Malta Diary Sette Gungio 1919 – the Maltese rebel against British Rule and The Establishment
The 7th of June is one of Malta’s five National Holidays and was ceremoniously celebrated – as happens each year – to commemorate the dark events of 98 years ago on 7th June 1919, events which were dubbed Sette Gungio – the Italian for 7th June.
The World War I European hostility theatre, unlike World War II, was not focussed around Malta in the centre of the Mediterranean although thousands of Maltese served at sea in the British Royal Navy. Malta was mainly a hospital area tending to the thousands of wounded in the Gallipoli Campaigns and became known as ‘The Nurse of the Mediterranean’.
However, the war had occasioned deprivations in foodstuffs and other supplies and shortages became more chronic in the aftermath of the war when it ended in 1918. Malta’s Colonial Government failed to ensure supplies of basic food provisions and tempers began to rise sharply and rapidly, fanned by pro-Italian parties keen to raise community hostility against British governance.
The community itself was sharply divided in various sectors that frequently clashed. Some were openly identifiable, others hidden but simmering undercurrents.
Uppermost was the British Colonial system and a sector of the commercial sector and well-to-do families who supported British Colonialism. The other strong sector was the pro-Italian faction that largely appealed to the working men sector. The Roman Catholic Church had strong religious influence, an integral part of The Establishment and though largely pro-Italian it remained neutral as long as the British did not interfere in local religious matters and did not try to inflict Protestantism on the masses.
The British, wise and experienced enough, left the Church to its own doings as these did not in any way affect their Colonialism and their overall administration of the islands.
However, revolving around all these was a strongly-growing sector that was neither pro-British nor pro-Italian and was largely inspired by a great surge of patriotism and the Russian Bolshevik revolution in October 1917.
This had been largely inspired by Manwel Dimech at the turn of the 20th Century, well before the Russian Revolution, who published the first-ever Maltese Language journal, propagated the Maltese Language and called for the rights of the working man. His growing influence irritated the Church and The Establishment and they conspired to persuade the British Authorities to have him exiled in Egypt, never to return amidst strong rumours his eventual death had been caused by poisoning.
Above all these, there was a strong core of resentment from the Maltese nobility, the intellectuals and the academics who resented a Colonial status and continually pressed for more self-administration and that Malta should not be regarded as a Colony because after all, it was the Maltese who invited the British in to take over from the French.
Following WW1, the cost-of-living had risen dramatically. Imports, including food, were restricted while farmers and merchants were having a field day and making their fortunes. The Malta Dockyard, always a hotbed of revolution, together with Government employees – the two factions making up the core of working class employees – had been mooting their rising anger since 1916 and in 1919 this was fuelled by a price surge in grain and flour and thus the most basic of foodstuffs, bread, causing great hostility against millers and grain importers.
There was also a strong political dimension. The first meeting of the Malta General Assembly was held on 25th February 1919 and immediately approved a resolution that Malta was entitled to the Versailles Conference Agreement which meant Malta was independent. This caused an uproar between the pro-British and pro-Italian faction and subsequently had to be withdrawn
On that day too an angry crowd had attacked Valletta shopkeepers for remaining open while the Assembly was being held. The Malta Police took no action, hesitant to inflict any kind of restraint or punishment on their fellow Maltese.
Aware of the prickly and sensitive situation, the incoming British Governor General Lord Herbert Plumer after speaking to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London mooted the probability that London would agree to a measure of self-governance. The pro-Italianists headed by Enrico Mizzi declined to accept this and maintained the British could not be trusted.
Meanwhile, the unrest continued including a strong protest staged at the Malta University on 16th May, while the word went round that the Malta Police and postal employees were planning to take strike action.
The General Assembly was due to meet again in Valletta on Saturday, 7th June 1919 (Sette Giugno) and the Police foresaw trouble as they had word that angry crowds would be flocking into Valletta. At their request a number of British soldiers were placed on stand-by in Castile Square.
Trouble sparked off almost immediately when the crowd saw a flagpole flying the Malta flag but above it flew the Union Jack on the roof of a residence. Some of them broke into the house and tore down the Union Jack. The crowd then proceeded further into Valletta towards the British Officers’ Club and insisted the club be closed. To exacerbate matters they saw some officers poking fun at them from one of the windows. The club’s window panes were broken and the officers roundly insulted.
Proceeding further into Valletta’s main road named Kingsway, the crowd continued to insist that all Union Jacks be removed and they tore down some flags themselves. The Police were simply unable to cope. Another British club was broken into, the furniture smashed and the Union Jack burnt.
At this point the angry mob had reached Palace Square in the most central part of Valletta where the Main Guard buildings were situated as well as the Governor’s offices. Further down in Old Theatre Street the offices of the newspaper The Malta Chronicle, an English-language pro-British newspaper, were broken into and the printing presses jammed with metal as simultaneously the houses of those known to be pro-British collaborators (mostly merchants) were broken into and ransacked.
By 17.30 the situation had escalated well out of hand and 64 soldiers from the Composite Battalions were drafted into the scene. These were under the command of two young and inexperienced British officers. The crowds began to stone and insult the soldiers. The officers commanded their soldiers to be ready for action and take a position to aim their rifles at the crowd but not to fire.
With bedlam all around, one soldier lost his nerve and panicked and shot at the crowd and other soldiers followed suit. The first shot hit and killed Lorenzo Dyer, obviously of British extraction but Maltese. Two others were shot dead and 50 others injured. The dead were Lorenzo Dyer, Karmenu Abela, Giuseppe Bajada and Manwel Attard.
The Francia residence (pro-British collaborators) was then attacked and ransacked with furniture and silverware thrown into the street. At this stage a further 145 Royal Navy Marines were called in and one of them stabbed Karmenu Abela in the stomach when he was merely calling on his son to come home and leave the fray. Two other injured victims also passed away later, bringing the death toll to six.
On the days that followed, disarray continued but not on the same violent scale as all-round sobriety reigned and the rumblings gradually faded although strong repressive measures had been introduced including severe press censorship.
However, the Sette Gungio riots had a long-serving effect. Two years later the General Assembly (Malta’s first Parliament) was formalised, giving the Maltese a measure of self-administration and later Self Government introduced. The Malta Labour Party came into being as well as the General Workers’ Union
In 1986 the Sette Gungio monument was inaugurated in Valletta’s Palace Square and on 21st March 1989 the day was declared a National Holiday.
By then, Malta had become Independent in 1964, later to be declared a Republic in 1974 with its own President rather than a Governor-General and in 1979 the last British troops left Malta and for the first-time ever Malta really became independent.