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Relations between Malta and Sicily

Arnold Cassola:
Malta-Sicily people, patriots, commerce (1770-1860);
Siracusa: Morrone, 2016.

The latest in Arnold Cassola’s series of books dealing with the relations between Malta and Sicily has a chapter on Malta’s connection via the telegraph with the town of Modica in Sicily during the Italian risorgimento, mainly during 1860 when Bourbon Sicily fell to Garibaldi’s invading force.

It is based on the archives consulted by the author in Modica, most important of which is the Archivio De Leva, the De Leva family being a leading one in that town.

Giuseppe De Leva (1786-1861) was an important figure involved in revolutionary actvities in Modica who lived just long enough to see his native island freed from Bourbon domination and ready to take its place in the united Italy that was in the making.

Malta’s involvement was not merely its telegraphic connection with Noto, not far from Modica, but also in being the refuge of patriots like Ruggiero Settimo and Nicola Fabrizio, who kept their fellow-patriots in Sicily informed of recent news regarding Garibaldi’s feats in northern Sicily.

Matteo Reali was the man in Malta who kept feeding Noto telegraphically with news. He was Ruggiero Settimo’s right hand man in Malta and later was to become a member of the new Italian Parliament. In close collaboration with Francesco Guardini, another leading revolutionary in Modica, Reali advised on the setting up of telegraphic communications between Sicilian towns. A telegraphic station was set up in Vittoria, for instance, as a result of this initiative.

Just as important a role that the Sicilians had in Malta was that of providing rifles and ammunition and – incredibly – even cannon, to their fellows in Sicily.

Some of the correspondence quoted by Cassola mentions the purchase of rifles from a factory, but no details are given. The reader may wonder if the purchase and exporting of weapons was done with the approval of the Governor, or without his knowledge.

The list Cassola gives of shipping between Malta and Syracuse is confined to the years 1838-39, long before the Risorgimento. And, in any case, if weapons were imported illicitly in Sicily they would not have been unloaded in a port like Syracuse but in lonely bays in eastern or south-eastern Sicily.

The book should certainly be acquired by the serious student and the specialist

Cassola’s readers will hope, like me, that Cassola will delve deeper into the archives in Malta and Modica regarding the Sicilian rebels’ acquisition of weapons in Malta.

The chapter on Malta-Syracuse shipping in 1838 -39 will be useful to those studying the economic relations between Malta and southern Sicily at the time. Cassola gives much information about the kind of vessels used and the cargoes many of them carried. Many of the vessels used flew the flag of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. A number of British warships used the port, while the only vessels belonging to Maltese owners that carried cargo to Syracuse were speronare and never larger vessels.

In his first chapter, which is by way of being a filler, Cassola writes about that part of the text in Lettere... dalla Sicilia e dalla Turchia (Livorno, 1782) in which a young Florentine scholar and traveller, Domenico Sestini, writes about Malta, which he visited in 1777.

His account makes a welcome addition to the known accounts by 18th century visitors to Malta, though he has nothing remarkable to say about the island, its inhabitants and its rulers.

He did meet a number of outstanding Maltese, such as the Order’s librarian, Gioacchino Navarro, for whom he is full of praise and Giovanni Francersco Buonamico, medical doctor and intellectual, about whom Cassola has already published two books.

Perhaps most interesting is that Sestini described the Maltese language as being a debased form of Sicilian. Not for him the theory, espoused for instance by Navarro’s predecessor as librarian G.P.F. Agius de Soldanis, that the Maltese language was a descendant of the ancient Punic language, a theory that was exploded by the great German scholar Gesenius in 1810 , though people like Lord Strickland in the early 20th century were still trying to push it.

A couple of good-quality maps would have served the readers rather better than some of the portraits or reproductions – one or two barely legible – of documents. But even so, the book should certainly be acquired by the serious student and the specialist.

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