7 JUNE 1919 - RIOTS IN THE CITY
270 delegates gathered at the National Assembly which was held at the Circolo Giovine Malta in Strada Santa Lucia on 7th June 1919.
These delegates had encouraged the crowd to enter the City on that fateful Sette Giugno day urging them to bring a Maltese flag. The crowd was required as the delegates wanted to show the Imperial Government that they had the backing of the common people.
Is-Sette Giugno commemorates events which occurred in Malta on that day in 1919 when British troops fired into the crowd to counter a series of riots by the locals, killing three outright – Manwel Attard, Ġużè Bajada and Wenzu Dyer – whereas other three, Karmenu Abela, Ċikku Darmanin and Toni Caruana, succumbed to their wounds days and months later.
In the aftermath of World War I, the cost of living in Malta increased dramatically. There was a widespread belief amongst the populace that the main grain importers and flour millers were making excessive profits over the price of bread at the expense of the needy and poor.
These millers were Antonio Cassar Torreggiani (Is-Sur Tonin), Colonel John Lewis Francia who was then the President of the Chamber of Commerce (his heirs donated Villa Francia in Lija to the Government back in 2009) and Louis Farrugia and Sons (ta’ Farsons) who were millers back then before becoming brewers years later.
Meanwhile political developments were also a fundamental cause for the Sette Giugno uprising. On 23rd November 1918, Dr Filippo Sceberras on the daily paper ‘Malta’ had requested all associations in Malta and Gozo to start a national movement for greater constitutional liberties in Malta. These Associations were invited to send their delegates to a first meeting of the new National Assembly which was to be held on 25th February 1919.
270 delegates from different walks of life were present for that first meeting whereby a resolution was tabled by Nerik Mizzi and Mons Ignazio Panzavecchia (two pro-Italians from head to toe), requesting independence from the British Empire. This, in line with the rights given to other nations by the Versailles peace conference.
On that February day, there was some hint of what was to happen months later, as the locals confronted and threatened shopkeepers who had remained open during the meeting of the above mentioned Assembly.
One such shop was "A la Ville de Londres" (known as ‘Il-Ħanut ta’ Saverina') property of Bartoli-Galea which was situated at Piazza San Giovanni corner with Strada Reale. We hereby give it a mention as it was this place that sparked the Sette Giugno uproar months later.
In fact, the National Assembly adjourned and was to meet for a second time in the Circolo Giovine Malta (Malta Żagħżugħa) building in Strada Reale, corner with Santa Lucija Street, on Saturday 7th June 1919…..
Delegates of the National Assembly had encouraged the crowd to enter Valletta on that fateful Sette Giugno day in order to show the Imperial Government that they had the backing of the common people.
The crowd gathered at Strada Santa Lucia next to Circolo Giovine Malta and applauded the delegates as they entered the building. Dr Filippo Sceberras, who arrived at 3.30 p.m., was highly acclaimed by the gathering.
Among the protestors were thousands of Dockyard workers. They were largely annoyed by British rule as they had been made redundant. This, in view that as War was now over, there were no further ships coming in for repair.
In the 15 days preceding the Sette Giugno alone, 450 Dockyard tradesmen and labourers had their job terminated by the Imperial Government.
Other demonstrators were University students mainly upset and annoyed by reforms whereby it was decided that the Doctorate would only be given to them after having successfully gained experience through months of on the job training.
In total, there were about 20,000 protestors in the City that fateful day.
THE CIVIL UNREST OF 7th JUNE
Nerik Mizzi had concluded his memorable piece at the February National Assembly with the ominous words: "Solo una scintilla manca perché scoppi l'incendio" (All that is needed is but a spark to start the fire).
The first spark of unrest centered on the Union Jack flying above the shop "A la Ville de Londres." The location had already been attacked together with some other shops by an angry crowd on 25th February as the place had opened for business during the first meeting of the National Assembly.
Although the shop was now closed, that Union Jack was taken as a sign of provocation by the locals. The crowd forced itself inside, and the flag together with the flagpole were pulled down in no time at all.
