Embrace the Maltese mix

Following the publication of a new book of essays about Malta’s colonial experience, Prof. John Chircop speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about how we have grown to view Malta’s history through a colonial lens, riven with contradictions as such a perspective may be 

John Chircop: “Being a Maltese and being racist is just plain stupid”
John Chircop: “Being a Maltese and being racist is just plain stupid”

“It’s complete nonsense,” Prof. John Chircop tells me when I ask him to comment on the Maltese far-right’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and their militant stance against immigration. “First off, if you look at it historically, the Maltese are probably the most heavily immigrating people in the world… and don’t even get me started on the so-called ‘racial purity’ of the Maltese…” 

Chircop’s words carry some weight, particularly following the release of a new publication. Edited by Chircop – who serves as Director of the Mediterranean Institute as well as being Associate Professor in the History Department of the University of Malta – Colonial Encounters, published earlier this month by Horizons, assembles an eclectic collection of academics from various disciplines to discuss Malta’s colonial history and post-colonial baggage. 

But those after easy answers should look elsewhere. Chircop is no fan of theories that propose a single uninterrupted line of Maltese heritage – Phoenician roots, for example – and would rather see these popular misconceptions for what they are: calculated attempts at propaganda, encouraged by the powers-to-be at various historical points and for various reasons. 

Instead, Chircop encourages a line of inquiry which favours the ‘hybridity’ of the Maltese people, recognising that, far from the trappings of what he calls ‘banal nationalism’ lies a more colourful, and often marginalised truth about who we are as a people. Confessing that the approach is a “challenge” by proxy – “negotiating biases is part of our work” – Chircop says that colonialism in Malta incorporates issues relating to social class, language and culture, which is one of the reasons why an interdisciplinary approach was taken up for this project. 

Apart from the expected treatment of the administrative procedures during the colonial era – with an understandable bulk of attention being paid to the British period – the articles included in the book also tackle the dynamics of racism the Maltese suffered under, issues related to health and even food. 

When I ask Chircop to outline some of the received wisdom he was made to contend with when embarking on this project, he says it was a tendency to look at colonialism in a simplistic way that was the biggest stumbling block.

“It’s either… colonialism is just a bad thing that was imposed upon us, or… this is something that the Maltese ‘needed’ to become a ‘civilised’ country.” But as ever, the truth lies somewhere in between, as Chircop’s introduction to the volume makes clear, stating that ‘colonial Malta’ should not simply be seen as “a site characterised by structured uneven power relations between colonised and colonisers,” but also of “constantly shifting borders and social negotiations, of dialogue, collaboration and the renegotiation of the terms of consent and, simultaneously, of hidden and not so hidden conflicts, defiance and dissent”.

These subtle conflicts underpin Chircop’s own contribution to the volume, which seeks to give voice to fishermen during the British colonial period. Chircop underlines that the lack of documentation about the labouring classes from this period tends to come from official sources – “the Royal Commissioners, for example, or bureaucratic reports which would naturally present an institutional point of view”.

In line with his work at the Public Memory Archive – which seeks to document oral history – Chircop employed a ‘new methodology’, which involved ethnographic research, to learn more about how fishermen were treated during colonial times. Though Chircop’s on-the-ground research has so far focused on fishermen, he tells me that the voices of the rural classes during this time remain under-represented in history and the public consciousness. 

Perhaps the logical assumption would be that such marginalisation would result in further resentment towards the coloniser. But Chircop insists that, again, things aren’t as black and white as they seem. 

“When conducting my research, I often ask a similar question, and the only real answer I can give is… it depends,” Chircop says. 

“You have to remember that most of these people would be marginalised by local elements too, and that the British government actually helped them out in one way or another. It’s a complicated issue… You may have come across Maltese people who saw the British as, say, Protestants who are here to impose their culture. But then you’ll find the farmers who viewed the local middleman – the pitkal – as the real exploiter, since the colonial masters would be so remote from them…”  

Chircop says that even the urban working classes would tend to view the British in a positive light more often than not, since they would have created jobs for them. 

“So you see, you get a multiplicity of experiences that we cannot homogenise… and this is my main criticism of mainstream historiography in Malta, if we can call it that. There’s a tendency to create, or fabricate national history. And though this helps us to talk about these issues sometimes, we need to be very careful. Because after all, we’re talking about people here. And people tend to be very complicated…” 

This brings us to the discussion of national pride, as expressed by far-right groups like Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin – who do, of course, espouse a philosophy that depends on a homogenised perspective on the Maltese population. 

“If there is anyone who could not speak against immigration, it’s the Maltese,” Chircop reiterates categorically. “The Maltese were one of those people who really immigrated throughout the 19th century – there were around 10,000 documented Maltese migrants all over Europe at the time… not to mention the undocumented – or so-called ‘illegal’ – ones among their number.” 

Chircop also explains how British Consular Reports would tend to describe the Maltese migrants as ‘criminals’, “whereas the majority were just normal people”. “So it’s another reminder that being Maltese and being racist is just… well, it’s just stupid.”

Perhaps the tourism industry presents a less extreme – but more pervasive – example of historical homogeneity at play, which would once again carry remnants of colonial or post-colonial behaviours. When I read Chircop’s characterisation of ‘banal nationalism’, I couldn’t help but think of Knights of Malta kitsch, peddled aggressively since what feels like time immemorial…

“What you see there is the rule of supply and demand at play: you identify which aspect of Maltese culture you can – again – homogenise, so as to provide a tourist niche with something they want to see and consume.” 

Stressing that he doesn’t view tourism as something negative in and of itself, Chircop however still identifies a problem here. “The worst thing that comes out of this dynamic is that some Maltese people end up mistaking the re-packaged, tourist version of our history for the real thing.”

He finds a similar dynamic at play during state-sponsored cultural initiatives, such as the events organised by last year’s Fondazzjoni Celebrazzjonijiet Nazzjonali (FCN), and this year’s drive to promote the anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta. 

“These events are part and parcel of the kind of activities that a state needs to engage in to stay afloat, culturally, as it were,” Chircop says, describing most of these celebrations as engaging in “myths”. But Chircop doesn’t view the term as necessarily pejorative, or to be brushed off lightly. 

“I’m not a positivist in my approach – I don’t think you can rigidly separate ‘myth’ from ‘fact’. Sometimes myths are so strong that they become a real part of our lives. So we should take them seriously, understand them and analyse them.”

For Chircop, this is yet another example of the diverse mix that makes up the Maltese character, imprinted as it is by colonial influences through the ages. 

“We should emphasise our hybridity, if not celebrate it!” 

Colonial Encounters is published by Horizons

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