Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Henry’s Europe and Empire

It is, I think, always refreshing to have professional historians proffer interpretations of history which cover bits and pieces of a canvas that gradually comes into focus as a recognisable and coherent picture. In the process there will be many overlapping, of course, and perhaps much repainting of patches here and there. Nevertheless, on the whole the general impression will be, at least where contemporary historians are concerned, a disclosure or unfolding of the rich and complex fabric of the socio-political memoirs of a self-discovering nation.

Henry Frendo’s 872-page Europe and Empire: Culture, politics and identity in Malta and the Mediterranean (Midsea Books, 2012) is certainly one worthy contribution to this endless and exiting exploration, covering more or less a third of the British period of our history (1912–1946).

Obviously, I cannot (and will not) offer an overall appreciation of the whole publication. Conscious of the fact that it comes from an experienced, highly-knowledgeable expert of Malta’s British period, like most of us I must approach my esteemed friend’s information-packed pages with an appropriate learning attitude. Nonetheless, I can (and will) tender a qualified appraisal of parts of the book, particularly those dealing with Manuel Dimech (1860–1921), whom I have been researching and studying intensely for the last twenty years or so. I do this solely for the sake of scholarship.

Europe and Empire deals with Dimech mainly in Chapter 5. With some additions and modifications here and there, the writing is substantially a reproduction of a four-part series of articles published by Frendo between 22 April and 13 May, 2001, in The Sunday Times. The supplementary information includes information extracted from Frendo’s own Story of a Book, which was published in 1972.

What I found immediately captivating (even back in 2001) is the detailed background information which Frendo provides regarding the conditions at Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr prison-camp when Dimech was held there between 1917 and 1921 (pp. 110–4). Indeed, I do not expect less from Frendo, for he is, I gather, thoroughly cognizant of the documents related to the British Foreign and Colonial Offices of the period. So much so that he is one of the very few, I think, who can unequivocally and authoritatively state that “Dimech was the only Maltese deportee in the [First World] war” (p. 114; emphasis mine).

Of course, such background information, which is often not directly related to one’s main interest of study, is invaluable, and can generally only come, in the long run, from experts who consistently attempt to see the wider picture of their story. Nonetheless, such information must also be dealt with cautiously, for rush conclusions in this regard can be out of kilter. Frendo’s Chapter 5 of Europe and Empire seeks to indicate that “it was under pressure from the local episcopacy that Governor Plumer continued resisting decisions taken in London and in Cairo that Dimech be allowed to return home [...] after the Great War” (pp. 146–7). Specifically, Frendo has in mind Mgr. Angelo Portelli O.P., Malta’s Auxiliary Bishop between 1911 and 1927 (pp. 136–7).

This is not merely speculation (which one might appreciate). It is a very serious allegation. However, does Frendo conclusively prove his case?

When dealing directly with it (pp. 118–9; 136–7; 144; 146–7), Frendo is only in a position to state that “it would be unreasonable to discount the very real possibility that [etc.]” (p. 118). Apart of the fact that it is quite reasonable that many very real impossible things in history come about, a ‘very real possibility’ can never count as historical proof. And Frendo does not supply any whatsoever. Amazingly enough, to make his point Frendo only cites (p. 137) Robert Mifsud Bonnici, who in his National Biobiographical Dictionary (1960) had arbitrarily stated that Mgr. Portelli “fought and destroyed Manuel Dimech” (“ikkumbatta u ġarraf lil Manwel Dimech”)! Frankly, this is tar baby.

Anyone will know that historical exactitude necessitates proof. And yet, even when this is available and had been made public long ago, Frendo sometimes overlookes it.

For instance, from what is positively documented it is incorrect (or, at best, inaccurate) to state that:

  • “little is known about [Dimech’s] family” (p. 96; much is known and published); 
  • he “fell in with [...] gamblers” (p. 96; this had been just gossip); 
  • in 1890 he went to Tunis “trying his luck” (p. 97; he was forced to leave); 
  • while in prison (1891–97) he acquired his education “in the chapel” (p. 97; he consistently refused to go the chapel during this period); 
  • after 1897 he taught “working and lower middle-class children” (p. 97; the fees he charged barred such children from his classes); 
  • he had “four children” (p. 97; he had six); 
  • his “final release [was in] 1898 (p. 97; it was in 1897); 
  • that he travelled to Italy “around 1905” (p. 97; he went in 1906); 
  • he was excommunicated “after several warnings” (p. 102; no warnings had ever been issued); 
  • during his excommunication his “teaching classes suffered” (p. 102; they did not suffer: they had stopped completely); 
  • during the same time “Xirca membership dwindled” (p. 102; it did not dwindle: the Xirca was halted altogether); 
  • Dimech believed in the “perfectibility of man” (p. 107; contrary to this, he believed in empowerment); 
  • in 1912 he “begged the bishop’s pardon” (p. 107; Dimech never did such a thing); 
  • for some time Juan Mamo “served within [Dimech’s] internment compound” (p. 110; this never happened); 
  • the sequence of events from July 1920 to April 1921 “needs to be recorded” (p. 119; this has already been exhaustively done); 
  • in 1915 Dimech was “apparently” sent to a lunatic asylum (p. 122; this is not apparent: it is historically proved); or 
  • during his deportation (1914) it “seems” that Dimech was not always kept in confinement (p. 122; this does not seem: it too has been historically proved).

Though erudite contributions such as Frendo’s are always welcome, I believe that the highly developed state of Dimechian studies today cannot afford any more analytical investigations which are not, at least academically, as accurate as possible.

Published in The Times of Malta, 20 June, 2012, p. 11.

See also Prof. Henry Frendo's response (The Times of Malta, 22 June, 2012) by clicking here

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