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Jum Il-Helsien: Malta's Journey From Fortress Island To A Republic

by Chiara Micallef

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Malta has its fair share of national holidays, with this March's star day being Jum il-Helsien — Freedom Day, significant not only for what it represents but also for the celebrations that take place to commemorate the event. 

Jum il-Helsien is celebrated on the 31st of March, marking the withdrawal of the British troops and Royal Navy from the Maltese isles. 

While Malta had already gained independence, a lease agreement signed in 1964 stated that the British authorities could still use the Maltese islands as a military and naval base. This treaty was revised in 1971 and finally terminated on the 31st of March 1979.

The Road To Freedom

The British are the longest-standing rulers to ever colonise the Maltese islands. Our country was occupied by them for over 150 years, and throughout this period they heavily influenced our culture — from our heritage to our language, cuisine and cultural customs, the British influence can still be seen and felt throughout Malta to this day. 

Throughout their rule, the British introduced numerous constitutions, with the first significant one being granted in 1921. 

Richard Ellis, Inauguration of the new Constitution of Malta, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1921 constitution vested home rule to the Maltese – meaning that the colony's subjects were presented with administrative rights. This constitution took place as a result of the Sette Giugno Riots, and also gave the country a bicameral parliament and a senate, along with an elected legislative assembly.

Constitutions came and went throughout the 1930s – at times, they were also suspended due to unrest between governing parties, the British and the church. 

From Home Rule To Independence

Another constitution was implemented in 1947 after the Second World War – one which restored self-rule in Malta and saw the appointment of Malta's first Labour Prime Minister Sir Paul Boffa. During this year, Malta gained many achievements, including universal suffrage for women, the Old Age Pensions Act and the introduction of the Income Tax Act. That year, Malta also saw its first Maltese woman, Agatha Barbara, elected as a member of parliament.

As the years rolled by, Malta achieved self-rule, with Dom Mintoff from the Malta Labour Party requesting full integration with the UK or complete independence from them. George Borg Olivier, who at the time was the Partit Nazzjonalista's leader favoured independence. 

Louis Cardona, Agatha Barbara and Pawlu Boffa, via Pinterest

The full integration proposal was put forward in 1955 during the December Round Table Talks in London, during which the British government agreed to give Malta their own representation in the House of Commons, with the home office taking full responsibility for Maltese affairs, except for defence, taxation and foreign policy. A year later, a referendum was held over the integration question, but owing to a boycott by the majority of the electorate, the result was rendered inconclusive.

The British subsequently dismissed 40 workers from the dockyard, forcing Mintoff to declare that the Maltese islands were no longer contractually bound to serve the British as a naval and military base. Following this, the Colonial Secretary of the time stated that Mintoff hazarded the integration plans. In a show of both protest and solidarity, the MLP deputies along with the Prime Minister resigned from office on the 21st of April 1958, in the meantime, the General Workers' Union called a general strike. This, in turn, led to the British Government declaring a state of emergency and the suspension of Malta's constitution, placing the country under direct colonial control once again. However, it wasn't long until the Maltese started advocating for full independence from the British and in 1959, Malta was given an interim Constitution under British rule.

A New State  

The State of Malta, independent from constitutional monarchy but still under Queen Elizabeth II's rule, was formed on the 21st of September 1964. During this period, a treaty with the British Empire stated that Malta would still serve as a military base with the Queen acting as the Head of State.

This treaty remained in full force until Malta became a republic almost a decade later. ​In 1965, Malta joined the Council of Europe, and in 1970 the country signed an Association Treaty with the European Economic Community. 

Within four years, and thanks to a package of constitutional amendments, Malta became a Republic on the 13th of December 1974 (putting an end to The State of Malta), with Sir Anthony Mamo becoming our first President. In 1975, the Gieh ir-Repubblika Act abolished all nobility titles and their recognition.

The last British vessel left the Maltese islands on the 31st of March 1979, signalling the end of the economic pact designed to stabilise the local economy. This date marks the first time in aeons that the Maltese islands were free from foreign rulers, not used as a military base and completely independent from foreign influences.

Ir-Regatta And Other Commemorative Activities

Numerous events take place on Freedom Day all over the islands, with two separate ceremonies taking place on the Freedom Day Memorial in Birgu designed by Anton Agius and the War Memorial in Floriana designed by Louis Naudi. The most looked-forward-to event on the day, however, is the wondrous Grand Harbour Regatta.

Picman, Freedom Monument in Birgu Malta, via Wikimedia Commons

The Regatta races were introduced to Malta in 1822, and are held bi-annually on Jum il-Helsien and Jum il-Vitorja by the Malta Rowing Association. This event attracts spectators from all over the islands and participants from Malta's coastal towns, including Marsamxett, the Three Cities, Valletta, Burzebbugia, Kalkara and Marsa, the winning team gets the highly coveted Regatta honourary shield. 

Discover more about Maltese feasts and traditions in Yellow's Culture Section 

About Chiara Micallef

Chiara is a content writer with a love for delicious food, beautiful art, music, travel and bizarre history facts. 

She enjoys nothing more than reading, trying out new dishes and petting cats.