Manwel Dimech: 100 years of amnesia. And defiance

100 years after Dimech’s death in exile in Egypt, JAMES DEBONO examines his legacy in a country that was more willing to commemorate Prince Philip’s passing than the cruel repudiation of Malta’s first true democrat 

Manwel Dimech, the first Maltese political activist to advocate for women’s suffrage, the foundation of a Maltese republic, a welfare state, and official recognition of the Maltese language, died in POW camp in Alexandria, Egypt on 17 April 1921, seven years after his arrest and exile by the British colonial government for “agitating” Dockyard workers and for holding anti-clerical and socialist principles.

So dangerous was Dimech considered to the Maltese and colonial establishments. that he was denied return to Malta back to his wife and three children, the eldest passing away during his absence.

His biographer, the Dominican friar Mark Montebello, kept Dimech’s memory alive and kicking. But the contrast in the commemoration of Queen Elizabeth’s consort, and the collective forgetfulness of the 100th anniversary from Dimech’s death, is a sad marker for a country which has forgotten Dimech.

“Not one single event, let alone an official one, was held to mark Dimech’s anniversary, while various activities, even official ones honoured the passing of the British queen’s consort,” Montebello wryly remarks. As the Maltese press hailed the passing of a “a dear friend of Malta” in a bid to evoke the royal connection to the island, Dimech was relegated to obscurity. “This is how a giant like Dimech is still treated by the present generation,” Montebello says.

It’s an episode that represents a “paradigm”, Montebello says: a narrative in which Dimech is periodically, and systematically excluded, even ejected from history, despite still haunting the establishment from the marginalized sidelines.

“Perhaps Dimech is most exalted when put down. For he remains the eternal foe of the pretentious as much as the friend of the lowly; the leader of fifth columnists. This is how Dimech must live on. Not watered-down or strewn on the cheap. He is too good for that.

“He remains forever the unadulterated voice of the people who are excluded from history, the anonymous and the dispossessed. Lip-service is not Dimech’s best armour, and never will be, neither to give it nor to receive it,” an impassioned Montebello told MaltaToday.

In a country which reveres power and salutes success in terms of money, status and votes, Manwel Dimech occupies a rare niche: a penniless activist and journalist who spoke truth to power, fought for change and ideals, eluded the great partisan split of his time (that between pro Italian and pro English parties) but still rattled the status quo by founding the popular Maltese newspaper il-Bandiera tal-Maltin, and cultivating an ephemeral following among the working class. Yet he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, pelted with stones and violently ejected from a society which rejected him before rediscovering him again, decades after his exile, and again through the next century.

Mark Montebello
Mark Montebello

A self-thought intellectual, he hailed from an impoverished and troubled childhood, which led him to petty crime and prison. Way ahead of his time, Dimech was more in tune with continental political thinking than the folk culture he resented – rather than celebrating the simplistic ways of the masses, so romanticised by religious and professional elites, he sought the emancipation of workers from their darkness. And this yearning for modernity and emancipation was best captured in the brutal and unforgiving writings of his most ardent of followers, the socialist writer Gwann Mamo, author of the satirical Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka.

He remains forever the unadulterated voice of the people who are excluded from history, the anonymous and the dispossessed Mark Montebello

How Dimech tried to emancipate the masses

In a society where the vast majority were illiterate, Dimech’s appeal to reason was “a revolutionary task”. It was this ability, says anti-poverty activist Matthew Borg, “to take the reader from point A to B by reasoning out”, that distinguished Dimech as a progressive thinker.

And it was this deficit, as addressed in Mamo’s Ulied..., in the way people and his contemporaries thought, that Dimech set out to correct. “His life was a continuous exercise to educate the masses without belittling or paternalizing,” Borg says, adding the role of Dimech’s ‘circle of the enlighetened’ – ix-Xirka tal-Imdawlin – to “democratically diffused political knowledge to the masses” in a process of empowerment.

