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