To know us is to know the English

The Maltese are a product of their colonial past and you find it in the social division that ‘Menglish’ and university education can still elicit.

Peter Mayo
Peter Mayo

The British were the best thing that ever happened to Malta... and they were the worst thing to ever to happen to Malta.

Whether of anglophile stock or a product of an Italianate family, Malta's taut relationship with the British and the mixture of awe and resentment on their legacy (Our civil service? The language? The love of the beautiful game...) cannot be a matter of simply choosing sides.

"A double-edged sword," says Prof. Peter Mayo, whose new journal 'Postcolonial Directions in Education' for the University of Malta looks into the effects of colonialism on education, specifically on language, the divide in the educational system between the vocational and academic, and migration.

While the advent of the British during the Napoleonic wars in 1800 and the resultant colonialism was a force of modernisation, even Malta's self-determination in the next 200 years was crucial for the island's development.

"We cannot view history in a monolithic way," Mayo says. "Colonialism cannot be viewed as a question of 'us and them'. It has many facets, some negative - such as colonialists' own reading of reality being imposed on the colonised - and some positive. In Malta, some of those who fought colonialism at specific moments in history were only defending their own narrow interests, and mostly it was privileged classes that did so."

Mayo runs through some examples of the positive effects of British colonialism, whose rule lasted until 1964 in Malta when it became independent within the British commonwealth and later a republic in 1974.

"Let us not dismiss everything and throw away the baby with the bath water. The English brought trade unionism to our shores. Progressive ideas were introduced by the British. Let's take the English language: on the one hand, it created a social divide - in our schools it's a source of social differentiation - on the other hand in a small country such as Malta, English is the key to the outside world."

Even in the island's social development, colonialism created jobs in the colonies with limited conditions, but in turn attracted trade union leaders to colonies in their struggle to improve work conditions

"The British in Malta were a modernising force and institutions such as the Church were afraid of modernisation," Mayo says. 

Mayo hopes that the University of Malta takes his fascination with postcolonialism (or should it be neo-colonialism or even anticolonialism, he asks) and create a centre of excellence in this area of studies.

"You cannot understand our educational system, as you cannot understand many other things in Malta, without understanding the country's colonial and post-colonial contexts," Mayo says, noting that Malta's educational system was based on the British colonial education system.

"Anglicisation spread through various ways, not least through adult literacy courses in English. The system was meant to ensure that Maltese persons migrating abroad in the 30s would be accepted by other countries.

"Malta's post-war education ordinance was based on the English colonial system... there are those of a certain age who would argue that as students, they learnt more about British history than Maltese history."

But Mayo also says that the English 'effect' on many people's lives (students like myself will remember using the First Aid In English and memorising useless facts such as which country was Saint Andrew the patron saint of), colonialism is not simply 'English influence'.

"It's also a more general 'euro-centric approach' to knowledge... one of the effects of colonialism is the uncritical acceptance of foreign catchwords which infiltrate all languages, at all levels," Mayo says, pulling out of the hat such clichés such as 'entrepreneurship', 'employability', and the bond between education and work that reflects the discourse emerging from the centres of power such as Brussels.

Mayo also notes his personal observation of people in authority using English to create a distance between themselves and others who might have a working-class background.

"Both English and Maltese languages should be used alongside each other, but we need to have a clear language policy, which is at the moment lacking," Mayo says, noting that children from certain social classes face difficulties at primary level, because of their lack of command in English, and not because they are incapable of doing maths (which books tend to be in English).

"It's a social issue that needs to be studied. Maltese words must be used at higher levels of learning in order to develop academic and technical terminology in Maltese."

This apparent gulf between the 'technicality' or cerebral use of English, and the emotiveness of using your own, native language, brings to light the division between the academia of the university and vocational education at MCAST.

Even here, Mayo finds, the British legacy persists, noting a division tied to capitalism's demands for a managerial class, and a working class.

He cites the British maxim in colonial India - "Indian in colour but British in taste and spirit" - Mayo says the British used academic education as the means to create a small local elite to liaison between the metropole and colony. On the other hand, as part of their modernising strategy, the British insisted on technical education for the purpose of serving their military base. The dockyard school was a product of this.

"The divide has limited personal education to either the technical, or the academic aspect. He sees this traditional divide as a legacy of the British colonial system. We need a holistic approach which incorporates both technical and academic sides at all levels."

Mayo says he does not believe in easy quick-fix solutions, but insists that vocational education needs to be given the same prestige enjoyed by academic education by bridging the two aspects and granting them equal esteem.

The Maltese educational system is now welcoming another effect of colonialism: the wave of sub-Saharan migration to Europe sees the island's schools accommodating all races and ethnicities, Mayo says, "otherwise we will have a racially discriminatory system".

He warns that the Maltese educational system must adapt itself and reflect multiculturalism in its syllabus, but that the European educational system must also recognise the fact that migration is the result of European colonialism in Africa.

"Nobody departs from one's country for no reason. Given the chance all migrants would go back to their country of origin... Western colonisers have a moral obligation towards the formally colonised. The huge influx of migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa is the price they have to pay for their colonial past."

More in Books
Miriam Rizzo
The British empire was an empire on which the Sun never set. What this means is that they were everywhere and there is nothing special about the relationship between Malta and England. The same special relationship was something the British sold equally to the tribesman of Borneo as well as the Maltese or Cypriots in the Mediterranean. And the British developed a special understanding equally well with the much hated roman catholic leaders of the occupied countries as well as Muslim, or Hindu for that matter. Quite simply, religion was not a major issue for the British - their aims were always primarily commercial and secular.

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition