News | Sunday, 20 September 2009

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The wrong side of history

A ceremony to mark the reopening of ‘Villa Francia’ came and went – without a single reference to the family-member who owned the palace for over 30 years, or his adopted son who left it to the State. Genuine oversight, or blatant historical revisionism? Raphael Vassallo on a family that found itself on the wrong side of history

Something, somewhere, is missing. And it’s not just the enormous carpets that once adorned the palace rooms, either.
When the imposing Villa Francia in Lija (formerly Villa Preziosi) was opened to the public last Saturday, large crowds materialised to admire an architectural jewel that had been boarded up for over 20 years. Later that evening, the select few gathered in the garden for the Prime Minister’s speech, which extolled the 18th century palazzo’s historical significance, the expertise of its 21st century restorers, as well as his own government’s continued willingness to invest in cultural heritage.
But if anyone expected an acknowledgement of either the former proprietor John Baptist Francia, or his adopted son William N. Francia (originally Fenton), they would be disappointed. Apart from a vague word of thanks to “the Francia family”, the Prime Minister dwelt mainly on the coincidence that former Prime Minister and Nationalist Party leader Sir Ugo Mifsud had died in the same house in 1942.
For much the same reason, the only member of the Francia family to receive an individual mention was Sir Ugo’s widow, Blanche... and even then, only to explain the connection with the former PN leader to begin with.
In fact, many came away with the impression that the entire event was little more than an attempted aggrandisement of the historic persona of Sir Ugo himself; and to compound matters further, this approach appears to be uniform in all official references to the same building.
The website of the Office of the Prime Minister, for instance, now contains a small section entitled “The History of Villa Francia”... in which the only (indirect) reference to John Baptist Francia comes as an afterthought in the last line; and even then, only to justify the Mifsud connection in the first place: “During the Second World War, Villa Francia was owned by the brother of Sir Ugo Mifsud’s wife...”
It is as though a conscious effort has been made to rewrite the palace’s history altogether – an effort which did not go unnoticed, as a few days later Labour MP José Herrera would take Dr Gonzi to task for his “disservice to the Francia family” in a newspaper article.
“It is utterly scandalous how the true benefactors, in this instance the Francia family, were totally omitted from any type of oration whatsoever,” he wrote. “Once you view the villa room by room you will find no bust, no painting and not even a humble photo recalling William N. Francia, the last in the line of the Francia family who, back in 1986, decided to bequeath the said property.”
But Herrera stops short of speculating exactly why the Prime Minister would be so reluctant to allude to any of the Francias by name... even if a cursory glance at Maltese history will reveal that this is hardly the first time the once-prestigious family has been severely snubbed.

The wrong side of history
Originally from Gibraltar, Colonel John Lewis Francia – vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, father to both Blanche and John Baptist, and the man who originally bought Villa Preziosi in the late 19th century – is arguably best remembered today for his connections with two of Malta’s largest and most influential businesses in the early 20th century.
One was the operation of the National Flour Mills in Marsa, through his firm Giuseppe Buttigieg & Figli; the other was the Banco di Malta (later amalgamated into the National Bank of Malta), of which both Colonel John Lewis and his son John Baptist were directors in their time.
In June 1919, the Francias’ Valletta home was specifically targeted (alongside the homes of the island’s other two leading millers, Antonio Cassar Torregiani and Louis Farrugia) during the riots we now refer to as “Sette Giugno”.
Together with the other millers, Francia had been accused of artificially raising flour prices at a time of post-war depression – somewhat ironically, considering that both Francia and Cassar Torreggiani had unsuccessfully lobbied British governor Lord Methuen for a bread subsidy.
Violence broke out on Saturday 7 June, and in the ensuing turmoil the Francia mills in Hamrun were razed to the ground, and their Valletta home plundered. The injustice of this episode has recently been highlighted by a previously unpublished letter, written by the late Antonio Cassar Torreggiani to his children, which portrays the events of 7 June from an entirely novel perspective.
“Col. J. L. Francia, who originated the movement to obtain proper representation on changes in local taxation, after the imposition of Succession Duty, received no thanks from the mob rule,” Cassar Torreggiani notes. “On the contrary, coerced by other political factions, the mob sacked (his) house and his valuable furniture was carried away to the disgust of responsible opinion...”
The complete letter was published last year in MaltaToday.
But this pales to insignificance compared to the insult that would be added to the injury some 70 years after the event. If the incident is still remembered, it is largely on account fo the fact that British soldiers opened fire and killed five Maltese citizens. Consequently, the looting and sacking of the Francia and Cassar Torreggiani homes in 1919 is today celebrated annually as, of all things, a public holiday... and one of Malta’s five national days to boot!
Nor are the Sette Giugno riots the only events to have subverted history to the Francias’ disadvantage. In 1973, shortly before the death of John Baptist, the government of Malta forcefully acquired the National Bank of Malta, including all the Francia shares, after a run on the bank that many believe to have been artificially engineered.
It was a dispossession in which both sides of Malta’s political divide eagerly participated: in 1974, Dom Mintoff’s Labour government established the Bank of Valletta to administer the NBM’s assets, estimated at Lm43 million. And in between 1990 and 1995, Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist government sold over 16 million BOV shares to the general public: reducing government’s stake to 25%, and making any form of legal redress practically impossible.
To this day, the bank’s original 274 shareholders have not been compensated; and it seems that the annexation of NBM remains a subject that both Labour and Nationalist stolidly refuse to ever even mention, let alone discuss.

