A century and a half ago, on the longest of his life’s many travels which took him not only to Italy but also to Greece and Turkey, Hans Christian Andersen made his first and only visit to the island of Malta.
Undeservedly, this brief episode has received little attention. Anker Jensen, it is true, in his linguistic study of Andersen’s writings, gives to En Digters Bazar the first place among the travel books, calling the “Malta” chapter “the centre and turning-point of the whole journey”.
When, on 15 March 1841, Andersen embarked in Naples bound for the East, he was taking a bold step. Ever since he left Denmark in October 1840 he had been in familiar surroundings and in the company of Danish friends. Now he was suddenly all by himself amongst strangers on his way to a strange island. As it happened, his first view of Malta was by night, with the narrow sickle of the moon prominent in the dark sky. This he may have seen as a symbol that he was leaving the West behind him and that he was about to enter those Eastern lands which he had been dreaming about already as a child, inspired by his father’s reading aloud from the Arabian Nights. In his Bazaar he mentions not only his impression of the Maltese moon, but also how, on his return journey two months later, the first crucifix by the roadside reminds him that he is back in the West.
Although in former days, when travelling had been difficult and even dangerous, Malta was not often visited by people from Denmark, Andersen was not the first among Danish artists or men of letters to see the island. There is contemporary evidence about such visits centuries before him, for example by Hans Poulsen Resen (1590) and Thomas Bartholin (1644). Two of the young Andersen’s patrons had been in Malta: the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen who had visited the island under rather dramatic circumstances (1796-97), and the classical archaeologist Peter Oluf Brøndsted (1820).
By the 1840s the island was beginning to attract tourists in larger numbers – a result both of Malta’s new status as a British colony and of the new steamships. Visitors in earlier centuries had often found hospitality with the Knights of the
Order of St.John, but this had now changed. As we shall see, the services required by tourists – today developed into an industry – were already beginning to come into being.
Ever since his return from France and Italy in 1834, Andersen had been looking forward to going once more to the South of Europe, if possible even to Greece and the Near East. Although he was now quite successful with his writings (his Improvisatore and the first of his Tales), these did not at once bring him the proceeds sufficient for making another long journey. Only in 1840, when his drama Mulatten gave him an unexpected income, he could set out for the South. However, his funds were not large enough for the realization of the whole journey which he was contemplating, so when he left Copenhagen on 31 October 1840, it was without knowing how far he would be able to go. In his absence, Sir Jonas Collin was active on his behalf, and he succeeded in getting a supplementary royal grant for his protégé, but only in the last moment. During his stay in Rome (December 1840 to February 1841) and in Naples (from 28 February) Andersen was now despairing, now hopeful, about his prospects of seeing Greece. Only on the 1 March – a fortnight before the arrival in Malta – did Andersen receive the longed-for news that the King had granted him the necessary funds.
Andersen at once booked his passage to Athens. He was told that there would be a stopover in Malta; first he thought that he would have to change ship here, but it turned out that he could go on the French steamer Leonidas which on its scheduled trips from Marseilles to Constantinople called at Naples, Malta, and the Greek island Syra (Syros). Another steamer would then take him from Syra to Athens.
The Malta visit was thus the result of necessity rather than of the poet’s express wish to include the island in his itinerary. He would normally prepare himself carefully for what he was going to see, but in this case he arrived unprepared, and no evidence has been found of his being aware that Thorvaldsen and Brøndsted had already been to Malta. However, with his genius for travelling, he at once realized the importance of the opportunity which had offered itself, and, in fact, he got all he could out of the twenty-four-hour visit.
Andersen consistently calls the Léonidas a “warship”, apparently without finding it strange that anybody could book a passage on such a vessel. Most likely the Léonidas was a passenger ship, but owned by the French navy and with naval officers in command.
Anker Jensen observes that, while the steam-railway had inspired Andersen to an enthusiastic, poetic account, the same was never the case with the steamship. The replacement of the stage-coach by the railway was indeed an undreamt-of improvement, both in speed and in comfort. The early steamships, however, were not so very different from their predecessors. Many shortcomings were attached to the paddle-wheel, and under favourable winds the ship could make more speed by its sails than by the engine.
