National identity: the quest goes on | Charles Xuereb

As Malta prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary as an independent state, veteran broadcaster Charles Xuereb argues that we have yet to establish an identity which is truly our own

Raphael Vassallo
14 January 2014, 12:00am
Charles Xuereb
Charles Xuereb

2014 promises to be a year of anniversaries. Next September, Malta will mark its 50th birthday as an independent state. In December, the Republic turns 40. And there are other, less publicised commemorations too: the 95th anniversary of Sette Giugno, for instance. And as Charles Xuereb informs me when we meet for this interview in a quiet Sliema restaurant, 2014 also marks the 200th anniversary of when Malta first became a British protectorate in 1814.

"Strange, isn't it, that nobody seems to want to remember this or commemorate this occasion in any way?" he begins. "And yet, in a sense, what happened 200 years ago had more of an impact on national identity than some of the other anniversaries we commemorate each year..."

And it's not the only historic event to have been largely forgotten. I point out in turn that while Malta annually commemorates the violent uprising of 1919, we do not pause to remember February 21, 1921 - when our country actually achieved the limited self-government it had earlier fought for.

Charles Xuereb replies by jokingly alluding to yet another anniversary which will certainly not be celebrated on any national footing: his own 45th year in national broadcasting... having started his television career in 1969, just five years after Independence.

As it happens Xuereb has just obtained a PhD through the Institute of Maltese Studies from the University of Malta; and his chosen topic touches closely on all the above commemorations (celebrated or otherwise) - Malta's seemingly eternal quest for a national identity... a quest which has recently taken on new relevance, not least thanks to the present government's controversial IIP ("golden passport") scheme... which has in a sense forced the country to consider what its own citizenship really means, both in itself and in the broader context of EU membership.

Entitled 'France in the Maltese Collective Memory', Charles Xuereb's doctoral thesis asks whether 'trans-generational memory' (or lack thereof) could have influenced today's concepts of Maltese national identity. And at the risk of giving away the ending (spoiler alert!), he concludes that 50 years since finally severing ties with Britain, Malta has yet to consolidate an identity which can be described as truly its own.

It seems an odd place to begin, but as we settle down to the interview, Xuereb quizzes me on my own knowledge of Valletta landmarks. "How many lion and unicorn crests do you think there are in the square kilometre around St George's Square in Valletta?" he suddenly wants to know.

Off-hand I can think of only two: the one on top of Main Guard across the square from the Palace; and the one above the entrance to the Aula Magna (Old University) on Merchants Street. He shakes his head. "There are five," he says triumphantly... pointing out that the Biblioteca on Republic Square has one of its own, as does the former Admiralty House on Merchants Street, and Victoria Gate down by Lascaris Wharf.

"I would personally leave the one on Victoria Gate in acknowledgement of Britain's past contributions to Malta's maritime history. But the others have no business to be where they are today. I would remove them all."

Xuereb is of course known for making this kind of sweeping, provocative statement. He has long argued in favour of the removal of the George Cross from the national flag (which we shall discuss in a sec). I confess however that I am surprised he would attach so much importance to a handful of old reminders that Britain once lorded over this island... which remains a historical fact, whether we like the idea or not.

Once his own thesis concerns collective memory... wouldn't removing such reminders also be a case of deleting part of our cultural memories about our own recent history?

He smiles in acknowledgment of the question. "I didn't say they should be destroyed, you know. I said they should be removed from where they are and placed somewhere else. In a museum, perhaps. That is where they really belong..."

His objection, he goes on, is not so much to what these monuments represent, but rather where they are sited: all part, he claims, of a conscious strategy by British governors to consolidate their own version of history over any other rival versions.

"Let's take the one on the Main Guard. It is right across from the palace balcony, where prime ministers and presidents greet crowds after elections and on national occasions. Effectively, by lowering their heads to look at those crowds below, they would be subconsciously 'bowing' to the lion and unicorn crest, a symbol of the British monarchy, across the square..."

Detecting a look of scepticism on my face, he insists there is nothing coincidental about this detail. "It was deliberate," he insists, making a direct comparison with Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides in Paris... where a similar strategic arrangement forces visitors to 'bow' to the long dead Emperor of France, if they want to actually see where he is buried.

Meanwhile, past British governors are not the only ones guilty of a little creative urban engineering to influence cultural memory. "Two other national monuments were recently removed from Palace Square," he adds, in allusion to the Sette Giugno monument and a memorial to Dun Mikiel Xerri. "Significantly, they were located to the periphery of the city."

The symbolical inference of these decisions cannot be understated; by placing such reminders out of sight in less prominent parts of the city, the authorities - Maltese governments, in this case - appear to be consciously playing down the historical significance of what those monuments represent.

But Xuereb here admits that the strategic siting of monuments represents only a small - albeit important - aspect to his overall thesis. There are other instances in which our collective memories have been thwarted by cunning stratagems... and this is why he argues that Malta's failure to acknowledge the 200th anniversary of the advent of the British is in a sense the result of our failure to appreciate how severely we have been duped as a nation, into accepting a potted history that was actually manufactured - "or dare I say fabricated" - for our consumption today.

"If you ask me there were three critical stages when it comes to the formulation of a Maltese national identity. Independence is the most recent, but the other two were the years following the traumatic period of the blockade of 1798 and 1800 - when possession of Malta was contested between three foreign powers - and immediately after World War Two, when Malta had to reinvent its identity to get rid of any association with formerly fascist Italy."

Of these periods, he argues that the transition to British protectorate 200 years ago had the greatest long-term impact on Maltese cultural identity.

"In the space of just two years Malta changed hands three times. There was the Order [of the Knights of St John], then the French Republic, then the British monarchy..."

