1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames

Early census taking and surname rankings


In c. 1240, a report by Frederick II’s agent Giliberto Abate put the number of families living in the Islands of Malta and Gozo at 1,119 (35). To date, this is the earliest known population count ever conducted in the Maltese islands. Available documents relating to Maltese medieval demographic history show that a ‘Census of Population and Production’ was conducted in 1481 (36). Its purpose was to record the local production and stocks of wheat, as well as to enumerate the consumers. At the time of its publication, it was quaintly described as a census of ‘mouths’ and ‘wheat’. The results of this census are not known, but three decades into the 17th century, specifically in 1632, a census recorded the number of people living in the Islands at 51,750. Table 1 depicts a series of population counts and estimates dating to the earliest records up to just before 1842.

Table 1. Population censuses and estimates prior to 1842






Census (families only)































 Source: Adapted from Census 1957

This table should be read with extreme caution. Contemporary research has demonstrated the need to be extremely wary of the use of information emanating from early population counts. Documentation on Maltese medieval history is scanty and often unreliable when dealing with demographic and social data. It would seem that, in so far as demographic data prior to the 19th century are concerned, the only two reliable sources are the Militia Lists and the Parochial Registers.

The native population of Late Medieval Malta is known to us, at least in its characteristic surnames, from the Militia List of 1419 and the Angara Roll of the 1480s. Well over three quarters of all family names recorded in these lists are demonstrably Sicilian, most of them still occurring in Sicily today. It may be supposed that the 103 with 5 or more occurrences are, as the most prolific in the 15th century, the oldest family names in Malta, and therefore likely to have been current in the island in the 13th century.

The Militia List of 1419-20, recorded in ‘Quaderni Diversi, No. 3’ of the Mdina Cathedral Museum, is truly a starting point for the study of Malta’s demographic make-up in the Late Middle Ages; however, it is also an indispensable source for the scrutiny of Maltese surnames at that stage in history (37).

A cursory review of the Militia List of 1419/1420 shows that then, at least according to the restricted data available, the commonest surnames in Malta were probably:

  • Vella (47)
  • Zammit (32)
  • Farrugia (30)
  • Schembri (29)
  • Micallef (27)
  • Borg (25)
  • Calleja (25)
  • Cassar (24)
  • Azzopardi (23)
  • Bartolo (23)
  • Asciak (21)
  • Mangion (21)
  • Bonnici (20)
  • Curmi (20)
  • Grech (19)
  • Pace (18)
  • Camilleri (17)
  • Falzon (16)
  • Bugeja (16)
  • Gauci (16)

Note: Figures in brackets show the number of able-bodied men (between 16 and 60 years) who were bound to render militia service.

Four out of five of today’s top ranking surnames (Borg, Vella, Farrugia, and Zammit) were already strongly established in the Late Middle Ages. The absence of Camilleri among the top ten is somewhat baffling. Otherwise, Calleja, Bartolo, and Asciaq have since dropped significantly down the scale; today, they do not even feature among the top twenty. Only Vella, Azzopardi, and Bartolo are unmistakably Italian. The rest are either of Semitic stock (Zammit, Farrugia, Micallef, Borg, Cassar, Asciaq), or of dubious origin (Schembri, Calleja).

Of the commonest thirty surnames the ratio of Arabic to non-Arabic forms is 14:16 (granted that Galea and Calleja are not Semitic surnames as suggested by Hull and some others). Of these only Micallef and Mifsud seem to be local formations. Since the other 28 family names (93.33%) have, or have had (like Asciak, 1095; Curmi, 1095; and Buhagiar, 1145) some known counterpart in Sicily, it might be argued that the bulk of Maltese Semitic appellatives are, if not actually of Sicilian provenance, then at least common to the two regions. Galata and Xara are today extinct in Malta (38).

The most significant fact to emerge from this examination is the equally Sicilian character of so many (in fact the majority) of those Maltese Semitic surnames that used to be considered indigenous. Indeed, since Sicily and Malta formed a single socio-cultural bloc during the Saracen period, there is simply no guarantee that the original bearers of such names as Borg, Zammit, and Farrugia were natives of pre-Norman Malta; on the contrary there is every likelihood that they were immigrants to the islands like the original Vella, Pace, and Grech (39). A further consideration in favour of the Sicilian provenance of many Maltese-Arabic surnames is the fact that the greater island not only shares most of the latter, but also preserves to this day a large store of Arabic anthroponyms apparently never established in Malta, e.g. Buscemi, Cangemi, Macaluso, Taibi, and Gueli. Most Maltese Semitic surnames may thus be derived from a vaster Sicilian Arabic pool (40).

