In book two of the series Strickland House, author Victor Aquilina traverses some very sensitive episodes not least the illegal deportation of Maltese nationals.
On Valentine’s Day 1942 the appeals court held its first sitting to hear the submissions of internees who were being deported to Uganda.
But the 43, mostly Maltese, did not appear in court because by then they were already on their way to Africa.
The internees were deemed to be Italian sympathisers and considered by the British colonial government as a security threat at a time of war. The internees included then Nationalist Party leader Enrico Mizzi and chief justice Sir Arturo Mercieca.
Although the deportation was deemed illegal by the courts, the group was only repatriated to Malta after the war.
Ever since, this episode has long been the subject of controversy, not least because of what many felt was the strong influence Times of Malta and the Stricklands had in pushing for the deportation.
Victor Aquilina, a former editor of Times of Malta, has returned to the subject in the second volume of Strickland House, covering the period between 1935 and 1947.
In his own words, Mr Aquilina tries to adopt an “even-handed” approach and questions whether the interdiction of Maltese nationals to Uganda was at all necessary.
Coming from a former editor of a newspaper that attempted no restraint to instil fear in the Maltese community that harboured Italian sympathies, the chapter titled A Shabby Affair may very well represent a catharsis for Allied Newspapers. Mr Aquilina acknowledges that before September 1939 when Britain formally declared war against Nazi Germany and well before Italy joined the war, Strickland House’s newspapers “unleashed their war on Italian sympathisers whom they assiduously and indiscriminately dubbed as quislings”.
It spawns a torrent of passionate views and emotions over the evils and benefits of colonialism and imperialism
He quotes one of Mabel Strickland’s first letters to Field Marshal Lord Gort when he took over as governor in which she remarked that her newspapers always kept the quislings “so frightened of the ‘mob’ so that they keep their ugly heads down, more or less”. Mr Aquilina describes this reference as “crude and most uncomplimentary” towards Italian sympathisers, which set the tone for Ms Strickland’s newspapers’ long-running campaign against them.
Times of Malta had, in Mr Aquilina’s words, “triumphantly”, carried the news about the deportation of the 43 internees proclaiming that nothing had brought greater satisfaction to Malta than news of their departure.
In an abstract detailing the start of hostilities, Mr Aquilina speaks of the “overzealous” drive by the Stricklands to see out the internees.
“Even if security was uppermost in the government and people’s minds, as it must certainly have been, and even if Mabel Strickland felt personally threatened, considering that, as she had always claimed, she was on Mussolini’s hit list, the feeling that the Stricklands and their newspapers were overzealous in their persistent drive to see the internees out of the island can hardly be denied.”
Mr Aquilina refers to the publication of a letter in 2005 by then PN general council president Victor Scerri in Times of Malta calling Britain for an apology over the treatment of wartime internees just two days prior to Queen Elizabeth’s State visit.
“The publication of the call for an apology in the same newspaper that, in Arturo Mercieca’s words, had been ‘stigmatised as its instigator and originator’ is one of many ironies of history,” Mr Aquilina writes.
In the author’s words the argument for and against deportation “inevitably spawns a torrent of passionate views and emotions over the evils and benefits of colonialism and imperialism”. Much depends on which side of the fence those making the criticism stood at the time.
As in every heated argument the truth very often lies somewhere in the middle, lost in the fog of propaganda, and at the time, the justifiable fear of a country on the brink of war. In all this, as Mr Aquilina says, few attempts have been made at striking an even-handed approach in the criticism.
Whether this book will offer historical justice to those who have always contended the British action to deport Maltese nationals, encouraged in no small way by the Stricklands and their newspapers, was a gross injustice is a different matter altogether.
Questioning the deportation of internees
Excerpt from the chapter A Shabby Affair
“Just as the internees had reason to feel angry and hurt at their deportation, without charge, to Uganda, others irrespective of their political persuasion, had good reason to feel concerned over their safety. Still, while, for security reasons, some might have considered the internment of people regarded to be strong Italian sympathisers reasonable and quite in order in wartime, was it all necessary to deport them to Uganda? Did the internees pose a threat to internal security? To what extent did the Stricklands and their newspapers influence the British authorities to resort to internment and deportation? Considering the unsympathetic way the Stricklands were held at the time by some quarters in Whitehall, it is hard to believe they were as influential as their antagonists made them out to be, even if the most outspoken among them, Roger and Mabel, were known to have been on very good terms with the defence security officer, Bertram Ede. Why did the authorities at least not wait for the outcome of the appeal court hearing before deporting the internees? Or was it simply a case that they wanted them out of the island at all costs?”