Moral revisionism
However, there may be yet another reason for the Prime Minister’s evident reluctance to allude to the Francias: in particular, to John Baptist and his adopted son, William Nathaniel Fenton.
Australian lawyer and gay rights activist Joe Carmel Chetcuti, in a book shortly to become available in Malta, echoes popular speculation that there was more to the Francia-Fenton relationship than met the eye.
“Fenton was Francia’s ‘adopted son’ (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more),” Chetcuti writes in his book Queer Mediterranean Memories. “Their relationship appears to have been an open secret notwithstanding their half-hearted attempts to conceal it.”
Francia first met William Fenton, 30 years his junior, through a British officer in the 1960s. A few years later he would adopt Fenton as his son and heir.
“In a will dated 13 July 1971, Francia bequeathed Fenton, amongst other things, the usufruct, during his lifetime, of Villa Preziosi and the surrounding fields. Upon Fenton’s death, the house was to be bequeathed ‘to the legitimate children of the said William Nathaniel Francia (but excluding adopted children)’”, Chetcuti observes.
Francia’s decision to adopt the young man in 1971 raised eyebrows at the time; but while it “legitimised” the couple’s subsequent decision to live together, it was also interpreted as an attempt to circumvent succession duties and prevent the State from expropriating the property.
It is also this event that many believe led Dom Mintoff to enact new amendments to the Adoption Law in 1977. According to biographer Joan Crawford, the law was “designed” to disallow Mabel Strickland the right to leave her estate to kinsman Robert Francis – whom she eventually considered marrying, if only to defy the recent legal changes.
As it happens, however, William Francia died childless in 1988, and in his will the property was left to the State.
Regardless of the “official” reasons for the 1971 adoption, Chetcuti claims the nature of the relationship was unequivocal: “Francia and Fenton were believed to be lovers,” he asserts. “Fenton’s conversion to Catholicism sought to camouflage his homosexuality, and provide him with a convenient reason for wanting to remain in Malta. At their villa in Lija, Francia and Fenton organised both formal and informal gay parties... Formal parties for Malta’s silver and china queens, in the upper rooms of the villa, came complete with expensive silver cutlery, fine china and candelabras. Informal parties, for the not-so-rich, were held downstairs...”
The Villa Francia parties appear to have continued after John Baptist Francia’s death in 1974, when Fenton became the sole proprietor.
“In 1987, shortly before (his own) death, William Nathaniel Fenton organised a ‘black and white’ party... He called on the assistance of a Fifi Kitson, a well-known Maltese socialite and a great organiser. Many of Malta’s elites trusted her expertise. Over 100 guests attended. Typically, the party started around 7:30pm and finished around 11pm. Close family friends were often asked to stay on...”
However, despite the enormity of the social taboo regarding homosexuality in the 1960s and 1970s, John Baptist Francia continued to enjoy an excellent social standing in Malta up until his death. He was after all widely known and respected as a generous patron of the arts, as well as a social benefactor who made regular donations to all leading charities. He was also a Nationalist supporter who enjoyed excellent relations with the PN’s leader George Borg Olivier.
And if his house acquired a certain notoriety after his death, Francia himself is still remembered as modest, reserved character, described in almost ascetic terms by those who knew him personally. One acquaintance – who declines to be named – suggests that Francia, a lifelong bachelor, ‘had never had an affair’ in his entire life before meeting Fenton.
Paradoxically, then, it seems that John Baptist Francia was accorded more respect and acceptance by polite society in the ‘repressed’ 1960s and 1970s – when homosexuality was officially a crime punishable by imprisonment – than in the ‘progressive’ 21st century, when the “discrimination based on sexual orientation” is supposedly an offence at law.
History is sometimes illogical.


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