Three days between friends
Last Saturday’s edition of Wikileaks’ Kissinger Cables series was about the controversy that raged, way back in 1975, about Malta’s National Day. The cable that was reproduced and which set off a little pang of nostalgia, read as follows: In this small island city state, where many political issues loom larger that they might elsewhere, the whole question of which date is most appropriate for Malta’s national day has become an increasingly bitter one. Some things never change do they?
We have five national days; all of which are very valid and yet we have, for the last five decades been squabbling to find one to designate as a National Day with a capital N and a capital D. Is this being done to be practical? I suppose so, however it is almost ludicrous that in a tiny ‘island city State’ an equitable solution cannot be found.
What are the requirements of a National Day? In my mind the day must be a symbol of national unification. It should be a day that we Maltese regard as significant to our history irrespective of which political camp we hail from. Sadly, both Independence and Freedom Day have been politicised for so long that no matter how hard Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tries to depoliticise them , neither of them can be serious contenders to the position.
Likewise Sette Giugno, commemorating riots that eventually led to the granting of Malta’s first constitution in 1921, has divisive political baggage. This leaves Republic Day on December 13 and Victory Day on September 8. I am convinced that logically the competition is between these two especially September 8 for its historical significance and its antiquity.
The other four dates commemorate events which took place in the 20th century while September 8, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, marks the lifting of two sieges that changed the destiny of Malta and the Maltese. Had the Turks conquered Malta in 1565 the history of Europe would possibly have been quite different.
With the Sublime Porte having a foothold in the Central Mediterranean it would have only been a matter of time before Sicily and Southern Italy became part of the Ottoman Empire.
We Maltese have been celebrating this day since the foundation of Valletta in 1566. Every year the sword and dagger given to Grandmaster La Valette by Philip II used to be carried in solemn procession which is why so many feel that these should be returned to us by the Louvre. The September date does not only mark the 16th century event but also the lifting of another siege that many senior citizens remember with increasing nostalgia.
The deal to get Italy out of the war was announced on September 8 and the Italian fleet made its way to Malta to formally surrender somewhere off St Paul’s Bay a couple of days later. This boosted the importance of the date to the extent that September is still popularly known as ix-xahar tal-Vitorja and the feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin, since the 16th century, has been designated as the feast of Our Lady of Victories; the church of which name was the first building to be erected in Valletta and which lies over its foundation stone.
Has the historical impact of September 8 been diluted over time? Malta has changed radically since the days that the above quoted cable was written in the sense that literacy and above all diffusion of information are concerned.
I am quite convinced that at the time not more than three, maybe four people knew of that cable which is now common knowledge.
Today we all have facts at our fingertips and opinions that can be spouted to the nation and beyond at the drop of a hat.
So before the sabres start rattling again let us have a quick glance at the national days of other nations over which I am unaware of any song and dance being performed and compare them.
Italy’s June 2 marks the establishment of the republic in 1946. One must remember that before 1861 Italy was, in the words of Prince Metternich, a geographical expression and therefore there could be no nationally unifying date possible before that. Changing from a monarchy to a republic in 1946 was in fact the most significant date. One could argue that unifications in 1861 and 1871 were of greater impact however these entailed ousting of regimes and dynasties which it was more practical to placate than to irritate.
In the UK, made up of four countries the consensual national day is the monarch’s official birthday which echoes the dynastic reasons as to why the United Kingdom is united.
In France, Bastille Day, despite the innumerable republics, Napoleonic interludes and Bourbon and Orleanais restorations that followed, has remained engraved in popular memory as much as the Marseillaise. The impact of the French Revolution on modern history was and still is immense. The ideological principles that inspired it are still valid today.
I would however like to throw a small spanner in the works as a parting shot. I have always felt that the first time in history that we Maltese acted as a nation was in 1798 when, upon hearing of Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt, we revolted against the French and blockaded them in Valletta for two years. The late lamented historian Carmelo Testa’s brilliantly researched tome The French in Malta is to be revisited as before that time we Maltese were Maltese by ethnicity and not as anything more than subjects of the King of Sicily or the Grandmaster of the Order. It is significant that General Vaubois surrendered Valletta to the British on September 5, 1800.
What then are three days between friends?