Alright, there are daily reenactments. But what is the actual story of the Saluting Battery at the Upper Barrakka in Valletta?
If you were a dignitary visiting Malta in the not so distant past, a majestic gun salute greeted you as your ship entered the Grand Harbour. Can you imagine how awesome that must have been? Today you’d have to make do with the comparatively boring and impersonal greeting of the Malta International Airport, at best with a welcoming crowd waving little flags.
The Saluting Battery at the Upper Barrakka gardens actually began with an Ottoman siege on Fort St Angelo. During the Great Siege of 1565, the Valletta promontory was a settlement of the invasion, and their heavy bronze cannons relentlessly shot fire at Vittoriosa and Senglea from that vantage point across the water, directly facing the fort. It is largely responsible for the Knights' decision to build Valletta on that location, just after the departure of the Turks.
The rocky outcrop on which the Upper Barrakka and Saluting Battery now stand now offered a powerful defensive position. In those early days, the armament on the multi-tiered artillery platform consisted of heavy bronze guns that fired large spherical stone shots. The heavy guns enjoyed an unobstructed field of fire of some 270°, covering the entire length and breadth of the Grand Harbour as well as the higher land surrounding it.
While it was primarily intended for defence, the battery was also to be used for ceremonial artillery firings. Not only dignitaries and ships visiting the island, but also national and religious occasions were announced with gun salutes. They were also fired on the occasions of important naval and military events, sovereign death or succession and state funerals.
During the period of the Knights of St John, the Italian Langue that was also responsible for the Order’s fleet and the artillery also manned the Bastion of St Peter and St Paul. With its unrivalled views over the harbour, the Italian Post, as it became known, also became a popular social meeting point. Its popularity held into the British rule, which in 1824 transformed it into the public garden it is today.
The time ball service also began in 1824, to match that by the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, England. At the exact hour at midday, gunfire would enable ship-masters to calibrate their clocks, working also as maritime chronographs to counteract changes in latitude of ships travelling long distances. This went on uninterrupted for 100 years, when the telegraphic signal from the Greenwich Observatory took over in 1923.
It was only during WWI that there was a reduction in the Saluting Battery’s activities, in order to save gunpowder for better use. Following the war, Malta earned self-government. However, the British Military was not keen to give up the Upper Barrakka when the new Maltese civil government wanted to reduce the military presence, so it was shared.
When WWII broke out in 1939, the saluting guns were deployed along the coast. A 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun took their place, but alas, an air-raid caused serious damage to the Upper Barrakka on 24th December 1942, killing a soldier but leaving the gun intact. The battery was restored to its pre-war functions but permanently shut down in 1954, after almost four centuries of service, when its role was transferred to Abercrombie Bastion in Fort St Elmo.
Although the Upper Barrakka garden remained popular, the Saluting Battery became semi-derelict with time, until, that is, half a century later when Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna - the Malta Heritage Trust - with the financial support of the Malta Tourism Authority and the Bank of Valletta set about restoring the Saluting Battery.
Today, eight working replicas of 32-pdr Smooth-bore Breech Loading cannon are installed at this battery, and are back in action with gun fire at noon. Head up to the Upper Barrakka garden at midday daily to witness the awe-inspiring gun fire reenactment. Full-gun salutes at the Saluting Battery are fired at irregular intervals throughout the year.