After dogs, cats and horses, monkeys could have been the next favourite warm-bloodied domestic pets – wonderful playthings with which it is so easy to establish an affectionate rapport when very young. Adorable as babies, they can turn violent when they reach sexual maturity, and can be mischievous, spiteful and destructive even before that; many become highly neurotic if isolated from their natural familial support systems. There are extremely few records of them having ever been widespread as pets in Malta, or mentioned at all in the grand masters’ menagerie – maybe due to the popular religious perception that monkeys represented the devil or scandalous carnality.
One exception would be the visit by two Germans scholars to Malta from December 1732 to January 1733. Dr Johann Ernst Herbenstreit and Dr Gottlieb Ludwig had carried with them to the island a horde of exotic animals, including a monkey ‘of particularly peculiar features’ which they had acquired on the Barbary Coast. Their voyages had been sponsored by the Duke Elector and King August of Saxony and Poland. On his death, the expedition had been cut short, but the diaries of the two travellers preserve a record of it.
One of the Palazzo Falson paintings in the style of David Teniers the Younger shows a small percussion band made up of monkey virtuosi striking drums and tympani. Several versions of apes playing musical instruments are known, as monkeys have been associated with music and musical performances since ever.
The barrel-organ grinder, the tarramaxka (chitarra magica, portable pianola) performer, more often than not had a brightly dolled-up Barbary ape to liven up the show. I’ve never heard a monkey ensemble playing music. I can’t imagine them having been very good. You pay peanuts and you know what you get.
The other Palazzo Falson painting is entitled The Cat’s Barber Shop, a subject also probably first tackled by David Teniers the Younger. It shows a cat sitting on the barber’s chair, having his facial hair seen to by a fashionably-dressed monkey barber. One ape on the left seems to be delousing another. At the door, three other monkeys, in everyday clothes, patiently wait their turn, short sides and back, no blow dry please.
Several other versions of this composition exist. They belong to a tradition in which animals are humanized, mostly for satirical purposes, a convention that goes back to Aesop’s fables and to those of Jean La Fontaine. The burlesque undertones, readily understandable by contemporaries, eventually become opaque with the passage of time.
The artist Jean Baptiste Chardin laughed at himself by creating The Monkey Painter and at his friends by spoofing The Monkey Antiquarian. For painters, this parody appears quite natural, as critics considered art an aping of nature – ars simia naturae. But The Monkey Judge? The Monkey Politician? Let’s not go there.
The 1710 Gobelins tapestries commissioned for the palace of the grand masters can be regarded as a crossroads where the Baroque and the Enlightenment collided, with happy consequences for both. They represent tropical exotic scenes with astounding scientific accuracy, but all garbed in eloquent Baroque aesthetic. The fauna and flora seem designed by a nature well versed in Baroque art.
One of the set of the Tenture des Indes, the one entitled Le Roi Porté, has two splendid monkeys, one climbing a tree, the other sitting serenely on its branches. The Grand Master’s Council and then the House of Representatives, until 1975, deliberated there under the unamused gaze of the two wise primates, who, no doubt, often tut-tutted and disapproved. But discreetly, as the Speaker always had some grim penalties for parliamentary breach of privilege up his sleeve.
The Grand Master’s Council and then the House of Representatives, until 1975, deliberated there under the unamused gaze of the two wise primates, who, no doubt, often tut-tutted and disapproved
Other tapestries in the same set show more species of tropical primates. When those monkey images were woven, no one had yet come out with the suggestion that the human species was descended from monkeys.
What does Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species instantly bring to mind? Monkeys I suppose. And Malta had its part to play in the furious controversy that erupted after Darwin published his trail-blazing book in 1859. I do not believe Malta’s input in this story is at all well known.
Darwin’s revolutionary doctrines had huge repercussions in scientific and religious fields. His conclusions seemed to challenge the traditional ‘creationist’ theorems embraced by the major religions. He advocated evolution through natural selection to explain why and how patterns of life on earth changed over the centuries and why life is today what it is.
Rendered wary by the Galileo debacle, the Catholic Church did not condemn Darwin outright, nor did it put his works on its Index of Prohibited Books. Powerful prelates not open to unusual ideas nonetheless did everything in their power to refute and discredit his discoveries, both through counter-scientific argument and through the perceived weight of theology. Most Catholic apologists rejected, and loudly, Darwin’s new-fangled and pernicious creeds. Most, but not quite all. John Augustine Zahm, an eminent American Catholic scientist and theologian of Alsatian descent, was impressed by Darwin’s compelling evidence and was prepared to meet the subversive scientist almost half way.
In 1896, when he was professor of physics at Notre Dame University, Zahm published in the US his impressive Evolution and Dogma which argued that Catholic doctrine could well accept evolutionary models of biological systems, though not as explained through Darwin’s theories of natural selection. Zahm’s book caused an uneasy sensation and was soon translated into several languages. The Italian version was carried out by a Maltese – Alfonso Maria Galea, and published in Siena, also in 1896, under the title Evoluzione e Dogma.
Alfonso Maria Galea (1861-1941), a very wealthy merchant and a front-rank philanthropist, also fancied himself a man of letters. He entered politics late in life, as a founder-member of the Malta Labour Party, but distanced himself permanently from it when Labour joined forces with Sir Gerald Strickland. A compulsive do-gooder, Galea left behind him many writings, both in Maltese and in Italian. It remains so far unknown how he came to translate Zahm’s book, whether at the author’s request, or following his own offer. Knowing Galea’s generous disposition, he would have done it for free, for his love of literature and for the greater glory of God.
