This year, Malta marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant periods of social unrest in its history that led to riots on June 7 and 8, 1919, during which four people were killed and several others sustained injuries. Ċikku Darmanin and Toni Caruana were among those injured and it was also said that they both died as a result of injuries sustained.
The prelude to the riots was a demonstration held at Valletta on February 25, 1919, when a meeting of the National Assembly was being held. At that time, Malta was under British rule and the National Assembly unanimously resolved to ask the British government to grant the island a new constitution with full political and administrative autonomy.
The event attracted a crowd in the city and a demonstration ensued. The demonstrators protested for many reasons: workers’ unrest, especially among the dockyard workers, the high cost of living and violent articles in the press. Police inaction during the demonstration also contributed to what happened on June 7.
During the February demonstration the crowd insisted on the closing of shops, and when the owner of the establishment in Strada Reale (now Republic Street) corner with St John Street, A La Ville de Londres, refused to close the shop the crowd threw stones and other missiles, damaging the shopfront.
The police, then led by the Acting Commissioner James Frendo Azzopardi, did not order the arrest or prosecution of those responsible for these acts of violence. Eventually the acting commissioner also failed to explain why court proceedings were not taken.
Court action was, however, taken against some university students who some days earlier had broken desks and furniture belonging to the university and paraded along Strade Reale. The students had also gone on strike complaining about an amendment which had been made in the rule relating to the conferment of degrees.
Another National Assembly meeting was held at the Giovine Malta premises in Strada Reale in Valletta in the afternoon of June 7. The police knew that people were being asked to enter the city to stage a demonstration. On June 5, the acting commissioner informed the general staff about these developments, adding that he anticipated no serious disturbances.
Although at that time the total strength of the police force was about 500 men, the acting commissioner deployed a reinforcement of 180 policemen for this demonstration. However, as a precaution, a party of 25 soldiers were kept on stand-by in the military headquarters at Castille. It is not known if the acting commissioner was aware of this additional force.
Early in the afternoon of June 7, a crowd gathered in Strada Reale and later marched down the street forcing shops to close. Trouble again broke out in front of the A La Ville de Londres as the crowd saw the Union Jack flying on the roof. The crowd insisted that the flag be lowered and a mirror on the main door of the shop was broken. Eventually the police lowered the flag and the crowd kept moving.
The demonstrators then went near the Union Club that was housed at the Auberge de Provence and insisted on having the doors of the club closed. Stones were hurled at the windows, causing some damage. Three policemen who were guarding the club were manhandled and slightly injured. From the Union Club, the demonstrators moved down Strade Reale and, on reaching Queen’s Square, the windows of the Public Library were smashed. A police sergeant and a constable, who tried to control the disturbances, were severely beaten. The crowd also insisted that the Union Jack, flown at half-mast for the death of Chief Justice V. Frendo Azzopardi, be lowered. A library employee eventually lowered the flag.
When the demonstrators reached the Lyceum in Merchants Street some of them gained access by breaking the front window near the main door. Again, the crowd insisted that the flag that flew on the RAF Meteorological Station sited at the University be lowered and some men went on the roof and threw the flag down into the street. The flag was burned together with other articles and the place was easily wrecked since no police were guarding it.
The crowd then proceeded to the residence of one of the millers, namely Anthony Cassar Torreggiani, who lived in Old Bakery Street (near St Augustine’s church). Six men under Captain Ferguson of the Garrison Regiment, accompanied by the General Staff Officer, Major Ritchie, and Police Superintendent Antonio Busuttil, went to protect Cassar Torreggiani’s property; however, the crowd was 2,000 strong.
Meanwhile, the acting commissioner sent Inspector C. Lopez with 30 men to guard the place, but some demonstrators had already broken into the house and destroying and throwing furniture from the balcony. When Captain Ferguson was sent to the central police office (the police headquarters in the court building) to get reinforcements he alleged that his revolver and ammunition were taken from him.
