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Cospicua - The City

The names “Bormla” and “Cospicua”

Cospicua, called Bormla by the Maltese,  is situated in the centre of Cottonera. The title “Cospicua” which      means “prominent”, was given to it by Grand Master M.A. Zondadari in the year 1721, on account of the magnificent fortifications which surround it, whereas the appellation “Bormla” or “Burmula” has given rise to various interpretations. It could have been derived from Bur Mula (the Lord’s well) or Bur Ramla (Sandy bay), both indicative of open land. Actually Bormla started out as a smallfishing village, its success story being the more impressive because of theAerial View of Cospicuase humble origins. The old community developed around the inner part of the Port of Galleys during the last decades of the sixteenth century. During the Great Siege of 1565, by which time the small fishing community had already been developed into a suburban village, the villagers saw their houses being torn down by the Knights of St. John, who had come to Malta in 1530, to deny cover to the Turkish invaders in their assault on neighbouring Birgu. Bormla thus served as a glacis - a passive, yet positive role in the important battle.

Visit of Mgr. Pietro Dusina              

Just ten years after the Great Siege, Mgr. Pietro Dusina was despatched by Rome as Apostolic Visitor to the Diocese of Malta. His report is indicative of the rapid growth Bormla had made in the brief period since 1565, in spite of its having been totally razed to the ground in the Siege. In his detailed assessment of the situation, Dusina reported that by then the population of Bormla had already reached the figure of 1,200. The church that existed at Bormla was dedicated to Our Lady of Help (Succour) and it possessed a main altar, besides some lateral altars, but it was bereft of a rector and obligations. It was run by three laymen. Mgr. Dusina also reported that in this church, the Holy Eucharist was kept and that Rev. Pietro Burlo` administered the sacraments on behalf of the parish priest of Birgu (Vittoriosa), to which parish Bormla was linked. The locals availed themselves of the opportunity to ask Mgr. Dusina to appoint for them a resident priest with the right to say Mass and administer the sacraments at Bormla. Dusina instantly adhered to their request by granting the relevant permission. By the year 1581, the devotion of the people of Bormla to the Virgin Mary had increased so much, that a Fraternity of the Immaculate Conception had already been established. On June 1, 1584, Bormla’s procurators petitioned Bishop Tommaso Gargallo to erect Bormla as an independent parish and bound themselves to provide in their locality an abode for a resident priest and pay him an annual emolument of twenty-five scudi. In the 1585 pastoral visit of Mgr. Ascanio Libertano, reference is made to Rev. Salvatore Burlo` as still vice-rector of the Bormla Church, but on 15 September 1586, Bormla’s inhabitants convened again to confirm their promise of 1584 by a notarial deed; after which the village was raised to the status of parish, with the appointment of Siggiewi-born Rev. Michele Cap as its first parish priest. The term of office of Rev. Cap was remarkably long.

After the Siege of 1565                     

The Turkish threat did not end in 1565. Recurring rumours of fresh attacks forced the Knights of St. John to spend much of their remaining two centuries in Malta to fortify and refortify every vulnerable spot in the island. After building the new capital city of Valletta and protecting it by massive walls, they turned their attention to Bormla, Birgu and Isla. Bormla, designed as a line of defence for the rest of the area, was at first protected by the Santa Margerita Lines begun in 1638, but a much stronger and longer line of defence was added later by Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner (1663 – 80), providing more space for a considerable number of refugees and their livestock from the countryside to take shelter in case of a new attack by the Turkish hordes. Hence the name Cottonera, with which the three cities are commonly known. Cottoner’s coat-of-arms, the cotton tree, is featured on Bormla’s heraldic device. The motto Ingens Amplectitur Agger (embraced by bastions), perfectly describes Bormla’s history. Instead of a prop for its two neighbours, Bormla has developed into the largest and principal city of the trio, extending farther than the historic statue of the prophet Elijah, which once marked the border with Birgu and which stands in front of the church of St. Theresa.

