King Charles keenly interested in visiting Villa Guardamangia… | Charles Xuereb

In republican Malta, the State, through its main arm on heritage, is inexplicably spending €15 million on a museum for the colonialist ruler rather than for the colonised

Villa Guardamangia: Should the State spend €15m for a former colonialist?
Villa Guardamangia: Should the State spend €15m for a former colonialist?

On the first Monday after King Charles was crowned in London, Xtra (TVM, May 8) hosted British High Commissioner to Malta Katherine Ward wherein inter alia she informed televiewers that the new king ‘expressed his eagerness with President George Vella to visit Villa Guardamangia once the restoration is complete’ (Malta Today, May 10, 2023).

This derelict house is being restored and refurbished by the Maltese State as ‘a tribute to the British Crown’ (as reported on BBC in 2021).

Readers might be interested to know that this villa was one of my main focuses in my recent book Decolonising the Maltese Mind, In Search Of Identity. Allow me to lift arguments from my book on the subject, which should throw light on this extravagant project to a former colonialist.

While some in former colonies and in the UK itself are considering whether to create a museum of colonialism to discover identifying truths about the past, in republican Malta, the State, through its main arm on heritage, is inexplicably spending €15 million on a museum for the colonialist ruler rather than for the colonised.

Correct pseudo-historic narrative

A museum that clarifies how Malta fared as a colony under the British, warts and all, would serve a therapeutic function. It would clear chaos and confusion about the period under review, sift out the lies and halt this perpetuated national amnesia. It would waken Maltese society up from its deep slumber and correct the pseudo-historic narrative that past ‘research’ duped so many.

Projecting the Malta royal interlude as a break away from ‘post-war austere England’, the BBC in a broadcast after Queen Elizabeth’s death spoke of how the couple used to tour the island in a car, picnicking in the countryside. They also socialised with the elite and danced their time away with other services couples in the colony.

Many royal local enthusiasts totally ignore the fact that in post-war Malta, Maltese families, most of whom were neighbours of the royal couple, had been in desperate need for funds from the metropole to rebuild their bombed houses, especially those around the Grand Harbour. Malta was denied post-WWII American Marshall Aid as the UK declared that the Island, as a British fortress, did not qualify for these funds. This issue was included in the Labour Party’s 1950-election manifesto, at the same time that the royal couple were living in Guardamangia.

The majority of Maltese journalists and politicians, mostly unconsciously, defend colonialism through habits of status quo, often not bothering with change, at least of attitude. Journalists are generally too relaxed to question or research history when commenting or analysing current issues, while politicians easily fall into popular traps to tap the emotional, at times economic, sentiments of voters, who still perceive colonial tenets as an additional bonus to their identity. Examples abound but the purchase of an overpriced derelict house in Guardamangia by the State, because a former colonialist royal couple lived there for a few months in the late 1940s is a clear indicator.

As regards the nature of a future Guardamangia museum there are several other dignitaries who could easily be included in the collection to recollect their Malta visit. These include Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, Lord Byron in 1811, Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1864, Empress Eugenie of France in 1877, various other Princes and Kings of England as well as other notables from Italy and Japan. Pity that such extraordinary stopovers – with the exception of a hidden plaque at Customs House rightly remembering King George VI’s wartime visit – are continuously ignored.

What about abodes of the Maltese?

And what about abodes that were once inhabited by Maltese protagonists of history, medicine, the arts, literature and politics? Maltese citizens are far from seeing any public funds spent to turn into town museums the house where any one of a number of Malta’s presidents lived. We have no site marking national poet Dun Karm’s abode for our students to visit; nor for medical doctor, author and archaeologist Temi Zammit who discovered how to stop the Malta fever from continuing to be transmitted through goats’ milk in 1905; or poet and infectious diseases doctor, Rużar Briffa.

The long list of absent memorial residences may also include patriot Mikiel Anton Vassalli and a number of high profile artists. These include the Calabrian Mattia Preti who lived in Malta for 30 years (1613-99), Antonio Sciortino (1879-1947), Emvin Cremona (1919-1987), Frank Portelli (1922-2004), Ċensu Apap (1909-2003), Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), Anton Agius (1933-2008), Ġanni Bonnici (1932- 2019), Esprit Barthet (1919-1999) and literary giants such as Ninu Cremona (1880-1972) and Ġuże Aquilina (1911-1997), Francis Ebejer (1925-1993) and book publisher Pawlu Mizzi (1929-2019). One can also add prime ministers’ abodes, such as George Borg Olivier’s in Sliema and Dom Mintoff’s in Tarxien, strongly associated with Independence and the Republic respectively. What is being done to also preserve such residences as those of Oliver Friggieri (1947- 2020) in Birkirkara or for that matter national map guru Albert Ganado’s in Valletta in future years?

This author believes that all of the above – not even all together – would cost as much as one dilapidated house, which the government acquired in Guardamangia to honour a former colonialist monarch.

Other notable sons of Malta

There are also a number of compatriots who did Malta honour overseas. Amongst these the composer who is revered at the Opéra de Paris, Nicolò Isouard Xuereb; royal ophthalmologist in the Court of Vienna Joseph Barth; Captain Juan Bautista Azopardo (1772- 1848), founder of the Argentine navy; and Luigi Calamatta, the Civitavecchia engraver who became the star of European arts in the 19th century. Others may include Giorgio Preca the artist who lived in Rome between 1956 and 1984; and Joseph Ruggier (Rogers) who saved lives of British sailors near Liverpool, remembered in a short story by Charles Dickens.

Additionally, quite a few others come to mind, including Edward Debono, the world famous lateral thinker who passed away in 2021, Andrea De Bono, Maltese explorer of the Nile (1821-1871) as well as James Martin, Maltese adventurer whose exploits in East Africa are worth noting in connection with colonialism.

An apt observation provokes a question: while Maltese society does not bat an eyelid to dish out millions of euros on one colonial personality’s residence – which will certainly not contribute to national identity formation – how come not a cent has been spent on any of these countrymen mentioned above, who would certainly stimulate national consciousness?

While waiting for King Charles III returning to Malta to visit this extravagant villa how many residences of Malta’s sons and daughters are going to be acquired and turned into museums for our Maltese children to appreciate and grow a sense of belonging to their nation?