The long road to independence | Henry Frendo

Sunday’s celebrations marked the culmination of a process that began many centuries earlier. Historian and author Prof. HENRY FRENDO outlines the roadmap that led to independence in 1964

“The yearning for autonomy in Malta goes back a very long time. I won’t go as far as to call it a yearning for ‘independence’; but the desire to be more autonomous, to be less repressed, to be more in charge of local affairs, that takes us back a long way.”

Prof. Frendo is perhaps in an ideal situation to walk us through this process. As professor of history at the University of Malta he has researched and written extensively about the subject: covering all aspects of Malta’s political evolution under such titles as ‘Origins of Maltese Statehood’ and biographies of George Borg Olivier, Censu Tabone, among other key figures in the dramatis personae.

Yet he surprises me by pointing much further back in our history in search of the roots of yesterday’s celebrations. “You have a sense of belonging to this ‘patria’ which goes back to the 16th century.
I can quote you Maltese authors of the 16th century who refer to Malta as ‘Patria Mea Dolcissima’: my dearest homeland… and even earlier: if you look back at the uprising against Don Gonsalvo Monroy [in 1450]… he was a feudal lord who was taxing the population unduly…”

Underpinning these events was a conscious demand for greater recognition as a nation.

“It goes back to various instances, even during the period of the Knights: the troubles with Lascaris, the uprising of the priests in 1775… then the French period, of course: when you had a popular armed insurrection by the Maltese population for the first and last time in history. This required a lot of mobilisation, a lot of organisation. ”

The uprising against the French lasted two years, and cost thousands of Maltese lives. It is here that Prof. Frendo discerns an early inception of a sense of statehood among the Maltese: even if it would take another two centuries to concretise into any clear notion of a Maltese state.

“In 1778 Malta was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. So before the Maltese leadership of the Congresso Nazionale could invite Admiral Nelson to blockade the French in the harbours, they had first to request permission from the King of the Two Sicilies. Which they did. If you read the exchanges of correspondence, you will see how they refer to themselves as ‘vassalli fedelissimi’ of the King. And the King, in granting them permission, did so on that presumption: that they would remain loyal subjects, and that Malta would revert to his kingdom in spite of the British intervention. In fact Queen Carolina was quite livid, when she discovered that the British had usurped the sovereignty of the fiefdom.”

This period is particularly interesting because it takes place against the backdrop of a crumbling world order. Malta was effectively embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, which marked a transition between Europe’s former feudal economic system and a more modern world in which the major power brokers were radically different from their predecessors. Reversion to the previous feudal system was not really possible with the seismic changes ushered in after the French Revolution.

“The French in many ways tried to modernise Malta in this sense: on his brief sojourn here, Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the inquisition, he abolished slavery… he tried to introduce educational institutions on the French model. It didn’t work, of course, because the French did not have the wherewithal to finance these reforms. This happened all over Europe: they would go in, and then depend on loot and plunder to finance their schemes.”

In the Maltese context this famously involved ransacking churches, which sparked outrage. But acting on this outrage demanded organisation, which in turn breeds a sense of civic consciousness.

“Yet when the British came, the French capitulated to the British, not to the Maltese. The Maltese were excluded from the capitulation for which they had fought and died. This sense of betrayal, this yearning for recognition and self-esteem, was immediately aroused in the Congresso Nazionale. If you look at the petitions to London going back to the early 19th century: what were the requests? – that there would be a ‘consiglio popolare’; that the Maltese would be granted a Constitution, more autonomy, and so on. It didn’t happen for another half a century. They also insisted on the abolition of censorship, which came about in 1839… and on the right to vote, which they got in 1849.”

It was admittedly not the same form of vote we now associate with democracy: for one thing, one had to qualify for a vote… most commonly by owning property. Nonetheless it represented participation in the election of a council of administration, even if on a minority basis.

“Having a vote also meant you would have individuals, and later parties, which would contest the elections. It also meant you had newspapers which would report those parties’ manifestos. In the legislature you could have speeches reported in these newspapers, which would be read in the coffee shops, even to illiterates. The value of cartoons was highly important at the time. You could get a political message even if you didn’t know how to read. All this contributed to the formation of a public opinion.”

From 1880 onwards, the mobilisation of political parties assumed a much deeper significance in the political fabric of the island. “There was the Nationalist party led by Fortunato Mizzi, and the Reformist Party under Sigismondo Savona… both basically mobilised by British policy to anglicise the island as much as possible: in education, in public administration, in the fiscal system; to some extent also in the law courts and the judiciary. Shortly after Italian unification, of course… which was a new threat to British interests.”

Yet at the time, the concept of Malta as an independent country was alien even to the Nationalist Party. So what were they actually asking for?

“Not sovereignty, certainly. They would have been laughed out of the room if they did. What they wanted was representative government: preferably responsible government. But the main demand throughout the 1880s was for a constitution better than the one of 1849, under which Maltese representatives were in a minority. And this was achieved in 1887, when Britain granted representative government. For the first time there was a Maltese majority in the council of government; though of course the Governor was still in the chair, and could still veto legislation. But you can see a linear progression. If you plotted a graph, the direction would come out very clearly.”

And even though independence was still far from being conceivable, there were occasional flashes of revolutionary feeling even in the late 19th century.

“There were instances that have been more or less hushed up. On 8 September, 1885, Fortunato Mizzi delivered a highly seditious speech on the Palace Square, in which he demanded a ‘national day’ – which we still don’t have, incidentally. Our national day would have been Otto Settembre, commemorating the victory of the Knights over the Turks in 1565. To emphasise matters, one of Mizzi’s colleagues on the rostrum shouted: ‘Malta e’ dei Maltesi, non degli Inglesi. Fuori lo straniero!’ [Malta belongs to the Maltese, not to the English. Out with the foreigners!] One pro-British member of the audience went running to the Governor to report the incident and get him arrested…”

Nonetheless, Frendo adds that Malta’s status as a fortress colony made any real demand for independence impossible until much later. Malta’s strategic importance to the British – which in the 19th century was still very relevant – would automatically override all other concerns.

“No party would have been bold or foolhardy enough to demand sovereignty in 1887. That came much later. The first attempt to open up Maltese governance to a greater institutional autonomy came in 1933: after the Statute of Westminster, in 1931, had established the Dominions – namely, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. – and granted them autonomy almost on a par with independence within the Commonwealth. The Nationalist administration at the time – Sir Ugo Mifsud, Enrico Mizzi, and so on – tried to get Malta out of its Colonial Office status, and instead link it to the Dominion Office. They went up to London, and submitted a memorandum to the colonial secretary. But of course Britain would not hear of it in 1932. Instead, the entire Constitution was revoked. So much for Dominion Status…”

At this point it becomes impossible to imagine what Malta would be like today had they been successful. Nonetheless these failed attempts also set the tone for the subsequent independence debate 30 years later, culminating in the permanent lowering of the Union Jack at the Mall in Floriana on 21 September, 1964.