The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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An essential error

Mary Muscat Sunday, 25 September 2022, 10:24 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Queen’s death has certainly sparked a resurgence of studies in colonialism within academic circles in the UK and in former colonies. Right now, revisiting our colonial past is probably the most monumental gift we can give ourselves as an independent nation.

But are we ready for this?

This is the real challenge for Malta: going through the grieving motions to find meaning from colonial wounds, and seeing the royal metaphorical hand as cruel as it has been kind for what it truly was. It’s also known as the Stockholm Syndrome, named after the hostage situation of August 1973 at the Kreditbanken in the Swedish capital city. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon: after six days, the hostages developed a positive rapport with their captors and not only did they refuse to testify against their takers, but went all out against the police and the Swedish Prime Minister. Sounds familiar?

Although I consider the UK as my second home, my feelings towards the Crown are ambivalent. My dad was a Royal Navy chief petty officer, as were his brother and brother-in-law. Born at the Mtarfa Navy Hospital, I grew up with a picture of the Queen’s coronation at home and believing that dad actually went to Buckingham Palace at the end of the month to collect his salary from the Queen’s office. In 1975 my family almost settled in Portsmouth as an option to the imminent run-down of the British forces.

I admit that I admire the Queen’s rare female leadership figure in an overtly misogynistic world of her time. True, she was born in the role, but the contrast between my socialization as an unequal woman in a man’s world and her role at the forefront of an empire was akin to a beacon light slicing through crippling gender stereotypes. For that, I’m still and will remain extremely grateful as it gave me a glimpse of the reality of female leadership. Leadership, not service. There’s a difference: leadership can be a service, but not all service is leadership.

Couple that with Thatcher’s office between 1979 and 1990, and I had two contemporaneous role models to reference. My dad would talk to me about their contribution throughout my teenage years in the 1980s, preparing me with foresight for this reality in Malta. It was a leap of faith for me because this was a time when my two older sisters had to give up their employment and their surnames upon marriage.

Villa Guardamangia still strikes a chord with the Maltese navy wives, and with that I sympathise, as my mum was such a wife. She carried my father’s role in his absence, like a queen. But I’m tired of people parroting what the British exalt – the Queen’s service, which is only relevant to the empire, not to us. This is why Prince Harry’s withdrawal from duty was so unpardonable, as was Prince Andrew’s disservice to the Crown.

I could experience first-hand British prejudice, both directly and vicariously, since my primary school days. The fact that the Maltese could not advance beyond the petty officer rank within the Navy was telling in itself. Certain higher ranks within the Police and the civil service in general, were reserved for English officers for a large part of the British administration. Temi Zammit’s medical discovery was named after his boss, who took all the credit. The Manoel Theatre, one of the oldest gems of its kind, was irreverently turned into a boxing ring exclusively for the British forces’ leisure.

I’ve been reading endless tweets about colonialism’s inhumanity throughout the empire. One thing that bothered me as an undergraduate history student and still does is this: there was clearly the standard white-on-black racism in the colonies, but what do you call the equally toxic British prejudice openly exhibited in Ireland, Malta, Cyprus and the Greek island protectorate? White-on-white racism? It surely looks like that.

Strickland had justified shipping off the Maltese internees to Uganda as an “essential error” of British administration. Essential, because it served the empire by trampling on human rights – applause, anyone? Or are you still in denial? Britain also held labour camps in neighbouring Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s. A recent publication by Caroline Elkins revealed, despite archival interference, the true extent of British atrocities on the Kikuyu.

My exposure to colonial policing models, which I researched for my PhD, is also fraught with similar instances of inhuman essential errors and this occurred all over the empire. Even Orwell wrote about this in Burmese Days.

I’m sure that Maltese popular history needs to be purged from the Laferla type of Whig colonial nostalgia. It’s not just “who” are we grieving but “why”. Let’s fix the Stockholm toxic bond and find true meaning and growth in this loss. Let that be our monument.

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