Today marks 102 years since the events of 7th June 1919 - a day when Maltese people from different sectors of society came together to protest against colonialism, in search of improved political rights and better living conditions.
After more than a century of relatively peaceful existence under British rule, tensions were simmering by the end of World War One. Due to disruptions in agriculture and industry across the whole continent as a result of that conflict, imports were limited, and as food became scarce, prices rose, including the price of grain, and therefore that of bread - the staple food of the Maltese. Wage increases were not keeping up with the increase in food prices. To make matters worse, there was mass unemployment after the war, as well as increasing resentment towards grain importers and flour millers, as many believed that they were benefiting from the high prices in order to increase their profits, at the expense of large sections of society who were struggling to feed their families.
Politics also played a major role. Due to Malta’s strategic importance, the British had long stifled political development, and the Maltese felt they had very few rights. The Malta National Assembly, set up to help bring about social and political changes, had met for the first time on 25th February 1919 and agreed to ask the British for a new constitution that would effectively have granted independence to Malta. The event attracted a crowd in Valletta, and a number of shops that refused to close were attacked and damaged. Failure by the police to take action against those responsible possibly contributed to what happened a few months later, when similar events would be repeated on a much larger scale.
The National Assembly was to meet for the second time in Valletta on Saturday 7th June 1919. The delegates had encouraged people to gather in the city and to bring with them Maltese flags, as they felt this would show the British authorities that they had the backing of the common people. Although the police had foreseen the possibility that the events of February might repeat themselves, it is clear that they completely underestimated the gravity of the situation, as events on that fateful day would demonstrate.
1. A' La Ville de Londres - Strada Reale corner with Strada S. Giovanni
It is estimated that around 20,000 people entered Valletta that afternoon. Although the crowd initially gathered outside the Circolo Giovine Malta to applaud the delegates as they entered the meeting, a large group of people soon proceeded along Strade Reale (Republic Street) forcing shops to close. The first sign of trouble took place in front of the A' La Ville de Londres, which had been one of the shops damaged in February. Although on this occasion the shop was closed, the Union Flag flying from the building’s roof irked the protestors, some of whom forced entry and proceeded to damage the premises and tear down the flag.
2. Malta Union Club - Auberge de Provence, Strada Reale
The crowd then proceeded to the Union Club at the Auberge de Provence, a popular meeting place for British officers. Whilst insisting that the premises be closed, people insulted the officers inside and threw stones at the windows, some of which were smashed. Some police officers tried to calm down the crowd, but were manhandled and slightly injured.
3. Malta Public Library - Piazza Regina
The next stop for the demonstrators was Piazza Regina (Republic Square), where the Union Flag was flying from the Malta Public Library. Once again, the crowd called for the flag to be hauled down. Some windows were broken, while a couple of police officers who tried to control the protestors were roughed up. Luckily, a library employee had the good sense to remove the flag, which led to the crowd moving on and potentially saved the library from being ransacked.
4. The Lyceum & RAF Meteorological Station - Strada Mercanti
From Strada Reale, the protestors moved to the Lyceum on Strada Mercanti (Merchants Street), where they forcibly gained access to the building. Again, the crowd insisted that the flag flying from the Royal Air Force turret housing the meteorological office be lowered. The offices were ransacked, with equipment being damaged, while some individuals managed to climb onto the turret, throwing the Union Flag into the street below. The flag, together with furniture which had been thrown out of the windows, was set fire to, at which point the mob set off for St. George’s Square, where they began to insult the soldiers on duty at the Main Guard. As the Main Guard doors and those of the Palace opposite were sensibly closed, the protestors locked on to another target: the offices of the Daily Malta Chronicle, a pro-British newspaper.
5. Residence of Antonio Cassar Torreggiani - 191, Strada Forni
While all this was happening, another crowd had made its way to Strada Forni (Old Bakery Street), intent on attacking the residence of Anthony Cassar Torreggiani, a leading importer who was one of those blamed for the high price of bread. The protestors broke into his house and started ransacking the place. It soon became apparent that the situation was getting seriously out of hand, with the police being overpowered and unable to control the disturbances in multiple locations. As a result, 64 British soldiers stationed in Floriana barracks were dispatched to Valletta to help bring order. Unfortunately, even these reinforcements were nowhere near enough.