This was Andersen’s first sea cruise outside Nordic waters, and it is obvious that he was impressed by the elegance of the French ship. It did not, however, impress everybody: some American passengers compared the Leonidas rather unfavourably with what they were used to when crossing the Atlantic. Our poet made acquaintance with a young American, entering his name in his diary as Anson G. Phelps from New York. In the list of passengers (see Note 18), however, we find the name “Anson G. Philips, American”. No doubt the same person is referred to; one would expect the official list to be the more reliable, also because Andersen has so often been taken to task for his inaccurate spelling of names. But “Phelps” is the more unusual form, and it is hard to imagine how Andersen should have hit upon writing so if the correct form had been “Philips”;
it is much more likely that a clerk carelessly made the opposite change. The American passenger was in fact Anson G. Phelps Jr. (1818-58), the son of a well-known New York businessman and philanthropist of the same name. Young as he was, he was already visiting Europe for the second time. Regrettably Andersen tells us no more about this acquaintance. In spite of their very different backgrounds they may have enjoyed each other’s company, but Phelps probably never realized that he had met a great writer. When, after the stop in Malta, Andersen disembarked in Syra, Phelps proceeded to Constantinople. Later when, after the visit to Greece, the poet himself arrived in Turkey, they seem to have met again accidentally, but they did not renew the acquaintance.
In Andersen’s 1855 autobiography the Oriental journey is treated relatively briefly; with reason he expects the reader to have access to the Bazaar. The passage via Malta to Syra is given only a few lines. Apart from the social life on board only one impression is recorded: the brightness of the stars, especially of the planet Venus which is described as comparable to that of the moon in the North so that its light makes objects cast a shadow. True, in Europe Venus is more conspicuous in the South, one reason being the shorter duration of the twilight, and in those days no electric light had yet made observation of the night sky difficult for ordinary people. But Andersen, as so often, also had good luck. Around the middle of May 1841 Venus was in so-called inferior conjunction with the sun and therefore for most of the month practically invisible. Previous to that, it had for several months been in a position east of the sun and thus visible as evening star. In late March to early April it would have reached its highest luminosity; it is therefore not surprising that Andersen was deeply impressed. He mentions seeing Venus in the west after sunset on the day when he had left Malta for Greece, and again in Smyrna when it was standing in the sky together with the sickle of the moon. However, his enthusiasm carries him beyond the astronomically possible when in the Bazaar he lets Venus accompany the waning moon in the early morning on his arrival to Malta: Surely Venus could not have been morning star one day and evening star the next.
Another bit of good luck for our traveller was that, having entered Malta’s Grand Harbour by night, he found himself suddenly surrounded by a truly unique scenery. His description in the Bazaar needs no comment except, perhaps, that although the Grand Harbour has preserved its general appearance from prehistoric times to the present, one feature has disappeared since the 1840s: the great silence at night.
The authorities kept a careful record of all arriving and departing ships, with lists of their crews and passengers. The register is preserved in the Maltese archives and it confirms that the Léonidas, belonging to the French Government, arrived on 17 March 1841. We find the name of the Master, Lieutenant Lorin, and, among the passengers: “Sig.r Christoforoff, Russian Officer; Mr. Anson G. Philips Junior, American; Mrs. Emilia Dupuis, & 3 Children, English” [all mentioned also in Andersen’s diary]; as well as “Sig.r Jean Chretien Andersen, Dane”. The unexpected form of the poet’s baptismal names is explained from the spelling in his passport.
A passenger list was published in the Lloyd Maltese for 18 March 1841, and we find under the heading “Passeggieri Arrivati … Col Vapore del Gov. Fran. Leonidas da Marsiglia, ed Italia” amongst others “Sigg. … Philips, … Christoforoff, Padre Anderson[!], Signora Dupuis e tre figli It is obvious that our poet must have been taken for a clergyman. This is no isolated case: more than once he mentions in his diaries from Italy that he became embarrassed when, walking by himself, he was greeted by local people with exaggerated gestures of reverence, such as was customary when meeting a priest. Something in his appearance must have been found appropriate for an ecclesiastic. He would often dress in black, or at least avoid flamboyant colours; he was often alone, and, perhaps most importantly, he would behave in a modest and unassuming manner uncharacteristic of tourists in those days.
