Malta’s national anthem Lil din l-art ħelwa has today become part of the routine fixtures of Maltese nationhood, enshrined in the Constitution, accepted effortlessly by all shades of political opinion. The inspirational story of Dr George Borg Olivier’s dogged relentlessness to have the Innu Malti recognised and dignified, against equally obstinate colonialist resistance, was wholly unknown, until recently revealed by Prof. Joseph M. Pirotta in his 2016 book Nation, Pride and Dignity. Borg Olivier and the National Anthem, Malta.

Lord Grenfell, Governor of Malta, who banned the playing of the new national anthem.Lord Grenfell, Governor of Malta, who banned the playing of the new national anthem.

But, as it happens, Lil din l-art ħelwa, words by the poet Dun Karm Psaila, music by Robert Samut, first sung in 1922, is only our second national anthem. The story of the first, almost totally overlooked and forgotten, was recently unearthed by Dr Albert Ganado in his article ‘When the Maltese national anthem was barred by closing the Royal Theatre’ (The Sunday Times of Malta, February 24, 2019). I believe I can add quite a few highlights to that narrative.

The beginning of the 20th century, late 1901, early 1902, saw colonial Malta going through one of its more turbulent political patches. The imperial authorities adamantly refused all popular requests for effective self-government, fobbing off the population with farcical councils overwhelmingly controlled by government officials and stooges, only meant to make imperial diktat appear vaguely democratic. Other sources of popular resentment fuelled unrest – new taxation, unemployment and the imposition of the English language to replace Italian, for centuries the natural language of governance and of culture. Traditions hundreds of years old meant nothing to the colonialists who seriously believed Malta only existed for promoting the power of the Empire. Malta and the Maltese had to be forcibly ‘anglicised’.

These resentments coalesced into a patriotic movement – the General National Committee, then led by Dr Filippo Sceberras, with notary Cristoforo Frendo as secretary. This body commanded huge support in all strata of the population. When it called a protest meeting on August 11, 1901, near Portes des Bombes, the popular response was possibly unequalled in Maltese political history that far. The vibrant speeches led to enthusiastic responses. Anger, however pent-up, remained entirely peaceful, without any violence or trace of disorder.

Judge Paolo Debono, who in January 1902 decided the seminal lawsuit about the closure of the Opera House, still a landmark case in administrative law.Judge Paolo Debono, who in January 1902 decided the seminal lawsuit about the closure of the Opera House, still a landmark case in administrative law.

Tensions did not abate, nor did grievances, and the National Committee called for a protest march in Valletta on Sunday, December 29, 1901. The imperial authorities in Malta started to panic visibly. The Crown Advocate boasted publicly how the police were shadowing and spying upon individuals critical of the regime. In his 1979 book Party Politics in a Fortress Colony, Henry Frendo says London officially asked for names of opponents of anglicisation to see how they could be discredited by revelations on their private lives.

The Palace authorities reacted on December 27 by issuing a proclamation over the signature of Gerald Strickland, Principal Secretary to Government, banning, under severe criminal penalties, the announced assembly of people, and the march. The duplicitous pretext: the streets of Valletta were narrow and the march would obstruct traffic – the governor spent sleepless nights worrying over the comfort of karrozzin drivers. The police affixed posters of this oppressive and undemocratic proclamation to street corners, each guarded by two plainclothes officers.

The clergy had at first accepted to endorse the protest, but after threats of fines and imprisonment, the bishop backed down.

So did the National Committee, to the leering contempt of Lord William Onslow, Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, who privately dismissed the Maltese as submissive spineless cowards: “They may protest but they are docile and law-abiding, and the ease with which the proposed procession was put a stop to shows that they will at once yield to firm measures.”

Posters put up by the patriotic movement had announced that the popular protests would reach their climax during the musical performance of a newly-composed national anthem, on January 7, 1902, at the Royal Opera House. Besides the anthem, the evening would also include “patriotic tableaux and harmony”. The public instantly booked the theatre solid, and widespread expectation anticipated the launch of the new national hymn.

The organisers played the suspense game craftily: they neither disclosed the author of the music, nor the lyrics – they just gave maximum publicity to the fact that the new Innu Malti would be launched in a grand popular performance.

The government had way back ‘leased’ the Royal Opera House to the impresario Achille Malfiggiani for £1 per year under certain conditions (minimum number of performances, etc.), retaining the right to close down the theatre for reasons, among others, of public order.

The special edition of the Malta Government Gazzette which ordered the closure of the Opera House to prevent the playing of the new national anthem.The special edition of the Malta Government Gazzette which ordered the closure of the Opera House to prevent the playing of the new national anthem.

The organisers of the national protests, then headed by Francesco Azzopardi LP, one of the leaders of the patriotic movement, took the theatre on lease for the evening of January 7 from the widow Emilia Malfiggiani, paying £10. Ċikku Azzopardi, the nationalist firebrand, was later accused of having been covertly bought by the imperial side and of switching allegiances; he suffered extreme punishment for his perceived betrayal when his home was wrecked and ransacked during the Sette Giugno riots in 1919.

On January 4, Count Strickland, on behalf of the government, by private letter, ordered the impresa to keep the theatre shut on January 7, “for reasons of public order”, as per the lease agreement. The playing of the national anthem had to be aborted by official mandate. The shocked impresa informed Azzopardi of the imperial veto.

The organisers played the suspense game craftily: they neither disclosed the author of the music, nor the lyrics

Azzopardi consulted lawyers – there was no shortage of them on the nationalist side – and they decided to sue the impresa with urgency for the enforcement of their signed and paid-for contract, and for damages in default. A bold step to take, at a time when the courts usually shied from scrutinising the actions of the government. This lawsuit gave rise to a classic in constitutional and public law, still not irrelevant today.