After the Militia List of the 1480s, which adds only some dozen new Sicilian names, the next most comprehensive extant record of current Maltese surnames is the Status Animarum or diocesan census of 1687, now housed in the Curia Archives, Floriana. The census includes the names, surnames, and provenance of 45,288 people and covers all localities except for Naxxar, Gozo, and the Valletta Greek rite parish (41). Status Animarum includes all inhabitants subject to the Bishop, that is, excluding members of the Religious Orders and those under the jurisdiction of the Order of St John and of the Inquisition, which must have numbered a further 5,500 people.

As most of the period 1490–1687 covers the installation and consolidation of the magisterial régime, one may safely assume that the scores of new surnames most of which are typical of Vittoriosa (formerly Birgu), Senglea, Cospicua, and Valletta did not enter Malta before 1530. At least three-quarters of these new surnames are Italian, and in most cases identifiably eastern Sicilian, which would suggest the arrival of settlers from Syracuse, Catania, Messina, and their hinterlands. The Status Animarum of 1687 showed this ranking order (42):

  1. Borg – 1,629
  2. Farrugia – 1,139
  3. Camilleri – 1,083
  4. Grech –1,042
  5. Vella – 1,034
  6. Zammit – 1,017
  7. Agius – 858
  8. Caruana – 778
  9. Mifsud – 756
  10. Azzopardi – 724
  11. Muscat – 679
  12. Bonnici – 666
  13. Micallef – 653
  14. Galea – 642
  15. Schembri – 593
  16. Pace – 592
  17. Fenech – 581
  18. Cassar – 551
  19. Sammut – 551
  20. Debono – 505
  21. Attard – 505

Today’s frequency order looks as if it had already taken shape. Borg has already taken the lead; Camilleri has made a remarkable recovery; so have Galea, Grech, and Attard, all of which are of non-Arabic extraction. Actually, of today’s 20 highest ranking surnames, 18 are already conspicuous. Only Spiteri and Abela are absent from this 1687 record. The presence of Italian or Sicilian family names is more pronounced with the addition of Bonnici, Pace, and Debono.

When the troops of the first French Republic invaded Malta in 1798, the Maltese population was said to number over 100,000. Depredations during the French siege of Valletta brought it down to 93,054 (Census in 1807). The information for this Census, which showed that 31% of the population was concentrated in the environs of Valletta and Floriana, was abstracted from parochial registers. According to a detailed report on the 1813 plague by Dr W.H. Burrell, Principal Medical Officer of the Army in Malta, the total population was estimated at 111,000.

On March 21, 1842 the first modern census in a series of decennial censuses of which the recent 2005 Census was the 16th in line was carried out. This series was interrupted during the Second World War as well as in 1977 when, according to the criterion of the ten-year interval, a census should have been taken, but was not.

Table 2: Censuses 1842–1995

Census date


Percentage intercensal


21 March 1842

114, 499


31 March 1851

123, 496


31 October 1861

134, 055


3 May 1871

141, 775


3 April 1881

149, 782


5 April 1891

165, 037


31 March 1901

184, 742


2 April 1911

211, 564


24 April 1921

212, 258


26 April 1931

241, 621


14 June 1948

305, 991


30 November 1957

319, 620


26 November 1967

314, 216

- 1.69

16 November 1985

345, 418


26 November 1995

378, 132


Notes :
  1. Cf. A. Luttrell, ‘Giliberto Abbate’s Report on Malta: circa 1241’, in Proceedings of History Week, Malta, 1993, pp. 1-29.
  2. Cf. S. Fiorini, ‘Li Buky di Lu Rabatu: The Population of Rabat c. 1480’, in T. Cortis, T. Freller, and L. Bugeja (eds), Melitensium Amor, Malta, 2002, pp. 73–96.
  3. The full name of the document reads: ‘Quaternu factu et ordinatu per li nobili capitaneo et Jurati et or di lu) consiglu per la guardia de la hisula de Mauta anni XIII Indicionus’.
  4. source
  5. Hull, p. 319.
  6. Hull, p. 320.
  7. A Gozo census list nearest in time to 1687 is the one labelled ‘Matrice 1678’ (also housed in the Curia Archives) which includes 3,045 people. For Naxxar, Status Animarum 1688 is still preserved at Naxxar Parish Archives.
  8. The Status Animarum of 1687 does not cover the whole of Malta; besides, the available numbers are subject to a slight margin of error.

Published with permission from Mario CASSAR

  1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames