Heritage Malta has announced that the ornamental dagger which had been presented to Grand Master Jean de Valette by a grateful King Philip II of Spain shortly after the heroic Great Siege of 1565 in recognition of the victory by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta over the Ottoman Empire will be brought to Malta for the first time since 1798. It will be put on display for a three-month period as part of events marking Malta’s presidency of the European Council.
The announcement has raised hopes that the government might request the French authorities to hand over the dagger to Malta and to retain it on permanent exhibition here. The dagger, together with de Valette’s sword (which will not form part of the display since it is understood to be in too poor a state of preservation to be moved), were taken by Napoleon in 1798 when he seized Malta from the Knights of St John.
Rightful and authentic ownership of the sword is disputed. The facts appear to be as follows.
A document (apparently co-signed by Maltese representatives) attests to the passing of all the Order’s properties to France and a further document of 1800 – after the French surrendered Malta to the British – gave the French the right to keep their arms and spoils of war.
The legal ownership of the sword is therefore murky. It could be said that since Napoleon captured the sword and dagger from the Order of St John, the Knights must be the rightful owners. On the other hand, it could be argued that since there had already been a legal transfer of the Order’s property to France in 1798, they were always France’s to keep in the Louvre as they thought fit.
Either way, international lawyers would have a field day arguing that, while the sword and dagger could belong either to the Order of St John or to the French government, they could not be claimed to belong to the Maltese government.
Should that be the end of the story? It would be unreasonable if it were.
The significance of the dagger and the sword lies in their history and what they represent. They embody the greatness that de Valette – supported by countless brave Maltese – brought on Malta in repulsing the Ottoman Empire when it was the last Christian bastion against an overwhelming Muslim force. If Malta had fallen, the rest of Europe would have been vulnerable.
The sword and dagger epitomise the courage of the Knights and the Maltese, who stood together against Suleiman the Magnificent and spilt their blood in doing so. They shed their blood not in France but in Malta. Therein lies the significance of these artefacts.
What matters is where the sword and dagger were won, why and by whom, not because of their value as beautiful works of art. In this sense, many would rightly insist that in the Louvre they are devoid of all human or historical context.
Morally, they belong in Malta. Every diplomatic effort should therefore be made to return them here.
The celebration of Valletta as the European Capital of Culture next year offers the perfect opportunity for France to recognise that the sword and the dagger should come home to Malta ‘on permanent loan’, where they can be given pride of place in the country and the capital which are forever associated in history with a great man – a Frenchman fighting in Malta on behalf of Europe over 450 years ago.