 days to examine suspects and bring the accused to Court. Maitland is often accused of having implanted a sense of superiority of the British over the Maltese. The Maltese were eligible only to the lowest offices of the administration. These colonial parasites as they were called by leading Maltese leaders, received large salaries. Maitland himself received a salary of £10,000 a year. This policy nearly emptied the Government Treasury. Maitland justified this policy on the conviction, based on what he saw when he arrived in 1813, that the Maltese were too ignorant and irresponsible to be given greater responsibility in the administration.

Economic Reforms

Maitland kept a firm control of the finances and payment orders were issued from the Treasury only by his warrant. He increased expenditure in all departments to a total of some 7,000 scudi a month. The budget for the year 1823 rendered the Government 1,345,000 scudi in revenue. The revenue of the
Government was based on three main sources of revenue:

(a) the payment of rent on Government property,
(b) the collection of quarantine dues on ships entering harbour and
(c) the collection of custom duties on all imported goods.

Maitland’s revenue system in fact helped much to cripple Maltese trade with other countries. In order to boost Maltese commerce Maitland set the following measures:

(a) he gave preference to goods manufactured in Britain or other British colonies,
(b) he encouraged the export of Maltese goods and
(c) he aimed to turn Malta into a centre for entrepot trade (transit trade) Europe and the Levant.

Unfortunately for Malta , the Greek Revolt (1821-27) was to destroy that commerce. When Greece acquired independence from Turkey with British diplomatic and military help, commerce in the Levant was dominated by the large Greek merchant navy.

In 1817 Maitland convinced the British Government to permit direct trade between Malta and the West Indies so long as ships did not enter any port in the U.K. This economic policy could be achieved only if the Government kept custom duties in Malta as low as possible, even though customs were the main
source of Government revenue. To this effect, in 1819 the export duty was abolished. Import duties were fixed at an ad valorem duty of 1% on British imported goods and 2% on all other foreign goods. In 1820 quarantine charges were reduced and the transit duty was abolished.

In December 1818 Maitland removed the importation of grain from the Maltese Università dei Grani and appointed a Board of Grain Supply as a government department. The Università had by that time a deficit of 1,700,000 scudi in arrears. Maitland appointed an auditor to collect these arrears. All financial
details and contracts were placed under British Civil Servants. Until 1822 grain was imported as a government monopoly, by which the Government collected a considerable share of its revenue, without increasing its price, since bread was the staple food of the lower classes. With the money earned from the bread monopoly, the Government issued at total of 45,000 scudi annually as alms to the poor.

Justice and the Law Courts  

The heaviest criticism of the Royal Commission of 1812 was directed against the judicial system. Laws were found to be defective, at times objectionable. Too many appeals were permitted which prolonged cases indefinitely. Judges took their income from judicial fees, a system that encouraged corruption and bribes. Sentences were at times given out of court, even in the judge’s house.

Judges, once appointed, were practically irremovable. The Commission recommended judges to be given fixed salaries by the Government, the Governor to have the power to remove incompetent ones, witnesses were to be interrogated in an open court, instances of appeals were to be reduced, trial by jury was not recommended in a small community like Malta , except in the Commercial Court.

Maitland found the administration of justice in a state of judicial tyranny. He decided to supervise that department himself. In April 1814 the previous Consolato del Mare (set up by the Knights in 1697) was turned into a Commercial Court on the British model. The Corte della Castellania was divided into two halls: one for the Criminal Court and one for the Civil Court.

All judges were appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the King. They were appointed for life, until retirement or until suspended by the Governor. They had to take an oath of loyalty to the King and could not work privately as lawyers. Sentences passed by a judge in an open court were final. The Court of Appeal consisted of two halls, one for commercial, the other for civil cases.

There was no appeal from the Criminal Court. The Governor and two judges constituted the final Supreme Court of Justice dealing with exceptional cases. The power of the Governor to reverse judicial decisions, a power practiced by the Grandmasters, was abolished. Italian was made the language of the Courts.

The planning of these reforms was the first major issue tackled by Maitland once the islands became free from plague early in 1814. In May 1814 the new Constitutions of the Courts were proclaimed and put into force. In 1823 Maitland persuaded his British superiors to accept appeals to British Commercial Courts cases initiated at the Malta Commercial Court, as long as the dispute involved a sum exceeding £1,000.

One criticism to the justice and court reforms introduced by Maitland was that, except for commercial cases, few changes were made to the Criminal Code of Grandmaster Rohan (1784) except for suppliments issued by the Governor. But the laws concerning corsairing, torture and slavery of Muslims were abolished, and these practices were declared illegal and punishable by imprisonment or by the death penalty.


The Maltese liberals had been complaining about the low state of education in the islands. At that time it was estimated that 70% of the population was illiterate, 22% had only rudiments in reading and writing and only 8% had reached a level of advanced knowledge. In 1819 a non-government association was set up with the support of the Governor with the aim to open primary schools in various localities. One such school, The Normal School at Valletta which numbered 200 pupils in 1821, 66% of which were boys. A subscription fee was fixed at 5 scudi and children were admitted at 6. But this plan fell short because of lack of funds from the Government. Maitland was convinced of the great value for the Maltese middle classes to receive an English education in the England . He recommended his superiors to offer up to 15 study grants annually for Maltese students the possibility to continue their studies in Britain . But the British Government gave orders that no further steps in education were to be taken, conscious of the financial burden this would bring upon the limited resources at the disposal of the Government.

Church and State Relations  

Maitland was advised by Lord Bathurst not to interfere with the Maltese Catholic Church. But in Maitland’s time a number of incidents occurred which brought about a Church-State dispute over precedence, the property of St John’s Church and jurisdiction of Civil and Ecclesiastical Courts. In 1815 there developed a dispute over who was to sit on the Grandmaster’s throne in St John’s : the Bishop or the Governor. Maitland refused to use it himself. In the end he placed the royal coat of arms and the throne remained vacant. Two special seats were placed beneath the altar, one for the Bishop and one for the Governor. In 1816 when the Pope elevated St John’s to the status of a Co-Cathedral, Maitland protested arguing that the Church was government property intended to be turned into a Protestant Cathedral. In the end a compromise was reached: St John’s was to remain a Catholic Co-Cathedral but owned by the Government.

The dispute over the powers of the Church Courts took much longer to settle. A suspected person took sanctuary in a chapel and Maitland ordered the Advocate Fiscal to make a formal demand so that the suspect be handed to the civil authorities for questioning. This request was refused by the Church authorities. Instead the suspect was questioned at the Bishop’s Court. The could give the suspect the right of appeal to Rome . This eventuality Maitland would not accept for he considered the Pope a foreign power with no right to interfere in the civil laws of a British possession. In 1822 he went personally to Rome to settle the privilege of sanctuary and the privilegium fori directly with the Holy See.

Negotiations were still going on when he died in January 1824 and this question was finally settled in 1828 when British diplomacy with the Vatican brought their abolition. From then onwards the privilegium fori was to apply only to the Bishop of Malta , and from 1864 to the Bishop of Gozo as well.

In one other aspect Maitland tried to reduce the power of the Church in Malta . The Mortmain Law of 1822 declared that all property and lands left to the Church had to be disposed or sold within one year or else these would become Government property. But owing to great opposition from the local Church and from the Vatican , this law was never put into force by subsequent Governors.


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