The history of British colonialism in Malta covers the period between 1814, when Malta became a Crown Colony as a result of the Treaty of Paris, and 1964, when Malta became independent, and later a republic in 1974. Comparatively, British colonialism was far less oppressive than the absolute monarchy of the Order of St John (1530-1798) and the very short-lived French rule (1798-1800), which was marked by turbulence.
George Mitrovich was born in Senglea on August 27, 1795, during the last few years of the Order in Malta. His parents, Saverio and Adeodata née Boldoni, had him baptised the following day by Canon Don Salvatore Bonnici, Senglea’s first archpriest.
During his childhood, he experienced the riots against the French occupation, which culminated in the blockade of the Grand Harbour by the British Navy and the eventual signing of capitulation by General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois in 1800. During his adolescence, he also witnessed the start of British rule when the Maltese people asked King George III to take Malta under his protection.
His father was enlisted in the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment, and as a result, the young Mitrovich spent most of his early years mingling with English families. Having found time to do business transactions with the British, whom he greatly admired, he began his career as a clerk in two English commercial houses. Later, he established his own business but without success.
The British administration of the period had always been averse to the Maltese interest in self-government. Their high-handed actions, especially during Governor Thomas Maitland’s time in office (1813-1824), made matters worse. Much of their activity was directed at depriving the Catholic Church of the immunities it had enjoyed for centuries, while little was done to allow the people express their views and to share in the administration or to set the island’s finances on a sound basis.
The only newspaper that could be published in Malta was the weekly Malta Government Gazette, which only carried official acts. Moreover, one could not become a printer without a government licence, of which only two were issued – for the Commissariat Department and for the Church Missionary Society, two presses to which the public had no access.
In view of these circumstances, during the administration of Lieutenant-Governor Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsomby (1827-1836), Camillo Sceberras (1771-1855) and Mitrovich, who at the time was still in his youth, formed the Comitato Generale Maltese. Besides merchants, lawyers, doctors and other professions which elected deputies, the clergy and the nobility, were also represented in the Comitato. The heads of families in towns and villages met together in their own districts to elect their representatives. Gozo sent its own representatives too. Sceberras was elected president of the Comitato.
Sceberras was influenced by the ideals of the French revolution and he went into exile when the French lost Malta in 1800. In 1817 he was allowed to return to Malta. Mitrovich and four other members of the Comitato, drew up and signed a petition, known as the 1832 Memorial, demanding administrative reforms.
During these early years of British rule in Malta, the only means to air grievances was through a petition to the local government or to the Crown in Council. The Memorial wanted in particular the institution of a Consiglio Popolare of about 30 Maltese to be elected by the heads of families, land owners, merchants and professional people. The envisaged role of this national council was legislative.
No colonising country, so long as it continues to be such, can afford to grant colonials all the rights enjoyed by its own people. Of such rights it can only give those that do not make it possible for the colonials, when they begin to get restless, to restrain absolute power. Two basic freedoms, which Britain withheld from the Maltese people, were freedom of the press and the people’s majority representation on government councils.
On April 1, 1835, a constitution was granted to Malta by King William IV. According to this constitution, there was to be a nominated Council of Seven to assist the government. The council was to be composed of the head of government, his deputy, the chief secretary, two Maltese nobles and two Maltese gentlemen. The Bishop of Malta and the Lieutenant-Governor of Gozo were honorary members.
But Maltese liberals were far from satisfied with this concession. They saw no change from the previous position since the final authority still lay with the governor. The only change was that now he had to administer the country through a council. In July 1835, Mitrovich, sacrificing himself in the interest of the Maltese, and footing the bill for his travels himself, went to London to plead the Maltese cause and forge personal contacts with the members of the House of Commons who knew nothing, or very little, about Malta.
While in London, Mitrovich published The claims of the Maltese founded upon the principles of Justice (London, Effingham Wilson, 1835). In this pamphlet, which made a great impact on British public opinion, he gave details about the right of his countrymen to have a form of local government. He also listed several accusations, such as high salaries paid to Englishmen who were taking jobs away from the Maltese, the poor earnings of local people and the poor conditions of the Maltese population.
In July 1835, Mitrovich, sacrificing himself in the interest of the Maltese, and footing the bill for his travels himself, went to London to plead the Maltese cause
What an irony that such texts about Malta could be published in London and not in Malta.
In the leaflet, he had this to say about Ponsomby: “The present Lieutenant Governor, Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsomby, is an excellent man, but he is surrounded by persons interested in maintaining and perpetuating the present unpopular system. His disposition, I have no doubt, is good, but he is placed in a very difficult position.”
In his address to the Maltese people dated November 20, 1835, entitled Indirizzo ai Maltesi da parte del loro amico Giorgio Mitrovich attualmente a Londra, he wrote: “The English nation was surprised to hear from me about the misery, suffering and repression under which our beloved country is groaning. Many famous people of high standing in this metropolis and other places in England are moved by sentiments of justice and generosity towards the Maltese and have agreed to support in a valid manner our representations in the House of Commons, an august assembly of the fathers of the country, and be sure that we shall be heard.” This message was printed, and copies were sent to Malta for local consumption.
The Maltese, while wanting Britain’s protection, also wanted the continued enjoyment of their right to have a decisive say in the administration of their homeland. This is the main reason why they clamoured for freedom of the press which, at the time, far from being free, was a government monopoly.
Furthermore, the Maltese did not seek absolute press freedom, since this could degenerate into immorality or bring about offences to religion. Even Archbishop Francesco Saverio Caruana (1745-1847), in a letter dated March 18, 1836, to the Chief Secretary, expressed his fear that from freedom of the press “the most fatal consequences may be foreseen to good morals and the Roman Catholic religion”.