Andersen relates how, together with his Russian cabin-mate Christoforoff, he came ashore at the Valletta side of the harbour. They must then have entered the city by what was still called the Nix Mangiare Stairs, and by which one may even today climb from the harbour to the much higher level of the Valletta streets. Most likely the visitors were unaware of the curious name of the stairs and of its origin, but Andersen, the keen observer, later in the day noted in his diary that they were approached by begging children who kept saying “nix”. At least from early in the nineteenth century it had been customary for children to address foreigners with the words “nix mangiare”, and since most visitors used these stairs on the way from their ship, begging would concentrate there. With its characteristic mixture of languages, this expression had become attached to the stairs as a name.
Our two travellers, guided by a Maltese porter, first went to the Hotel Méditerranée. Since they would return to the ship in the evening, they had no need for rooms, and their purpose was more likely to get help for hiring a driver to take them around the island in his calesse. The hotel has long ago disappeared, but a contemporary advertisement gives the address as 91 St. Lucia Street. In his careful notes to the 1955 English translation of the chapter “Malta” from the Bazaar, John D. Evans tentatively identified the hotel with the present No. 91 at the corner with Marsamxett Street, implying a situation with a wide view over the Marsamxett Harbour. Evans even reproduced a modern photograph of No. 91. A closer investigation, however, gives a different result. In fact, St. Lucia Street was re-numbered in 1893, and the old No. 91 then became No. 134. This house, which was destroyed in the Second World War, and whose site is now occupied by the Ambassador Cinema, is indeed a more likely location, only a few steps from Valletta’s main thoroughfare, Strada Reale (now Triq ir-Repubblika). Here it was, then, that Christoforoff argued with the “Moorish” porter over his payment while Andersen was doing what he could to settle the matter amiably and generously.
Having asked the hotel to procure the calesse, the travellers, wishing to get the most out of their short time, at once went on foot to see the main sights of Valletta, the Palace and St.John’s Co-Cathedral. Returning to the hotel they would need some refreshment, and probably they were also provided with a lunch-basket. Thus equipped, they set out in the one-horse two-wheeled calesse, the driver running beside his horse, leaving Valletta by the City Gate.
Andersen was fluent only in Danish and German, his command of French and Italian being sadly limited and his English non-existent. With his Russian companion he must have spoken German (and this may well have been his motive for going around with him rather than with Phelps and his set). The Maltese driver is unlikely to have known any German, and misunderstandings may easily have arisen. That his own writings would one day be translated into Maltese can hardly have occurred to the poet at the time.
Andersen has vividly described what seemed to him an almost “African’’ landscape (although it was only mid-March). They seem to have gone directly to Città Vecchia (Mdina), which Andersen correctly calls the Bishop’s residence and the former capital. It is not surprising that the poet, seeing Malta for the first time, was struck by its arid nature and its Arabic language, rather than reflecting on points which could have invited comparisons with his homely Sjælland. Had he done so, he might have compared his ride from the gate of Valletta, the present capital, through the open country to the former capital, now a quiet town of minor importance, to many a ride which he had made from Copenhagen to Roskilde, in ancient times an important city and a royal residence. Then he would not have missed the fact that the Mdina church, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, is the cathedral of Malta – exactly as the venerable church at Roskilde was the cathedral of the diocese of Sjælland.
Having just been to Rome, Andersen was rather less impressed by the St. Paul church and catacombs (in Rabat). He was more interested in what was new to him, the folkloristic aspects, such as the veiled peasant women. It seems, however, that when writing his Bazaar nearly six months later, he had some difficulty in keeping his reminiscences from the various countries apart. True, Maltese women would in those days carry a veil, the faldetta, but it did not conceal their face, let alone their eyes; when relating that the women’s eyes were gleaming behind their veils, Andersen probably had memories from Moslem lands in mind.