Things did not pan out the way the author and the translator had wished they would. Zahm’s book, though highly praised by the more progressive circles in the Church, attracted the rage and the bile of some religious fundamentalists, in a vicious and hysterical manner. The most violent insults were hurled at Zahm, particularly by the influential Jesuit journal Civilità Cattolica: “An atheist, a materialist, and a modernist.” Veiled threats of excommunication and of placing his volume on the Index of Prohibited Books finally broke Zahm. He accepted Rome’s discipline with apparent grace and consented to disown his book, withdrawing it from circulation.
Zahm wrote to Galea instructing him to make it clear that he no longer wanted to be associated with this work. Galea published Zahm’s letter verbatim in English in the Gazzetta di Malta, with his own translation in Italian. Galea exhorted his friends not to read the book, nor to encourage its distribution: “I am always ready to change my opinions when I am asked to do so”. Evolutionary monkeys no longer had a respectable connection in Maltese academia.
Both Zahm and Galea must have smarted under this public and philistine humiliation, but they kept up their collaboration. Two years after the first translation, Galea rendered into Italian another work by Zahm: Evoluzione e Teleologia (referred to in Galea’s biographies as Teologia). This relationship between Zahm and Galea features prominently in a chapter of a book about how Catholic thinkers handled the Darwin hurricane, published recently in the US.
I wanted to leave politics out of this feature, but maybe we can also go there, threading lightly. One of our most popular politicians kept a monkey as a pet. The Hon. Mabbli Cauchi (1917-1995), for many years the uncrowned overlord of Għajnsielem, delighted in retaining close contact with his voting base, mostly through a genuinely benign disposition, and by his sense of humour, always broad and never mischievous – a person truly amabile, in the memory of those who knew him, both in the village core and in Parliament, where he even managed to become good friends with a great political adversary, Dom Mintoff, with whom he often shared a joke. He, together with his monkey, could be seen taking walks together, or stopping with village friends for long gossipy chats. Till one fine day the monkey, who used to enjoy cavorting among the ancient carob tress, escaped and scuppered to the highest spot on the roof of the old church, where it could not be reached. Epic monkey business. The rescue of Mabbli’s elusive pet became a major logistical problem for Għajnsielem, and remains to this day a tragi-comic episode embedded in the collective memory. The old village sacristan, Mikiel Galea, known as Kilinu s-sagristan, was recently interviewed about it.
What does Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species instantly bring to mind? Monkeys I suppose. And Malta had its part to play in the furious controversy that erupted after Darwin published his trail-blazing book in 1859
This feature started with the story of a monkey that made it to the pages of history in an atrocious national calamity, and will end with the story of another monkey also related to a tragedy in Malta. It happened during World War I, in the Turkish prisoners of war camp in Verdala Barracks. One of the prisoners detained there, Dr Nedjet Saadi, kept a monkey, Jonney, who had become the camp’s mascot, and enjoyed the free run of the adjoining German and Austrian camps. Dr Saadi described it as “very clever and intelligent, but then he becomes furious and you have to run away from him”. There may have been more than one monkey kept as pet by the prisoners of war in Verdala, as another postcard shows a German detainee taking an ape that does not look like Jonney, for a walk.
Jonney gained such widespread fame that enterprising photographers and printers inside the war camp issued postcards with its image for use by POWs, including one of the pet monkey riding on the back of the camp’s other mascot, the dog Leon. Sketches of Jonney’s impertinent pranks started appearing in the camp’s in-house journal, the Camp Nachrichten. They lightened up the ennui of long and debilitating imprisonment.
Until tragedy struck. Politics rent apart the Turkish POWs in Verdala, and very sharply too, between the conservatives, loyal to the old Islamic regime of the Ottoman Sultan on the one hand, and, on the other, the ‘Young Turks’ who yearned for a revolution to turn Turkey into a modern European secular state, a movement event-ually headed by Kemal Ataturk. Furious discussions between the two factions led to much friction and bad blood in the Turkish camp.
On October 17, 1916, a supporter of the old regime, Major Hadji Ali Issa, killed the owner of Jonney, Dr Saadi, a vocal devotee of the Young Turks. Dr Saadi had assaulted Ali Issa shortly before. The camp authorities sent Ali Issa to be tried for murder by the ordinary criminal courts of Malta (Dr Arturo Mercieca, later Chief Justice, prosecuting), and this found him guilty and condemned him to death by hanging. This sentence raised quite a furore at the time in legal circles, as many felt that the very compelling evidence of provocation had been rather shallowly disregarded by the court.
The hangman disposed of Ali Issa on April 24, 1917, inside Corradino Prisons. Awaiting death, he is said to have placed a curse on all those who had taken part in his prosecution, and, no doubt by coincidence, many strange, perhaps unaccountable, adversities surely happened to all of them at some time or other after his execution. And poor neurotic Jonney, now orphaned, ended reluctantly adopted by the other prisoners of war.
My thanks to Francesca Balzan of Palazzo Falson, Imdina, Leonard Callus, Maroma Camilleri, Tony Camilleri, Kevin Cauchi, Edward DeGaetano, Thomas Freller, Mark Sammut and Olvin Vella for their assistance.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us