ON THIS DAY: The Sette Giugno Riots

The years after World War One were difficult for the Maltese, and indeed for most of Europe.  The European powers had suffered huge losses both in manpower and economically.  It wasn’t only the powers who suffered from these consequences however; they also spread to their colonies.  Malta back then was still under the rule of the British and, whilst it had not been effected by direct fighting, it was used extensively as a medical island especially when the invasion of Turkey through Gallipoli failed.  As a result, it garnered the nickname of “The Nurse of the Mediterranean” and was widely regarded by servicemen.  A number of allied soldiers were treated, and indeed saved by staff on the island.  In fact, one of the first ever successful heart surgeries was undertaken on the island, on a certain Robert Hugh Martin, who was shot through the heart in Salonika, Greece.

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How Malta became the Nurse of the Mediterranean. (Credit: BBC)

Traditionally, Malta’s economy had boomed in times of war.  The influx of British servicemen and shipping visiting the islands brought economic prosperity in times such as that of the Crimean War and the Napoleonic Wars.  However, this was not the case during the First World War.  Malta suffered from shortages and food rationing.  Malta relied on imports for its food; but as these food stuffs, primarily grain, began to come in short supply, Malta began to suffer.  Indeed as a result of the shortages food prices began to rise.  However, a lot found that the wage increases being given to them was  not enough for them to cope with the inflation in the prices of food.  Dockyard workers for instance formed a trade union in 1916 and went on strike the year after when they were offered a 10% wage rise; a rise which wasn’t deemed to be enough.

The situation after the war ended in 1918 did not improve much.  There was a general feeling of discontent around the island, both towards the British and also towards grain importers and flour millers, for the price of bread specifically, Malta’s staple food, had skyrocketed, leading many to believe that the importers and millers were making extra profit off their backs.

Political reasons also played a big part in the run up to these riots however.  Through the Knutsford Constitution granted in 1887, the Maltese had a majority in the Legislative Assembly, which governed strictly local affairs.  However this was abolished in 1903 and replaced with a constitution like that which had been granted in 1849, putting the Maltese at a total minority to the British.  Fortunato Mizzi, an ardent pro-Italian politician, in 1919 was pressuring for total independence from Britain and a bill tabled, and approved, in the first meeting of the National Assembly in February 1919 outlined this desire.

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The unrest in Valletta’s main streets

The next National Assembly meeting was set for June 7th, 1919, and within it they were discussing a message sent by the Secretary of State for the Colonies saying that the incoming governor, Lord Plumer, would be studying the Maltese situation with a view of granting more say to the people in the administrative sector of the islands.  However meanwhile, crowds gathered in Valletta and unrest started when a Maltese flag was seen “defaced” with the Union Jack flying above a bakery called the A la Ville de Londres.  This bakery had already been victim of the rioters back in February when it had remained open during the National Assembly meeting, and this time the mob broke in to remove the flag. This action expanded into the demanding for the removal of other flags around the capital; such as one flying on the Biblioteca.  The mob moved on to ransack the Officer’s Club, the offices of the Daily Malta Chronicle and the meteorological office.

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It was at this point that support from the Marines was called in, with 64 soldiers coming up to the city to try calm the crowd; a crowd which now numbered in the thousands.  They divided up, with some staying in the Palace Square, some going down to the Daily Malta Chronicle printing press and some others going to defend the house of Anthony Cassar Torregiani, a leading grain merchant.  The soldiers were met with insults, stones and even furniture being thrown at them from inside the houses.

Then, according to the official report, a shot was heard from inside the Cassar Torregiani house; giving the impression that it was the Maltese who opened fire first.  However, eyewitnesses stated that one of the British soldiers shot into the crowd near the house.  The shot hit Manwel Attard, who was killed instantly.  Panic broke out and another shot was fired, killing Guze Bajada as well.  Meanwhile, at the printing press, the soldiers were trapped inside and with a smell of gas coming from somewhere.  Being blocked by the crowd at the door, the troop’s commanding officer gave the order to fire low, at the floor, to make the crowd disperse.  Lorenzo Dyer was however hit and grievously injured.  He was carried out to the Palace but died shortly after.

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It was at this point that the National Assembly, which was convening in Valletta, became aware of the goings on outside; when injured people were dragged into the building. They appealed for the violence to stop, and things subsequently calmed down.  However, the next day disturbances continued when the house of another flour merchant was ransacked.  This time, 140 marines were sent to disperse the crowd.  Carmelo Abela was on a street corner calling for his son, when he was arrested by two marines.  When he resisted arrest, one of the marines ran a bayonet through his stomach.  Abela died on June 16th, becoming the 4th casualty of the uprisings.

The Sette Giugno riots reflected the political and economic discontent on the island.  Indeed, the process for a new constitution was fast-tracked and in 1921, Malta was granted self-government for the first time ever.  Those who died in the riots meanwhile were buried in 1924.  June 7th was declared a national holiday in 1986 and a monument commemorating the uprisings was unveiled in Palace Square, Valletta, a square where it still sits, having been moved back from Hastings Garden where it was temporarily placed due to restorations of the Square.

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The Sette Giugno Monument