Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 2(1956)1(55-56)

[p.55] Reviews 1956

Harrison Smith, Britain in Malta. 2v. Malta, Progress Press, 1953.

The two volumes on Britain in Malta by last year’s Fulbright Lecturer in History at the Royal University of Malta form a major contribution to the study of 19th Century Malta. Since the War there has been a growing awareness that the best way of filling in the gaps of Maltese History is to specialise in one particular period or aspect. Architecture and Emigration, to mention two specialised topics, have engaged the attention of students whose publications will continue to be considered as standard works for many years to come. The study of 19th Century political and constitutional history bristles with difficulties and writers before Harrison Smith had only attempted to treat the subject sketchily in general works, such as Laferla in British Malta (2v.). Professor Harrison Smith brought a trained mind to bear on the various aspects of this important subject, and his researches have added considerably to our knowledge of what so far has been the bête noire of Maltese historians.

Both volumes were prepared as theses, and the presentation of the subject matter suffers from too many quotations and reproduction of lengthy extracts that make the book difficult to digest. Volume I, which treats of “Constitutional Development of Malta in the Nineteenth Century,” “was originally prepared as a dissertation in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate School of Georgetown University,” while Volume II, dealing with Italian Influence on British Police in Malta 1899-1903 was a “these présentée à la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Fribourg (Suisse) pour obtenir le grade de docteur.” That such a work could have been undertaken in America, so far away from the main scene of the political and constitutional struggle it relates, is an eloquent proof of the thorough bibliographical apparata provided in American libraries. Both primary and secondary sources were available in the new world, as one can see from the extensive bibliographies to both volumes. To write the second volume the author came to Europe in 1950 and 1951 and examined research material in Valletta, Rome and London. Professor Harrison Smith was particularly lucky in gaining access, as he tells us, to the diplomatic correspondence of the Royal Italian Government, which has never been brought to light. Extracts from the Italian Government’s Diplomatic and Consular Correspondence are, in fact, given in the form of a useful Appendix to the second volume.

In some cases the author rightly gives an appraisal of his sources for the benefit of his readers. Thus on page 71 (Vol. I) he refers in a footnote to Umberto Galeota’s publication Malta, Fiore del Mondo (Napoli, 1940) and then adds: “The reader is presumed to note the dates of these Italian sources and give due allowance for the era in which they were turned out.” Again he says of Pietro Silvio Rivetta, the Fascist author of Il Centauro Maltese (Milano, 1940) “This author has given way from dispassionate objectivity to violent, poetic hysteria” (p. 116). A greater familiarity with the Maltese psychological background and a better knowledge of Malta generally would no doubt have enabled Professor Harrison Smith to weigh more carefully the statements of impassioned politicians before attaching to them a greater value than they in fact deserve. It would also have enabled him to avoid such pitfalls as the following obvious historical errors: “Around 480 B.C. the Carthaginians ...... invaded the islands under the legendary leadership of Hannibal” (Introd., Vol I, p.xii), or that “in 1571 the seat of the Government was moved from Citta Notabile to Valletta City” (ibid, p. xv). It is common knowledge that when the Order came to Malta in 1530 it established its seat of government at Birgu and not at Imdina. Other points calling for correction may be mentioned. The date of Napoleon’s arrival off Malta was the 9th June, 1798, not the 12th, as stated in the Introduction (p. xv). Mikiel Anton Vassalli, quoted as “a distinguished historian of the Order” (ibid, p. xv, n. 2) was a grammarian and lexicographer, not a historian; the name should read G.A. Vassallo. As regards the Maltese Language, the author was very unlucky in his sources. Basing himself on such 20th Century non-Maltese unscholarly writers as John Wignacourt he gives it as a fact that “It is now becoming accepted that the Maltese language, like its people, is descended from the Phoenicians” (Vol. I, p. 109). In point of fact, the latest scientific study of the language has debunked the Phoenician theory, but recent material on the subject was inaccessible to the author who, as an afterthought it seems, in a footnote on p. 118, writes: “For additional information as to the origin and linguistic composition of the Maltese language, the reader is referred to Prof. J. Aquilina’s “The Maltese Language” (Malta, 1940) and a number of linguistic studies published in Scientia, Malta,” a reference which can be extended to other articles [p.56] published in “ORBIS”—Bulletin International de Documentation Linguistique” (Louvain). It is also surprising to learn (p. 119) that in addition to Malta and Gozo, the Maltese Archipelago comprises “the minor rocks Cominetto, Filfla, Pietra Nera, Scognilo Marfa (!) Salmonetta and Hagiratal (!).

Professor Harrison Smith goes out of his way to stress that his thesis “does not purport to be a definitive or objective work on the subject of the history of the Church vs the state in Malta.” In point of fact, however, he has covered the ground pretty well and the main points are all there. Of course he was working under a drawback, for he tells us: “The Hankey Mission Papers were not available, the Vatican conversations between Maitland-Consalvi are not available; and the paucity of material available in America precludes more than references to the issues” (p. 81). The subject of Church vs State relations has been imperfectly treated by historians so far and it is only recently that it has received any serious attention. Mgr. A. Bonnici’s studies on “Reasons for the delay in the appointment of Bishop F.S. Caruana,” published in Melita Historica, Vol. I, No. 3; and his unpublished lectures on the Oath Question and on the Church and the Freedom of the Press in Malta throw much new light on this hitherto dark corner of Maltese History.

A pleasant feature of the work is the sound judgment displayed by the author in summing up events and trends in happily phrased sentences, as well as the correct stress on essentials. We give a few examples: “There have been many false starts (i.e. of political self government) under Imperial Britain” (Introd., p. X). “Malta went straight from medieval feudalism into the status of royal absolutism without any of the intervening steps that characterised European development — the reformation, the rise of the bourgeoisie or the development of municipal government” (n. 8). The civil governor system was swept aside in 1858 “on the notion that Malta is to live and breathe for the sake of military expediency” (p.42). “ ...... During the eighties and after the publication of the Keenan Report on languages, the party system was born in nineteenth century Malta. The Constitution was never altered to conform with the two-party principle.” (p. 54). Bishop Caruana “sought to keep the clergy out of politics, a fact not always appreciated by certain Italian politicians in Malta” (p. 83). Speaking about the language question he writes that in 1901 “the Governor doubtless took pleasure in his despatch when he wrote that over eighty per cent of the speeches defending Italian had to be delivered to the crowd in Maltese — in order that it might know the subject of the meeting” (p. 214). Serious-minded Maltese will not quarrel with his concluding remarks: “While Malta was too often treated as a mere pawn in European geographic and strategic chess boards Malta also was the victim of short-sighted Maltese politicians, a fact more easily seen now in the light of world developments than was evident in 1903. Malta was to enter the twentieth century with a heritage of political strife and a deep seated constitutional bitterness far in excess of that of most other colonial out-works of empire and was to wreck subsequent constitutions with the bitter forces lingering from her nineteenth century political ruins” (p. 239).

On reading this work, various subjects suggest themselves for more specialised biographical treatment. There is a general dearth of well-documented, authentic biographies of important people in Malta, and this is especially true of such 19th Century politicians as Camillo Sciberras, Giorgio Mitrovich, Sigismondo Savona, Fortunato Mizzi and Sir Gerald (later Lord) Strickland. Students of local history will no doubt look forward to Professor Harrison Smith’s announced biography of Lord Strickland.

It is a pity that such an important work as Britain in Malta is not provided with an index.

J.[oseph] C.[assar] P.[ullicino]