Definitions

Manwel Dimech

Manwel Dimech

Manwel Dimech (25 December 1860, Valletta17 April 1921, Alexandria, Egypt) was the pre-eminent social reformer in pre-independence Malta, a philosopher, a journalist, and a writer of novels and poetry. Dimech is the personification of all the psychological, social and ideological motives of the Maltese people at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a man of exceptional qualities. Born and brought up in extreme poverty and illiteracy, Dimech returned time and time again to the prisons, mostly on robbery charges. At seventeen years of age he even committed murder. In the prisons, however, he studied hard and became skilful in letters and various arts. When finally set in liberty, he engaged himself in an energetic and enterprising public life by teaching and publishing. He aimed at an overall transformation of society in which the poor and abject would be given a rightful place as citizens of a free republic. He was ahead of his times, so much so that the high classes concocted against him, and permanently exiled him from the island, where he died, and buried in an unmarked grave.

Biography

The main literary source for Dimech’s biography is Dr Mark Montebello’s extensive work Dimech, published in 2004 (PEG, Malta). Unfortunately, it is in Maltese and no translation of it (in English or otherwise) exists as yet.

Birth and formation

Manuel Dimech was born on Christmas Day (December 25), 1860, at St John Street, Valletta, Malta, and baptised at the church of St Paul Shipwreck, Valletta. His family was poor and lived in a single room that was part of a common tenement house with over sixty people. His ancestors on his father’s side were genuine artistic sculptors, though up till Dimech’s birth his family had fell on difficult times. During his childhood, Dimech’s family moved residence twice, leaving Valletta for Qormi (today Santa Venera), and then moving to Msida (today Birkirkara). His father tried hard to make ends meet, but his weak health prevented any success in this endeavour. He died at the young age of only 37, leaving his widow to care for ten young children.

Prison experience

Just a fortnight after his father’s death the 13-year old Dimech committed his first recorded crime of petty theft. He was a street urchin with no education, guidance or direction. For his first crime he was sent two days in a lockup. This experience did not stop him from delving deeper into a life of crime. Subsequently, he was to be sent nine more time to prison, sometimes for very serious crimes. Mostly it was for theft or burglary, but in 1878, when he was 17 years old, he committed murder, and was imprisoned for more than twelve years. In 1890, then, he was found guilty of forging counterfeit money (though he only traded it), and was imprisoned for a further seven years. He was definitely released from prison in 1897 at the age of 36. In all he had spend some twenty years of incarceration.

Education

While in prison Dimech began to learn how to read and write. This was in 1877, when he was 17 years old. With all the time of the world on his hands he quickly became an avid reader, absorbing all kinds of stuff: literature, grammar, politics, history, philosophy, religion, and more. He discovered he had a special penchant for languages, and in prison he learnt the ins and outs of Maltese, English, French and Italian to perfection. Later he would make a living teaching these languages. He had a good brain and a fruitful mind. His keen interest in politics was not committed to petty squabbles or parochial issues, but burrowed deep into the structural causes of poverty and oppression. All of this would serve him well in the public sphere.

Prison terror

In prison Dimech had another kind of formation. During his last stint in prison between 1890 and 1897, a certain Marquis Giorgio Barbaro was appointed Commissioner of Prison. This man was a psychopath who made the life of prisoners, vulnerable and defenceless as they were, a hell on earth. He tortured, murdered, persecuted and tormented prisoners ceaselessly. He also perjured his way into sending at least two prisoners to the gallows for crimes they had not committed. Dimech saw all this and lived through it with growing agony. The experience, together with the reading he was doing, moulded him into a daring, powerful and intrepid personality.

