Exile of 43 Maltese 60 years ago : One of the most shameful episodes of Malta's history - minister

15 February 2002

The Fort Salvatore internment camp

The Fort Salvatore internment camp

Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg has recalled the deportation, 60 years ago, of 43 Maltese to Uganda, describing it as a gross injustice and one of the most shameful episodes of Malta's history.

Speaking in parliament, Dr Borg said the deportation of the Maltese had been a gross injustice by the British government, the consequences of which were suffered by those people and their families long after the war ended.

The deportees came from all walks of life, including Nerik Mizzi, one of the leaders of the Nationalist Party, Sir Arturo Mercieca (who had been forced to resign his post as chief justice) Herbert Ganado, editor of Lehen is-Sewwa, Chev Vincenzo Bugeja, dockyard workers including the brother of Dun Gorg Preca, and even a 70-year-old man. They had originally been interned in May 1940, shortly before Italy entered the war, because it was claimed that they posed a threat to public safety and national security. They were never told how that was the case.

He recalled that the Maltese were interned without due process. They were first taken to Fort Salvatore in the Cottonera Lines, then the Corradino prisons, where they protested that they were not criminals, and finally St Agatha convent in Rabat.

Dr Borg read an excerpt of Rajt Malta Tinbidel by Ganado to give an example of the hardship of separation caused by the British government's decision:

"Qbatt il-valigga u hrigt nigri lejn il-karozza li kienet daqs hames passi boghod mill-bieb. Alda harget fil-bieb b'Tonio u Vanni kull naha. Vanni, meta rani diehel fil-karozza, haseb li kont sejjer passiggata. 'Ha nigi mieghek Pāpā, ha nigi mieghek...' L-ispettur Tabone hareg il-maktur u beda jomhod. Kellu ghajnejh bid-dmugh. It-tfal, qalli, it-tfal.... ma kompliex, u qbadna t-triq lejn is-Salvatur."

But worse was to come. In February 1942 the British government decided to exile 43 of the internees to Uganda.

The internees instituted two court cases. They argued in the first case that their deportation constituted a punishment when they had committed no crime and had not been found guilty of anything by any court.

Mr Justice Anthony Montanaro Gauci, despite his imperalistic ideas and despite having been an MP of the Constitutional Party, in a landmark judgment found that the deportation order was illegal.

The government, therefore, sought to change the law to authorise the Governor to exile the Maltese. The bill was debated in the Council of Government (parliament), which, apart from the members nominated by the British government, also included six members of the Constitutional Party, three of the Nationalist Party and one from the Labour Party.

The debate was held on February 9, 1942 and Sir Ugo Mifsud, one of the leaders of the PN, delivered one of the most stirring speeches ever given in a Maltese parliament. It was such a wonderful speech, Dr Borg said, that it should be taught in schools because it should make every Maltese proud.

Sir Ugo himself was so overcome by the seriousness of the situation that he suffered a heart attack half-way through his speech.

In his speech, Sir Ugo asked how the Maltese members of the Council of Government could be expected to approve a law to exile fellow Maltese when Britain, despite the war, had itself not enacted such a law to exile Britons.

"What has happened to the internees can happen to anyone. We are here to defend individual human rights" Sir Ugo said.

This, Dr Borg said, revealed the greatness and courage of Sir Ugo, as he, an expert in public international law, took on the British empire to argue fundamental human rights in wartime, well before human right conventions became the norm.

"I pray to God that such ugly matters which will leave an indelible mark on our history will not happen in Malta...I am feeling ill", Sir Ugo said. He then suffered a heart attack and was taken home, dying two days later.

Unfortunately his appeals fell on deaf ears. Dr George Borg Olivier, the only remaining Nationalist member on the council (the third, Nerik Mizzi having been interned) ended up being the only council member to vote against the bill.

The internees filed a court case against the new law. The first court found against them but they appealed.

But even as their appeal was about to be heard, on February 13, 1942 the group was forced into the hold of the cargo ship Breconshire and transported to Alexandria and on to Uganda. The crossing was made in the midst of a naval battle, the internees having been warned that should the ship be hit, there would be no boats for them, and if they did manage to reach a boat, they would be shot.

Upon arrival in Uganda the internees were told they had actually won their appeal, yet they were not brought back, not until March 7, 1945 even though by that time Italy had been out of the war for over two years.

Many of the internees contracted malaria while in Uganda, but all made it back to Malta. Nonetheless, even after their return they and their families continued to suffer prejudice from several people.

Dr Borg said it was unfortunate that the people tended to forget their history. Sixty years on, the injustice suffered by a group of Maltese who were punished when they had committed no wrong, needed to be officially commemorated.

Source: Times of Malta, www.timesofmalta.com

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