Not only the women were objects of his attention. He mentions the foreign (most likely British) sailors who bore the name of their ship on their hats in golden letters. For today’s reader this is not remarkable. But the Danish navy introduced hat ribbons with ship’s name only in the 1840s, so the observation was new both for the poet and for his Danish readers.
On the way back to Valletta, Andersen was especially fascinated by a villa with a splendid garden – in fact the San Anton Palace, now the residence of the President of the Republic. He might have been still more interested had he known that the same garden had been visited two hundred years before, in May 1644, by his admired compatriot Bartholin. Now, in 1841, the resident was Emir Bechir, the Prince of Lebanon, who had taken refuge in Malta less than six months before together with his suite of more than a hundred persons and a family of fifteen. The reliability of Andersen’s report that he saw “a magnificent Giraffe” in the garden has been disputed. No new evidence of its presence has been found, and it must in any case be admitted that it could not possibly have contributed to the Asiatic atmosphere.
The last sights mentioned from the return ride are the Quarantine and the Protestant cemetery (the Msida Bastion Cemetery at Beltissebh). Andersen’s observations are valuable, being among the earliest literary references to this resting-place for several well-known British subjects, and also because only remnants of the cemetery can be seen today.
Andersen and Christoforoff could indeed return to their ship with the feeling of having spent their day efficiently The Russian went ashore once more in the evening, while Andersen, mindful that he was not travelling just for pleasure, remained on board, busying himself with writing diary and letters.
Next morning there was no time for going ashore since the Leonidas departed at 8.30 a.m. Andersen could do no more than take another look at the Grand Harbour and observe the boarding passengers. When his habitual fear that his passport had been lost or left behind had eventually been relieved, he was able to enjoy the cruise to the Greek archipelago. His acute power of observation manifested itself once more when he, as he claims alone of those on board, was able to see at the same time the summit of Mount Etna in Sicily and the mountain tops in the Peloponnese.
The many vivid impressions of Greece and of the East did not, however, make Andersen forget Malta. From Athens he reports a curious story, alleged to have happened a few years earlier, about an executioner from Malta who was summoned to Greece because no Greek was willing to decapitate a convicted criminal. This story, which Andersen included in the Bazaar without guaranteeing its veracity, has by critics been considered to be probably apocryphal. No new supporting evidence has come to light; on the contrary, since decapitation was not practised in Malta in the colonial period, it seems very unlikely that a professional executioner from Malta could have been involved.
Back in Denmark, Andersen first went to visit friends in the country, and only on 22 July 1841 was he in Copenhagen. On 6 August he notes in his almanac: “Written about my journey”, and on 18 August: “Started my Greek novella!”, referring to Venskabs-Pagten [The Pact of Friendship]. As always, Andersen was careful to find use for morsels of material from his rich store of remembrances. Most of the material he took from his visit to Greece, but at one point we are told that one of the two Greek friends, the sailor Aphtanides, returning home from the sea, “had much to tell about the ocean, about Malta’s fortifications and Egypt’s strange monuments”. The novella became chapter XV in Part Three of the Bazaar, but twenty years later Andersen also included it among his Tales. Here, then, is the one and only reference to Malta in the canon.
The almanac entry for 1 September 1841 reads: “Written about Malta”. To tackle the question of what additional sources Andersen may have used besides his personal impressions, we must survey briefly the editions of En Digters Bazar. For along time the re-issue, vol. VII of the collected edition, 1876-80, was, along with the first edition (1842), the one mostly used. The first annotated edition, only of selected chapters but including “Malta”, was edited by Marie Smith in 1912. The next Bazar edition seems to be the one published in 1943 with an important Afterword by Helge Topsøe-Jensen. The edition published in 1944 by Knud Bøgh with valuable notes (R & R, 6.) is based on the 1943 text, only slightly revised. A later edition, of 1966-67, has apparently little merit from the textual point of view.
