The Kappillan of Malta

by Nicholas Monsarrat


Who was Monsarrat?

The son of a distinguished surgeon, Nicholas Monsarrat was born in Liverpool in 1910 and was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge. His first book to attract attention was the largely autobiographical This Is the Schoolroom, published in 1939.

On the outbreak of war he joined the RNVR, serving mainly with corvettes: his wartime experiences are vividly described in The Three Corvettes and Depends What You Mean by Love. In 1946 he became a director of the UK Information Service in Johannesburg and subsequently in Ottawa.

His most famous book, The Cruel Sea, published in 1951, is one of the most successful stories of all time and was made into a film starring Jack Hawkins. Other famous novels include: The Tribe that Lost its Head and its sequel, Richer than All his Tribe, The Story of Esther Costello, The White Rajah and The Pillow Fight. Monsarrat lived with his wife, Ann, in Malta.

The Second World War ended 53 years ago. We have still not got a complete picture of what happened in every corner of Europe during these six dreadful years. Not even the two neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, went through this period untouched, even if their inhabitants did not have to experience carnage and bloodshed.

Instead, in these countries as well as in others, people have to face the plain truth and admit that there were not only humanitarian measures taken by their governments. It seems that not everything has been revealed in one of the most horrible of wars and 50 years after its end, new facts contribute to throw different light over what happened.

The Second World War still continues to attract our attention, and every European – young as well as old, has something to learn by studying how different parts of our continent were affected.

By reading the historical novel, "The Kappillan of Malta", written by Nicholas Monsarrat, the reader get an image, however literary of the trials and tribulations that the small island of Malta and its population had to go through.


The story takes place on the Maltese islands, between the last day of peace, the 11th June 1940 and the day when the Santa Maria convoy arrived – the 15th August 1942. After two years of suffering the Maltese could see the beginning of an end to the war.

In the early 1940s, there were different views on how Malta should be defended. Therefore, when Italy declared war on the Allies, and the first assault was made within the Maltese border, the number of aircraft was not sufficient to withstand the attacks for a long time.

The British realised, however, that aircraft could be effectively used from Malta, and they started to provide the island with modern airfighters. This had a great impact on the Italian forces, which at the time seemed incapable of keeping the British at bay.

The situation in the south Mediterranean convinced the Germans to sustain the Italians by sending Fliegerkorps X to Sicily. This proved to be disastrous for the Maltese. The aircraft carrier Illustrious was badly damaged, and Malta also had to stand several assaults on its own soil.

When Germany declared war on Russia and had to make war on two fronts, this signified a welcome break in the bombings. To the Maltese, this also meant that the convoys with stores could get in to the Grand Harbour without being sunk. The constant lack of food and other necessary goods were a problem that caused much fury and despair. In addition to this, many people had to move out from their homes, and they were often housed with strangers in another village or town. Furthermore, to an ordinary life belonged to spend a long time in shelters, together with unknown people without any possibilities to lead a private life.

It is in these surroundings that the main character of the novel, Father Salvatore, is to fulfil his vocation.

Father Salvatore: His Background

Salvatore Santo-Nobile belongs to one of the most prominent families in Malta. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy (he passed away long ago) and his mother is of noble descent. Thus, he was born into nobility, wealth and position.

Together with a brother and a sister, he experienced a very happy childhood, which gives him a feeling of security when later in life, reality becomes harsh.

Once a week, he returns to the mansion where he was born, to have cup of coffee and a dear chat with his mother. Afterwards, he pays a visit to his sister and her family and stays for lunch. Here, in his immediate family, he can put off his cassock and be a son and a brother.

His Characteristics

To Father Salvatore, honesty is a very important characteristic, whether it concerns one’s relationship to God or to man. If a person has committed a sin, the consequences of his misbehaviour must be taken, even if it is at one’s own expense.

Here, in this reasoning, the very essence of his own life is to be found. At the age of 18, he committed a sin and in order to redeem it, he promised to become a priest.

Consequently, he dislikes hypocrisy and Father Salvatore tries with difficulty to calm down, when he notices other people’s inclination to maintain a facade. On one occasion, he meets Monsignor Scholti at his mother’s house, and this man starts to talk about the importance of carefulness in wartime, of potential correctness. He underlines the significance of knowing how to watch one’s step. When hearing such words, Father Salvatore shudders with rage.

At the same time, he struggles with the evil forces within himself. He wants to obliterate hatred in his heart, and he hopes that the only things that can provoke this strong emotion are his uncomfortable boots. Judging from his reaction to Monsignor Scholti’s opinion, we can understand that Father Salvatore is not always able to remain composed, even it is cannot be said that he hates his rather ambitious superior and acquaintance.

Needless to say, he is much stricter with himself than with people in general. When a person judges too hard, he always attempts to be indulgent, and he admonishes others to react in the same way.

