Malta Diary ~ Celebrations for the 50th year of Independence after a long haul
At 8pm on Sunday 20th September 1964 I was watching a film at the Granada Cinema in Brixton, London when it dawned on me that in four hours and one second time my country Malta would become an Independent nation for the very first time in over two thousand years of turbulent, documented history and I wouldn’t be there.
I was 18 years old, living alone in London and it felt eerie to be away from my roots and my entire family at such a monumental stage in our history. On the stroke of midnight as the clock pendulum swung to 21st September 1964 down went the British Union Jack and up came the Red and White flag of Malta, decorated with the George Cross for valour during the Second World War. Maltese Prime Minister Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier and Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh shook hands, exchanged scrolls and cut ribbons. Fireworks illuminated the clear night skies all over Malta and Gozo and church bells pelt crazily.
It had been a long haul, a long road which started with the Phoenicians followed by the Romans, the Carthaginians (famous Hannibal of elephant fame is said to have been born in Malta), the Romans (during which time St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta on his way to Rome to stand trial), the Moors, the Normans, the Castilians, the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the French and finally the British.
Throughout this exchange of administrative hands, cultures and languages, the miniscule Maltese population had somehow managed to retain its language, religion and customs intact whilst simultaneously absorbing salient features of the foreign cultures and enriching its history and environment through administrative and architectural innovations.
Down to more contemporary times the 20th Century had heralded a new dawn of recognition for the Maltese, the legendary Manwel Dimech being one of the first to set the ball rolling at the turn of the Century. His published journal “Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin” (Maltese Flag) in Maltese caused a stir at a time when only English and Italian were the recognised languages. He also had the temerity to preach equality and call for worker rights.
Alarm bells clanged in Whitehall corridors and those of the arch-conservative Maltese Curia as well as throughout the Maltese establishment. Dimech was arrested and exiled to Egypt where he is said to have died from being poisoned (shades of Napoleon in St Helena at a period in history when the British proved to be a dab hand in Dr Crippen’s chemical utility!).
The ball however was in motion. In rapid succession Maltese was strongly promulgated and replaced Italian as an official language (this, very much championed by the British). Radical political parties and trade unions saw the light of day. After the Second World War, the Malta Labour Party was voted into Government for the first time. Radical Dom Mintoff replaced the more moderate Dr Paul Boffa as head of the Party and came out with a puzzling proposal.
The Maltese had “invited” the British to replace Napoleon and were therefore not colonised. The Maltese had played a valiant part in the Second World War and were therefore equal to the British. His proposal was Integration to guarantee equality for the Maltese i.e. Malta would be integrated into the United Kingdom with representatives in the House of Commons and on total terms of equality. Either that, or total Independence. He also wanted Britain to pay more for the defence facilities being used.
Integration had some support from the British Labour Government at the time but was bitterly opposed by the Church Authorities in Malta on the grounds of being integrated with Protestant Britain. Mintoff achieved neither at the time and resigned in 1958 giving rise to protests and street demonstrations with the popular slogan “Pay Up or go Home”.
A period of instability followed with a major fall-out between Mintoff and the Church Authorities. Profiting from the internal struggle, Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier heading the Partito Nazionale stepped into the breach and was elected PM in 1962. Traditionally anti-British and pro-Italian, the Nationalists had long campaigned for a Dominion status on the lines of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Borg Olivier took up the cudgels on behalf of Independence at a time when Britain was liberalising most of its colonies anyway and the deal was clinched and the date set at 21st September 1964. However, the British military presence remained with control of air space, territorial waters, defence and broadcasting.
Mintoff re-claimed power in 1971 and set about dismantling the British presence. In 1974 Malta became a Republic with a Maltese President as Head of State and the British military presence ending on 31st March 1979.
This is Malta’s 50th year of Independence and extensive celebrations are planned. Great Britain and HM Queen Elizabeth II will be officially represented by Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge second in line as heir to the British throne. This will be her first official engagement without her husband.
Malta’s females will certainly be out in force to greet and welcome her, once more emphasising the great liaison between the Maltese people and the British throne.