Malta celebrates 35 years of ‘freedom’

Traditional regatta race and Freedom Day activities mark 35th anniversary of the departure of British forces

Seven teams will battle it out in 10 races
Seven teams will battle it out in 10 races

35 years ago, the last British forces left the island for good and Malta will today celebrate one of its five national holidays by holding the traditional regatta race in the Grand Harbour and a string of official activities in Vittoriosa.

A marching Armed Forces of Malta band from Cospicua to the Freedom Day monument in Vittoriosa, followed by the arrival of AFM commander Brigadier, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and President of the Republic George Abela.

The country's leaders will then lay the wreaths in front of the Freedom Monument, marking the 35th anniversary of the closure of the British military base.

The most anticipated event of the today, the regatta race will be held at 12:30pm at the Grand Harbour. It is expected that a huge crowd of spectators and supporters will converge along the waterfront and the surrounding bastions to watch the races.

Over 200 oarsemen representing seven localities; Birżebbuġa, Cospicua, Kalkara, Marsa, Marsamxett, Senglea and Vittoriosa, are set to compete in today’s event, with last year's winners Marsa favourites to retain the trophy.

The teams will participate in 10 races under two different categories using typical traditional Maltese boats like the ‘frejgatini’, ‘kajjikki’ and ‘dghajjes tal-pass and tal-midalji.

For many, 31 March is just another public holiday however the feast is celebrated on the anniversary of the definite withdrawal of British troops and the Royal Navy from Malta in 1979.

After taking power in 1971, the Labour government led by Dom Mintoff, opened negotiations with the British government to amend the lease agreement.

In 1972, after nine months of negotiations with Britain, Mintoff finally signed an agreement extending for another seven years Britain's right to use Malta as a naval base.

Mintoff did not get the $72 million in annual rent he originally demanded, but he did get a handsome $36.4 million - about three times what Malta received before Mintoff started setting deadlines for British withdrawal.

On 31 March, 1979 the last British Forces left Malta which spelt the end of a permanent military presence in the islands.  After gaining independence in 1964 and becoming a republic ten years later, on the departure of the British troops, Malta became independent de facto as well as de jure.

In 1989, during the celebrations for Freedom Day, Brigadier John Spiteri was involved in an infamous incident in which he was assaulted during a parade at the foot of the Freedom Monument in Vittoriosa and ended up in the sea.

For some, the public holiday is synonymous with the regatta held at the Grand Harbour. The regatta is a hotly contested affair with a number of teams vying for the much coveted aggregate Regatta Shield.

Malta has the highest number of public holidays in the EU and Freedom Day is one of the national holidays which have been at the centre of an ongoing debate about whether Malta should have more than one national holiday.

A national holiday is a day on which the nationhood or birth of a nation is marked, however Freedom Day has to share the honour with Independence Day, Republic Day, Victory Day and Sette Giugno.

An indication perhaps of a lack of national unity and consensus on national symbols and common interpretations of history, especially modern history.