The absence of a critical edition makes it difficult to determine what additional sources Andersen used. That he would carry some kind of a Baedeker with him when sightseeing, or have one at his desk when writing his travel books, has been suggested by various scholars, but no particular guide-book seems to have been identified as a source. Dr and Mrs Dal stress the importance of Baedekers, and in 1988 Knud Bøgh in an interesting paper drew attention to the use which writers have made of the rich holdings of this kind of books in the Royal Library, Copenhagen.
The most obvious criterion for Andersen’s use of such sources would be peculiarities in his spelling of names. In the chapter “Malta”, for instance, he observes that the hotel with its comfort “might have been brought from the royal capital of Queen Vittoria”. This looks like a spelling taken from a book or paper in Italian, but surprisingly the Queen’s name is spelled so already in Part One, chapter IV (about Hamburg). Such consistencies are more likely to derive from the publisher’s editor or proof-reader than from the author. An examination of Andersen’s spelling of names must therefore either be based on the original manuscript or await the publication of a critical edition of En Digters Bazar. After the meritorious publication of the poet’s diaries and almanacs and the long-awaited completion of the Eventyr edition with critical notes and commentary, such an edition deserves a place high on the list of desiderata in Andersen scholarship.
Andersen never returned to Malta after 1841. His trips in 1843,1844, and 1845 took him only to Germany and France, and he had to wait until 1846 for his next journey to Italy. There came, however, occasions when he was reminded of Malta.
Thorvaldsen, after his return to Denmark in 1838, died in Copenhagen in March 1844, and Andersen wrote a biographical essay about his admired patron and dear friend. Since this essay has never been reprinted except in abbreviated form, the paragraph about the young sculptor’s visit to Malta is translated below. Very likely the words are based directly on Thorvaldsen’s recollections as he told them to Andersen shortly before his death. Having described Thorvaldsen’s departure from Denmark in 1796 on the frigate Thetis, Andersen continues:
A whole year passes; we are in the last days of February, at the molo of Naples, the packet-boat from Palermo arrives, Turks, Greeks, Maltese, people of all nations come ashore; amongst them is a pale sickly Northerner, he gives the porter a hand with his luggage; he shakes his head at his chattering – he doesn’t understand the language. What is the good of the sun shining so brightly and warmly outside; there is no sunshine in his heart, it is gripped by homesickness. So it was when Bertel Thorvaldsen now at last set his foot on the Italian mainland after having been cast about like Ulysses. The Danish frigate Thetis first had to make a cruise in the North Sea, defending the coast of Norway against English privateers; not until September did the ship pass through the Channel and came in October to Algiers. Here the plague had broken out; then followed a long quarantine in Malta, then they went to Tripolis in order to bring about a reconciliation after the hostility against Danish ships. There, the Commander being ashore during a storm, the ship, having had to cut its anchor lines, drifted about at sea; then it had to undergo another quarantine in Malta, after which it was found to need keel-hauling. For this reason Thorvaldsen took leave of his countrymen, going from Malta to Palermo in an open boat, and it was from there that the packet took him to Naples.
Also from 1845 we find a reference to Malta among Andersen’s notes. At the end of his almanac for that year he copied a list of the ambassadors and consuls who represented Denmark in several countries, and among them “Malta: J Pulis”. Apparently he was hoping to see Malta once more. In the 1847 almanac there is a similar list, but much shorter, and Malta has been omitted.
In Denmark, out of the many excellent illustrations for Andersen’s Tales, none are felt to belong more intimately to the poet’s words than those by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-59) – continued, after his early death, by Lorenz Frølich. By a curious coincidence also Vilhelm Pedersen visited Malta, only one year after Andersen. Pedersen was a Danish naval officer, and it was as a sub-lieutenant on the frigate Thetis that he came to Malta in 1842. In the biography of the commander, Captain C. C. Zahrtmann, we can follow the half-year-long Mediterranean cruise. It appears that Zahrtmann took a certain pride in having two artists on board, and no doubt Pedersen was allowed leisure for exercising his art. A sketchbook of Pedersen’s from the 1842 Mediterranean journey is mentioned by the art historian Niels Th. Mortensen, but unfortunately our attempts to trace this book have been unsuccessful.