Henry’s Europe and Empire

It is, I think, always refreshing to have professional historians proffer interpretations of history which cover bits and pieces of a canvas that gradually comes into focus as a recognisable and coherent picture. In the process, there will be many overlapping, of course, and perhaps much repainting of patches here and there.

... a ‘very real possibility’ can never count as historical proof
- Fr Mark Montebello

Nevertheless, on the whole, the general impression will be, at least where contemporary historians are concerned, a disclosure or unfolding of the rich and complex fabric of the socio-political memoirs of a self-discovering nation.

Henry Frendo’s 872-page Europe And Empire: Culture, Politics And Identity In Malta And The Mediterranean (Midsea Books, 2012) is certainly one worthy contribution to this endless and exciting exploration, covering more or less a third of the British period of our history (1912-1946).

Obviously, I cannot (and will not) offer an overall appreciation of the whole publication. Conscious of the fact that it comes from an experienced, highly-knowledgeable expert of Malta’s British period, like most of us I must approach my esteemed friend’s information-packed pages with an appropriate learning attitude.

Nonetheless, I can (and will) tender a qualified appraisal of parts of the book, particularly those dealing with Manuel Dimech (1860-1921), whom I have been researching and studying intensely for the last 20 years or so. I do this solely for the sake of scholarship.

Europe And Empire deals with Dimech mainly in chapter 5. With some additions and modifications here and there, the writing is substantially a reproduction of a four-part series of articles published by Prof. Frendo in The Sunday Times between April 22 and May 13, 2001. The supplementary information includes information extracted from Prof. Frendo’s own Story Of A Book, which was published in 1972.

What I found immediately captivating (even back in 2001) is the detailed background information that Prof. Frendo provides regarding the conditions at Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr prison-camp when Dimech was held there between 1917 and 1921 (pp. 110-4). Indeed, I do not expect less from Prof. Frendo, for he is, I gather, thoroughly cognizant of the documents related to the British Foreign and Colonial Offices of the period. So much so that he is one of the very few, I think, who can unequivocally and authoritatively state that “Dimech was the only Maltese deportee in the (first world) war” (p. 114).

Of course, such background information, which is often not directly related to one’s main interest of study, is invaluable and can generally only come, in the long run, from experts who consistently attempt to see the wider picture of their story. Yet, such information must also be dealt with cautiously for rush conclusions in this regard can be out of kilter.

Prof. Frendo’s chapter 5 of Europe And Empire seeks to indicate that “it was under pressure from the local episcopacy that Governor Plumer continued resisting decisions taken in London and in Cairo that Dimech be allowed to return home (...) after the Great War” (pp. 146-7). Specifically, Prof. Frendo has in mind Mgr Angelo Portelli OP, Malta’s Auxiliary Bishop between 1911 and 1927 (pp. 136-7).

This is not merely speculation (which one might appreciate). It is a very serious allegation. However, does Prof. Frendo conclusively prove his case?

When dealing directly with it (pp. 118-9; 136-7; 144; 146-7), he is only in a position to state that “it would be unreasonable to discount the very real possibility that (etc.)” (p. 118).

Apart from the fact that it is quite reasonable that many very real impossible things in history come about, a “very real possibility” can never count as historical proof. And Prof. Frendo does not supply any whatsoever.

Amazingly enough, to make his point, Prof. Frendo only cites (p. 137) Robert Mifsud Bonnici, who, in his National Biographical Dictionary (1960), had arbitrarily stated that Mgr Portelli “fought and destroyed Manuel Dimech”! Frankly, this is a tar baby.

Anyone will know that historical exactitude necessitates proof. And, yet, even when this is available and had been made public long ago, Prof. Frendo sometimes overlooks it.

For instance, from what is positively documented it is incorrect (or, at best, inaccurate) to state that “little is known about (Dimech’s) family” (p. 96; much is known and published); that he “fell in with (...) gamblers” (p. 96; this had been just gossip); that, in 1890, he went to Tunis “trying his luck” (p. 97; he was forced to leave); that while in prison (1891-97) he acquired his education “in the chapel” (p. 97; he consistently refused to go the chapel during this period); that after 1897 he taught “working and lower middle-class children” (p. 97; the fees he charged barred such children from his classes); that he had “four children” (p. 97; he had six); that his “final release (was in) 1898 (p. 97; it was in 1897); that he travelled to Italy “around 1905” (p. 97; he went in 1906); that he was excommunicated “after several warnings” (p. 102; no warnings had ever been issued); that during his excommunication his “teaching classes suffered” (p. 102; they did not suffer: they had stopped completely); that during the same time “Xirca membership dwindled” (p. 102; it did not dwindle: the Xirca was halted altogether); that Dimech believed in the “perfectibility of man” (p. 107; contrary to this, he believed in empowerment); that in 1912 he “begged the bishop’s pardon” (p. 107; Dimech never did such a thing); that for some time Juan Mamo “served within (Dimech’s) internment compound” (p. 110; this never happened); that the sequence of events from July 1920 to April 1921 “needs to be recorded” (p. 119; this has already been exhaustively done); that in 1915 Dimech was “apparently” sent to a lunatic asylum (p. 122; this is not apparent: it is historically proved); or that during his deportation (1914) it “seems” that Dimech was not always kept in confinement (p. 122; this does not seem: it too has been historically proved).

Though erudite contributions such as Prof. Frendo’s are always welcome, I believe that the highly-developed state of Dimechian studies today cannot afford any more analytical investigations which are not, at least academically, as accurate as possible.


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