Every year on the 8th of September Malta celebrates Victory Day – one of the islands’ national holidays. The day has both historic and religious connotations since it is also marked by the church as the traditional date of Mary’s Nativity.
The historic connections of the date are threefold. Most significant is undoubtedly the lifting of the Ottoman siege in 1565 – the famed Great Siege of Malta. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s forces had besieged the island since mid-May of that year with a formidable army totalling some 50,000 men. This included 6,000 Janissaries – the Sultan’s elite crack troops, plus a host of the Sultan’s soldiers, adventurers, religious servants and volunteers joined by a motley crew of corsairs from Algiers and Tripoli eager for the spoils of war. This massive force far outweighed the besieged Knights’ tally of a meagre 6,000 – which included just 600 Knights plus soldiers from Spain, Italy, Greece, Sicily as well as 3,000 Maltese recruits.
Incredibly this huge force only managed to capture Fort St. Elmo in four months of relentless bombardment while the miniscule towns of Senglea and Birgu held out against all reasonable odds. St. Elmo was a much smaller fort than the one we see today; yet it still survived for more than a month despite being an isolated fort, at that time on an uninhabited peninsula later to become Valletta. War weariness, impending bad weather and the news of a much awaited Christian relief force finally coming to the aid of the besieged finally put an end to Ottoman hopes and the siege was lifted on 8th September.
The Knights’ rule ended ignominiously with a meek capitulation to Napoleon’s revolutionary forces in 1798, but the Maltese quickly rebelled against their new masters and the French garrison itself was besieged in Valletta, with the city itself blockaded from the sea by the British Navy. The French, close to starvation, eventually capitulated in early September of 1800 – and the 8th of the month came to commemorate this event as well.
Malta’s World War II siege was also fortuitously lifted on the 8th of September in 1943. After more than three years of aerial bombardment by Italy’s Regia Aeronautica and the dreaded Luftwaffe, the Allied invasion of Sicily forced Italy’s formal capitulation on 8th September and effectively ended the islands’ prolonged suffering in the war. Italy’s surrender had a touch of sweet revenge for the beleaguered Maltese – several battleships of the Italian Navy were made to sail to the Grand Harbour and Saint Paul’s Bay to ensure they were not used by the German forces still fighting the war.
The religious aspect of this day is celebrated in four towns. The Birth of the Virgin (locally known as il-Bambina) is the titular feast of the harbour town of Senglea; Naxxar and Mellieha in Malta and Xaghra in Gozo.
A keenly contested regatta featuring a number of traditional boat races is also held in Grand Harbour on Victory day in Malta. Towns and villages of the harbour area vie for the honour of winning the coveted shield for the best oarsmen.