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An intriguing Maltese history

The Shipwreck, a painting by JMW Turner that forms part of the Tate collection in London. One of the book’s most exciting provocations concerns St Paul’s shipwreck as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Shipwreck, a painting by JMW Turner that forms part of the Tate collection in London. One of the book’s most exciting provocations concerns St Paul’s shipwreck as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Malte, 7000 Ans D’Histoire
Alain Blondy
Editions Bouchene France pp170
ISBN 978-2-35676-023-4

Over the centuries the Maltese have been spectators to a theatre of foreign historical actors on their very own soil.

Paul’s Roman citizenship gave him the right to be judged by the emperor resulting in his arduous trip in the year 60 to the Roman capital- Charles Xuereb

Now author Alain Blondy sums up Malta’s 7,000-year history in a book featuring several visuals and a number of quick reference boxes carrying data pertinent to the period under review.

After a long wait – the last time being in 1840 when Miège wrote L’Histoire de Malte, if one does not include Jacques Godechot’s shorter history in 1952 – we are regaled with an account covering all the periods and epochs of these islands in French.

But unlike Miège’s, Prof. Blondy’s researched text is crisper, comes straight to the point and has a stronger dose of provocation with new insights into traditionally held ideas about what could really have happened in Malta’s past.

Prof. Blondy is no stranger to Maltese history and much less to our rich archives. Since his arrival in Malta in 1976 his scholarship was shared between the University of Malta and that of his mother country, the Sorbonne in Paris.

His numerous publications both in French and English especially about the Mediterranean and the Order of St John and his quest for objectivity has endeared him to students of history both in France and in Malta.

Prof. Blondy is fascinated by Malta’s singular destiny differing from that of all its many fellow Sicilian islands.

The island’s early Neolithic inhabitants gave it unparalleled wealth before the pyramids and centuries before any similar civilisation in Europe. And then they disappeared.

Roman Malta, judging from archaeological finds, seems to have been well established on the trade routes of the Mediterranean with enough agro produce – olive and wine growing as well as textile – to sustain one of the earliest entrepôts in today’s Grand Harbour.

Christianity in Malta

Prof. Blondy believes that our catacombs point to Malta’s Christianisation taking place gradually halfway through the third century via Sicily and flourishing during the fifth and the sixth.

Perhaps the book’s most exciting provocation concerns this period and St Paul’s shipwreck as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

The author traces Paul as the founder of a new religion built on love originally meant to renovate the spirit of Judaism but when rejected by the latter then preached to the Gentiles.

Paul’s Roman citizenship gave him the right to be judged by the emperor resulting in his arduous trip in the year 60 to the Roman capital.

His vessel leaves Crete, is caught up in a storm off the Gulf of Sirte (today’s Libya) with 276 passengers and spends a fortnight floating down the currents until it wrecks in a bay.

Prof. Blondy is inquisitive. He questions the details of the account of the shipwreck as related by Apostle Luke.

The oriental historic text, slightly different from the Western version, poses more questions than certitudes, admits the author. It even contradicts the Maltese Pauline tradition, as strongly promoted since the 17th century for political and religious reasons, regarding the site of the shipwreck.

Besides Malta and Miljiet in the Adriatic, there are two Tunisian locations called Melita in the same North African currents which closely fit the physical description of the Acts. They are the port on the island of Jerba and one of the two Kerkennah islands opposite Sfax. While the biblical text does not speak of any Maltese conversion to Christianity as corroborated by the total absence of local Christian evidence during the first century, the legend of the Rabat grotto also faces another point of interrogation.

In the Maltese tradition the excavated catacomb in Rabat was believed to have served as a prison for Paul in Malta – but Luke never mentions that Paul was imprisoned – in fact even when he arrived in Rome the apostle lived outside the praetorian camp.

The Jewish community

Chapters in chronological order deal with selected aspects of Malta’s exciting history throwing light on fine-tuned details to whet the appetite for further diggings.

Prof. Blondy speaks of medieval Malta’s Jewish autonomous community with its own universitas iudeorum civitatis Miliveti.

When in 1492 Catholic kings in Europe banned the Jews from their territories the Viceroy of Sicily intervened to make an exception in Malta and Pantelleria arguing that whole towns and villages will be left uninhabited.

The commercial community was encouraged to convert to Christianity thus producing local names such as Azzopardi, Ellul and Delia.

Prof. Blondy relates the story of the Order of St John from its beginnings in the Holy Land, traces it through Rhodes and accompanies the Knights in Malta during their baptism of fire – the Great Siege of 1565. Of interest are the Latin patriotic palpitating verses expressed by Luca d’Armenia from Mdina’s università at the start of the siege when the mighty Ottoman fleet threatens the island.

Also of interest is a photo of Dragut’s dignified tomb in Tripoli shrouded in the Turkish national colours. Prof. Blondy, as expected, lavishes attention to the Order’s 18th century with generous detail of the grandmasters’ grandiose accomplishments in Malta.

The French and the Church

What I found of particular interest in this volume are the two chapters dedicated to Malta and the French Revolution and the Epoca Gallica (1798-1800) drawing on documents from the Cathedral Archives of Mdina.

In an intriguing proof of evidence the author reproduces in full a particular document, signed on July 5, 1798 which “contrary to a legend that is still rampant in Malta, shows that there was no pillaging of parish churches, but a negotiation between the bishop and the authorities to register what is to be sent to the Treasury, in compensation for what the Church in Malta had received in goods and objects which had belonged to the Order”.

This document was again attested for its veracity by Maltese notaries in Valletta on September 16, 1800 that is after the capitulation of the French.

The last chapters in this provocative history of Malta deal with the British colonisation of the island, Malta’s transition from independence to a republic and its adherence to the EU.

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