Struggle. Bloodshed. Hope. Malta’s history has been marked by this seemingly endless cycle: a struggle between the old establishment and the new, a period of invasion or siege within our islands, and the promise of more liberty, usually ending up in disappointment. Malta’s third national holiday throughout the year is Victory Day, celebrated on the 8 September. The association with victory is a product of three defining moments in the country’s history books:
- Victory in the Great Siege (1565)
- End of French Occupation (1800)
- Armistice with Fascist Italy (1943)
Though distinct, these events have a theme in common: the end of a dark age in Maltese history, where Malta served as a beacon of light. Strategically situated in the middle of the Mediterranean and complimented with its natural sheltering harbours have made it quite attractive, with each major empire across aeons of time wanting to add it to their collection. Malta’s resistance to attempts at hostile occupation is inspirational and should be celebrated. Freedom is truly worth fighting for. And since many have paid the ultimate price to obtain it, one hopes that this generation can retain it. This policy paper will unearth the significance of these triumphs, not only for our own nation but even the implications for European history at large.
1565: The Age of Knights
The Ottoman Empire, which saw great powers rise and fall, which had neutralised the Byzantine Empire that had lasted a thousand years, which fell just a hundred years ago when it was replaced by the Turkish republic in 1922, would not overcome the determination of Malta’s men and women.
The Order of St. John, having fled from Rhodes in 1522, and lost Tripoli in 1551, was very much fighting for its own existence. Whilst it is true that the assault had been anticipated, the combined forces of the Knights and the Maltese men impressively held off an army three times their number. Yet, three months, a fallen fortress, and an exchange of decapitations later, the Ottoman Armada left the shores of Malta in defeat. But is the Great Siege as great as one is often taught?
As history is written by the victors, one is often exposed to an exaggerated recount of events, certainly those from the olden days. For instance, there is the false idea that it was this moment that shattered the view that the Ottoman Empire was invincible. The fact of the matter was that this view had already been obtained when the seemingly unstoppable Ottoman advance into Europe was halted at the Gates of Vienna in 1529.
Whilst it was surely an annoying, if not embarrassing, outcome for the Sultanate, the Great Siege decided nothing in the skirmish between the Christian and Islamic crusades in Europe, perhaps only fuelling their desire for revenge. Indeed, their supremacy was still very much alive. What could be attributable to the decline of the Ottoman Empire was the demise of Sultan Suleiman which exposed several vulnerabilities. Be that as it may, the striking contrast between the two camps during the siege appears in the form of their intrinsic unity.
On the one hand, increasingly irritated generals who started blaming each other for the failure in sacking Citta Vittoriosa and Citta Invicta; on the other, a united resistance made up of Maltese and Knights, the latter of whom were coming from different languages or tongues. Still, it would be sacrilegious to forego the value of this episode. Reacting to this result, Christian Empires rained riches on La Vallette and his Order which, apart from allowing a lavishing lifestyle for the Knights, led to the foundation of the new capital city of Valletta.
The sister island of Gozo also had a role to play during and after the siege. Even though it would not be targeted, one mustn’t forget its devastation in 1551 where its population was enslaved in its totality, meaning that it could not afford much aid in the combat itself. However, it served as an important communication zone with the Spanish-Sicilian relief force, which dealt the final blow to the invaders. Following the faithful day of surrender, Gozo was fundamental in sustaining the larger population of Malta. Afterall, the agricultural activities in Malta had been ravaged by the Turk’s intentional arrival before the completion of the grain harvest. Thanks to records left behind by 16th Century notary, Tomaso Gauci, it is known that a lot of transactions took place for cereal between Gozitans and Maltese. Gozo’s recovery had been quite swift when considering what had happened the decade before.
The Order would go on to keep the islands for another 233 years before the next occupier took hold and the financing it attracted allowed the nation to depart from late medieval times to early modern times The price for this victory: a third of the Maltese population disappeared and the harbour region was levelled. Ottoman losses are estimated between 25,000 to 35,000, varying by source.
1800: The Trial of the Monarchs
Napoleonic France’s short control over the archipelago can be best summarised as a 2-year siege of the capital city whereby Maltese irregulars surrounded the French garrison until the British laid claim in 1800. Within this short-lived period, Malta saw the twilight of democracy. Many reforms were on the horizon, yet few were realised. The contemplation inevitably crops up: what could have been had the country remained in French possession? Perhaps it would still have become a colony as it did under British rule in 1813, except with a different foreign power. Or just maybe, the Republic of Malta would have been older than it is in our timeline.
The reformations that Napoleon had planned for our state can essentially be compiled into four separate categories: social, administrative, educational, and church-state relations. Underlying all of this was the creation of the very first constitution in 1798, a must-have in any nation that is to follow the Rule of Law. Another reformation which we now provide at all levels is free education. Additionally, the French also sought to weaken the hierarchical structure that Maltese citizens had come used to. Specifically, the Inquisition was dissolved, and the Feudal System was abolished. Indubitably, these are reforms which one considers essential for a healthy republic.