Six soldiers, under the command of Major Ritchie and Captain Ferguson, made their way towards Strada Forni to defend the Cassar Torreggiani residence. When they arrived, they found a crowd of around 2,000 people, as well as furniture being thrown outside from the windows. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered, Ritchie sent Ferguson for reinforcements. Ferguson somehow managed to get through the crowd, although he had his revolver stolen in the process, and was able to bring back with him another 24 men. The soldiers were lined up across the street in two ranks, back to back, facing both directions. They adopted a kneeling firing position in an attempt to force the crowd back, although they were specifically ordered to hold their fire. What happened next is still unclear, but the likelihood is that one of the soldiers, perhaps startled, pulled the trigger, which led to some of the others doing the same. 28-year-old Manwel Attard, from Sliema, was hit in the face and fell dead in front of the Cassar Torregiani house. Further up the street, 38-year-old Ġużeppi Bajada, from Xagħra, Gozo, was also fatally wounded, while several others were injured.
6. Daily Malta Chronicle Offices - Strada Teatro
Meanwhile, similar scenes were taking place in Strada Teatro (Old Theatre Street), where around 400 people were wrecking the offices of the Daily Malta Chronicle. A party of 10 soldiers, under Lieutenant Shields, was sent to clear the place, but although they were successful in forcing all the protestors out, the crowd outside started pelting them with stones and burning missiles. This was particularly concerning since a strong smell of gas was detected, and fearing an explosion, Shields decided to evacuate the property. He was aware, however, that as the soldiers exited one by one, they would be vulnerable to the hostile crowd, so he ordered one of the men to fire a warning shot in order to disperse the demonstrators. Unfortunately, this shot hit 21-year-old Lorenzo Dyer, from Vittoriosa, who had been standing next to the fountain opposite the offices. He succumbed to his injuries soon after.
7. Circolo Giovine Malta - Strada S. Lucia corner with Strada Reale
The meeting of the National Assembly was interrupted as a seriously wounded man was brought in. Realising the seriousness of what was happening outside, the delegates adjourned the meeting, and a number of them addressed the crowds, urging them to calm down and to refrain from further disorder. Some of the delegates went to meet the Acting Governor, asking him to withdraw the troops, as a result of which no more disturbances were reported that evening.
8. Palazzo Francia - 310, Strada Reale
On the following morning, people once again gathered in the streets, mainly to lay flowers on the spots where the three men had been killed the day before. However, although the situation initially seemed calm, at around 9.30 am, a British soldier, who according to some might have been one of those involved in the previous day’s shootings, was assaulted by a group of people in Strada Teatro. Although police officers eventually managed to pull him away from the crowd, he had been seriously injured, and actually died several weeks later.
The Governor met with members of the National Assembly and informed them that if trouble broke out again, he would have no option but to call in the troops. While the delegates promised to do their utmost to calm the crowds, they secured from the Governor a promise for a full inquiry into the events, as well as an agreement that if soldiers would be required, only local troops would be brought in.
Late in the afternoon, Colonel Francia’s house opposite the Royal Opera House came under attack. Colonel Francia was involved in the flour milling industry and was seen as a fair target by the crowd. As the family and their employees hid in the cellars, furniture, silverware, and other precious items were being looted or thrown out of the windows. Although around 100 soldiers from the Royal Malta Artillery were present, they were reluctant to use force against their own countrymen, so at around 6 pm, 140 Royal Marines were sent to clear the building. 39-year-old Carmelo Abela, from Valletta, was standing near one of the doors, calling for his son, when he was approached by two marines who tried to arrest him. As he resisted, he was bayoneted in the stomach, eventually dying one week later.
9. Addolorata Cemetery - Paola
On 9th November 1924, the bodies of the four victims were reinterred in their new tomb at the Addolorata Cemetery. The monument was designed by the Russian sculptor Boris Edwards and Maltese artist Gianni Vella, who had witnessed the riots firsthand. But apart from these four men, out of the other fifty or so that were injured, two more - Ċikku Darmanin and Toni Caruana - are also believed to have died of their injuries some months later, even if their names were not added to the monument.
But what were the effects of Sette Giugno? For the British, they led to a realisation that there was an urgent need for political reform. The new incoming Governor, Lord Plumer, recommended liberal concessions to the Maltese, who were promised their own parliament, with jurisdiction over internal affairs. A new self-government constitution was indeed granted in 1921, with the first election being held in October of that year.
10.St. George’s Square - Valletta
On 7th June 1986, the Sette Giugno monument, the work of Anton Agius, was inaugurated at St. George’s Square. On 21st March 1989, the Maltese Parliament declared the day to be one of the five national days of Malta, with the first official remembrance of the day being observed on 7th June of that same year. Some years ago, the monument was removed from the square and there was some discussion about finding an alternative location for it. In fact, it was then temporarily relocated to Hastings Garden. However, following a public consultation about the future of this nationally important monument, it was returned to its original location in the main square of Valletta on 3rd December 2016.