In London, Mitrovich gained the full support of William Ewart (1798-1869), a Member of Parliament for the commercial constituency of Liverpool. He helped Mitrovich in correspondence with the Secretary of State, Lord Glenelg, and in drawing up a petition to be presented to the House of Commons at Westminster. Ewart also did a lot of work among other members of parliament who were ready to take up the Maltese grievances in Parliament. Furthermore, on June 11, 1836, Ewart rose in the House of Commons to present “a petition from the clergy, nobility and other inhabitants of Malta”, bearing 2,359 Maltese signatures.
As a result of Mitrovich’s efforts, the British government decided to send a Royal Commission to Malta to hold an inquiry into the local administration. The two members of the Royal Commission – John Austin, who was a celebrated jurist, and (later Sir) George Cornwall Lewis, a young man of 30 who had already served as commissioner in Ireland in inquiries about education and the state of the poor – arrived in Malta on HMS Vernon on October 20, 1836.
Meanwhile, Ponsomby’s term of office came to an end due to ill health and he was succeeded by Major General Sir Henry Bouverie on October 1, 1836. He arrived in Malta only a few weeks after the Royal Commission had assembled and begun their enquiries into the affairs of Malta.
The commission remained on the island for about two years, holding several inquiry sessions. Among other things, the commission recommended the abolition of press censorship tied to the law of libel so as to deter various kinds of defamation. An ordinance to this end was enacted, three years later, on March 14, 1839.
The first two printers who availed themselves of this new possibility were Luigi Tonna and Filippo Izzo. After they printed an Italian translation of the commission’s report and other correspondence on April 23, 1838, the Tonna printing press published the first issue of Lo Spettatore Imparziale. The editor of this monthly journal was Senglea-born Canon Fortunato Panzavecchia.
Mitrovich fought for freedom of the press and for representation of the people in the government of the country
Mitrovich fought for freedom of the press, which was essential for the formation of public opinion, and for political representation of the people in the government of the country with the express declaration that he was not trying to fight the British out of Malta. Indeed, in a letter sent to Lord Glenelg, on October 6, 1836, he wrote: “We are very fortunate and ought to be proud to be attached to such a great and generous nation.”
Mitrovich went to London on three other occasions. Between 1838 and 1840, he was in London doing his utmost to preserve what had already been gained. While in London, he sent copies of his letter Al popolo Maltese, which dealt with the law of libel and the press in general.
Proceeding to England and staying there for a long time, travelling from one area to another to meet the right people to enlist their support, must have cost him a lot of money. It could be that he received some financial help from Sceberras and the political movement he headed, but he must have paid most of his own expenses from his own pocket. This might explain the reason behind the fact that he started his political career as a businessman with some money to spend on a good cause but died a very poor man.
One of his great delusions of life came during the 1848 elections, when the elective principle was introduced for the first time. Out of 3,056 votes cast in Malta, Mitrovich obtained only 26 votes, eight fewer than his friend Sceberras. His friendship with the latter came to an abrupt end when Sceberras heard that Mitrovich had asked for compensation from the Secretary of State for expenses incurred during his stay in London.
However, Mitrovich’s efforts and sense of dedication were rewarded when he was twice elected to the Council of Government. He was elected in by-elections instead of Sir Ignatio Bonavita, who resigned his seat in the council in April, 1855.
Mitrovich obtained 1,050 votes and took his seat in the council on June 5, 1855. Almost a year later he resigned after leaving the room in protest over the official vote on a resolution moved by Dr Giancomo Pantaleone Bruno. It is worth noting that way back in 1832, Bruno planned to oppose Maltese constitutional development by submitting a counter-petition to the Sceberras-Mitrovich supplication for constitutional liberties, thus providing the government with proof that Maltese public opinion was divided on the question, and that the safest course to be adopted by the Secretary of State for the Colonies would be to let the matter remain in abeyance for a further period of years.
However, Mitrovich continued to struggle for the constitutional rights of the Maltese people, and while in London in 1858, he sent a petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in an attempt to form a national committee to reform the council. Its life, however, was very short.
Mitrovich, who had a family of 12, lived to the venerable age of 90. He lived in poverty, and he died poor, 130 years ago, on March 13, 1885, at his residence – No. 69, Strada Teatro, Valletta. The funeral was held on March 16 from his house, through Strada Reale and on to Porta Reale, where it continued in private to the Addolorata Cemetery. The coffin was carried by six members of the professions, and crowds lined the streets to pay their last respects.
The two Valletta bands did not take part in the funeral cortege and permission to cover the coffin with the national flag was refused. Nicola Zammit of the newspaper Diritto di Malta was also forbidden to read a short address at the cemetery. Was this the outcome of petty resentment on the British authorities’ part or simply due to the fact he was not considered important enough by the ungrateful society of that time?
His one desire was to obtain for his countrymen the necessary constitutional reforms and press freedom. Throughout his political carrier, Mitrovich set about his task without fanfare or sensationalism. Though moderate in his claims, he succeeded in awaking the Maltese from their previous lethargy by his exemplary way of life as well as his speeches and writings. Although he severely criticised the colonial administration of Malta, he appreciated the British connection.
With his death, Malta lost one of its ardent patriots. He sacrificed his life for his country’s cause and was convinced that his efforts would be of benefit to his countrymen. Unfortunately, his strenuous efforts were not acclaimed by everyone. His moves were interpreted by some as being motivated by self-interest. Others accused him of being a political agent.
Despite all this, Mitrovich’s untiring work paved the way for further reforms. It is high time that a memorial be erected in honour of this zealous Maltese patriot, the pride of Senglea.