The Maltese windmill (‘Mitħna tar-riħ’) is a scenic element of the architectural heritage of the islands, adding a definite rural and historical touch to the local landscape. Maltese stone windmills are beautiful structures.
These were introduced even before the arrival of the Knights of the Order of Saint John in Malta in 1530, as the Knights themselves record finding at least two stone windmills already built when they arrived to the islands. Windmills were used in every town and village to mill grain using the energy of the wind, which converted this power by means of the rotary motion of sails called vanes or blades. Since wheat is a very important factor in a human being’s diet, as well as being one of the first earliest products to be cultivated and used by man, the milling of grain was a prestigious and important business, and in fact bread has always been a staple of the Maltese diet.
It is not popular knowledge, but Malta is known to have the highest density of windmills in the world. It is approximated that there was in reality, a windmill for every 9 kilometers. There were in fact, no less than 69 documented stone windmills in Malta and Gozo. At one point there were possibly double that, however many were demolished and are not accounted for. Unfortunately, only 3 of the Maltese windmills still in place still retain their sails, and only two of these are still in working order. These are the Ta’ Kola Windmill in Xagħra, Gozo and Xarolla Windmill in Żurrieq.
It is interesting to note that every windmill was in sight of its neighbouring windmills so that the miller could see whether the others were working or not. This situation might have made windmills a part of a communication and defence system.
All windmills found in Malta and Gozo are tower mills, normally mounted on a square or rectangular base, though round and other shapes do exist. Rooms were usually built around the tower (tromba), giving both support to it, as well as being used for general storage. A windmill could simultaneously be the miller’s family’s residence.
Generally, Maltese windmills tended to be built outside of main built areas, and on high ground to make use of the wind. Each windmill used to have six arms called ‘artinni’, and each arm had two sails, one large and one small. The milling mechanism consisted of two big hard stones, the lower one fixed, while the top stone could move in a circular motion thus crushing the grain placed between the stones. Apart from traditional windmills, there were also smaller mills, which were driven using horses or donkeys. These were called ‘ċentimoli’. There were also small water mills called ‘milendini’.
Although it is true that some of these stone windmills existed prior to the arrived of the Order of Saint John, it is also a known fact that most of the ones found today were built by this same Order, which made it a point to exert a monopoly on their construction and ownership. Windmills formed an integral part of Malta’s history. Those in the countryside were used exclusively for food production, such as wheat, barley or vines, while some of those within the fortified walled cities in Valletta and the three cities could have had a military use, for the production of gunpowder.
After 1838, the government’s monopoly on windmills was lifted, and anyone was allowed to build or own one. By 1900 however, most of the mills were already unused relics, as a consequence of the introduction of steam driven mills, which developed progressively mostly around Grand Harbour area.
Windmills are an integral part of the Maltese heritage and traditional way of life. They are architectural gems which should be protected and acknowledged.