The impact of slave narratives discussed tonight

How deeply rooted are racist attitudes in Maltese culture – and where do they come from?

The Department of Maltese will host a discussion on slave narratives at University tonight.
The Department of Maltese will host a discussion on slave narratives at University tonight.

This evening at 18:00, a roundtable discussion dealing with 'Historical and Fictional Narratives of Slaves in North Africa and Malta' will take a trip through Maltese and Mediterranean history to tease out the truth behind racial tensions and the dynamics of power, some of which are still with us today.

The panel, chaired by Prof. Arnold Cassola, will be made up of Dr Marco Galea, Prof. Frans Ciappara, Prof. Godfrey Wettinger and Prof. Nabil Matar.

Galea's paper - "Ġisem Żuta kien mogħti lill-klieb! u hekk kellha tmiem l-istorja tagħna." Fear and hatred of slaves in early Maltese fiction - will focus on the depiction of slaves in late 19th century literature, with a particular focus on the works of Guze Muscat Azzopardi.

"The slave in these narratives acquires significance in the light that slavery is perceived as a deserved punishment for people who were simply born on the wrong side of the fence, and also because of the status attributed to Muscat Azzopardi's writings by his contemporaries, as well as by later commentators," Galea, who is a lecturer in the Theatre Studies Department at the University of Malta, said.

Ciappara, a lecturer within the Department of History, will be focusing on Conversion narratives of slaves to the Inquisitors in Malta within the span of 1650-1700.

"It is argued that these narratives had no ideology behind them; nor were they part of apologetic discourse. Neither did they intend to show God's providence in freeing Christians from slavery, and nor did they try to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Islam.

"The narrators focused mainly on the strictly personal aspects of their drama, how they found themselves in Ottoman lands, their experience in captivity and their release or escape but especially the circumstances that surrounded their apostasy."

Matar will be visiting Malta from the University of Minnesota to discuss issues related to early modern British captives in North Africa within the historical period of 1578-1727.

"By the second part of the 17th century, Britain (and France) developed naval technologies that enabled them to attack North African ports, Tripoli and Algiers, for example, in the 1670s and 80s respectively.

"Both Britain and France justified their destruction on the grounds that they were defending their subjects from the Barbary Corsairs. But how many captives were there? Was there as high a number as was claimed in contemporary records - or was the number exaggerated so that it serve as a casus belli? Britain wanted to dominate the commerce of the Mediterranean, and like France, needed to eliminate the North African fleets that were eager to participate in that commerce.

"The claim that high numbers of captives had been seized justified war," Matar writes in the abstract to his paper.

Wettinger, an expert on medieval Maltese history, said that he became interested in the subject of slaves in Malta through the subject of place names - particularly since a lot of Maltese place names can be traced to Arabic origins.

"And by consequently getting embroiled in the ancient question of continuity or not in Maltese history during the last thousand and more years I have come back to the same topic with a vengeance.

"It seems now that our medieval and later history starts off with one of the most thorough cases of ethnic cleansing in the last thousand years, and we have been living a historical lie ever since, aided and abetted by lay and sacred members of society who refuse to recognise that history is now studied in a different way to that of five hundred years ago," Wettinger said.

The discussion, which is organised by The Department of Maltese, will take place at Gateway Hall E, University campus.


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