The archipelago of Malta has a unique and distinctive past. A variety of empires conquered and governed Malta throughout its history. All left an impact and enriched its culture. After centuries of occupation Malta was liberated on 31st March 1979. This spelt the end of a permanent military presence in the islands.
Malta’s Freedom Day
Freedom Day is known in Maltese as ‘Jum il-Ħelsien’. Celebrated on the 31st March this is one of Malta’s national holidays. The Maltese celebrate Freedom Day each year with exceptional pride. The National Maltese Flag flies high on public buildings during ‘Jum il-Ħelsien’. It is the country’s legislation that makes this mandatory for all national holidays.
On Freedom Day the Maltese commemorate the anniversary of departure of the British forces from Malta. This occurred 1979. It was the first time in the country’s history with the absence of military troops. After 1979 for the first time in centuries, Malta was free of any ruler. It would no longer be a military base for a foreign power.
Malta was part of the British colony since early 19th century. After they threw over the French military from the Mediterranean country. As from 31st March 1979, Malta was free to rule in all respects without any foreign interference. A historical moment for the islands. It is the day its last rulers, being the British, withdrew their military from the Maltese islands. Fort St. Angelo, in Vittoriosa, was the last military site to witness the withdrawal of the British troops from Malta.
Banks are closed on national and public holidays. Look out for museums and other historic sites as these may be closed. Shops are open especially in tourist areas. Restaurants, bars and other entertainment facilities are open.
History to Malta’s Freedom Day
After the Napoleonic Wars, the British claimed full control and command of the Maltese islands. Throughout the years Malta then became an essential naval base. Being on the way between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. During World War II it became a strategic air base besides a naval base.
The Maltese obtained their freedom through the brave and valiant defense of their islands throughout World War II. King George VI kept his promise and 1947 granted the Maltese the right to self-government. Then in 1964, Malta became an Independent country and ten years later in 1974, a Republic. Yet, British forces still remained on the island abiding by a Defense Treaty. This Treaty began in 1964. On mutual agreement between the Maltese and British Governments. Its intention was to provide defense and help to the Maltese. Whereby the British could keep their military base on the island. This Treaty expired on the 31st March 1979. Thereby paving the way for the British troops to leave the island. The Maltese commemorate this day as Freedom Day.
A prime reason which led the British to move out from Malta was financial. In 1971, the Malta Labour Party was elected to govern the islands. Its leader, Dom Mintoff, wanted to re-negotiate the lease agreement. The new lease agreement allowed the British troops to stay up until 1979. But the cost to the British government was a large increase in rent. Once this agreement neared its end the Royal family decided to pull out of Malta. This due to the exorbitant rent cost.
When the British troops withdrew from Malta, it became independent ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’.
The British departure from the Islands
Britain occupied Malta since the Maltese requested their help against the French. It was in 1800 that a siege took placed and the British expelled the French from the islands.
Since 1947 Malta was self-governed. In 1971, the Malta Labour Party, led by Dom Mintoff, was elected to Government. It showed interest to renegotiate the Defense Treaty agreement with Britain. A new lease agreement was reached after prolonged and heated talks. It took nine months of negotiations to reach consensus. The new lease agreement was extended for seven years and had a significant increase in rent. Britain was entitled to use Malta as a naval base till 31st March 1979.
Dom Mintoff requested $72 million in annual rent to let Britain make use of Malta as a naval base. Though this was not concurred to, he managed to get $36.4 million. This being three times the amount Malta received with its previous agreement.
This new agreement would set the precise deadline of when the British are to withdraw from the island. A significant factor which lead the British to relinquish the island was the excessive and outrageous lease rate.
Britain conceded Independence and made Malta a Republic. These two events were a step towards the end of the British rule in Malta. You will see a lot of Britain reflected in Malta. The Maltese implemented the British system of public administration, education and legislation.
Freedom Day Celebrations
Vittoriosa and Floriana hold several festivities to honour ‘Jum il-Ħelsien’. Both locations have monuments commemorating this day.
To commemorate Freedom Day you can attend three prime events. In which tourists and locals alike can take part. Celebrations occur at the Freedom Day Monument situated at Vittoriosa (‘Birgu’). Besides the War Memorial located in Floriana. These events are a pleasurable and enjoyable display of national pride. In the afternoon attend the famous traditional ‘Regatta’ race. It takes place at the Grand Harbour.
In the morning a military parade takes place at Vittoriosa. The band marches from Cospicua (‘Bormla’) to the Freedom Day monument in Vittoriosa. This monument is the official memorial marking an important day in local history. Located near the waterfront this monument is overlooked by a medieval church. The military ceremony and full band playing is the biggest show. Which occurs to observe this special day. National leaders lay wreaths at the base of the stone monument as part of the ceremony. The wreath laying marks the anniversary of the withdrawal of the British military. Next to the monument several Maltese flags fly high. The President of Malta gives a speech. Then the Maltese Flag is raised.
Visit Malta’s War Memorial situated in Floriana. This is a memorial obelisk monument. In the semblance of a Latin cross built out of the local globigerina limestone. It is a remembrance to the dead of World War I and II. Here, Maltese leaders lay bouquets of flowers at the foot of the memorial.
At around noon be at the Grand Harbour to watch the traditional ‘Regatta’. Spectators flock in thousands to cheer on the rowers. The ‘Regatta’ races begin around noon and last for several hours. Seven different rowing clubs compete in the ‘Regatta’. The participants are front the three big cities. These are Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea and from other coastal towns. This being Kalkara, Birzebbuga, Marsa and Marsamxett. These seven clubs compete to win the individual ‘Regatta’ races. The total of which would entitle them to the desired ‘Regatta’ Shield.
For each race rowers use a different type of Maltese colourful boats. Ten traditional races covering a distance of 1,040 meters each make up the men’s ‘Regatta’. Each race earns the first three boats arriving at the finish line different points. The last race has the highest number of points. The team with the highest number of accumulated points wins the ‘Regatta’ Shield. The club holds this for a year. On the 8th September 2018 a women’s ‘Regatta’ race was introduced. This also covers a distance of 1,040 meters.
Whilst at the Grand Harbour head over to the Siege Bell War Memorial. This memorial is situated right next to the Lower Barrakka Gardens. Constructed in 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary from when Malta got the George Cross. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II unveiled this memorial. It is a tribute to the more than 7,000 civilians and servicemen who passed away during World War II. Especially to those who lost their lifes during the siege which took place between 1940 to 1943.
The monument has a staircase which leads to the colonnaded belfry. Its design is a neo-classical temple. With a round roof upheld by squared pillars. The belfry holds the largest bronze bell in Malta which knells daily at noon. At the base of the staircase there are commemorative plaques. Next to the belfry lies a a bronze catafalque. This statue is dedicated to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ a representation to all the people who died at war.
Watch a film to learn about Malta’s interesting and captivating history. Such as Malta Story (1953), 48 Hours in Malta (2013) and Passfire (2016).