Defence of the City                           

The inner Santa Margerita Lines, so called after the little church of St. Margaret, and breached by a few entrances, such as St. Helen’s Gate, on which a suitable inscription commemorates the granting of the title of the City of Cospicua to Bormla, and Verdala Gate, opening on the quarters constructed by the British in 1853, still encircle Cospicua. The inner Santa Margerita Lines are also known as Firenzuola Lines after the Dominican friar Fra Vincenzo Marcolano Firenzuola who suggested and designed them under the direction of the Marquis of Sant’ Angelo, military engineer of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The grander Cottonera Lines, considered as an unaffordable and useless extravaganza by the tax-burdened Maltese, and consisting of two and a half miles of jutting bastions and abutting curtains, are today practically intact, except for the few alterations and perforations made in them to accommodate present-day traffic. Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner, their munificent sponsor, was determined to immortalise his name by inscribing it on their grandiose and exuberant gate opening on the village of nearby Zabbar. Funds did run short midway through their construction, in spite of Cottoner’s selling of a group of islands in the Caribbean to raise cash. But encouraged by Valperga, their chief engineer, the determined Grand Master did not lose heart, especially after he secured the approval of Pope Clement X. On top of the massive ramparts, some of which up to fifty layers in thickness, hundreds of guns were continually kept ready for action during the time of the Knights. The views of the open sea beyond the harbour are reminiscent of the guards who anxiously kept watch for the daunting enemy. If a path were to be established on the fortifications, one would start from Fort Salvatore, overlooking Kalkara Bay, move on to St. Louis Bastion, below which is the St. Lawrence Cemetery, move on to St. James Bastion, located above a 19th century hospital, now serving as St. Edward’s College. The impressive main gate, sometimes called Notre Dame or Zabbar Gate, follows. Grim Verdala Barracks are behind St. Clement Bastion, so called because it faces the tiny church of St. Clement in far away Zejtun. The remaining bastions are St. Nicholas, close to which the British built married quarters for their servicemen around the beginning of the twentieth century, St. John, not far from the historic church dedicated to St. John the Almoner, and St. Paul, likewise close to St. Paul’s church on the street leading to Cospicua from Senglea. The wide Polverista Gate, opened at the time of the building spree which followed the widespread destruction of the Second World War, leads to Fgura, while Għajn Dwieli Tunnel, the 60- metre shaft piercing the thick ramparts close to the Dockyard which necessitated its opening in the late nineteenth century, leads to Paola and beyond to the centre of the island.

The French Period                            

The Knights of St. John were expelled from Malta in June 1798 by the French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon himself left Malta after a few days to sail to Egypt with his main force and numerous ships, but left in the island a garrison of a few thousand soldiers. Unaware of the love of the Maltese for their churches, the French troops made the fatal mistake of burgling silverware from the churches, and in no time at all had to face a rebellious and enraged population, that forced them to seek protection behind the Valletta and Cottonera fortifications. Thus while the Maltese in the countryside sought the help of the British under Horatio Nelson, the French, blockaded from the side of the sea by the British fleet, held sway in Valletta and Cottonera. Before victory was achieved by the Maltese, the French, sensing the imminent danger of starvation, expelled from Cospicua a big number of inhabitants, who were forced to seek refuge in the villages of Zabbar and Zejtun.

Ship-building and repairing industry

Dockyard ViewAt the time of the Knights of St. John, Cospicua,  built on the shore of the Grand Harbour, where the Order preferred to establish its headquarters, had already become a centre of traders, sailors, artisans..... and corsairs! The marauding galleys of the Knights provided ample work for Bormla’s menfolk. The Maltese Islands had been renowned for port facilities and ship-building skills since the days of the Phoenicians who in fact gave them the means of Maleth (shelter) and Gwl (ship). No wonder therefore, that when the islands passed into the hands of the Knights in 1530, the ship-building industry acquired new proportions. The Order’s fleet was berthed in the creek then extending into Cospicua deeper than it does now.