This incident sparked the uprising. Now one must say that the death of the President of the Court of Justice Sir Vincenzo Frendo Azzopardi some days earlier, had required all governmental departments to hoist the Union Jack and fly it at half-mast. Buildings such as the University in Strada Mercanti, Biblioteca Nazionale in Pjazza Regina and the Meteorological Office were just following these guidelines - but an angry crowd understands no protocol.
The protestors proceeded to the Officers' Club, insisting that the club’s door had to be closed. Window panes were broken, while Police officers trying to restrain the crowd were assaulted.
The crowd then returned to Pjazza Regina, in front of the Biblioteca, shouting for the Union Flag to be taken away. Sensibly it was promptly removed by the men on duty, saving, in doing so, the place from being torched and thousands of priceless documents being destructed.
The crowd moved on to the meteorological offices. After breaking the windowpanes, people entered the workplace ransacking and destroying everything inside. Some individuals climbed onto the turret, removing the Union Jack and threw it into the street. The crowd burned the flag along with some furniture which had been thrown out of the window.
The protestors then moved back to St. George’s Square, where they began to insult the soldiers detached in front of the Main Guard buildings. Meanwhile, in Strada Teatro, the offices of the Daily Malta Chronicle newspaper were broken into.
The crowd was made up of thousands. The soldiers were just a few in numbers.
- Actually There Were Six Maltese Victims, plus a British Soldier.
While this uproar was taking place, another section of the crowd was attacking the house of Anthony Cassar Torreggiani at number 191 Strada Forni.
Is-Sur Tonin was considered by the angry crowd as one of the profiteering merchants. Maybe he was not – the crowd may have been by far and large way off the mark! But we come to that later.
Actually, at Strada Forni, there were six soldiers lead by Major Ritchie trying to stop a crowd of thousands from ransacking the house of Cassar Torreggiani. They failed.
Major Ritchie sent a visibly shaken Captain Ferguson to bring reinforcements. With his revolver stolen and his uniform torn, the captain reached a troop of twenty-four soldiers, which were directed to Strada Forni where they took their positions in front of the house of Cassar Torreggiani, facing in both directions, aiming at the crowd and ordering them to retreat.
At that moment, as eyewitnesses reported, one of the soldiers shot a round into the crowd, with the rest of the troop following. Manwel Attard, a young barber of 28 years from Strada Santa Maria Sliema, was hit by a gunshot in the cheek while crossing Strada Forni in disobeyance of orders issued.
He became the first victim of the Sette Giugno rebellion. He fell right in front of the Cassar Torregiani house. Others were injured.
In the Inquest Commission set up by the Government which started on 22nd July (with 26 meetings held and 150 people giving their testimony) it emerged that there were no orders to shoot from Major Ritchie - it was a British soldier who fired on the crowd as he feared for his life.
Meanwhile protestors were attacking the offices of the Daily Malta Chronicle which was situated next door to Casino Maltese at Strada Teatro in front of Piazza San Giorgio. The newspaper was considered as a supporter of the Imperial Government.
It was, and how it was! The owner of the Daily Chronicle, Sir Augustus Bartolo, was the only one to vote against the motion put forward by the National Assembly back in February requesting independence from the British Empire.
Meanwhile Toninu Bartolo, the owner’s son, together with the employees who were at the offices, fled from the backdoor which was situated at Strada Stretta.
Ten soldiers, led by Lieutenant Shields, approached the offices of the newspaper. The soldiers were surrounded by the protesters who pelted them with stones and other objects.
Ġużè Bajada, a 38 year old Gozitan from Strada Bullara Xaghra, was hit near Strada Teatro as the outnumbered soldiers opened fire.
He became the second victim of the Sette Giugno death toll as he fell on top of the Maltese flag he was carrying.
Meanwhile, soldiers took shelter from the angry crowd in the Daily Malta Chronicle offices. However, as there was an evident smell of gas in the building, Lieutenant Shields soon ordered his men to get out of the building.
Lt. Shields, however, feared making the soldiers exit the office one by one, since the crowd outside would certainly manhandle them. On the other hand, they could not remain inside.
To clear a way out, Lt. Shields ordered one of the soldiers to shoot low, away from the crowd. He did but in doing so, his shot hit 21 year old Lorenzo Dyer, from Strada Palazzo Antico, Vittoriosa, who tried to run away.
