Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 6(1972)1(102-104)
HENRY FRENDO: Birth Pangs of a Nation — Manuel Dimech's Malta. Mediterranean Publications Ltd., Lux Press, Malta, 1972, 188 pp., illus.
Interest in the life and political activity of Pro/s. Emmanuel Dimech has been revived lately. This is partly due to Mr. Frendo whose earlier work, Lejn Tnissil ta' Nazzjon, was published in 1971. Frendo states that he intended to present "the genuine, objective expression and record of past events" so that by means of an objective exposition of the man and his works, he would be able to ensure the rehabilitation of Dimech. Frendo has sought to concentrate on Dimech's original contribution as a thinker and an activist. In fact the book lacks some factual precision in that there are certain aspects of Dimech's life, such as his criminal court cases, his imprisonment period, his years in exile and his family life, which have been quasi-completely ignored.
Nevertheless one cannot fail to realize that Dimech created a stir in his own days. Born in Valletta in 1860, Dimech was orphaned when still a very young child. He grew up in poverty. In 1878 he was found an accomplice in a murder and was condemned for twenty years imprisonment. He left prison in 1890 and emigrated to Tunis. Returning to Malta a few months later, he was re-imprisoned in 1891 for uttering counterfeit money. He was freed in 1898.
Prison was for Dimech a beneficial thing as it served to mould [p.103] his character and provide him with a unique education which later helped him to pose as a professur, a journalist and outstanding leader of the proletariat. In prison he was influenced by the chaplains .who allowed him the free perusal of their library.
Once out of prison, Dimech plunged into activity. Having mastered six languages, including German and Russian, he founded a private school which became known as Istitut Dimech. To help him in his teaching career, he published various teach-yourself books. He also wrote satirical poems criticising the Establishment, a short satirical story called Majsi Cutajar and a voluminous romance with a Russian background, Ivan u Pascovia. He started his journalistic career by publishing the weekly Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin, a newspaper which directed its criticism against the civil and ecclesiastical establishment. He also wrote articles in other papers. In 1911 he founded a society which became known as Ix-Xirka ta' l-Imdawlin (Society of the Enlightened) in order to promote popular agitation and political activity. The principles of this society were expounded in an important manifesto known as Is-Sisien tax-Xirka Maltija (1914). His followers soon became known as Dimechjani.
In 1905 Dimech proceeded to Genoa "to accomplish certain matters". While there he was influenced by Mazzinian activities and probably he took the opportunity to visit central Europe. Frendo also adds that in 1907 Dimech was probably in Northern Europe (p. 67). He was back in Malta in 1911 when because of his attacks against superstition, certain forms of religious practices and beliefs, the activity of certain members of the clergy and parochial antagonism, a pastoral letter was issued admonishing his papers to speak of ecclesiastical authority with reverence. Two pastoral letters condemned his liberal teaching and excommunicated him and his society for showing contempt for ecclesiastical authority.
Dimech's political activity attracted the attention of the working class and aroused the suspicion of the Establishment. He called the lower classes to unite in his Xirka the members of which were expected to be prepared to fight for their rights. Dimech spoke for social justice and the protection of workers, the setting up of craft-guilds, the emancipation of women, revolutionary education of youth, the reform of the courts and the prisons. He hoped to instil patriotism by encouraging his followers to appreciate Malta's national heritage, the Maltese flag and the Maltese language — he expected the Maltese to have their own national anthem and a standard orthography for their language.
The Dimechjani propagated Dimech's teaching even by holding corner meetings. They wanted Malta to be economically and politically autonomous. For this purpose they proposed to encourage local trade, to increase employment in the private industry and to diversify the economy [p.104] of Malta by boosting tourism. Dimech even thought of reviving the 'Maltese Navy'. He argued that Malta belonged to the Maltese and that the British had used it only for their own interest. He felt that the Maltese should even revolt to oust the British and that France should serve as a model for a Maltese Republic.
Such radical activity could not go unheeded by the British Colonial Government. During a protest march organized by the Dimechjani on the 23rd August, 1914, Dimech was arrested by the Police. He was soon shipped to Egypt where he spent the rest of his life in exile. In Egypt he made contacts with the Maltese novelist Juan Mamo and many Young Turks. He died in Alexandria on the 18th March, 1921.
Mr. Frendo took some pains to compile his book which also contains a review of the socio-political transition in Europe and the general situation in Malta during the 19th century. His research is based on interviews, Dimechian publications including newspapers and leaflets, recent articles in Labourite papers, Government reports and published works. Some unpublished departmental studies of the Department of History, R.U.M., were also found useful.
An objective historian, however, cannot fail to raise some points with regard to Frendo's work. Besides an abundance of mixed metaphors and a good many solecisms there are other failings which one hopes that Frendo would correct. Thus there is no exact information about Dimech's arrest and exile, (p. 158). The footnote on p. 58 seems to be misplaced:
it is rather an explanatory note related with the assertion rightly made by Frendo in p. 59, that Dimech was out of prison by 1898. Moreover the statement that the sculptor Vincenzo Dimech was probably Dimech's relative is only a plausible hypothetical conclusion (p. 56). So is the explanatory note on the Cover Picture (Cover 2). The reproduction of the stirring music of the Xirka's anthem is rather weak (p. 179).
It is earnestly hoped that research in official correspondence, Malta Government Records, Police Records and documents found in the P.R.O. London, will help to throw more light on Profs. Dimech and his Xirka ta' l-Imdawlin as well as their influence on the Maltese society.