Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge and the Rule of Law on Malta

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge and the Rule of Law on Malta

Article excerpt

The venerable Public Secretary and Treasurer of Malta, Mr. Macaulay, died suddenly during a thunderstorm in January, 1805. Sir Alexander Ball, the Civil Commissioner, approached Coleridge to act as Public Secretary pro s. The British government had already nominated a Mr. Chapman, to become Macaulay's successor, but this hapless official was at that time absent from Malta purchasing grain in sufficient quantities to feed the Island for a year. Chapman could not be recalled from the Black Sea region until this strategically important mission had been completed.

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Coleridge, who was merely a private visitor to Malta seeking a cure for his opium addiction, might not appear to have been an ideal temporary appointee to the most senior post for a civil servant. In Fact, his presence on the Island was opportune. Coleridge's popular journalism in England had demonstrated his flair in influencing public opinion, which Ball could now exploit. The British administration was beset by policy failures that We' undermining Ball's authority, popularity and reputation amongst the Maltese.

Many of the labyrinthine functions of the Public Secretary were delegated to other officials whilst Coleridge held office. Amongst his remaining responsibilities Coleridge undertook a public information campaign to re-establish the popularity and authority of the British administration. This was done in part by disguising the problem that the interests of the colonial power are not always aligned with those of the local population. One of Coleridge's tasks was to persuade the Maltese that British governmental policies served their best interests, which sometimes meant disguising their true purpose. He also had to reverse Ball's declining popularity.

Coleridge would have been aware of the morally ambiguous position he now occupied. Whilst formal conventions on the use of government information had not yet been developed in his time, The Friend reveals that Coleridge was aware that moral integrity required the accuracy of the "total impression left by ... words." He observed in The Friend that message might be accurate but misleading because it was incomplete (1,49). Omissions are, as Coleridge well knew, as important to the truth of a message as inclusions.

In The Friend, Coleridge explored the origins of political obligation, of the relationship between citizen and state, the relationship between law and justice, the characteristics or a just Constitution, and above all the characteristics of a wise governor. In particular, the posthumous eulogy of Ball, whom he celebrated unreservedly as the embodiment of an ideal governor, reveals that Coleridge's ideas were heavily influenced by his Malta experiences. But The Friend is problematic. First, one can ask whether Coleridge truly believed that Ball's policies were the exemplary courses of action of a wise and prudent government? If he did, what justified Ball in departing so comprehensively from the principles of just administration that Coleridge would stipulate in The Friend How Coleridge imagined the relationship between the British administration and the provincial population is an intriguing enigma of "he Friend.

The Friend also explored how the civil rights and freedoms of citizens could be safeguarded. The protection of civil liberties had become a significant cause of tension during Coleridge's period in office (Memorial and Petition of the Maltese, British National Archive, Kew, CO 158/10/1511. The f011owing essay draws on the Ball's criminal justice policies to explore some of the essential claims that Coleridge made. How far did Coleridge disguise Ball's true record? Did The Friend prescribe universal entitlements that would extend to British occupied territories, such as Malta? Since Reason is "the fountain of all morality," a significant question is whether Coleridge contemplated a morally informed system permitting different public law and administrative standards in overseas territories (I, 191)? …

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