The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

Godfrey Wettinger – a memory

Simon Mercieca Friday, 29 May 2015, 14:29 Last update: about 5 years ago

On Wednesday, 27th May, the University of Malta paid its last respects to GodfreyWettinger, in what was termed as a public farewell ceremony that took place on the University Campus.

I got to know Professor Godfrey Wettinger when I joined the University of Malta as an undergraduate student way back in October 1987. On winning the elections in May 1987, the Nationalist Party set out to implement their electoral pledge; re-establishing the Faculty of Arts and Science, together with the Faculty of Theology that were disbanded in 1979. Then,Dom Mintoff,at the time Prime Minister considered them as useless centres of learning. Godfrey Wettinger was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1979 and as a result was practically transferred to the National Public Library in Valletta, which was considered a place of political exile.

Despite his socialist leanings, he had the courage to go on state television and state that with Mintoff’s reforms, the University “kienet spiccat” or “was finished”. It fell to the shoulders of another history professor, the Dominican Andrew Vella to declare his opposition to these reforms, and in a very polite way told Mintoff, whom he admired, that these reforms were a no go. Vellaended up being giventhe cold shoulder byMintoffand I am sure that this was the cause of this eminent history professor’s ill health from which he never recovered.  .

Once, the university was re-established Godfrey Wettinger was automatically reappointed Dean in 1987 and, if I am not mistaken, he served for another two years.

I had the honour of having Professor Wettinger lecturing me history for the next four years. In those days, the B.A. course wasa three-year course leading to a B.A. (Gen) degree.Students studied History of Mediterranean Civilisation, together with two other subjects. After the third year, students could opt for an honours degree course. I continued my studies inhistory.

After graduating in history and before going to continue my studies abroad, Godfrey took me and another history graduate, Charles Dalli, for lunch in very good and expensive restaurant in Sliema. I still cherish the memory of that occasion.

I can still remember a number of personal anecdotesrecounted by Godfreyin particular his days, as a young studentat the Lyceum. He was traumatized by what he and his family went through, after losingthe father of cancer at a very young age. His father was concurrently Headmaster of two government schools, Mellieha and Gharghur. The consultant who diagnosed the malady was Pietro Paolo Debono. Either Professor Pietro Paolo Debonowas not aware that the patient he was examining knew Italian or he was careless while explaining to his medical students the man’s condition. Debonoexplained in Italian what was going to happen to this terminally ill patient, including that he had only a few months to live and going into the details of his agonizing end. The poor father went home distraught andGodfrey never forgot the scene when his father broke the news at home but, in fairness,added that all that Pietro Paolo Debono had said, including when he would have died turned out to be correct.

Godfrey admitted that after this family tragedy, he was saved by books. There was one in particular book, the EncyclopaediaBritannica, which became his companion of knowledge during his teenage years. It seems to have belonged to his father and he proudly referred to it, as the real British encyclopaediathat is, the one issued in Britain before it was sold off to the Americans after the First World War.

The death of the father put him and his family in dire straits. Even after becoming a professor, he still kept the wooden milk boxes that as a youngsterhe used as shelving for books, because the family could not afford to buy proper shelving. He had proudly showed them to me, when I visited him both at his home in Mellieha and the more recent one at St. Julian’s.

He entered the Lyceum during the terrible days of the war. His friends then were KarmenuBonavia, (who is still alive) and AmatoreGambin, wholater became a priest and met a tragic end after finding a hand grenade during the construction of the Santa Lucija Church. I am told that they were nicknamed by fellow Lyceum students as“The Three Musketeers”.

I still remember when a student in class asked Godfrey whether Louis Wettinger, after whom, Lorry Santhad named the Mellieha by-pass, was a relative of his. Wettinger became very stiff and serious and replied with aleaden voice, “Yes, he is my brother”.

He was proud of his ancestor, Professor Giuseppe Wettinger, who taught Physics and Mathematics at our Alma Mater in the 1850s. Professor Giuseppe Wettinger was interested in hydrogen andwanted to conduct experimentson balloons. However, according to Godfrey, Giuseppe Wettingerwas discouraged by the bishop of the time, from carrying out his experiments.

Godfrey Wettinger will be remembered for three main areas of studies. First, together, with the Dominican Friar MikielFsadni, he discovered the oldest known Maltese poem. It was to MikielFsadni who introduced Godfrey to the notarial archives and this must have ignitedinterest in Wettinger for the study of Malta’s Medieval past. Until then, Wettinger waschannelling his energy to become an Early Modernist.

Then, there is his massive works on slavery in Malta, the Jews in the Middle Ages and a history of Malta’s late medieval pasttogether with the colossal publication of the minutes of the town council or as it is known with historians, Univ 11.

Third, for his work on Arab or Muslim Malta.Wettinger used to tell us that he was not the first to come up with the idea that Malta was Muslim during Arab times.  First there was a German secondary school teacher, Albert Mayr. It was a time when Germany was showing interest in the Mediterranean and we come across a number of German scholars studying the Arabic element of Maltese, in particular Bertha Ilg and Hans Stumme. Closer to our times, this idea was revived by Anthony Luttrell. Unfortunately, Luttrell could not continue with his research because of internal spokes in the wheels from a local dilettante,who in the seventies had clout with Mintoff. As always happens in Malta, these types of individuals have it good in both worlds. In 1987, this individual also succeeded in finding trust with the new administration.

I will not go into the issue of whether Malta was Christian or not during Arab times. I have to admit that this debate has now moved out of the remit of history and has become part of a cultural war. As rightly stated by Wettinger, history relies on facts but we forget thatmemory and tradition depend on authenticity. The heritage of Wettinger will continue since the debate about Arab or Muslim Malta is not over and we are destined to continue to hear more about it in the future.

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