The shipwreck of St. Paul, off the north-east coast of Malta in 60 A.D., is considered the most important single event in the country’s history. The Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta, built in the 1570s, is one of the most beautiful buildings on the island. Its wooden statue of the saint is paraded through the town each year on a public holiday known as the Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck. It is no surprise that the shipwreck of St. Paul has been celebrated on several postage stamps.
Paul was being transported to Rome, for trial at the Imperial Court, when the ship in which he was traveling was beached by the captain to avoid total loss during a fierce storm, in an area known today as St Paul’s Bay. The Biblical account, in Acts 27-28, relates that when the mariners reached the shore, wet and cold, islanders rushed to help them, gathering wood to build a fire. When a poisonous snake slithered out from the firewood, Paul picked it up and was bitten. The villagers expected the bite to kill him, and when he showed no ill-effects they hailed him as a God.
The church in Valletta contains many paintings telling the story of St Paul’s life. One of these paintings, produced by Attilio Palombi, was chosen for the design of the 10-shilling value in Malta’s first pictorial set, issued in 1899. The painting shows Paul on the shore, with the wreck in the background, and other survivors swimming towards land. The frame of the stamp had the words ‘Malta’ and ‘Postage’ at the top, a value tablet at the bottom, and an ornamental scroll design on each side. It was printed by De La Rue on Crown CC watermarked paper, in blue-black ink.
Two decades later, in 1919, the authorities produced a redesigned version of the 10-shilling stamp. Palombi’s painting remained its central motif, but the top banner now said ‘Malta’ only, while the left border now read ‘Postage’ and the right one ‘Revenue’. The new stamp was printed in black by De La Rue, this time with a Multiple Crown CA watermark.
It had been intended that the release of the new 10s should be delayed until supplies of the existing one were exhausted. However, an oversight in the Valletta post office resulted in it being put on public sale immediately. To compound this mistake, it was discovered that only 1,530 of the new design had been printed…so they were sold out within a few days! Although the postmaster confirmed that the stamps had been issued prematurely, no proper explanation was ever given as to why the quantity printed was so limited.
A subsequent 1922 printing exists with the same design on paper with a Multiple Script CA watermark. Like the first issue of 1899, it is a thing of beauty, but neither can compete with the rare 1919 issue in terms of rarity.