Dyer wearing the Maltese flag around his neck and a white and red cockade could be easily identified staggering in the Main Guard, dropping dead right in front of the place where, a few years later, the first Maltese Parliament was to meet in 1921.
Alfredo Caruana Gatto
At the same time, at Strada Santa Lucia, few doors away from the Circolo Giovine Malta, the house of Legal Procurator Ċikku Azzopardi was destroyed, with furniture and all his belongings thrown into the street.
Azzopardi, fearing for his life fled with his wife and his13 year old son to Balzan. (Later he went into hiding at Ghajn Tuffieha Barracks, before incognito he left Malta towards Cairo on HMS Asphodel requesting a pension from the Imperial Government for his daily living. He got none).
Meanwhile the gentlemen that had gathered for the National Assembly at the Circolo Giovine Malta, totally unaware of what was taking place in the streets of the City, had just approved a motion proposed by Notary Salvatore Borg Olivier and put to vote by Dr. Filippo Sceberras, whereby the British Government was asked to immediately grant political and administrative autonomy to Malta.
These proceedings in the National Assembly were interrupted as a young lad, seriously wounded from the revolts in the streets, was brought inside. Some of the delegates left the buildings in a state of panic, some others escaped from the roof while others ran to the balcony.
Count Alfredo Caruana Gatto, Dun Nerik Dandria, Dr. Serafin Vella, Councilor Giuseppe Vassallo, Salvu Zammit Hammet and Monsinjur Ġużeppi De Piro all ran into streets of Valletta, trying to calm down the protestors.
Count Alfredo Caruana Gatto was crucial in his actions as otherwise the situation would have degenerated further. He addressed the crowd, asking them to restrain themselves from further violence.
The Assembly then sent a delegation to meet Lieutenant Governor Sir William Robertson, asking for the troops to be removed for the crowds to retreat. The Governor accepted, and Caruana Gatto addressed the crowd again, which complied and began to fall back.
In the morning of 8th June, flowers and other tributes were placed in the streets where the victims had died.
However, the deaths and injuries of so many people did not halt the uprisings as disturbances continued further.
As early as 8.00 am an angry crowd demolished the house of flour miller Louis Farrugia at 200 Strada Reale in Ħamrun. In July Louis Farrugia requested £37,738 in damages from the Imperial Government but only got £16,940. His request had been considered as inflated.
Meanwhile in Valletta, on that same 8th June day, the crowds attacked Palazzo Francia (nowadays known as Palazzo Ferreria) of Colonel John Lewis Francia at 310 Strada Reale (facing the Royal Opera House – what is today Teatru bla Saqaf). Colonel Francia was the owner of the National Flour Mill in Ħamrun.
Actually Dr. Caruana Gatto, Monsinjur Depiro and Dr Serafin Vella, sensing the worse addressed the crowd from the terrace of the Royal Opera House across the road, urging them to refrain from resorting to more violence.
They failed as they were booed, pushed, shoved and even robbed from their money and other personal belongings.
Maltese soldiers from the Royal Malta Artillery were used to protect Francia’s house, a strategical move by the British which failed as the RMA soldiers were reluctant to use force against their fellow countrymen, besides the fact that they were largely demoralized soldiers as they were underpaid by the Imperial Government when compared to the British soldier.
The crowd forced its way into Palazzo Francia in no time at all, throwing furniture, silverware and other objects into the street. Meanwhile the Francias and their employees went into hiding in one of the cellars.
The looting kept going on for two hours, until 140 British soldiers from the Royal Artillery arrived on the spot at about 6.00 p.m., firing several warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd.
Karmenu Abela, 39 years, from Strada Manderaggio, Valletta was inside Colonel Francia’s house, calling for his son. Two marines proceeded to arrest him, and when he resisted, a marine ran him through the stomach with a bayonet.
Abela died seven days later, on 15th June.
When the Francias came out of the cellar everything was either broken down or stolen although the crowd did not manage to move or open three different vaults in the building. Colonel John Lewis Francia later requested a payment of £7,713 in damages from the Imperial Government. He was given £4,425
For the night Colonel Francia and his family slept at the Royal Hotel in Valletta, but a day later they moved out of the City and went to live at Villa Preziosi in Lija.
