A Facebook group calling for the return of Grandmaster Jean de la Valette's sword to Malta from France - where it is currently on display at the Louvre, Paris - has accumulated over 4,000 members since it was set up early last year.
The sword, which was gifted to La Valette by Philip II of Spain following the Order of St John's victory at the Great Siege of Malta, was among the items taken by Napoleon Bonaparte after he captured the island in 1798.
But despite enthusiasm for the cause from the group's founders, as well as its many members, historians are wary about the implications of the patriotic fervour that such a cause inspires.
'Bring Back the Sword of La Valette to Malta', originally set up by Jesmond Bugeja in March 2011, is now administered by the 20-year-old student Jamie Vella, who says that the group helped him come to an appreciation of Malta's rich cultural heritage and that, furthermore, the same could also be said about some of the more recent additions to the rapidly-growing Facebook page.
"Interest in Maltese history and heritage is underestimated, I think. I underestimated it myself, until I saw firsthand just how passionate people were about the subject of La Valette's sword, and how keen they were to have it back on the island," Vella said.
Originally lobbying for a permanent return of the historic weapon, the group has since softened its stance.
"The goal of the group has shifted slightly - instead of asking that the sword be brought back to Malta permanently, we are now asking that the sword be loaned from the Louvre for display over a limited time," Vella added, citing similar cases of museums loaning artefacts for a limited period.
Furthermore, bring the sword over to Malta will guarantee that it would be displayed appropriately and seen by a large number of people.
"If the sword is brought over to Malta, it would be guaranteed pride of place wherever it is displayed, as it has more value to us Maltese than anyone else. In the three times that I visited the Louvre, I did not even get to see the sword. The first two times I was told that it was in 'storage' and the third time, I couldn't locate it at all - not even the assistants knew where it was, and neither could they guarantee that it was even displayed at the Louvre..."
Resigned to the fact that Malta has no real legal claim on the sword, Vella envisions that loaning the sword back to Malta would "most likely boil down to good diplomatic relations and a show of good faith from the French. With a loan we would be pushing aside the vast legal issues and simply fighting for the sword to return home for a period."
Vella believes returning the sword sometime soon would be timely, as it would coincide with a number of commemorative dates and activities related to Maltese culture in general and La Valette's legacy in particular.
"With a statue of La Valette set to be unveiled in March, the numerous restoration projects that are underway in Valletta, the upcoming 450th year anniversary celebrations of the Great Siege, and Valletta's candidacy as European Capital of Culture 2018, there may never be a better time for France to make the noble gesture of allowing the sword of Malta's greatest hero to be exhibited, for a time, in Valletta," Vella said.
Not just a blade
While a degree of patriotic fervour for romanticised historical artefacts is understandable, Prof. Carmel Cassar, historian and Associate Professor at the Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture at the University of Malta, said that the claim to return La Valette's sword "must be assessed from a historical approach and it needs to be seen from a wider European perspective."
"We need to remember that in June 1798 the French Republicans of General Napoleon Bonaparte and the representatives of the Grand Master of Malta signed a formal Convention by which the French legally received Malta from the Order. This means that after the signing of the Convention Malta became French and as a result, the French government from then on had a right over its new property. Thus, it was possible for the new French government to allow the Bishop of Malta to make full use of the Church of St John's - previously the Conventual Church of the Order - where, until June 1798, the Bishop had no rights to perform sacred rituals.
"The issue of the sword needs to be looked at from the perspective of chivalry and military honour, standard at the time. It was common practice among military officers, for example, to hand over their swords as a sign of surrender. Likewise, it was also a common custom to give swords as presents.
"A case in point is the sword given by the Maltese to Sir Alexander Ball. The idea was extended to cases of conquest or taking over of a city, territory or State. In the case of Malta, the sword was originally awarded to a Grand Master, both as Head of the Order of St John and Feudal Lord of Malta, in recognition of his victory over the Turks. Most importantly, the sword and dagger were awarded by none other than the Grand Master's own Sovereign Overlord, King Philip II of Spain, as King of Sicily (Malta formally formed part of Sicily at the time). In essence, this meant that after the signing of the Convention General Napoleon Bonaparte - he only became Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 - was the lawful ruler of Malta and had a right over the sword as anything else." Cassar said.
"Luckily, Malta is presently on excellent terms with France. We are now partners in the EU. We share many common laws, besides the common currency. Therefore, I think it would be most appropriate if France, as a gesture of good will, were at least to agree that the sword be exhibited in Malta, which in an interview the last French ambassador, Daniel Rondeau, claimed 'is not impossible'. That would definitely be a move in the right direction, in line with plans for Valletta as European Capital of Culture in 2018," Cassar added.
Similarly, Dr Reuben Grima, who lectures in the field of cultural heritage at the University of Malta, was ambivalent about the overall aims of the group.
"My personal view is that the fact that the issue has gathered such a following is itself a very interesting phenomenon, which can have very positive outcomes, not the least being greater public awareness of the role of cultural heritage in forming people's sense of identity.
"Of course it must be said that the excitement is largely driven by the circumstances in which the sword left Malta. There are literally hundreds of artefacts in Malta from the same period, arguably no less important, which ironically attract much less public interest. If the debate on the sword serves to arouse more public curiosity in this wealth we are surrounded by, it will have performed a valuable service.
"The sentiments behind this movement are certainly genuine, but my personal view is that before clamouring for the return of such an artefact, perhaps we should reflect on whether we should set an example by returning, or expressing our readiness to return, some of the artefacts plundered or purchased from Egypt, Greece and elsewhere, and still in Malta today," Grima said.
VISIT THE GROUP @ Bring Back the Sword of La Valette to Malta