Public figure

Once out of prison in 1897, Dimech embarked on a outstanding public career that brought him fame, though not immediate success. From the start of 1898 he issued a weekly in Maltese that was to serve him as his mouthpiece for many years to come. He called it Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin (The Flag of the Maltese; pronounced ilbaandeera taal maaltin). Through it he explored, albeit with the language and prose of the times, the structures of oppression in a country that had been a colony of Britain since 1800, and in the clutches of the Catholic Church since time immemorial. Furthermore, Dimech proposed the way forward. He advocated the education of the masses, and audaciously specified how Malta could one day be an economically self-sufficient independent republic.

Philosophy

Dimech adhered to a philosophy that he called ‘of action’, a position very close, though directly unrelated, to the contemporaneous Pragmatism of America. He came at this position through his acquaintance with the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and other British Empiricists and philosophers of Utilitarianism. He claimed that actions can be considered right or wrong, and value judgments can be rightly gauged, according to whether they perform well when applied to practice. Actions, he maintained, proceed from the power that knowledge possesses from itself. Furthermore, actions are aimed at acquiring happiness, first, for the individual, and, simultaneously, for the whole community of individuals.

Publications

During his lifetime Dimech issued various publications. The 462 editions of Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin are perhaps the foremost. But others are also interesting. Amongst these one can find other newspapers in foreign languages (of short duration), two novels, grammar books (in Italian, English, French, and Maltese), and pamphlets. Unfortunately, books of poetry have not survived. Dimech’s main objective with these publications was to form a political class from amongst the people, especially young men and women who had not the possibility of acquiring an education otherwise. Dimech was enamored of the Maltese language, and saw it as an efficacious tool of emancipation.

Foreign experience

Dimech had travelled to Tunis in 1890 for expediency reasons. However, in 1903 he visited Montenegro (for almost three weeks) to study at close range the social and political situation there. He enhanced this experience by travelling twice to the north of Italy (especially Genoa, Milan and Turin), where, in all, he spent almost four years. There Dimech became particularly acquainted to workers’ movements and the trade unions. He was also very interested in the state-church relationship that prevailed in Italy during that fascinating time. Understandably, he came back to Malta fired up and all ready to bring about the social changes he had been mulling over for many years.

Main political programme

It is indisputable that Dimech wanted, and worked for, an overhaul of the social system. His main aim was to pull the carpet from under the structures of oppression, whether they were maintained by the British colonial government, the Catholic Church, the privileged class, the landed gentry, or whoever. His strategy was to begin with the political education of a new grass-root group of people, and subsequently permeate the illiterate, underprivileged and destitute masses. His ultimate aims were to make Malta an industrialised country that could be economically self-reliant and, eventually, be worthy of independence.

Popular organiser

Definitely back to Malta from Italy in 1911, Dimech founded what he called Ix-Xirka ta' l-Imdawlin (The League of the Enlightened; pronounced ishirka taal imdaaulin). This was a sort of union in the modern understanding of the word, in the sense that it was a social club, an organisation militating for workers’ rights, a school of adult education, and a political party all in one. Through this league Dimech hoped to have a say, and transformative influence, in the political, and then the social, and maybe also the religious, fields. Young idealists and people craving for change flocked to him, and not only from the lower class but also from the middle and higher classes. Dimech’s political “revolution” had begun.

Excommunicated

But immediately Dimech was held in his tracks. The then mighty Catholic Church pounced on him, and first condemned Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin and Ix-Xirka ta' l-Imdawlin, and shortly afterward excommunicated Dimech himself. Though this was an overwhelmingly devastating blow in all respects in Malta of the 1910s, Dimech was undaunted. He fought back with the little freedom of movement and action that was left to him, and stalwartly stood his ground. For a whole year, between 1911 and 1912, he and his family were systematically and pitilessly persecuted by the Church, but nothing could break his back. Then, obliquely admitting defeat, the Church called a truce. Dimech had won against all odds, and immediately re-established his former organization with the name Ix-Xirka tal-Maltin (The League of the Maltese; pronounced ishirka taal maaltin).

