The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Shipwrecked on our own islands – Part 1

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 7 April 2019, 10:25 Last update: about 5 months ago

Last Sunday was Freedom Day. I avoided writing about the commemoration itself because I think it is futile. Forty years have passed since Malta gained sovereignty over her entire territory, and the world today is not the world as it was then. The event now belongs to historians, each of whom will treat the past in his or her own way in order to justify their vision of the present.

But our relationship with past events is something that belongs to us all. We look back at our collective past and assign to each event a place in our collective memory. In the past, the dominant theory was that a nation was created by common blood, the soil on which one is born and the length of time successive generations have spent living together. Nowadays, I think it is the collective memory of past events that makes a nation.

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Now consider the rock opera Ġensna, written by Ray Mahoney and Paul Abela to celebrate the attainment of Freedom on 31 March 1979. It is a secular nationalist rock opera, unlike other nationalist rock operas, which invoke a religious theme, such as the Hungarian István, a király (‘Stephen, the King’) which mixes patriotism with religion.

The billboards put up to promote this year’s performance of Ġensna, a celebration of Maltese nationalism, were in English, the language of the Empire from which we – a conquered, not a settled, colony – gained our freedom...

Consider also that during the closing ultra-nationalist ballad Tema ’79, a video of the Maltese flag billowing in the breeze played on the big screens behind singers and orchestra, while the lyrics waxed lyrical about “il-ħamra u l-bajda nbusha” and just a few songs earlier, somebody had been lamenting that “mitna ta’ xejn, mitna għall-barrani”.

(The ‘il-ħamra u l-bajda nbusha’ verse always makes the crowd explode into sincere applause, and many discover warm tears rolling down their cheeks. It reminds me of that anecdote, so beautifully rendered by Sir Arturo Mercieca in his autobiography, when one of those shot by British soldiers in 1919 is carried into the premises of the Giovine Malta and somebody dips his white handkerchief in the victim’s wound and raises it for all to see: red and white, like our flag, like our blood. You catch the Romantic drift.)

This was the ultra-nationalist Ġensna and... out of the entire billowing flag, the George Cross was given unbelievable prominence in that video!

These two instances (the billboards and the billowing flag on the big screens), ironically related to a pop-culture reflection of anti-Imperialist sentiment, are symptomatic of the cultural displacement that has been going on over long decades, leaving us culturally shipwrecked on the shores of our own islands.

 

Charles Xuereb’s problem

Elsewhere on the media, Charles Xuereb became involved in a discussion on whether the George Cross should be removed from our flag.

I will say it loud and clear from the outset that I have mixed feelings on this subject. On the one hand, I can and do understand that it is a reminder of our part – big or small, I really can’t fathom – in the defeat of the Nazi-Fascist regimes, the regimes that promoted eugenics and racial hatred and extermination. But on the other hand, the Cross was given to us by an Empire that also believed in eugenics and white racial superiority.

To my mind, the most intelligent observation on our role in the Second World War came from the acute mind of the late Guido de Marco: we fought with the bad against the worse.

So, to cut a long story short, I am not a great fan of the George Cross on our flag, yet I do not feel it should be removed. Not yet, at least.

 

Eugenics

I know I will be harshly criticised for quoting Wikipedia. Do not try this at home, kids. When you are doing your homework, quote proper sources, not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an open-source website, and everybody can write whatever they want on it.

(To prove what I am saying, look up “Mentifact” in English. Then go to the German version. The two versions seem to be referring to different concepts.)

So, why am I quoting Wikipedia? Because this is a newspaper article, not my homework.

According to Wikipedia, “Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population by excluding... certain genetic groups judged to be inferior, and promoting other genetic groups judged to be superior.”

In early 20th-century America, the following individuals were subjected to eugenics methods: the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women and homosexuals. In Nazi Germany, such as the Roma and the Jews, were also targeted.

The word ‘eugenics’ cropped up in neither the United States nor Nazi Germany. It was an Englishman – a cousin of Charles Darwin’s – who coined the term in 1883. Francis Galton became obsessed with his cousin’s Origin of Species and cooked up the idea that the human “race” could be improved in the same way that domestic animals are improved: through breeding. In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, Galton wrote: “Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.”

Important British writers were enthusiastic about the improvement of the human race. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man.” Bertrand Russell proposed a system of colour-coded “procreation tickets” to ensure that the gene pool of the elite would not be diluted by inferior human beings. HG Wells praised eugenics as the first step towards the elimination of “detrimental types and characteristics” and the “fostering of desirable types” instead. In 1910, Winston Churchill cautioned: “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”.

This was the crème de la crème of the Empire that gave our ancestors a collective George Cross.

 

Relations between races

When, in 1938, Hitler made Mussolini introduce the racial laws – to enforce racial discrimination in Italy, directed mainly against the Italian Jews and the native inhabitants of the colonies – the Italians thought there might be a problem with the Sicilians. The Fascist ideologue Julius Evola devised an ingenious solution: despite their ethnic origins, the Sicilians were Aryan in spirit and part of the superior race!

