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Henry Frendo: Europe and Empire, Midsea, 2012. 872 pp.

Was it possible to be a patriot without embracing the cause of the nationalist movement in Malta under British rule? This question is always prominent whenever I read Henry Frendo’s prolific and erudite works on the history of Malta.

In Prof. Frendo’s meticulously researched works, there is a symbiosis of patriotism and nationalism to the point of fusion. Arguably, he personifies most the nationalist movement’s opposition against countless imperial impositions, undermining their most beloved italianità, from Malta’s voluntary cession to Albion, right until the parting of ways with perfida Britannia at independence.

Europe and Empire, Frendo’s latest work, makes riveting reading for many reasons, not least of which is precisely the nationalistic perspective imparted by the author to his analysis. Palpably, one feels the blood pressure of nationalist leaders rising at every attempt to remove their much beloved Italian language. We even count the number of street names which were changed from Italian to English.

Logically enough, the Stricklandian perspective emerges heavily as a ‘them’ in a universe of ‘us’. Frendo remarks that “Strickland was a true blue imperialist, a zealous self-confessed Angliciser who did not believe in half-measures”.

Replying to a Mizzi interview with The Sunday Referee in August 1934, Lord Strickland went so far as to state that “Malta will not be worth keeping as a fortress unless British culture is spread there, and unless the Colonial Secretary’s policy regarding the language question is carried out”.

Yet that is precisely how Europe and Empire depicts Mussolini’s understanding of the role Italian culture was to play in the British colony closest to Italy, within the Fascist Mare Nostrum.

Here, Frendo’s analysis be­comes a very delicate one. He unveils a mass of archival material from the Italian state archive, showing Mussolini closely eyeing every attempt at undermining Italian culture in Malta.

Frendo rushes to clarify “The nationalists were sometimes em­barrassed by Italian commentators, who readily mistook italianità for an irredentist pro­­­gramme and simply portrayed the Maltese in general as Italians under the British flag who yearned for annexation by Italy.”

If the nationalists were embarrassed, does one blame the British for getting alarmed? The wider struggle of freedom versus dictatorship went over the head of the nationalist movement.

Freedom-loving Italians, in the name of their italianità, opposed Mussolini’s racist-Fascist regime. Suffice to mention Giacomo Matteotti’s murder at the very dawn of the Fascist era. The socialist parliamentarian was kidnapped and murdered by the Fascists for denouncing electoral fraud on their part.

The argument reflected by Frendo, whereby the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, would have cut precious little currency with the anti-Fascist movement of the 1920s and1930s, in an Italy consummating its tragic, unholy marriage with that aberration of history which was Hitler’s Nazism.

Ironically, the anti-Fascist partigiani fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Albion in liberating Italy from Fascism and Nazism. Frendo does not belittle these torments of history bedevilling the nationalist movement. In fact, he bemoans the idealistic local solution whereby the British imperial interests could have been served by ‘fortress Malta’ to the undoubted economic gain of the Maltese – achieving this while, at the same time, having our italianità preserved.

The culprit who shattered this idyllic solution is Strickland, of course, and his local political movement with its “zealous, self-confessed programme of Anglicisation”.

Would these historical inconsistencies within the nationalist movement condone the internment of Maltese to Uganda by the imperial government, which ran roughshod over decisions by His Majesty’s colonial judiciary to stop internment?

Clearly not, and Frendo justifiably dedicates much space to the judicial trials of Maltese facing charges of treason and lack of loyalty to the imperial cause.

We enter a world of collaborators versus idealists, in which the former are quick to grasp the opportunities offered by the empire, while the latter are prepared to make any sacrifice. This includes the donation of their personal gold collections to Mussolini’s Italy.

So what to make of the very Maltese dichotomy between patriotism and nationalism? Mussolini wan­ted a Mare Nostrum; Brittania wanted to rule the waves of all five oceans. The Maltese patriots, whether nationalists or Stricklandians, in fact wanted none of that. They wanted an identity in the fast-changing world between the two World Wars. The nationalists wished to retain the identity they always had, while the Stricklandians wanted to maintain what they had become.

Family correspondence from the 1950s had revealed to me an exchange of letters between Mabel Strickland and my grandfather Robert, a former Constitutional Party MP. My grandfather, while feeling in duty bound to fight the battle of moderation against ex­tremism which was then raging within the Labour movement, assured Strickland of his steadfast royalty to the principles Lord Strickland always stood for – “religion, Malta and England”.

Perhaps, after all, the difference between patriotism and nationalism may not have been so pronounced if they had only been separated by one of the three qualities that it took to be classified as a patriot in those days.

Frendo’s Europe and Empire is, of course, an important piece of academy, and to boot, a pleasant and educational read, and yet another valuable contribution on the history of the Maltese nation.

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