Considered dangerous

But the Catholic Church was not the only institution disgruntled with Dimech. The British colonial government was unhappy with his widespread and growing influence amongst the workers at the Royal shipyards. Indeed, the great majority of Dimech’s foot soldiers came from there, and this threatened to precariously disrupt the use of Malta as one of His Majesty’s major Mediterranean naval base. Slowly but surely, and perhaps not without a push or two from the authorities of the Catholic Church, the powers to be began to close upon this little man who was considered dangerous enough to be destroyed.

Deportation and imprisonment

Just over a year after Dimech re-launched his Xirka tal-Maltin, he was arrested. World War I had just begun, and Malta’s British governor accepted the accusation that Dimech was a spy of Germany (then at war with Britain), and surreptitiously deported him (of course without a trial) to the island to Sicily, in Italy (as yet a neutral country in the war). There he was shortly arrested again, and asked to leave to a country, save Malta, of his own choice. Dimech chose Egypt, then a British protectorate. Again, shortly afterward, he was arrested once more, this time for good. For the remaining days of his life, for seven long and miserable years, Dimech lived in prisons or concentration camps either at Alexandria or Cairo.

Exile

Though legally unfounded, at some unspecified time the British began to consider Dimech as a “prisoner of war”. However, when World War I came to an end in 1918, he was not released. Technically and actually, Dimech then became an exile, and eventually he remained so till the end of his days. Various pleas for his return to Malta were refused by the British colonial government in Malta, even when these were repeatedly made by the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force Force, Edmund Allenby, and later by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill.

Death

At the end of 1918 Dimech was transferred to a concentration camp at Sidi Bishr in Alexandria. Dire prison conditions caused his health to deteriorate fast. In November 1920, after becoming half paralyzed by apoplexy, he was transferred to Victoria College, Alexandria, at Sidi Bishr itself, a college that was transformed into a hospital due to war exigencies. But by now Dimech was doomed. He died forlorn and alone on April 17, 1921, and was unceremoniously buried in the sand grounds of Victoria College, Alexandria, itself. His grave was unmarked, and all attempts to locate it proved futile.

The Dimechians

A small group of young followers of Dimech continued to be somewhat active in Malta well after his deportation in 1914. They organized Malta’s first recorded strike at the Royal shipyards in 1920, and were significantly amongst the rioters against the British colonial government in 1921, riots which led to the granting of Malta’s first self-government. They were harassed and persecuted harshly by the colonial government, especially in 1914 and 1933, so much so that to be a Dimechian became quickly tantamount to public disgrace. By time, the few faithful Dimechians died out, and Dimech himself was forgotten.

Posthumous recogition

Dimech was re-introduced to the public by Gerald Azzopardi (1910-1993) in the 1960s, and later, in the 1970s, he was given more academic validity by Professor Henry Frendo. This led to a renewed interest in Dimech’s life. Also in the 1970s, the socialist Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, transformed Dimech into a sort of socialist icon, even though Dimech himself would have been ill at ease with such a recognition. However, Dimech’s fame was finally set. A monument to him was erected in 1976 in front of the Prime Minister’s office in Valletta, at one of Malta's main squares. In 2004 Dr Mark Montebello placed the study and appreciation of Dimech on a new and unprecedented standing with a master biographical work called simply Dimech (PEG, Malta), which started to behold Dimech’s personality in a more balanced and objective way.

Achievement

Dimech evocatively and compellingly advocated the emancipation of the masses. His assault on the entrenched structures of oppression in Malta was extraordinary, outstanding and unmatched by anything that had gone before. Dimech was not a nationalist, an anti-colonialist or a socialist in any way we would understand the terms today. He was, first and foremost, an enemy of any kind of domination, coercion, cruelty, tyranny, repression and subjugation. If this made him a nationalist, an anti-colonialist or some kind of socialist, it was surely only in an indirect and oblique way. Dimech did not achieve in his lifetime what he set out to accomplish. He was violently and unjustly truncated. Most of the policies he advocated were implemented some half a century after his death by Dom Mintoff in the 1970s.

Streets in Malta named after this personality

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