Judge Paolo Debono, one of the luminaries of the bench, accepted to hear the case with urgency, and set it down for Sunday, January 5. The defendants asked, and the court accepted, that the government be joined to the suit. A huge crowd already packed the courtroom an hour before the case started. For the plaintiff appeared Dr Fortunato Mizzi, for the impresa, Dr Alfred Parnis and Dr Michelangelo Refalo. The Crown Advocate, Dr Alfredo Naudi ‘Naudinu’, political turncoat and compliant attorney general, defended the government.

At one point, the proceedings turned quite rowdy; the spectators lost their patience and loudly jeered Naudinu, the disgraced attorney general. Judge Debono ordered the crowd to be instantly ejected, and this took some time. When the pleadings ended, the court adjourned to 11am to deliver judgement that very day.

The notice in La Gazzetta di Malta, of January 8, 1902, announcing the sale of the musical score of the new Innu Malti.The notice in La Gazzetta di Malta, of January 8, 1902, announcing the sale of the musical score of the new Innu Malti.

It was, under many aspects, a brilliant judgment, a legal tour de force. A government wears two distinct hats: one, when it exercises its sovereign powers of governance, and a different one when it performs ordinary acts like every other individual or businessman. When the government rents out a place or a business, it is acting like every other landlord, not as a sovereign government in its political capacity. If it desires to exercise its sovereign powers, it must do this by official means, like a law, a regulation, a proclamation or a government notice, not by private letter from a landlord to a tenant in terms of a private contract of lease.

Therefore, the judgment ruled that an order by letter from a landlord to close down the theatre in breach of contract was illegal and the court voided it. But, maybe dreading not to be thought a Maltese judge, Debono spelt out to the government how to close down the theatre legally anyway. He adjourned the case to the following week to assess if damages for illegal breach of contract were due.

The large crowds, inside the courthouse and in the street outside, greeted the judgment with thunderous applause, little realising the judge had spoon-fed the colonial authorities how to close down the theatre anyway.

The file of this court case, which may have contained valuable information about the first national anthem, could not, unfortunately, be traced in the court archives.

Secrecy surrounded everything about the anthem before its launch. The rehearsals were held behind closed doors, and only faint gossip leaked out. The day after the judgment, rehearsals of the new hymn started again, and a correspondent in La Gazzetta di Malta of January 7, 1902, reported that “the few persons who were present, could not help but admire the music, simple and eminently catchy (orecchiabile), but at the same time powerful, as the subject requires”.

Another English-language paper, The Malta Times, usually pro-colonialist, had this to say on January 10, 1902: “Apart from the merits of the composition, which is described by those who have enjoyed the privilege of hearing it, as replete in grandeur of melody and vigour of expression reflecting handsomely upon the talented composer whose name is yet to be revealed, the performance was hailed with general approbation… A full rehearsal of the hymn was given in the Theatre Royal, in the presence of a select number, who pronounced it to be a masterpiece.”

Sure enough, the imperial authorities were not long in taking up the judge’s hint, intentional or otherwise. On January 6 the Government Gazette issued an official notice ordering the closure of the Opera House “for reasons of public order”. The British governor put singing by a musical choir of a prayer to the Almighty on a par with violent rioting or armed seditious assembly.

In interior of the Valletta Opera House where the premiere of the Innu Malti was due to be held.In interior of the Valletta Opera House where the premiere of the Innu Malti was due to be held.

The governor’s notice caught the singers and the choir half-way through their final rehearsal at the Opera House. The rehearsal had to be interrupted, and the choir, led by Maestro Antonio Siragusa, had a taste of how liberal and fair the British government was with its subjects. Ċikku Azzopardi thanked all the performers who professed their eagerness to perform the anthem on the first occasion possible.

Was the music of the anthem actually composed by Maestro Siragusa? I rather think it could be so, though other ‘patriotic’ composers could equally fit the bill, like Paolino Vassallo, Carlo Diacono, Riccardo Bugeja or Luigi Vella and others. So far, I have not been able to find out. If it was by Siragusa, it had a colourful ancestry. As Alfred G. Miceli wrote in his 2001 book L-Istorja ta’ l-Opra f’ Malta, when the impresa of the Opera House engaged him to direct La Gioconda by Ponchielli in the 1901 season, he fired all the distressed choristers and replaced them by pretty young women. Similarly, he changed the resident harpist to a very young angelic-looking girl.

But in his aforementioned article, Albert Ganado states that “the first ever national anthem was composed abroad by a Maltese patriot who sent it to Malta to be played at the Royal Theatre”. The mystery remains.

The Governor of Malta, Sir Francis Wallace Grenfell, reported in detail and with considerable pride his repressive bravura in Malta to his superiors in London. He had vetoed the performance of the new national anthem because “he had reason to believe that it was intended to hold a political meeting at the theatre on the night in question”. And no democrat could allow freedom of expression to go that far, now could he? Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain from Downing Street, applauded wholeheartedly.

I have not given up hope of discovering the music and lyrics of the lost first national anthem. A news item in the January 8, 1902, edition of La Gazzetta di Malta announced that the musical score, for voices and piano, would be on sale for the price of one shilling if enough pre-orders were received. So the hymn was almost certainly printed and distributed. There must be a copy out there, somewhere.


Thanks to Prof. Kevin Aquilina, Dr Tonio Borg, Anna Borg Cardona, Leonard Callus, Maroma Camilleri and Angela Malkowski for their invaluable assistance.

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