Malta’s leap in the dark | Peter Apap Bologna

Not all tears shed on Independence Day in 1964 were tears of joy at Malta’s newfound autonomy. Peter Apap Bologna talks about the mixed feelings of jubilation, nostalgia and apprehension that also accompanied Malta’s giant leap into the unknown

Forty-eight years ago last Friday, the Union flag was lowered - and the Maltese flag raised in its stead - during a formal ceremony on the expanse now known as the Independence Arena in Floriana.

Those who were not yet born (myself included) have to rely on inherited memory to recapture the atmosphere of that occasion: mostly a collage of images such as the iconic photograph of Prime Minister George Borg Olivier waving the instruments of Independence.

But while these may evoke part of the zeitgeist of the moment, they certainly do not give a complete picture of what Independence actually signified to thousands of Maltese citizens at the time. Omitted entirely from the 'Independence Family Album' were the often unruly protests on Kingsway and the Mall in Floriana: led by Opposition leader Dom Mintoff, who urged his supporters to "show their displeasure" at the same cause that others were celebrating.

Even less has been recorded about the sheer apprehension many people felt at the time, at the very idea of a future Malta left to fend for herself, after 164 years of almost total dependence on Great Britain.

It is rumoured that even among Borg Olivier's own entourage there were those who muttered darkly about the impossibility of survival without the Royal Navy presence in the Dockyard... and simmering all along in the background were unspoken fears of political reprisals, should the Labour Party (whose executive council, including Mintoff, was still under excommunication edict at the time) ever come into power without a British governor to keep the local government in check.

In fact, while Independence continues to be celebrated today almost as a formality, there is little to show how very emotional the entire episode must have been for people on both sides of the divide.

One man who is perhaps better positioned than most to appreciate this is Peter Apap Bologna, whose close ties with both the pro-British Strickland family and the Borg Olivier-led administration - even with Mintoff himself, albeit to a lesser degree - enabled him to experience the vastly different reactions first hand.

A retired chartered accountant about to publish his first novel - which he describes as a 'political thriller set in the inter-war years in Europe' - Apap Bologna remembers the events of 21 September 1964 well.

"On the actual night, my mother had given a dinner party at Villa Apap Bologna (Attard). The guests included the new American Ambassador George Feldman and his wife Marian... also I think Antonio Dazzi, the first Italian Ambassador," he recalls today, 48 years later.

"Roger Strickland was at that dinner too, and afterwards he invited us to the roof of the Phoenicia Hotel to watch the ceremony in the Independence arena below."

Nephew to former Prime Minister Lord Strickland, Roger was (like his uncle) a former Constitutional Party leader and a resolute believer in Malta as a permanent asset to the British crown.

He was hardly alone in this respect: ironically, the Labour Party under Mintoff shared a similar belief; and after the demise of the Constitutional Party, many 'Stricklandjani' gravitated towards Labour, attracted by Mintoff's short-lived proposal for full Integration with Great Britain. 

Whether Roger Strickland was himself among their number is not entirely clear: but his opinion of Independence from Britain was clearly far removed from the prevailing nationalist enthusiasm of the day... as a detail from Apap Bologna's memory clearly illustrates.

"I was standing next to him on the roof of the Phoenicia, as the Maltese flag went up and the Union Jack came down. There was a tremendous atmosphere: the crowd was cheering and clapping, and I was overcome by a sense of pride. I felt a few tears rolling down my cheeks, and looking up at Roger, I saw that he was more or less sobbing too. I thought they were tears of joy, like mine...until he said: 'This is the saddest day of my life'..."

Peter Apap Bologna recalls being flabbergasted to discover that other people would react so differently. "But looking back I was also quite naïve - I was only 23 at the time..."

Still, it remains difficult to appreciate the reaction today, so many years after the concept of 'British Malta' has faded quietly into the past. But Independence did not only usher in the excitement of a 'new' Malta (much of which still needed to be built from scratch): it also marked the beginning of the end of a special relationship that had lasted over 160 years.

In complete contrast, Apap Bologna also remembers the private reaction of George Borg Olivier himself: the architect of Malta's Independence, and leader of the 'Nationalist' Party when the word was still interpreted literally.

