The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

How a Maltese worker sparked a riot and a massacre - Part 8

Noel Grima Tuesday, 28 July 2020, 13:21 Last update: about 3 months ago

‘Blue-water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800’. Author: Robert Holland, Publisher: Allen Lane / 2012. Pages: 439pp

A few weeks after a delirious crowd had cheered Benjamin Disraeli's return from the Congress of Berlin with Cyprus in his pocket, Londoners were able to gaze with wonder at a new token of how Britain in the Mediterranean had followed in the footsteps of the ancients.

On 12 September 1878, the obelisk, known as Cleopatra's Needle, was unveiled on the Victoria Embankment to much popular fascination.

This imposing object had first been erected in Heliopolis in 1500BC by Rameses the Great, and relocated on the seashore of Cleopatra's Royal City of Alexandria in 12BC. In 1819 the Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, had granted it to Great Britain to commemorate Nelson's earlier triumph at the Battle of Aboukir Bay.


No attempt to conveyor the obelisk to England, however, was made till 21 September 1877 when, having been installed in a protective cylinder, its transport vessel - inevitably, the Cleopatra - set sail. Hit by a fierce storm in the Bay of Biscay on 15 October, the ship capsized with the loss of six lives, though the cylinder was recovered and taken to the Spanish port of Ferrol, and finally on to London. The names of the fatalities can still be seen on the bronze plaque at the foot of the Needle's mounting stone.

The obelisk's troubled passage might have been a metaphor for the travails of the Anglo-Egyptian relationship after Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882. The occupation was always to have its core in the Delta abutting the Mediterranean, and cosmopolitan, rowdy Alexandria had a special significance in its development for both commercial and strategic reasons.

Britons had joined the influx of expatriates drawn by the great cotton boom of the 1860s that led to Alexandria being characterised as "the Klondike on the Nile", though the majority were Greeks, Italians and French (in that order).

Alexandria had boomed from the 1850s as the outlet for an expanding export economy and had already taken on a European aspect "with its water fountains, gas lights, and pavements and its facades all the more depressing for their cheap imitation of some fashionable square in Paris or Rome".

"Alexandria was a colonial city", one writer states, "before Egypt was a colony." Disraeli's acquisition of half of the Suez Canal Company's shares in November 1875, one of the great flourishes of his career, raised the British stake in the eastern Mediterranean. In the event they had taken Cyprus.

The bankruptcy of Khedive Ismail's regime had led to a veiled but intensifying Anglo-French domination of Egyptian affairs through financial supervision. Neither Britain nor France trusted the other enough to let them undertake this task alone.

A stream of salaried Europeans employed within the so-called Dual Control became a flood; there were already 1,300 of them by the end of the 1870s. They offered a focus for Egyptian resentment against the continuing payment of crushing interest payments to European bondholders ("the coupon").

In Alexandria local feeling against Europeans, brittle from the start of the crisis, began to intensify. The Cabinet in London was immediately faced with the question of whether to send a naval squadron in case the situation deteriorated further.

The British Agent in Cairo, Sir Alexander Malet, warned ministers that under present Alexandrian conditions it would be counterproductive since "the fleet is a menace likely to lead to disturbances and not to protection".

But ministers had to do something and the easiest thing was to send the ships, if only to cover themselves up if things went wrong and a speedy evacuation should prove necessary. Reinforcements had already been dispatched to Malta.

On 20 May 1882 three Royal Navy vessels led by HMS Invincible under Admiral Sir Frederick Beauchamp Seymour arrived off Alexandria in the company of an equivalent French force, though the latter were there to keep an eye on Seymour as much as to intimidate the Egyptians.

At this point Europeans in the city began to get out, but events gave them little time. In a city where altercations between expatriate minorities and native Alexandrians were a daily occurrence, the spark was always likely to be a banal one.

On 11 June a Maltese worker thumped an Arab donkey-boy in a dispute over a fare. Egyptian passers-by got involved; then a Greek weighed in to help the Maltese; then some Europeans in panic started firing guns from their balconies in rue Ibrahim Pacha.

The riot soon became a massacre. Both the British and French consuls were wounded trying to intervene. Most European fatalities were incurred in the harbour area, where many gathered in hope of rescue. They were disappointed.

British naval personnel ashore passed news of trouble to the ships, but the latter carried few marines and did nothing. Around 50 Europeans were killed in the city, and some others outside. More than a hundred Egyptians lost their lives. Some 20,000 Alexandrians of all nationalities fled for safety to the European ships.

By 1900, with the Boer War raging in South Africa, approximately 12,000 troops were stationed in Malta. At a time of vigorous Maltese integration into the British system, there was a danger of political hubris, exemplified by talk in the Colonial Office of a thoroughgoing Anglicisation, to prevent "the Italia Irredenta party obtaining a foothold in the country".

In fact any desire for political union with Italy was always superficial, a vast difference from Hellenic attachment in Cyprus.

The leader of the Italianita, or anti-reformisti, faction, Fortunato Mizzi, repeatedly emphasised that the pro-Italian inclination of many Maltese was a matter purely of political aesthetics, not a programme of action.

Whereas before 1880 the "Italian party" had been principally concerned with gaining a public voice, "after it became a struggle to defend their individualita nazionale, their propria Lingua and their propria religione".

As Governors of Malta were frequently to point out, this did not imply any hostility towards, let alone intention to sabotage, British rule as such.

But it was not easy to cordon off politics and culture completely. The Malta Times during March 1884 referred to a "nauseating partiality" for all things Italian gaining ground and the phenomenon was one that grated in the British garrison and community.

Friction grew, and in 1895 the government intervened in a legal case involving a British army officer to ensure the option of having proceedings conducted in English. This opened up a sensitive topic in the sparring that was part and parcel of Maltese society.

The working of the Constitution inevitably got caught up in this process. Elected members in the Council of Government complained in 1882 that Malta was still ruled "like the deck of a man-of-war". Few Britons then (or indeed much later) thought that anything else was feasible.

Governor Sir John Simmons was typical in his belief, laid down in 1885, that the island "had always to be regarded as in a state of siege".


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