Charles Xuereb: France In The Maltese Collective Memory: Perceptions, Perspectives, Identities after Bonaparte in British Malta. Malta University Press, 2014. 418 pp.
On page 126 of the book there is a direct reference to the place where those who conspired against the French in Malta used to meet.
This was Slaw Gatt’s Pharmacy in Qormi, which lies about 50 metres away from the house I used to live in with my parents. Walking past the plaque on the façade that commemorates this happening, I always wondered how our history books could speak of a spontaneous uprising against the French.
It was high time somebody said it loud and clear that General Masson and his men were brutally murdered in Mdina in the name of political expediency.
The problem with the version of those events, as we find them enshrined in our history books, is that so much about it is ‘wrong’.
Reading Charles Xuereb’s book I could not help thinking of the David and Goliath Bible story.
Not so much because David represents tiny Malta, but because of the wealth of information that can be learnt asking pertinent questions as to what really happened as well as reading between the lines.
Goliath, the Philistine hero, could not have been all that bad if, to spare the heavy, unnecessary bloodshed of open battle, he challenged the Israelites to choose a man to face him.
Goliath opted for what is known as single combat, quite a common practice in the ancient world. He was expecting a foot warrior like himself, wearing heavy armour, carrying optimised weapons for close combat.
The duel, therefore, was not meant to be fought on horseback (cavalry) or any form of what today would be called artillery – archers and slings.
So, when David appears and opts for the sling, he was simply cheating. Not even King Saul realised what his champion had in mind and, in fact, he tried giving him his own sword.
Historian Robert Dohrenwend writes Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol.
But there is a second, deeper issue here. Do we really know who Goliath was?
His behaviour is puzzling. An attendant carried his shield which he did not use. David was carrying one stick. In all probability, Goliath had vision problems, some say he suffered from acromegaly. It contributed to his downfall.
Which means that there is often much more than meets the eye in official versions of historical events.
Consequently, correcting false impressions and perceptions through painstaking and investigative research is of the utmost importance.
And this is, precisely, what I believe Xuereb succeeded in doing when he set himself the enormous task of tracking all available sources regarding the French presence on the island between 1798 and 1800.
And he did not stop until he filled in most of the gaps, often with quite a few surprising details.
In the absence of authentic testimony by the Maltese peasant protagonists, albeit manipulated by ecclesiastics to rise against the new liberal rulers, he patiently sifted through it all, decomposing and recomposing it along the way, until he could handsomely make up for their deafening silence.
Xuereb’s method of research is very French – clear-cut objectives all along for each chapter, all tightly linked together, even at the cost of some opportune repetitions.
He embarks on a mnemonic journey to the past, analysing the influence of presentist perspectives in his search for what really happened during the gruelling months that shaped the island’s future for the next 160 years under British rule.
And, as we all know, the British had everything to gain by blocking the collective memory of the Maltese.
Xuereb’s approach is that of the investigative journalist, scrutinising the veracity of textual data, dissecting every bit of information related by foreign and Maltese eyewitnesses, biographers and narrators.
He keeps on asking pertinent questions, prodding on the investigation to find out why the Maltese have become victims of a blocked memory.
He embarks on a mnemonic journey to search for what really happened during the months that shaped the island’s future for the next 160 years under British rule. And, as we all know, the British had everything to gain by blocking the collective memory of the Maltese
He marvels how, even to this very day, they suffer from an inability to open their eyes to the blatant truth.
Even though unveiling the truth takes time, patience, the techniques of an archaeologist and the courage of a rebel, he still persists.
Xuereb’s style is very reader-friendly and I must say that the ease with which he expounds his arguments makes one forget, at times, that this is the stuff research is made of.
He is obviously a media guru who can mediate and communicate his ideas coherently with his audience.
And yet, the depth of the subject matter is always under our noses, with precise footnotes and a vast and varied bibliography followed by six appendices. These are meant not only to back up his hypothesis, but also to take the readers further, if they are inclined to do so.
There isn’t a stone Xuereb leaves unturned, investigating what has remained buried for so long from an anthropological point of view.
He delves into the undercurrents of the Masson murder in Mdina; the auction of church property in the light of an established agreement between Church and State; the de Valette sword and dagger saga; the Xerri-Lorenzi failed plot within the walls of the city to overthrow the French... and more.
How many sites and in what details has he examined under the microscope of a “modern laboratory”, enabling us to revisit with him “those [dominant and dominated] lieux de mémoire which preserve the nebulous anamnesis of the original events”.
It goes without saying that Xuereb’s ultimate goal was to bring out any evidence that may still exist, throwing light on what really happened in those painful months that changed the course of events in our country and to establish the reasons for the distortions that still remain with us to this very day.
His investigation does not leave the Catholic Church unscathed.
He unearths documents that implicate the involvement of the Church, especially through Canon Caruana of Żebbuġ, later bishop under the British.
He equally shows how certain authors wanted to flatter the new masters and “preferred to demonise the French”.
Xuereb does not wrap up before evaluating what Malta could have achieved (be-sides the Code Napoléon of course) had it retained its ties with France.
He insists that: “French Malta would have enjoyed earlier autonomy in its affairs ... would not have been a colony; and would have expanded and developed its exposure to French-Latin culture and heritage”.
I honestly found Xuereb’s book la bouffée d’air frais we have all been looking for regarding this sad period of Maltese history.