"The next night I think it was, there was a state ball at the Palace in Valletta. At the end, when more or less everyone had gone, I was in the reception room behind the throne room with George Borg Olivier (he never liked to leave a party). I offered him a cigarette... his favourite brand, Papastratos Number One, which my family imported at the time... and we stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the Main Guard. And there, flying proudly, was the Maltese flag. I said something to that effect. He turned to me, tears streaming down his cheeks, and said: "Din L-isbah gurnata ta hajti. L'iktar haga li dejjem xtaqt."(This is the happiest day of my life... the one thing I have always dreamed of...) I felt very proud to be with him at that moment, and to share in that happiness..."

All along, however, there was cognisance that once the celebrations subsided, attention would have to revert to the many, pressing problems that inevitably come with a nation's newfound sovereignty.

Peter Apap Bologna was himself a close personal friend of the Borg Oliviers, but he was not blind to the many faults of the PN administration of the day - and while he left the country altogether in 1973, at the height of Mintoff's nationalisation drive, he acknowledges that many of Mintoff's subsequent reforms were necessary... though his metho ds were often extreme.

"I think the 1971 election, won by only three votes in Zebbug, was a result of a combination of factors: mainly the complacency and apathy of the Nationalist Government; and the refusal of the British Labour Government to subsidise the rundowns of the Dockyard," he recalls. "[British High Commissioner, also Peter's father-in-law] Sir Geofroy Tory, in his valedictory report of 1970, stated to his masters in Whitehall that they were handing Mintoff the election for the sake of half a million pounds... and that they would live to regret it - though not in these words, obviously. But he did see it coming, and we often spoke about it..."

Paradoxically, Borg Olivier himself was also among those who 'saw it coming'. In an anecdote which (I think) says much about the general flavour of the 1960s, Peter Apap Bologna remembers being taken aback by a conversation he had at a wedding reception towards the end of the decade.

"I was talking to a very prominent Nationalist businessman, who casually told me: 'You do realise we will be voting for Mintoff at the next election, don't you...?'"

He was surprised at the time... but his surprise multiplied exponentially when, a few weeks later, he met the Prime Minister and told him about the incident without mentioning names.

"Not only was he not in the least surprised, but he even told me that 'there has to a change in government every now and again, for democracy to remain healthy'..."

Apap Bologna also acknowledges that the PN government had disillusioned quite a few people by failing to address a number of key issues: among them, poverty and a widespread sense of disgruntlement at social inequality. But while class was clearly an issue, it wasn't the be-all and end-all of Malta's future political fortunes.

"In the 1960s people were much more formal: 'sinjur' and 'sinjura' was normal when addressing the upper classes. The class distinctions were much more clearly defined than they are today, but at the same time the classes lived quite happily side by side. So no, I don't think there was any sort of class war among the Maltese at the time, though the 'sixpenny settlers' were resented by the poorer classes, as property prices soared."

The reference is to a preferential tax-rate scheme offered by Borg Olivier to attract rich foreigners to take up residence in Malta. The term became part of the political lexicon of the day, and helped foster a mentality of 'us against them' - though Peter Apap Bologna hastens to add that this resentment was more perceived than real: fanned, perhaps, for political advantage.

But there were other issues hovering in the background. Mintoff was incensed by the way the dockyard workers and service employees were treated as a result of rundowns at the shipyards: the older ones being particularly threatened, as they could not find alternative jobs, and were too old to emigrate.

"He was quite right to be angered about this," Apap Bologna adds.

Mintoff himself also elicited mixed reactions. Despite the anti-British tone that crept into his rhetoric after the failure of Integration in the late 1950s, Apap Bologna remembers him as heavily influenced by his own stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

"Mintoff had an English mentality.... he was a Fabian radical. He had lots of English friends, and even his adversaries like Lord Carrington and Admiral Templeton-Cottill liked him personally. He could have charming manners, and I think all the bluster and rudeness was put on, though it became habitual as the years went by..."

Apap Bologna recalls a small incident which may well capture part of the national mood, as the post-Independence boom started to subside towards the end of the decade: "I was driving into Lija, without realising that there was a mass meeting going on at the time. There were police everywhere, so I pulled over to the side of the road. From where I was I could hear Mintoff addressing the meeting quite clearly. At one point I heard him telling the crowd: 'Who do you think will feed you when the British are gone? The Cassars Torregianis? The Apap Bolognas? Who?"

Though his own family had been dragged into the equation in this way, Peter Apap Bologna nonetheless absolves Mintoff of the charge of 'preaching class hatred'.

"I think 'hatred' is too strong a word for it... bitterness, perhaps? But certainly there was a big gap between the haves and the have-nots, and people responded as they grew aware. Here they saw was someone [Mintoff] who was finally going to do something about it. The Nationalists had ignored this problem for too long..."