Sunday, October 26, 2014, 00:01 by Ivan Martin

 

Napoleon never pillaged Malta,
new book claims

‘Little more than a ruse by the upper classes to maintain political control’

Napoleon, above, never ordered the plunder of Malta in the
late 18th century, says author Charles Xuereb, right.

 

The French plunder of Malta in the late 18th century was a lie told by Maltese aristocrats and clerics to justify a bloody uprising, according to a new book on the era.

Broadcaster and Francophile Charles Xuereb’s book France in the Maltese Collective Memory, claims that the looting of Maltese churches, widely accepted as the impetus behind the 1798 uprising, was little more than a ruse by the upper classes to maintain political control of the island.

“We have this notion of French soldiers pillaging churches across the island. This didn’t happen. Dioceses for instance were barely touched and whatever silver was taken was definitely not stolen,” Dr Xuereb said.

« Whatever silver was taken was definitely not stolen »

Dr. Charles Xuereb

Accounts on the French acquisition of Maltese valuables vary, with some estimating several million of Maltese scudi had been shipped off to fund French military ventures in North Africa.

Maltese and British historians have described scenes of churches, private homes and even hospitals plundered by French colonisers.

But Dr Xuereb said that contrary to popular belief, official records of the time only listed three incidents of petty theft on churches by French soldiers.

The book, a case study of Maltese politics and the national identity under French rule, quotes a number of French historians on the transfer of silverware to French colonisers in a rudimentary taxation system.

The documents show that French administrators were given some 489,659 Maltese scudi, around €49,000, worth of silverware, by the church – an enormous sum 200 years ago.

“Authors seem to have exaggerated the ‘plundering’ of churches to exploit the people’s sensitivity towards religion,” the book reads.

Perhaps the most popular of the French looting stories, is the account of how members of the ‘Maltese resistance’ painted the silver gate in St John’s co-Cathedral black, in a bid to protect it from pillagers.

Dr Xuereb however, has reservations on the anecdote.

“I don’t believe it. Some authors write about it. Napoleon had 54 scholars with him at the time and I doubt that a gate like that would have been missed by such a group,” he said, adding that the scholars had spent six days carefully cataloguing everything in the co-Cathedral.

Another bone of contention was based on French claims to Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette’s sword, which is today housed at Paris’s Louvre museum.

Many view the sword as an iconic piece of Maltese history, which should be returned to the capital.

Dr Xuereb, however, said the Maltese had no claim over the weapon, as this had been signed over to the French when the Order of St John agreed to leave the island.

Dr Xuereb is so convinced of the French colonisers’ historic misrepresentation that he argues they deserve thanks for sowing the seeds of the island’s first form of representative government.

“The French had set up an administrative body that was almost exclusively made up of Maltese. This would have revolutionised and secularised the island immensely. Obviously, it was another thing that angered the parts of Maltese society that stood to lose out. And so it isn’t spoken about,” he said.