Malta Diary Notorious characters – fascinating stories – some little-known aspects of Maltese history
Every country has its share of notorious characters, Malta no less. I will relate the stories of some of the most notorious but strangely enough little is known or nowadays heard of them unless one bothers to delve back in the annals of history.
Giuseppe Vella was born in Valletta, Malta in 1749. He died in Mezzomonreale in Palermo, Sicily in 1814. Sadly, he has not been given credit where credit is due – even though a highly negative and dubious credit. Academically he was accomplished and was highly fluent in Italian and claimed to be highly fluent in Arabic including the reading and writing of Arabic script.
Completing and continuing his studies in theology and the humanities he became a friar and was henceforth known as Abate (Abbot) Giuseppe Vella.
In 1780 he moved to Palermo in Sicily to follow a course of studies on the strength of a legacy which he inherited from his convent nun aunt from monies paid by the faithful for the hearing of Holy Masses for the souls of the dead.
His fame exploded towards the end of the 18th Century when he made some highly startling claims that shook the nearby Italian peninsula and reverberated throughout Europe because his claims shook the very foundations of all European history.
Out of the blue Abate Vella announced that in his researches he had discovered no less than seventeen hitherto “lost” books by the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius) while simultaneously he claimed to have come across a number of Arabic parchments which he was translating.
Having set the background for his intended rise to fame, Abate Vella published the theory that the Arabic documents he had translated showed clearly that the people of Sicily and some parts of Europe were in fact Arabian and not Sicilian at all. He titled his document ‘Storia della Sicilia Islamica” (The History of Islamic Sicily).
His “revelations” took Europe by storm because they threatened the very proud Latin and Roman and later Christian foundation of the peninsula and many other parts of Europe. Suddenly, the ongoing glamour of a Latin and Christian Europe began to founder. It was like being told abruptly that the people you knew as your parents were not your parents at all because your actual parents were somebody else.
A hot debate spread throughout European literary and historic circles because on these “facts” it seemed the whole history of Europe had to be re-written.
However, doubts began to set in solidly about his literary ability and indeed his knowledge of Arabic begun to be questioned soundly as the debate continued to rage.
The poet Giovanni Meli published harsh criticism that Vella had falsified everything and that all his claims were a pack of lies. Divisions ran deep but cracks in his suppositions and theories were soon outed. It was pointed out that Vella was Maltese and his native language was a dialect of Arabic and that although he did have knowledge of Arabic, it was at best sketchy and improvised. This led to claims that because the Arabs had dominated Malta for some centuries, he had improvised this to claim that prior to this Sicily had already had Arabic foundations.
The brunt of his theories finally collapsed. The Arabic parchments he had boasted of did not exist nor were Livy’s seventeen “lost” books.
Vella died discredited in Palermo in 1814 and went down in history as one of Europe’s most notorious falsifiers.
The scene now moves forward to the late 19th and early 20th Century and two very controversial death penalty executions of Rosario Mizzi known as “Il-Lajs” and Antonio Azzopardi known as “Ninu Xkora” in 1894 and 1908 respectively.
Mizzi had been sentenced to death by hanging, for murder. However, shortly after his execution doubts began to emerge as to whether he had actually been guilty as charged, for murder. At the time Lord Gerald Strickland was Secretary to the Government and he was soundly criticised for a miscarriage of justice. When later he became Malta’s Prime Minister he called the whole affair “a dirty business” to confirm there had been a complete miscarriage of justice and that Mizzi had been framed for a murder he did not commit.
Ironically, later, Strickland was himself the victim of a frame-up. He was the leader of the Constitutional Party (pro-British) in heated rivalry with the Partito Nazionale (pro-Italian) during the build-up to the Second World War. Nearing the eve of the General Election (which Strickland was expected to win), the PN produced a “witness” named Terrinu Bono who swore an oath that he had seen Strickland wearing the robes of a freemason and entering the freemasons’ lodge in lower Valletta.
In highly Roman Catholic Malta, this was an enormous scandal, a bombshell. The Church (always in collusion with the PN) immediately stepped in and pronounced an “interdict” on Strickland, his party and his newspapers which meant that anybody who voted for his party (which was then in coalition with the Malta Labour Party) or read his newspapers would be guilty of mortal sin.
Subsequently, Strickland lost the election but it later emerged that Terrinu Bono, who worked as a waiter, was a known drunkard and a liar and had been paid by the Partito Nazionale to fabricate the story!
Hence, Terrinu’s name became part of Maltese parlance because ever after the term “Terrinata” signified a frame-up i.e. being framed – and this perpetuated his notoriety!
However, our concern here is with Antonio Azzopardi known as “Ninu Xkora” who was born in Valletta but resided in Hamrun. “Xkora” means sack and his nickname came about as a result of his being constantly seen carrying a sack slung over his shoulder, a trait which was commonplace in those days, the sack being used to collect all useful bits and pieces that others had thrown away.
Azzopardi was found guilty of murdering his daughter’s fiance’, sentenced to death and duly hung. As was the custom in those days, burial had to take place just one hour after the execution and thus Azzopardi was hastily buried.
Shortly after doubts began to creep in as to whether he had actually died on the gallows or whether he had been buried alive. Azzopardi was a tall man and some doctors said the length of rope was too short for a man of Azzopardi’s stature. This meant he had probably not completely broken his atlas vertebrae and was therefore still alive although unconscious.
The newspapers “In-Nahla” and “Risorgimento” took up the story and the doctors that had pronounced him dead took libel proceedings against the newspapers. Surprisingly, they lost the case as the media lawyers cited the story of a girl who fell from a balcony and although her head and neck were badly twisted she was still alive.
This reinforced the probability that Antonio “Ninu Xkora” Azzopardi had in fact been buried alive.
As a boy I remember stories of Ninu’s ghost being “seen” woefully plodding through Hamrun’s main road at night and bad boys (like yours truly) were very often threatened with being taken away by Ninu in his sack unless they sharply mended their ways!