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Tale of Count Roger and the flag (1)

Godwin Agius (Count Roger And The Flag, August 15) should note that the Laferla who popularised the myth of Count Roger and the Maltese red and white colours was Gaetano Laferla and that he had absolutely no connection with Dr A.V. Laferla, the historian and Director of Education, who was his junior by nearly half a century.

Gaetano Laferla was an early to mid-19th century medical doctor with an active interest in politics, who moved in the circle of the Comitato Generale Maltese, the ardently nationalistic movement founded by Camillo Sciberras and Giorgio Mitrovich to fight for a liberal constitution. He distinguished himself as an outspoken defender of the Maltese whom he championed both as a member of the Council of Government, to which he was elected in 1855, and as a pamphleteer who expounded the myth of a consiglio popolare, or popular council, that dated back to Norman times.

The story of the origins of the Maltese flag, which he told in a thoroughly unhistorical pamphlet called Cenni storici sullo scudo e stendardo maltese, composed in 1841, forms part of the same political fiction. The story may not have been his fabrication since the chequered red and white Hautville ensign appears on the shield carried by the page in Alessio Erardi's early 18th century painting of Count Roger (Sacristy, Mdina Cathedral). This suggests that the late mediaeval Town Council of Mdina may have associated its red and white colours with Count Roger long before Laferla. It was, nonetheless, Laferla who craftily wove the tale into the nationalistic propaganda story that earned it subsequent popular currency.

Laferla's political interest was to show that Malta had been a nation with a constitution and flag of its own centuries before the coming of the British who humiliated the island by dismissing the consiglio popolare, and relegating it to colonial status. Although fantastic, the story took root and soon became an important element in the forging of a Maltese national identity. Serious historians were nonetheless unimpressed. A.A. Caruana, for example, pointed out that Laferla had nowhere indicated his sources: Laferla non ha detto d'onde ha ricavato la notizia, and Themistocles Zammit took pains to make no reference to the "tradition" in his history of Malta.

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