All would go south when church possessions had been pillaged to fund France’s conquests. Six men were slain between 2nd and 3rd September 1798: Giovanni Cortis, Giuseppe Borg, Marco Cortis, Marozz Galea, Giovanni Chircop and Maruzzo Vella, a memoir of which can be found just a few feet behind the gates of Mdina. Within days, thousands of rebels would force the authorities to retreat behind the walls of Valletta.
A combined effort by Portuguese and British naval vessels would starve the French into submission after two years of anarchy. Malta’s capture granted the Brits control over the central Mediterranean region, following it up with an invasion and the subsequent capitulation of Alexandria from French hands, in modern day Egypt. Napoleon would fossilise our country’s name even further as he made its fate one of the pillars in the armistice known as the Treaty of Amiens. The condition was that Malta had to be returned from the state of British protectorate back to the Order of St. John. When this and other conditions were not respected, war would shake the European continent once more, in what became known as the Napoleonic Wars. During this period, even Russian Tsar Alexander I held claim to the islands, though abandoned it in favour of an anti-French alliance which threatened the old order.
And so, Malta would not taste democracy again for 164 years. The population, too invested in upholding traditions and maintaining the status quo, flat out resisted these changes which had already been embraced by the United States and France. Unfortunately, their desire was to be ruled, so long as this did not include the embezzlement of church property. Therefore, one last lesson one should take away from this tale is the importance of secularisation, the separation of Church and State.
1943: The Crossroads of Destiny
None so dark had humanity’s journey been as the horror of the Second World War. There were individuals which would witness the entire war’s wrath from start to finish; and some, including Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany itself, would undergo a longer period enslaved in the shadows of the Third Reich. By comparison, Malta had to endure three years of constant shelling, both from Fascist Italy’s Regia Aeronautica and the infamous Luftwaffe, as Nazi Germany’s air force was called. Rays of newfound hope shined on 8 September 1943, as news of Italy’s surrender swept the lands.
Two events unfolded on that day. In addition to the permanent end of the bombardments from the Aeronautica, the mooring of Italian navy vessels in Malta had also started to take place. This operation had to be undertaken effectively and efficiently for fear of them ending up amongst the German fleets. In the next three days, fifteen Italian warships made it to the islands, anchored under the watchful eyes of the Maltese fortress.
In actual fact, the last air raid had occurred on July 20, 1943 – the 3,340th one! Having said that, the tide of war, from Malta’s perspective, changed as a result of Operation Pedestal which saw the arrival of the legendary Santa Marija Convoy on 15 August 1942. This allowed Malta to fight on and witness the demise of the Fascist Regimes. Needless to say, the Convoy’s success came at the cost of a heavy number of casualties. More convoys arrived in the ensuing months and, eventually, as the enemy lost its control over the Mediterranean, shipments needed not be accompanied with protection. Safeguarding the islands gave rise to their use as bases upon which amphibious missions could be launched, both in Africa, and in Europe.
Around 1,500 Maltese civilians, on top of the military, lost their lives throughout the course of the war just so we could live ours free from the reigns of terror. Some 30,000 buildings had been damaged or destroyed in total, including the Royal Opera House, which has been converted into an open-air theatre, the Birgu Clock Tower, and a number of auberges and fortresses around the harbour area.
Surviving this ordeal proved to be one of the last major challenges these humble islands had to face before its democratisation, with the first step being the 1947 Constitution – also known as the 1947 McMichael Constitution named after Sir Harold MacMichael – that promoted Universal Suffrage and allowed self-rule to return to Malta. This had first been granted in 1921 after the events of ‘Sette Giugno’ and revoked in 1936, being twice suspended in the meantime. Finally, it would be Malta’s turn to rule itself.
Conclusion: Lest We Forget
The above three events are but a fraction of the nation’s path to freedom, indeed in the last five centuries. The right and duty to vote. The liberty to practise any creed/religion or lack thereof. To criticise. To seek information from multiple sources. To travel with minimal restrictions. These gifts and responsibilities have been obtained over millennia of years but could be lost in mere months. A look at Afghanistan’s recent collapse attests to this. Time and time again, there will be new enemies to our democracy. The biggest enemy of all is apathy.
Freedom is not a construct which is won forever. It requires continuous attention and nourishment. Attention is provided by protecting the independence of institutions, by separating power, by empowering local communities, and holding the individuals we have entrusted with the country’s resources accountable. Nourishment is delivered through a constant supply of fresh ideas to meet new challenges, through the diversification of skills within the up-and-coming workforce, and through collaboration with other defenders of liberty on a global level.
Youths of Malta and Gozo, remember from whence you came!
Written by: ASCS
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