I’ve never been one to say, “no” to a free book, so when I saw that Amazon had put a free e-book version of a book that had been published in 1893, I couldn’t not download it. Especially as it seemed to be a travel-guide-and history of the place..
In the late 19th Century, Malta was in some ways, the centre of the nautical world. Half-way between Britain and the (contemporary) Empire of India, it was crucial in her retention of the latter. Murray-Ballou’s work is a unique observation of the ‘Fior del Mondo’, the Flower of the World at this time.
Combining accounts of the country’s history with personal anecdotes and a writing style that is compelling (and sometimes shocking to the modern-day reader), The Story of Malta is a book that encourages the reader to examine his or her own perceptions of the world around them.
If you want a travel guide then this is not the book you want. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a book that explores the culture and the history of Malta or the Knights of St. John, then this is the book for you.
“We only present facts to the mind of the thoughtful reader”
One thing I always forget when I start reading older books about foreign countries is the extent to which the ‘primitive culture’ is always unfavourably compared with the author and his reader’s ‘civilized society’.
This attitude is frustrating for the modern reader: I shouted at him when he wrote several offensive racial stereotypes, called the Maltese, “sadly ignorant”, condemned every religious belief he mentioned that was not his own and expressed Sherlock Holmes-esque views on England’s monarchy.
It goes without saying that this element did sometimes make me question the sort of ‘filter’ some of the information in The Story of Malta had gone through before appearing on the page. As a result, I have learnt key dates and general history of the islands, but I don’t trust the more descriptive elements of the prose.
On the bright side, I do feel as though I have learnt a lot about Murray-Ballou’s personal beliefs and opinions of Malta. As soon as I realised that this book was best taken with a pinch of salt (or snuff, maybe), it became much easier to enjoy it and thoroughly.
Excluding the *ahem* contemporary beliefs on race and religion, Murray-Ballou writes very well, combining poetry, amusing anecdotes and nuggets of travellers’ wisdom that ring true after 100 years.
The one element that eventually persuaded me to like this book was his presentation of the island through the eyes of those who had seen it centuries before him. Of course, the use of Classical figures in contemporary books was common, especially among the well-educated, but lines such as: “It seemed like the eye of a Cyclops peering through the darkness, as though one of Vulcan’s workman, fresh from the fiery furnace beneath Sicilian [E]tna… had come forth to gaze upon the progress of the night”.
I’d be interested to read more of Murray-Ballou’s work: he’s well-travelled, writes very well and made me consider how my own perceptions of customs and people who are different from those I’ve grown up with are coloured by my upbringing.
WNI’s Verdict? Wavering towards… WIN!