Nevertheless, he remains silent when he understands that his experience as a priest is insufficient and that words, dictated by the Church will be interpreted as cliches or as a slap in the face. When his sister, Giovanna, concedes her contempt for her husband, who has humiliated her and their children for so long, and with a deep sign of relief, admits that she is incapable of feeling any regret, as he is arrested, Father Salvatore does not know what to say or how to react.

The Priest and the People

Father Salvatore represents the Church among the Maltese. He does not take refuge in a monastery or in any secure place in the countryside, he does not regard the war at a distance; he wants to share the misery and the pain of ordinary people and to be near at hand when needed. Father Salvatore does not shun the dirt and the blood, and he tries invariably to help the wounded and to console the survivors. He is almost indefatigable in his daily struggle to ease other people’s burdens.

Only after a few hours of war, he notices a profound transformation in man. There is an overall tendency to yield to hopelessness, manlessness and despair. It is as if man has lost his dignity and pride.

Father Salvatore is deeply ashamed of the reactions of people in general, and he does not know how to alter the situation.

To his joy and happiness, he meets the little dwarf, Nero Cassar, who is to become a close friend. Nothing can stop this extraordinary, imaginative and creative personality, who often looks on the bright side of life.

To great extent, it is together with Nero that Father Salvatore is to organise a church and a shelter in the catacombs. Here, Father Salvatore has his residence, and this is also where he is to preach his famous sermons in order to encourage the people to continue their struggle for life under horrible circumstances without losing their hope and self-control.

The Famous Sermons

Father Salvatore has three preferences: God, man and history. There can sometimes be the reverse order between man and history, but Father Salvatore prays for God’s indulgence in this matter.

Very often, he regards the surroundings through the light of history. This is particularly the case with his hometown, Valletta. He seems to know every corner and its history and he loves to stop in front of a building and to let both his knowledge of the past and that of the present coincide. In this respect, Father Salvatore reveals that he is a romantic person, who sometimes happens to be sunk in reveries.

His love for history helps him when it comes to formulate and find the form of his famous sermons. The sermons are preached in the catacombs, among all the people gathered there, and he really knows how to attract the attention of his audience and to make them continue listening. Father Salvatore is able to make history or chosen parts of the Bible live. Here, he gives proof of his pedagogic skills. He does not refer to dates or old manuscripts, but he tells them a story, based on historical facts, with descriptions and dialogues.

Feelings and reactions of the characters involved are also being depicted. On these occasions, people are exhausted due to their often-dreadful experiences during the day, and by telling them a story, Father Salvatore tried to do his utmost to encourage them to encounter the next day with a ray of hope. He teaches them that life is something worth fighting and struggling for; it is unworthy of man not to continue to lead an ordinary life, as he did in peacetime, because future generations will take advantage of his achievements of today.

The Fate of Lewis Debrincat

Lewis Debrincat is the brother-in-law of Father Salvador and the husband of Giovanna, his sister. Lewis Debrincat is an ardent admirer of Italy and all that is connected to the country of art and opera. He cannot accept that Italy now represents the enemy and that it is politically incorrect to express one’s support for the Italians. As a lawyer he fully understands and knows the consequences of his behaviour, but still he cannot put up with the new situation and the fact that Italy is a country on which war has been declared.

Lewis Debrincat has his own way of facing the facts. When his brother-in-law tries to get in touch with him and to start a conversation, Lewis Debrincat lets him know that he is right and those who support the British are wrong. To him, it is not a matter of discussion.

It seems as if his obsession is the only thing that remains important. It could perhaps even be described as a passion that has influenced his life-style. He definitely cannot tolerate that everything important in his life should be forgotten and rejected.

It appears as if he wants to make his own private war by behaving badly and drinking boundlessly. This misconduct is wholly directed towards his wife and her family, who have strong ties with Britain.

It is indicated in the novel that the relationship between his wife and himself is probably not the happiest on earth. It they had been happily married, perhaps he would have been able to deal with the situation in a reasonable way? Maybe he would not have regarded himself as the centre of the universe, and he would not have neglected his family.

A Small Comment on the Language

The language of the novel can be considered as very accurate and exact. The writer must have committed himself to may hours of research in order to write this book, e.g.: men–of-war and aeroplanes are described in detail. The same can be said about the different surroundings, e.g.: a landscape or a block in Valletta.

Often the consequences of the bombings are fairly naturally depicted, so one can easily feel the smells, hear the explosions and the lamentation of the people. The same can be said about other feelings and thoughts. The reader can e.g.: follow the swift changes from grief to happiness (the reverse order can also be found) that Father Salvatore has to go through within one single day. His niece - Maria’s feeling of uncertainty and sadness, as the message of her boyfriend’s disappearance reaches her, constitutes another example of strong emotion that has been accurately described.

This means that every word has to be read. One cannot skip one or two lines, because one immediately gets the impression that something important has been bypassed. This might perhaps be tiresome, but at the same time, the text is very clear. There is no need to read between the lines.