Here the Knights built a small dockyard to repair the galleys, and when the British took over in the early nineteenth century, they expanded these docks to accommodate their navy. Beginning in the year 1843 and continuing throughout the second half of the century, the British Navy constructed a number of docks, providing employment for thousands of Maltese workers, thus increasing Cospicua’s population by leaps and bounds. The concentration of ships close to Cospicua however, drew the attention and ire of the Nazi enemy in the Second World War and Cospicua had to bear the brunt of the devastating attacks of the hostile Nazi Air Force, when most of the houses and palaces which graced this city before the war were razed to the ground. In 1959 the emphasis at the Dockyard switched to commercial business, but the skilled labour force of around 12,000 had to be reduced drastically. Nowadays, when it has dwindled down to around 3,000, the workers of Cospicua are seeking employment elsewhere, as in the booming tourist industry.

The last Government CensusTriq ta' ħdejn iż-Żiemel

For statistical purposes, the island of Malta has been divided into five regions, with Cospicua, built around the Dockyard Creek, included in the Inner Harbour Region, the region having the lowest percentage ration of 0-14 group. At 22.2 per cent, the 65+ age group stands at twice the national average of 11.5 per cent, a clear indication of the fast rate at which Cospicua and its neighbours around the Harbour are aging!


Triq Ħdejn TroisiIn 1931 there were 12,163 residents at Cospicua, but this number was drastically reduced with the onslaught of the Second World War (1940 – 45). At the end of the hostilities, several of the Cospicuans who had fled the city started slowly trickling back to their devastated homes, but their numbers never reached the pre-war figures, so that according to the 1948 census, not more than 4822 inhabitants lived at Cospicua. These increased to 9123 by the year 1967, after which the population started to dwindle again, when with the general increase of the standard of living in the island, new housing estates were constructed away from the cramped cities. By 1985 there lived at Cospicua 7731 residents, which number was again reduced by the year 1995 to 5961 – 2931 males and 3030 females – and it has continued to diminish since then. This is the reason why many Cospicua-born persons are now met with in the villages of Fgura, Zabbar, Zejtun, Paola and Marsascala.

A densely populated area

Yet, standing at 6,979 per square kilometre, Cospicua is still one of the most densely populated areas in the Maltese Islands, where the average is just 1,194. Of the 5,961 residents in Cospicua in 1995, 3,243 were under the age of 40, 2686 were married and 161 were separated; 3,899 lived in terraced houses,San Gwann t' Ghuxaground floor tenements or maisonettes; 3,371, 1,357 and 278 had a knowledge of the English, Italian and French languages, all foreign to them, respectively, but an alarming 1,076 were illiterate; of the 16+ olds, 365 had received no schooling at all, and 730 had not even completed primary level; 1,326 had completed secondary level and just 33 had completed post graduate level; 213 were unemployed and 2,091 were economically active, normally in the manufacturing industry, public administration, hotels and education. In the last decade the number of annual births has averaged around 80, the number of First Holy Communions around 65, and the number of Confirmations around 75. Since the number of births has approximately equalled the number of deaths, the decrease in the population should be attributed more to residents, especially newly-married couples, seeking settlement in other parts of Malta.

The War Memorial Monument

Occupying pride of place in the centre of the city of Cospicua, on the principal street just below and in front of the parish church, is the War Memorial, executed in 1994 by the Gozitan artist Michael Camilleri Cauchi and funded by William Galea at the time of Archpriest Can Victor Cilia, as part of the celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the national pilgrimage held at the end of the Second World War, when the devout statue of the Immaculate Conception was returned from Birkirkara to Cospicua. This monument aptly represents the beauty of resurrection and triumph, rather than the ugliness of death and destruction. Among all the havoc inflicted on Cospicua during the war, the parish church of the Immaculate Conception had remained unharmed and unscathed.

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