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Colonialism and nationalism in Mediterranean area – interview with Prof. Henry Frendo of University of Malta

Talking about colonialism and nationalism in the Mediterranean area is certainly something recalling countless events of its millenary history. Thus, I invited Prof. Frendo to give us his authoritative advice concerning the most salient aspects of these topics.

di Emanuele G. - martedì 14 dicembre 2010 - 3676 letture

The recent publishing of “Colonialismo e nazionalismo nel Mediterraneo. La lotta partitica a Malta durante l’occupazione inglese; tra assimilazione e resistenza” (Universita’ di Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo, 2009) of Prof. Frendo made me thinking about the inner sources of our common history and culture.

History and culture as feedback of opposite forces. Some of them autochthonous. Other ones aliens. That contrast originated through the ages unforgettable cultural experiences. In such scenario colonialism and nationalism played an essential role. They have been the basic elements of a particular chemistry named “Mare Nostrum”.

About these topics I had an intense mailing correspondence with Prof. Frendo. The interview you are reading right below is the result of our joint forces.


Talking about colonialism and nationalism in the Mediterranean is certainly no easy task. Why do you have decided to talk about those topics?

“I joined university in 1965 just as Malta was obtaining its independence from Britain (in September 1964). As one who had been a colonial subject (or a ’bloody native’ as I was once called by a threateningly approaching barge in my early teenage because I had trespassed in the vicinity of Kalafrana Bay, Birzebbugia, in my canoe) I was most intrigued to discover what colonialism had meant and how/what nationalism had sought to respond to it. My forthcoming book, /Malta in Europe and Empire: Culture, Politics and Identity 1912-1946 /(Midsea, 2010/11) will deal with this problematic.”

Is there a direct relation between colonialism and nationalism?

“Very much so. Maltese nationalists led by Fortunato Mizzi mobilized as a party in 1880 mainly in opposition to the proposed policy of anglicization, set in motion mainly after Italy’s unification. Their chief opponent, Sir Gerald Strickland, held that the Maltese should become ’English in speech, in thought and in fact’, as I have shown in /Party Politics in a Fortress Colony: The Maltese Experience /(Midsea, Valletta, 1979, 2nd ed. 1991), an updated version of which, /Colonialismo e nazionalismo nel Mediterraneo - la lotta partitica a Malta durante l’occupazione inglese; tra assimilazione e resistenza/, was published in Italian by the Università agli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo and launched by its Rector Prof Stefano Pivato last year.”

What does mean for you the term nationalism?

“In the Maltese context, where Italian had been the language of education and public life since the 13th century, essentially it means resistance to assimilation and the demand for autonomy.”

Is nationalism a value to relate with a people, a territory or traditions?

“Yes, all of these - for historical, political, religious, linguistic, geographical and even commercial reasons. However, the spoken vernacular, Maltese, was a Semitic-Romance amalgam written in the Roman cript but without a standard orthography or much of a literature at all before the 1930s.”

Does the Mediterranean nationalism a specific value as regards other areas of Europe?

“It is national and regional at the same time, a ’Latin’ dimension heightened after 1911 by the Italian presence on all sides but, equally, at the same time, and partly for that reason generally, by a growing British naval and military presence which employed thousands of Maltese in the docks and with British services, while giving a ’social engineering’ preference to those who learned English instead of Italian for utilitarian purposes and as a sign of ’loyalty’ to the British Crown in their ’fortress’.”

Which are the main aspects of Mediterranean nationalism?

“Mainly freedom from foreign hegemony, occasionally with irredentist edges (e.g. Cyprus/Greece, Malta/Italy; Gibraltar/Spain). The religious Islamic dimension was more pronounced in northern African countries such as Algeria where, in the name of a nationalist liberation, one million Algerian-born non-Muslim Europeans were forced to leave in 1962, only four years after hundreds of thousands of European migrant settlers and workers had been forced out of Egypt. A certain integration-independence hesitancy is noticeable even among moderate elements in some North African countries but Islamic-propelled nationalism prevailed largely of course at the cost of a multi-racial/multi-cultural alternative.”

