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The Road to Malta's Independence
The Road to Malta's Independence
On the 21 September, Malta celebrates its Independence Day, a pivotal moment in the country’s history which ushered in a new era of self-governance and national identity. Oh My Malta explores Malta’s complex history in a bid to better understand this crucial and historically remarkable moment
On 21 September 1964, Malta formally gained independence from the United Kingdom, a crucial turning point for a country which had known occupation and foreign governance almost continuously since the 8th century BCE. In the Ancient World, Malta saw a number of different foreign rulers, starting with the Phoenicians in the 8th century BCE, and later the Carthaginians and Romans in the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE respectively. During this time, Malta witnessed various cultural changes, including the introduction of Greek characters into written language — evidenced on the Cippi of Melqart, two important Phoenician artefacts unearthed in Malta in the late 17th century displaying Greek and Phoenician text — as well as significant external influences on architecture and textiles.
Roman and Arabic rule
The start of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE marked the absorption of Malta into the Roman Empire, bringing with it various seismic changes to Maltese culture, including the adoption of Latin as the islands’ official language and Roman religious practises. Arguably, one of the most enduring legacies of the Roman Empire — the adoption of Christianity — has special significance for Malta, due to the supposed shipwrecking of Saint Paul in the country in AD 60.
Following the end of Roman rule in AD 533, Malta passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire, before later being occupied by Arab rulers in AD 870. Despite Malta’s Arabic period lasting a relatively short amount of time — ending completely in 1127 with the establishment of full Norman rule and the beginning of widespread adoption of Christianity — its impacts were numerous, and include the introduction of Arabic linguistic features as well as the establishment of cotton, lemon and orange cultivation.
The Order of Saint John
Perhaps one of the most prominent foreign rulers in Malta’s varied history are the Order of Saint John, a medieval Catholic military organisation which administered the island from 1530 to 1798. The knights were responsible for the country’s adoption of Italian as its official language, the construction of various churches, palaces, gardens and fortifications, as well as the commissioning and procurement of various works of art which remain in Malta to this day. In 1565, Malta was besieged unsuccessfully by Ottoman forces under the command of Sultan Suleiman I, an event which — in addition to the (also unsuccessful) axis blockade of the islands during World War II — continues to exert considerable influence on Maltese cultural identity today.
Following years of decline, the Knights of Saint John’s rule came to an abrupt end in 1798, when French forces led by Napolean Bonaparte seized control of Malta after the country refused his request for safe harbour and supplies whilst en route to Egypt. Following Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent occupation, the Maltese population rebelled numerous times, eventually requesting British assistance a year later. This led to a British blockade of the islands in 1799, and the surrender of all French forces in Malta in 1800.
From 1800 began almost two centuries of British rule, with Europe’s shifting geopolitical situation reinforcing the island’s status as an important trading hub and strategic location. This became especially apparent following the construction and opening of the Suez Canal in the second half of the 19th century, with Malta soon becoming the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Despite generally cordial relations between the Maltese and the British, repeated attempts to gain significant local autonomy were refused, and Malta’s population often endured considerable poverty and food scarcity. These grievances culminated in the Sette Giugno riots of 1919, which led to greater local representation and the gradual introduction of important features of Malta’s national identity. These included various legislative positions such as the office of Prime Minister and other parliamentary posts, as well as cultural features such as the introduction of a national anthem.The legacy of British rule in Malta can still be seen today, most noticeably in the widespread use of English as a joint official language and its continuing place as a part of the Commonwealth. The departure of the last British armed forces from Malta is celebrated annually as Freedom Day on 31 March.
In 1964, Britain’s parliament passed the Malta Independence Act, and, following the approval of a Maltese constitution by popular referendum, on 21 September that year the State of Malta was officially formed. Initially, Malta remained a constitutional monarchy, with the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, until its shift to a republic in December 1974. Despite various internal political changes and shifts in foreign policy, in the decades since gaining independence Malta has moved inexorably towards a more Europe-facing identity, becoming a member of the European Union in 2004 and adopting the euro as its currency in 2008. In 2018, the country’s capital, Valletta, was named a European Capital of Culture, attracting significant investment and boosting tourism both in the short and long-term. Today, the country can look forward to greater political influence as part of the EU, and an increasingly modernised and eclectic economy.
As one can see, Malta’s history is a fascinating one that offers a rare insight into Mediterranean culture and European politics, and may be seen as a microcosm of regional history dating back to the Ancient World. Rather than detracting from the country’s identity, this complex and remarkable tale gives Malta a unique and distinct character that still reverberates through the country’s stunning geography and rich cultural heritage, and reinforces it as a true jewel of the Mediterranean. While the road to independence may have been a long one, it is clear that the Maltese desire for self- determination is an enduring one, and, in addition to the many challenges this island nation has overcome, a testament to the country’s resilient spirit and inspiring resolve. “Viva Malta”, indeed!