Let us not be beguiled. The British Empire reserved the same treatment for its component races. Malta was one of the three “White colonies” (the other two being Gibraltar and Cyprus) and therefore, like the Sicilians, difficult to categorise. But the judgment was straightforward in the case of the other colonies, in Africa and Asia: these peoples were inferior. Just consider that a manual published in 1910 for British Consuls specified how much money Consuls should give to Canadian, Maltese, Asian and African shipwreck survivors all hailing from the Empire. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to guess that I listed them in descending order of aid entitlement.

The British Empire was as racist as Nazi Germany. Were the British responsible for mass killings? “Between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation while [India] was under the control of the British Empire, as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India. In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Greece while a deadly famine swept through Bengal.”

Read more about British atrocities in this article published by Britain’s The Independent in 2016:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/worst-atrocities-british-empire-amritsar-boer-war-concentration-camp-mau-mau-a6821756.html.

This was the Empire that gave our ancestors a collective George Cross.

 

And now: Charles Xuereb

It is self-evident, I hope, that what I have just written does not imply that I am a Francophile! Only somebody afflicted by severe paranoia could state such nonsense with a straight face.

And yet, this is precisely the conundrum in which Charles Xuereb finds himself and out of which he seems unable to disentangle himself. It almost beggars belief.

It is well known that Charles Xuereb is an ardent Francophile. But this does not mean that what he is saying about the George Cross has necessarily to be understood in this Wonderland-like dichotomy! This Manichaean view of the world is over-simplistic, anachronistic and, all told, uncouth. We can’t discuss things and be labelled Francophile, Anglophile, Italianate, etc., as if we were stuck in the controversies of one or two hundred years ago!

Let’s be clear. Dr Xuereb does not need me – or anybody else for that matter – to break a lance in his favour. He can defend himself, and I am not out to defend him. But he is making a very important point: he is arguing about our present relationship with our colonial past, and his point deserves to be defended. It deserves to be taken out of the silly Britain-v-France rivalry of 200 years ago and placed firmly in the 21st century. What Charles Xuereb is saying – despite the fact that he is an ardent Francophile – belongs to 21st-century Malta, not the Napoleonic Wars!

 

The post-colonial dream

Not even Mintoff, in his wildest dreams, dreamt of a Malta standing alone, all ties severed. Despite the mouse-that-roared rhetoric echoed in Ġensna, Mintoff’s original neutrality project was aimed at involving five neighbouring countries to guarantee our neutrality and (implicitly) our freedom. As things turned out, only Italy ended up standing as our guarantor.

But the post-colonial dream was not limited to geopolitics. It extended to culture. The enthusiasm of the 1960s – personified in the literary heroes of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju (conflict of interest alert: my father was one of the co-founders of that post-independence literary movement) – had fizzled out by the 1990s. The realities of a small domestic market caught up with the idealism of the early years. The ‘nationalist’ dew of the 1960s post-colonial dawn evaporated once the sun of economy and history rose high up in the sky. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a new world order set in, a new world order engendered during the Cold War which the West won hands down in 1989.

The quest for national identity became first the quest for European identity and, then, for individual identity.

For many Maltese who had lived under British rule, Malta’s joining the European project meant that for the very first time in their history, the Maltese people could send their representatives to sit at the big European table. This had not been the case during the Vienna Congress in 1814-15, when the future of our country was being debated by the big European powers. Malta – the former British colony, though admittedly one of the three White colonies – was now fully certified as European.

And then, as post-Cold-War politics evolved into the gender identity creature they are today, Malta followed suit.

But the post-independence dream has been shattered. One could almost say that there never even was a post-independence dream. It was only a dream-like mirage. Post-independence history has unfolded on a post-colonial stage. The two are intertwined, like Janus, the two-faced Roman god from whom we get the name of the month January, one of whose faces looked at the past and the other at the future, while both faces existed on the same head found in the present.

Our cultural points of reference have remained intimately related to the British Empire. Our post-independence dreams exist against a post-colonial backdrop.

Next week I will argue why. And why this is relevant to the debate on the George Cross.

 

My Personal Library (44)

Sir Arturo Mercieca’s The Making and Unmaking of a Maltese Chief Justice, republished in English in 1969, is not only an autobiography but also a valuable commentary on a big chunk of 20th-century Maltese history by an acute intellect. Just consider what he highlights about the new, 1961 Constitution: the creation of a Constitutional Court. For the uninitiated, this is of little import; but for somebody who loves law and history, the observation gives away a sense of understated excitement at something new not only for Malta but for a British colony, given that the English legal tradition did not admit of a Constitutional Court.

Equally beautiful is a 1994 book called Malta: Culture and Identity, edited by Henry Frendo and Oliver Friggieri. It is a collection of essays that attempt to capture our culture and identity from diverse angles on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Independence.

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