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Notarial Archives: ‘Malta’s national monument of shame’

The founder of the Notarial Archives Resources Council calls for urgent help to restore ‘the mother of all archives.’

Jurgen Balzan
19 August 2013, 12:00am
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with the founding member of the Notarial Archives Resources Council Dr Joan Abela.

The Notarial Archives in Valletta were today described as "Malta's national monument of shame," by the archive's resources council founder member Joan Abela.

During a visit by the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, finance minister Edward Scicluna and parliamentary secretary for justice Owen Bonnici, Abela said the notarial records which are found in a dilapidated building in St Christopher Street in Valletta was the "mother of all archives."

However, the passionate notary said she had been toiling for nine long years to get the government to fund the council's arduous task to restore, analyse, and catalogue the thousands of documents, which were abandoned for long years.

A brief slide show exposed the tragic state in which the documents were found, most of them stacked in a disorderly manner on shelves or on the humid floor, falling prey to bookworms and other hazards.

This led to a fast deterioration of the invaluable but fragile documents and putting the place in order was a mammoth task for the volunteers who run the archive, Abela said.

"The documents found here are not only central to Maltese history, but they are a treasure for Mediterranean and European history," Abela said, adding that many of the volumes have been damaged by years of neglect and a preservation plan was now underway to prevent further damage.

However, the programme requires significant manpower and financial backing she said.  Abela explained that the building is home to over 20,000 registers containing notarial records and other historical documents, the earliest of which dates back to 1467.

Abela and her colleagues have been working for the last nine years on the project and it would take another three years to restore and digitise all documents. This however needs more funds than the €300 budget which the project received in the last few years, she said.

The only source of funding came in the form of sponsorships, mainly from HSBC Malta who apart from making yearly donations also provides hundreds of volunteers who give Abela and her colleagues a hand in the preservation and digitisation of the documents.

The documents in the archive tell the country's history from the peoples' perspective and not from the rulers' perspective, Abela added. Among the documents, the most precious of them all is the Il Cantilena by Pietru Caxaro, oldest known literary text in the Maltese language.

The poem, dating back to the 15th century was recorded by Caxaro's nephew, Brandano, in his notarial register and was discovered in a very bad state. It has since been restored and filed in a manner, which preserves the oldest Maltese document in existence.

Other documents include contracts for the purchase of slaves at a time when Malta was the centre of human trafficking and contracts for the distribution of land when Valletta was being built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century.

"Some of these documents are an eyewitness account of the 1565 Great Siege which 200 years later was described as the greatest event in the world's history by Voltaire and look in what condition these documents are," Abela said.

Liam Gauci, the curator of the Malta Maritime Musuem offered Muscat and his entourage a cocktail which Maltese privateers drank before raiding naval vessels. The original recipe consisted of rum, sugar cane, cinnamon, ice flakes from Mount Etna and black powder to ignite the flame within the sailors.

However times have changed and the drink offered to the Prime Minister this morning lacked any gunpowder and the ice flakes were not shipped from Sicily.

At the end of the tour in the three-storey building, Muscat reiterated the government commitment to support the rehabilitation of the Notarial Archives and take its rightful place as a monument of national pride.

"The biggest shame is that we do not know what else is hidden in these unearthed documents yet," Muscat said.

He said the first priority would be to have the project funded by the government and the EU, while the second priority would be to open the place for visitors and create "an exceptional attraction" for the Maltese and tourists.

This would help the archives become self-sufficient, Muscat said. "We have a duty to salvage these archives and turn it into a sustainable project," he added.

On his part, the parliamentary secretary for justice Owen Bonnici explained that a working committee had been set-up and his ministry together with the culture secretariat had roped in the best experts in the country in the government's efforts to have the archives rehabilitated.

The finance minister Edward Scicluna added that the government would be exploring all avenues, including EU funds, to ensure that the project was funded.  
Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...
joe bartolo
Well done Joan and her team of volunteers for their hard work. Could someone give me the name of the old gentleman, a government employee who first salvaged these documents and toiled for years, mostly on his own, under terrible conditions to save them from destruction. He should have a room named after him. In fact he deserves a 'Gieh ir-Republika' honour.
Joseph Henry Saydon
Yes, it is indeed a shame. Proper funding should be found to preserve this national heritage. However what is more important is for the Ministry of Finance to make life easier for today's Notaries by introducing an on-line payment system for duty on documents. The system already exists, all that is required is for the Inland Revenue Dept, to press the go-ahead button. At present there are only 4 (today there is only 10 receiving officers to cater for 320 Notaries. This results in Notaries having to wait for over 3 hours to pay tax, and after this long wait the Notary is only allowed to present 7 applications, then he has to leave the room and start queuing again to present the rest of the payments.