Without disguising his open admiration for Bonaparte - a reformer who would have secularised Malta were it not for the combined efforts of the British and the Catholic Church - Xuereb points out that the French General Vaubois initially wanted to write an 'IOU' to compensate the people of Malta for losses - which included over 10,000 civilian casualties - as part of the terms of the French surrender in 1800.

Britain however refused, and those debts were never honoured. France paid for losses incurred during the Napoleonic Wars according to the 1815 Treaty of Paris, and again in 1829. But Malta was never compensated for its wartime sacrifices, as Britain claimed the Island had then become its own possession and took the 'refunds' instead.

The reason, Xuereb suggests, was that Britain was afraid that direct compensation to the Maltese would be interpreted as acknowledgement of our existence as a 'nation'. This did not fit in with Britain's view of Malta as a convenient military asset in the middle of the Mediterranean. In fact, the Maltese people were not consulted, let alone represented in any way at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which would effectively decide our fate for the next 160 years.

Charles Xuereb argues that Britain had a vested interest in distorting the memory of what happened between 1798 and 1800... and above all, to obfuscate the valiant resistance put up by the Maltese against the French.

"Britain didn't want the Maltese to think they had the strength to overthrow higher powers. They didn't want the Maltese insurgents to remember that they had blockaded the French on land virtually unaided almost until the end."

The seaward blockade, he adds, was manned by the British.

All this had a direct bearing on our national identity in a number of obvious and less obvious ways. Interestingly, Xuereb points towards a collusion between British imperial interests and the Catholic Church.

"It was ecclesiastics who brought the British to Malta: notably Canon F. X. Caruana, who was later rewarded by being appointed Bishop," he observes. In a sense this is understandable, given the intense animosity between the Church and Bonaparte at the time. But there were arguably vested interests for both the British and the Church.

"The British ensured that the Maltese people's allegiance would remain to the Crown, while the Church consolidated its hold on the faith of the people."

One interesting upshot of the alliance was that Malta - hitherto part of the diocese of Palermo - was upgraded into an independent diocese of its own.

This, Xuereb points out, was congenial to both Britain and the local Church at the time. "The British made representations to the Vatican, and by securing the Maltese diocese as independent of Palermo, they also cut off the last remaining connections with Italy. The British also insisted - and the Vatican accepted - on a clause that would allow them to practically have the last say in the choice of the Bishop of Malta. Believe it or not, this was the situation up till Independence..."

The resulting hierarchy placed the Bishop of Malta as de facto second-in-command after the British Governor: enjoying a higher rank than the highest authority of the Royal Navy. And even after Malta obtained limited self-rule in 1921, the Bishop continued to enjoy diplomatic precedence over the first minister.

"George Borg Olivier wouldn't stand for it, however; and after independence the Bishop lost precedence..."

But it was a rare moment of self-determination, in an age when decisions over the fate of the country were by and large taken by outsiders without any input by the locals at all.

Xuereb adds that, incredibly, this situation remained almost unaltered until the Republic Constitution of 1974. "The 'privilegium fori' - which meant that priests could not be tried for crimes by the civil authorities - was only removed in 1975. And it was the same reform that also introduced civil marriages to Malta for the first time..."

To put that into perspective: the same privileges were removed for British priests during the reign of King Henry II in 1180, at the time of the martyrdom of St Thomas Beckett. Meanwhile, some aspects of the same resistance to secularisation still remain, despite various objections. "One could argue that in certain respects we still have strings to a confessional state, 200 years after Bonaparte tried to secularise us," Xuereb adds. "Look at our Constitution. One could discuss how the right and duty of the Church to teach what is right and wrong clashes with civic authority."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Xuereb argues that the most prominent of our national symbols - the flag - itself embodies the same contradiction, in the form of the George Cross: an essentially military insignia, which - like Valetta's lions and unicorns - has no business to be there at all.

But before discussing the reasons for wanting to remove the George Cross from the flag... what does he envisage replacing it with?

"Nothing," comes the immediate reply. "For hundreds of years the Maltese flag was just two colours - red and white. What's wrong with that?"

Xuereb argues that the decision to place the George Cross on the flag was unilaterally taken by King George VI on 29 December 1943... and in so doing the British monarch was defending his own country's interests, not ours.

"For one thing, the award in itself was a classic case of 'too little, too late'. One thing many have forgotten is that it was not necessarily well received in its time. I still remember one wartime survivor from Rabat, who admitted that the joke at the time was that the letters 'GC' stood for 'Guh Kbir' (great hunger)... which in the language of the day was actually written as 'Guh Chbir'."

Even if placed on the flag by direct request ("in other words, an order") by King George, there were subsequent attempts to have it removed. It seems in 1964 a Cabinet vote turned out 50-50, and then Prime Minister George Borg Olivier had to resort to a casting vote.

"He voted to retain it, and this may well have had to do with the fact that many people in Malta owed their employment to the British, and the issue might have cost votes at the next election."

Mintoff also had a chance to remove it when amending the Constitution to herald the republic in 74. "Why didn't he remove it then? Probably for the same reason. He didn't want to lose votes. But what he did do was amend that part of the Constitution, so that a two-thirds majority is no longer required to remove the George Cross. It can now be removed by a simple majority in parliament."

Charles Xuereb is confident that this is what will eventually happen. "As time wears on there is less attachment to memories of the war era. I do think the George Cross is something we should be proud of as a nation; but proud of as a war decoration, and nothing more. It should never have become a national symbol. As a nation Malta stretches back 7,000 years... and the old red and white flag served us well for over 600 years, during the French uprising and beyond."