Borg contrasts Dimech’s overriding concern with emancipation, with the dumbing down appeal of the modern political class. “They make no real effort to elevate political discourse for the masses to follow,” Borg complains. “Stuck in a conservative, parochial-style discourse which constantly moves away from the subject matter at hand, or which values truth according to which tribe one belongs to, they’re making sure the Ulied in-Nanna Venut saga continues.”

And as historian Henry Frendo observed in 1978: “impelled by his great wish to see the Maltese worker react intelligently instead of being forever led here and there”, Dimech insisted “that the worker should develop his self-respect, and behave not only as a worker but also, and not least, as a fully-fledged citizen.”

A ghost haunting the establishment

Despite his lingering influence on a minority of socialists from the nascent but clerically dominated Labour of the 1920s (before the Sedition Trials purges orchestrated by the same elites who condemned Dimech to exile), Dimech was ejected from collective memory; only to be slowly rediscovered by historians like Henry Frendo and Geraldu Azzopardi, and in more recent times Mark Montebello.

Dimech was posthumously promoted to Labour’s pantheon in the 1970s, earning him a Leninesque ‘monument’ in Castille square. It was a veritable irony to see the gentle scourge of the establishment transplanted right in front of the seat power, to even provide the backdrop for left-wing activists in the December 2019 anti-corruption protests.

Despite his resonance with with mainstream secular, republican and socialist, continental thinking, in Malta the radical Dimech remained the eternal outsider. “It was not Dimech who was born ahead of his time… He was born in exactly in the right time… it was his opponents who were a hundred years behind their time,” Montebello says.

But his ejection by the retrograde Maltese traditional elites turned him in to a role model for aspiring rebels in the next century; from the Għaqda Soċjalista Maltija in the 1920s to Moviment Graffitti in the mid-1990s, Dimech lived on and thrived in the periphery, a ghost who keeps haunting the establishment.

Since its inception in 1994, Moviment Graffitti has always identified with the historical figure of Manwel Dimech: the first generation of activists sported t-shirts of Dimech with the seminal quote: “We are the sworn enemies of the thieves in suits (ħallelin bil-ġlekk)”.

The prominent Graffitti activist Andre Callus says Dimech is frequently referred to in the group’s discourse, actions and imagery. “This affinity is due to both Dimech’s ideas as well as his organisational practices... When Graffitti was campaigning on LGBT rights, divorce and abortion, already in the mid-90s, activists must have felt a similarity between their radical activism in a stiffly conservative society and Dimech’s in the 1900s.”

Dimech’s defining characteristic – a desire to achieve change at a social level rather than the immediate seizure of formal, political power – makes him unique. “He’s one of the very few historical figures on the political Left in Malta who worked outside the framework of political parties... it chimes in with the political and organisational practices of Graffitti, as an organisation that is active politically, but outside the electoral sphere.”

Manwel Dimech

Born on Christmas day in 1860 in Valletta, Dimech lived the life of a street urchin, locked up first for petty theft at age 13. At 17 he was sentenced to 17 years’ jail for involuntary murder. In prison, he became a self-thought intellectual and polyglot. In 1890 he was jailed again for trading in counterfeit money, and was released at 36 in 1896. On his release, Dimech embarked on social and political activism, publishing Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin. It was in Italian towns like Genoa that he became acquainted with the nascent workers’ movements and trade unions, founding his Xirka tal-Imdawlin upon his return to Malta. Excommunicated in 1911 for holding “illuminist” beliefs, a year later he would be pelted by stones by a mob in Qormi. His excommunication was eventually lifted but Dimech’s growing influence in the Dockyard was of concern to the colonial authorities, who upon the start of WWI had him deported to Sicily. Dimech later moved to British-controlled Egypt where he was arrested again, spending the last seven years of his life imprisoned in P.O.W. camps in Alexandria where he died in 1921 after being repeatedly refused permission to return to Malta.