History as seen by Times of Malta
When Victor Aquilina joined Times of Malta in 1964 as a reporter he had a habit of going to the library before heading out on an assignment.
He was not one to confront a story without knowing the background. In his own words: “If I was sent out on a coverage on vines that were being introduced for the first time, I would go to the library and ask for any cuttings in which vines were mentioned.”
He points out there was no Google search at the time and the cuttings were a source of information to help him understand the subject at hand.
It was Mr Aquilina’s regular visits to the library that had him fascinated by the volumes of bound newspapers published by Allied Newspapers throughout the years.
His curiosity often had him flipping through the pages. This gave him insight into the beginning of Strickland House. He confesses this whet his appetite to know more about Gerald Strickland, a man he had heard a lot of negative remarks about.
“I always harboured the interest to explore and write a book about Strickland House when I retired and that is what I did,” he says.
The second volume covers the period of the Second World War. In many ways the book, like its predecessor, gives a glimpse of Malta’s history as experienced by Strickland House.
It documents the difficulties employees of Times of Malta faced as they worked hard to ensure the newspaper kept rolling off the printing press even when under heavy enemy fire. It shows the business decisions Mabel had to make to keep costs down and ensure stock of newsprint was adequate at a time of war.
The war chapters in this volume tell the island’s war story as it unfolded day by day through the eyes of the Strickland House newspapers acting not merely as chroniclers but, at times, as players to. But Mr Aquilina also traverses the political relationship between Gerald Strickland and Augustus Bartolo, who edited the Daily Malta Chronicle, which folded up because of the war. The two led different parties that eventually joined forces – or rather Bartolo’s Maltese Constitutional Party was swallowed up by Strickland’s Anglo-Maltese Party to form the Constitutional Party.
The final chapter chronicles the post-war return to normality and the impressive victory the Labour Party made in the 1947 election when it garnered almost 60 per cent of the vote, giving rise to the animosity between Mabel and Dom Mintoff.
Mr Aquilina was editor of Times of Malta between 1993 and 2003.
Strickland House: Times of Malta and Labour Party’s sweeping victory, Book Two: 1935-1947, is published by Allied Publications.
Curiosities from book
Setting up Allied Newspapers
The deed setting up the company, Allied Malta Newspapers, was published in Maltese and English in the Malta Government Gazzette on 28 July 1939.
The company was formed by Gerald Strickland, his wife Margaret, and daughter Mabel. It had a capital of £18,600, divided into 186 shares of £100 each, fully paid up and allotted as follows: Strickland, 121 shares; Margaret, 55 shares; and Mabel, 10 shares.
Newsprint costs had risen £112 every four weeks. Mabel, who was entrusted with running the newspapers, had negotiated the first newsprint supply contract with Bowaters. They were then and still are now, one of the world’s largest newsprint suppliers. Allied Malta Newspapers’ first contract with Bowaters was worth £1,000.
Advertising in Times of Malta
A full-page advertisement in the Times of Malta and its Maltese-language sister paper Il-Berqa cost £7 2s. 6d, provided the advertiser took 12 insertions. The rate for the Sunday paper was 3s. 6d. per inch. These were the rates the advertising manager, Edward Bellia, gave to the Ovaltine agent in March 1939.
Times of Malta had been censored by the government information department in the summer of 1940 for failing to carry anything about the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Valletta. The feast was held with a backdrop of bombed buildings as the ravages of war started being felt. In a strong reply Mabel argued the newspaper had a policy to “keep clear of the ecclesiastical preserves”. However, the author disputes the existence of any such policy and describes Mabel’s argument as “a poor and unconvincing reaction”. The holding of the feast in wartime was even more significant and surely merited coverage, according to Mr Aquilina.
The weather report
It was 1945 when the theatre of war had moved out of the Mediterranean and was nearing its end that the weather report re-appeared in the news pages. At the outbreak of war, Times of Malta had been ordered to stop carrying the weather report as part of the security measures taken in the country. No one complained at the time but its reappearance was taken as further proof that the war was nearing its end and life was returning to normal.
The Hajduk vs Malta XI game
The Yugoslav team Hajduk played against Malta XI on March 25, 1945. The King’s Own Malta Regiment band failed to play the Innu Malti and the 13,000-strong crowd stood up and sang it. Immortalised in Rużar Briffa’s poem Jum ir-Rebħ, the incident was described by Tom Hedley, who was reporting the game for Times of Malta, as an impressive moment.
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