THE SETTE GIUGNO PATRIOTS TURNED CRIMINALS A DAY LATER
On this second day, as stated by lawyer Alfredo Caruana Gatto the crowd was not made up of the patriots of the previous day.
“I must say that on that day, the crowd was not made up of the same people as the day before. I saw many faces familiar to me in the Criminal Court.”
As usually happens in times of riots, criminals take advantage of the situation for their own interests, and are not in the least concerned with love of country.
Meanwhile, in other locations there were other revolts as the Farrugia mills in Qormi were razed to the ground as where the Francia’s National Flour Mills in Hamrun. Another group attacked the St. George’s Flour Mills owned by Cassar Torreggiani in Marsa, however workers at the mill managed to defend their workplace and let the protestors off with a sack of flour each as part of a compromise to leave the building.
Ċikku Darmanin and Toni Caruana
Other two casualties following the revolt were Ċikku Darmanin and Toni Caruana. Similar to Karmenu Abela, they died months later in hospital from their wounds. Caruana died at the Hospital Santo Spirito in Rabat whereas Darmanin passed away at the Mental Asylum (Il-Manikomju).
These last two victims are seldom mentioned, however in one of the recent traditional Sette Giugno speeches, the then Speaker of the House Dr. Michael Frendo duly added their names to the famous four.
Moreover, a British soldier also died from injuries a month after the revolt as he was manhandled by the angry crowd of protesters, even though in a study by Frank Testa he gives a hint that the soldier may have died of tuberculosis.
When giving his testimony in front of the Inquest Commission set up by the Imperial Government to establish the facts that went on that day Monsinjur Depiro put down this British soldiers’ death as a rumour.
So, the tally was six dead, maybe seven – six Maltese and probably a British soldier – and around fifty injured.
Anthony Cassar Torreggiani ‘Is-Sur Tonin’
We stated above that Anthony Cassar Torreggiani may have been the wrong target of the angry crowd.
It is difficult to tell whether ‘Is-Sur Tonin’ was blameless to the rise in the price of bread – at the time the main source of food of the penniless. For sure, he was not penniless. He lived in a large house at number 191, Strada Forni.
But, to give him all his dues, besides being rich Is-Sur Tonin was a kind-hearted gentleman. He was the man behind the football competition ‘Cassar Cup’, from which all proceeds were distributed among charitable institutions. The competition generated keen interest among the locals as the first two in the League (That is, the Champions and runner-up - generally Sliema and Floriana) encountered the Winners of the Army League and the Winners of the Navy League. Large crowds attended the mini knock out competition and big money was generated. All proceeds were spread among the needy and poor.
Cassar Cup in fact stands for Cassar Torreggiani Cup but that’s too long for a Cup name. In any case – he was rich and kind.
Anthony Cassar Torreggiani gives his side of the story in a letter to his grandchildren many years after the June riots. Now one understands that this is his own side of the story - a grandfather recounting the events to his grandchildren without doubt will relate a good account of himself. It could be a true account of events and it could be not. However in a nutshell Anthony Cassar Torreggiani stated that…
“To keep down the price of bread, I imported a shipload of wheat which was loaded and carried by my ship, the S/S Ant Cassar, from Philadelphia to Malta” …without insuring the goods as otherwise it… “would have raised the price of bread by 3 pence per rotolo. I risked the greater part of my family belongings not to raise the price of bread, and did not insure. The convoy from Gibraltar to Malta consisted of 17 steamers, 15 of which were sunk by enemy action; the remainder, one of them the "S/S Ant Cassar" unexpectedly arrived safely to Malta after a long delay, with a low priced wheat cargo, but with no gratitude from any quarter.”
“Col J.L. Francia, who originated the movement to obtain proper representation on changes in local taxation, after the imposition of Succession Duty, received no thanks from the mob rule. On the contrary, coerced by other political factions, the mob sacked (his) house and his valuable furniture was carried away to the disgust of responsible opinion. My house in Old Bakery Street was likewise looted, and some fine oil paintings by Maestro Cali, which I miss to this day, were torn and trampled upon.”
Republished Courtesy of Tonio Farrugia