In which ways did colonialism play the role of start-up of nationalism in Mediterranean area?

“From the usurpation of Spanish title to Gibraltar in 1704 to that of Neapolitan rule in Malta in 1800, from the occupation of Algers in 1830 to the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, imperialism - British, French, Italian, Ottoman in the Balkans and to a lesser extent Spanish in Morocco, not to mention especially Austria in Italy, so-called ’European expansion’, i.e. continental imperialism turned colonialist, invited a clash of cultures and of interests, including tension between ’modernity’ and ’tradition’ and a loaded often misleading terminology of ’progress’ and ’superiority’.”

I guess nationalism is a natural value for mankind. What is your statement apropos of my statement?

“In so far as nationalism may be seen as the organized expression of a felt nationality, that is an affinity with ’patria’ in time and space, it could be described as a natural value for mankind. But this is a Mazzinian notion - that those without a motherland were the bastards of humanity - one however with which Marx would have disagreed because he held that workers had no fatherland. Moreover one has to be wary of the German romantic school’s absolutist identification of language with nationhood, and of this in turn with statehood. Renan was right to note qualities other than strictly linguistic ones moulding the sense of affinity and belonging, shared pasts and aspirations for the future.”

Can nationalism help an Europe lacking in specific identity?

“As I show in my recently published works on /The European Mind: Narrative and Identity/ (Malta University Press, 2010, 2 vol), and in an earlier study in Maltese /L’Identita’ Europea: Tezisti? / (Jean Monnet Seminar Series, European Research and Documentation Centre, University of Malta), one may trace, as sinews in the thread, a European identity from Greco-Roman times and the monotheist Judeo-Christian tradition to the present, albeit a non-linear one. However globalisation, consumism, the pleasure ethic and mass illegal immigration from non-European and indeed non-Mediterranean sources may lead to a critical lack of a specific European identity, although institutional democracy, separation of powers and pluralism, including respect for human rights and those of women, survive and remain characteristic of European political and cultural development more or less since the Enlightenment. In spite of an obsession with political correctness in certain quarters and a presumed equality tout court since 1968, intellectual engagement does survive and remain a core value of what may be recognised as a European culture and identity.”

How to balance nationalism and globalization in contemporary world?

“This is a great challenge which, I hope, diversity will win at the expense of uniformity and an imposed sameness; but not at the expense of respect for host values, cultures and traditions. Presumably that is what Giscard d’Estaing meant when he once said that to admit Turkey into the EU would signify ’the end of Europe’ (la fin de l’Europe). In the light of growing anti-Christian and anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism from Iraq to Pakistan and beyond, this too is what the messages coming out of many European countries regarding a once applauded state-sponsored multi-culturalism - from Denmark to Holland, from France to Austria to Germany - seem to be indicating now. The balance between nationalism and globalisation is thus a tricky but necessary one. Ultimately most people and most Europeans still relate primarily to the nation to which they feel they belong.”


I thank Prof. Frendo for having helped us in clarifying some fundamental topics in present Mediterranean history. A geopolitical area where past, present and future are strongly linked. That often caused – I dare to say – lot of troubles among peoples sharing the same sea. The hope, at least, consists in focusing our most seductive values to reach an appropriate definition of Mediterranean identity.

As the topics discussed during the interview are worth of interest, I decided to include two recommended essays on “Colonialismo e nazionalismo nel Mediterraneo. La lotta partitica a Malta durante l’occupazione inglese; tra assimilazione e resistenza”. Both invite us to have more consciousness of our common historical sequel.

Before all, a review written by Prof. Nicola Bucaria published in the issue n. 19 of “Mediterranea – ricerche storiche”. Link:

http://www.storiamediterranea.it/public/md1_dir/r1539.zip.

Then, an article of Prof. Anna Porcheddu published in The Malta Independent Online. Link:

http://www.independent.com.mt/news.asp?newsitemid=102301).

I wish you an enriching reading.


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