Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Malta and The Royal Navy

Looking at the current developments in Zimbabwe and listening to the news here in Britain, one realised how short the collective memory of a nation's printed media can be. I am not defending the current government of Zimbabwe; I just mentioning that Britain used to have a certain policy towards Rhodesia that should have made it difficult for the not to feel a bit guilty today.

Trawling through the archives I found what was a typical example of Colonial Condescending Attitude and Racism: not against Africans but against Maltese. With the threat of War with Italy serious and the re-armament of Britain there was a suggestion that the Royal Navy (R.N) should offer the ability to Maltese to enlist since:

· The Royal Navy Dockyard was the main economic activity on the island and Maltese

· The Economy of the Island was affected by the decision of the R.N to abandon Malta as the main base of the Mediterranean Fleet

· There were already substantial number of Maltese in the R.Non non-permanent contracts as seamen of stokemen

This made sense to all: several Maltese needed work, and the R.N. needed bodies. All the R.N. needed to do was to allow permanent employment of Maltese in all occupations.

Unfortunately the racism of the R.N. officers would not allow such a win / win solution to take place. The late Admiral of the Fleet John D. Kelly, vehemently opposed the plan (any emphasis in the original):

“lower classes of Malta are not white men and as for the possibility… of putting them in position of command over bluejackets [British sailors], any officer who has had management of a mess of the Mediterranean station could testify as to the endless friction which exists between the war room servants and the Maltese messmen.”

Not only that the Admiral also rejected the proposal arguing that the Maltese were not to be relied in combat:

“They lack “guts” and initiative. They are steady, sober, docile and not perceptive lazier than the average white man in the same climate. Their virtues, however, fade into nothingness the moment their skins are in danger, or worse, the moment they think their skins are in danger.”

He goes on to provide personal experiences of the Maltese cowardly under combat. Sadly even figures such as the Vice Admiral of Malta W.T.R. Ford, who had a great experience with working with Maltese men as the superintendent of the Dockyard in the Grand Harbour argued meekly that the views expressed over the Maltese work ethic:

“Are not the shared by myself… however the Maltese “are not endowed with the qualities of courage or coolness in danger, and recently on the occasion of the mining of “Hunter” some Maltese stewards or cooks did hump overboard without order and without necessity.

The idea was dropped.

What saddened me reading such comments is not so much the arrogance and the painting of a whole nation with a single derogatory brushstroke; what saddens me is the realisation of how ingrained was the feeling of superiority within the British Colonial system. With the exception of newly colonised territories, Britain could have so easily turned the Maltese into being more grateful by simply accepting their services that Britain needed.

But they could not do it – the real problem was not the fighting qualities of the Maltese (who I don’t blame for not wanting to die fighting a war they did not understand): it was that the British admirals simply refused to accept that a British man or the lower ranks, could at one day ordered by a person from the colonies.


Seven years later King George V presented the St. Georges cross to the whole island of Malta to 'bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people' during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War Two. It took the necessity of the Second World War for British officers to break their iron wall of prejudice.

4 comments:

rebecca said...

I'm just wondering whether it makes any difference if people belong to the same race, or country, or group or if it is just an excuse to act like they want to anyway; we can always make up similarities and differences in our minds to achieve a purpose, consciously or not.

Alexander Apostolides said...

I think it was important for the Generals not to see British people under the "Thumb" of a colonial - even if that person was competent.

Pawlu said...

Well Alexander
We Maltese do not care about our dominators. We had the Phoenicians, Carthanigians,the Romans, The Greeks, the Arabs, The Normans, The Knights of St John Order, The French and the British. Now for the first time ever Malta belongs to the natives (40% is government owned) 60% is owned by Maltese private with some foreign ownership. Te ownership of Malta is of the Maltese natives. We are now in the UE. I am proud to be like you Mediterranean with mixed Mediterranean (European and North Afraican and ME stock). We were the most independent between 1964 to 2004 until we are within the EU framework in the world of interdependence. The Maltese collaborated with all superpowers for they needed us and we thrived with their economic, social needs at the time. A Greek Green Grocer in 1990 had told me that it was only the Maltese Prime Minister in 1972 (Dom Mintoff) were acquired Pd Stg 14mn p.a. for 7 years from the NATO and Britain."Look at us Greek Cypriots the Brits let the Turkish forces land on their bases and look what we now have a divided Cyprus???!!!" Now in 1999the Brits HSBC have bought back for a low price a local Maltese bank (Formerly owned by Barclays in 1970)and they harvested its profits out of our country. They collaborated with a few that ruled the local government then. Thsi bank controls more than half of local property and business assets.70% of Maltese own their porperty,we have free state health, free state education and in the 1970s had heavily subsidized home rents of state appartments. Now the property prices (with 20% State Taxes incorporated financed by the banking sector) have quadrupled and our young couples cannot afford to buy their own property unless they are helped by their parents/relatives. Separation among couples is 20%,birthr outside marriage rising, the Mediterranean family culture is gone and we have lost our traditional family clans.

Alexander Apostolides said...

Loads of things there Pawlu so i will break them up:

1)The dependence on military expenditure was a double edged sword:
although it ensured a rapid growth of population it did not ensure a good standard of living - GDP per capita in PPP terms was equal to the very underdeveloped Cyprus. For more see Fenech, D., Responsibility and Power in Inter-war Malta. Book One: Endemic Democracy 1919 – 1930, (San Gwann: PEG, 2005)

2) The problems of Malta and Cyprus are very different simply because of the two communities looking at two different countries (greece and turkey as their mother country)

3) the social problems you are describing are universal but it think Malta has nothing to fear - it has a strong enough identity to stand out in the globalized world.