A tale of two statues

The past has happened: nothing and no one can un-happen it. Some historians do try!

Readers will have noticed that I am partial to a quote or three every so often. Over the last few days, one in particular has kept creeping into my mind. It’s from the great English writer Samuel Butler (the 19th century one) and it reads: “it has been said that, though God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence.”

That comment has been recurring because I have been interested by the ongoing debate about the existence of that statue of Queen Victoria in the middle of Valletta. I distinguish it as a debate, basically to be polite but it’s more of a monologue really, and I have to admit that I cannot decide whether it amuses me or bemuses me. It does however raise some intriguing issues.

“… God cannot alter the past, historians can.” A profound thought but demonstrably untrue. The past has happened: nothing and no one can un-happen it. Some historians do try! Boy, they really are trying! Of course, they know they can’t change the past. What they can do – usually when they have a book to market or some other personal academic axe to grind – is to attempt to persuade everyone else that their view or interpretation of history is the ultimate authorised version and that all others are to be disregarded, dismissed, and disposed of. It is right to be extremely wary of this approach. Another quote: this time from the highly respected and authoritative husband and wife team Will and Ariel Durant: “History is mostly guessing, the rest is prejudice.” Since the Durants were the co-authors of the positively magisterial 11-volume The Story of Civilisation, I think we can safely assume they knew their history.

Now, I have nothing against guesswork and prejudice. I rather enjoy mine. But, cynic that I am, I find it amusing when so-called experts allow these fripperies to override the essential realities of objective thinking, rational analysis, and plain common sense which should surely be the very heart of any academic discipline. So much for the fun factor!

As for my bemusement over the issue of Queen Victoria’s statue, given Malta’s history over several centuries it is not difficult to understand, and possibly sympathise, with the fact that many Maltese dislike, or even detest, their colonial past and resent any symbol that reminds them of it. What bemuses me is this emphasis on Queen V’s portrayal when, just a few minutes walk away, there is another more recent statue of a man who, perhaps more than any other, typifies the colonial exploitation of Malta. And, what’s more, he did it personally, hands on and on the spot. I refer, of course, to Fra Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, and hero of the Great Siege of 1565. The Order of St John? De la Valette? Colonial oppressors? This is surely verging on heresy!

But let us be dispassionate and examine historical fact objectively. The Order of St John was a religious and military hegemony composed primarily of aristocrats from assorted European countries (Malta not included) who took the Cross to combat the Ottoman Empire in Outremer. Having failed there, the Order was homeless until 1530 when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them the island of Malta, presumably as a consolation prize for coming second against the Turks.

There is absolutely nothing on record to indicate that there was any attempt to take account of the views or wishes of the Maltese people about their home being handed over to foreign interests. There was no prior consultation and the Maltese were not even informed about it in advance. That, my friends, is textbook colonialism.

The Order’s possession of Malta was to last 268 years. It is only fair to acknowledge that it began reasonably well, reaching its peak a mere 35 years later when the Order’s Knights and the Maltese people combined to fight off the huge invasion force sent by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman. The Great Siege, as it became known, made de la Valette a great European hero, focused international attention on this tiny archipelago, and, of course, gave Malta a name for its new capital city.

However, one could reasonably point out that the Great Siege would never have happened had Suleiman not finally lost his patience with the Order’s policy that the best way of continuing its struggle against the Ottoman was piracy.

Be that as it may, it was undoubtedly a great military victory which emphasised the Order’s claim to represent the ideals of the great Monks of War. But, while men like de la Valette were undoubtedly good at the war bit, they were rather less successful in the garb of monks. Church rules of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience and the behaviour of the knights made for uncomfortable bedfellows. In fact, history records that these Monks of War preferred somewhat more accommodating bedfellows. And so, to quote a very good overall guide to Malta “… the Knights grew idle and arrogant (and) their martial spirit began to wane.” So it came to pass that when Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces turned up in June 1798 it was relatively easy to persuade the then Grand Master, the German Ferdinand von Hompesch, that discretion was the better part of valour and that the Order’s stewardship of Malta wasn’t worth defending. The Order therefore left in double quick time, again without bothering to consult the Maltese people.

It didn’t take very long for the Maltese to realise that the French presence wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be, thanks probably to the Gallic penchant for stealing everything of value they could lay their paws on and then, rather carelessly, sinking some of Malta’s greatest treasures in the seas off Egypt. So the Maltese revolted and with some (requested) assistance from the British they succeeded. Once the French had been driven out, the first reaction of Europe’s power brokers was to restore the rule of the Order. This time, however, the Maltese people themselves, having had quite enough of the Order thank you, would have none of that idea and made it clear that they wanted to stay under the aegis of the British. It took a few years of political to-ing and fro-ing but finally that wish was granted and the Treaty of Paris of 1814 laid down “after insistent petition by the Maltese” that the sovereignty of Malta should belong to Great Britain.

That British responsibility for the governing of Malta was to last only 150 years, a mere flash in the pan compared to the Order’s 268, and inevitably during that time the relationship rose and fell. As a Socialist Scot, I am no apologist for the British Empire or even much of a supporter for the Commonwealth it has become. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, and most of it was pretty indifferent, mirroring people’s attempts to earn a living and make their way in life according to the prevailing circumstances. What can be said with certainty, however, is that when the British finally gave up their stewardship of Malta in 1964 it was on reasonably civilised terms and that this country was not only prepared, equipped, and ready for Independence – it was de facto independent. Not only that; relations between the two states remain good and Malta is a stable and hallmark democracy, which is, sadly, more than one can claim for some of the states which have achieved independence since 1946.

The point that I have been trying to make through this, I hope irreverent and jaundiced, gallop through many years is that history is a very complex subject and it is both banal and pointless to witter on about whose statue sits where. Statues are no more then lumps of stone or metal. They have no relevance or significance in the great scheme of things.

If you visit St Paul’s Cathedral in London you will see an inscription commemorating Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect and engineer who designed and built that wonderful edifice. It reads “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” – if you seek his monument, look around. That, surely, is the whole point: we should remember and honour people for their actual achievements, not through their statues.

Main photo: Sandro Mangion

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