Should we remove the George Cross from the Maltese flag? And how about Victoria, whose statue presides over the canopies in Republic Square? Should we relocate her to some kind of garden of forgetful remembrance, where she would be joined by a hundred equally relocated symbols of her empire?
Speaking for myself, these are the sort of questions I might resort to when counting sheep fails. Still, if the reaction to Charles Xuereb’s comments to this newspaper last Wednesday is anything to go by, my lack of enthusiasm appears not to be widely shared. So I’ll try.
Let me first get something out of the way. The argument that all symbols that are part of history ought to be retained doesn’t always work. The symbols of Nazi Germany, for example, were very much part of German (and world) history, but I can see why they were systematically destroyed in the denazification purge that followed the end of the war.
The case of Confederate monuments in the United States, while trickier, probably belongs to the same category. To many they symbolise white supremacy, and race relations are still an open wound across swathes of American society. Like Nazi symbols in the 1940s, they are part of a living history of trauma, suffering and injustice.
The George Cross, and British monuments and symbols in Valletta and elsewhere, are not that.
True, one would be hard pressed to say much that was good about the principles of colonialism and imperialism. In many cases, British power was achieved through violence, deception and supremacist rubbish. Nostalgics who think of the British Empire as a benign force might wish to read up on how the Kingdom of Benin was taken over in 1897 or Sindh ‘annexed’ in 1843. Some Maltese history might help, too.
Still, I doubt there are many people in Malta who are still traumatised by the colonial experience. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the statue of Queen Victoria signified suffering in its time, that time is now long gone. Unlike race relations in the US today, or Nazism in 1940s Germany, Victoria is the past proper. If her statue offends at all, it’s the same kind of offence caused by, say, a portrait of Dragut.
A self-assured republic has no time to worry about the symbols of its past opposites
In his interview, Xuereb did not go so far as to say that the monuments should be destroyed. I imagine he is too cultured for that. Rather, the thing to do was to ‘recontextualise’ them by moving them to a place where they would languish out of sight of the nation-state. Thus my garden of forgetful remembrance.
On Victoria specifically (she really seems to rub him the wrong way), he said it was outrageous that the statue of a monarch should occupy a place called Republic Square. To which I say two things.
First, Xuereb’s tirade suggests that he thinks of himself as fundamentally and forever a subject. In other words, that he is himself prone to the very ‘subject race’ mindset he attacks. Why else would he think that the statue of Victoria was a threat to the republic, rather than the other way round? By definition, a threat is something that is more powerful than what it threatens. A fly is no threat to me, but I might be pardoned for thinking an uncaged tiger was one.
Second, it may have escaped his attention that the symbols and monuments have already been recontextualised, willy-nilly. Funnily enough, he said it himself: Victoria is no longer in Queen’s Square.
Among the terrible things that can happen to a monarch, two stand out.
The first is to have your head chopped off in the Place de la Révolution. Messy and all that, but a fleeting appointment by all accounts. You get to leave the place in two pieces but with your dignity intact.
The second is by far the more prolonged, and infinitely worse for that. It is for your statue to fester in a place called Republic Square, surrounded by people who care more about the froth in their cappuccino and one very angry Charles Xuereb, who you would normally have executed for high treason.
I know Republic Square well. There have been times when, with the help of a little alcohol, I could swear Victoria was positively glowering at me. Some more booze and she would have climbed down and begged to be moved to a leafy and serene garden of remembrance.
The same applies to the British arms in St George’s Square. Xuereb is incensed that Presidents of the Republic, and Prime Ministers, are for the rest of national republican time obliged to ‘bow’ (his words) to them from across the square.
That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to imagine the lion and the unicorn frothing and fuming at the thought that the last thing on the Presidents’ and Prime Ministers’ minds is having to bow and scrape at the feet of the British. They’re right not to mind, too. They needn’t, because Malta is a republic and no amount of lions and unicorns can take that away.
A self-assured republic has no time to worry about the symbols of its past opposites. It can take them in its stride, confident in the knowledge that there’s no going back.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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