The demonstrators protested for many reasons: workers’ unrest, the high cost of living and violent articles in the press
A section of the crowd then attacked the Daily Malta Chronicle offices in Old Theatre Street. When news of this attack reached the police, two inspectors and 30 constables were sent to protect the printing press. However, only the inspectors and six constables succeeded to get through the crowd in Strada Reale. When the police arrived, missiles were thrown at them and they abandoned the site. Meanwhile, a crowd was wrecking the house of the politician Francesco Azzopardi in St Lucia Street, which was guarded by a single policeman.
At about 5pm the acting commissioner informed the General Staff Officer that the police were overpowered and that troops were required to suppress the rioters. At that time the police had already sought refuge at the central police office and refused to go back out into the streets. The police complained that they were not even armed with truncheons. When Major General Hunter Blair, the Officer Administering the Government and Acting Commander-in-Chief, became aware of what really was happening at Valletta he authorised the use of the military force, and at about 5.30pm a detachment of 64 men of the Malta Composite Battalion arrived from Floriana barracks at the central police office and then proceeded to Old Bakery Street.
In Old Bakery Street, near Cassar Torreggiani’s house, the troops were lined up across the street in two ranks back to back facing up and down the road. The soldiers were warned that there was to be no firing without orders. No senior police officer was present and the officer who accompanied the soldiers did nothing to warn the crowd to desist from further acts of hostility.
The soldiers were ordered to kneel and assume the firing position and this move caused the crowd to fall back. It was said that one or two demonstrators defied the soldiers and Major Ritchie ordered his men to charge the crowd facing downhill. At the same time, some soldiers facing uphill panicked and fired about five or six rounds, killing two men and wounding several others. It was said that the shootings took place without orders from a senior officer. Manwel Attard from Sliema, who was in front of Cassar Torreggiani’s house, was hit in the head and died instantly. The other victim was Ġużeppi Bajada from Xagħra, Gozo, who at the time of the shooting was near Old Theatre Street.
Meanwhile at about 6pm a party of 10 soldiers under Lieutenant Shields was sent to protect the Daily Malta Chronicle offices, where a crowd of about 400 was watching the wrecking of the place. There were reports that there was a strong smell of gas and the soldiers feared an explosion since burning missiles were being thrown at the premises.
The lieutenant ordered one of his men to fire a round into the burning premises to disperse the crowd. When the shot was fired, a man who was near the fountain opposite the door of the Chronicle was hit and died shortly afterwards. The third victim was Lorenzo Dyer from Vittoriosa.
While these incidents were taking place, a wounded man was carried into the Giovine Malta premises, where the National Assembly was still meeting.
Meanwhile, the crowd wanted to enter the court building, which also housed the Central Police Office, where the soldiers had returned. After the adjournment of the assembly some members volunteered to go outside to calm the crowd, while others met the Lieutenant-Governor and asked him to withdraw the troops, guaranteeing that there would be no further disturbances. The Lieutenant-Governor agreed, and no further disturbances occurred on that day.
On Sunday, June 8, another crowd gathered at Valletta and the Acting Governor gave orders for 600 seamen and 300 soldiers from the Royal Malta Artillery to be kept on standby at Valletta and Sliema. This reinforcement outnumbered the total strength of the police force.
Meanwhile, in Valletta and in several other localities, posters calling for national mourning were put up. Wreaths were placed in the middle of Palace Square and in Old Bakery Street where the three men had been killed the previous day.
At first the situation seemed calm, but about 9.30am a soldier of the Malta Composite Battalion was assaulted, knocked down and left unconscious in Old Theatre Street, corner with Strait Street. Police Constable Francis Said, who was guarding the Daily Malta Chronicle building, ran up to rescue the soldier from the crowd.
Some civilians tried to help the policeman to carry the soldier to the government dispensary but they were hindered and attacked by the crowd and the policeman was slightly injured. Eventually, when more policemen arrived, the soldier was carried to the dispensary. In the meantime some of the demonstartors entered the Chronicle offices and continued wrecking the place.
The Lieutenant-Governor, fearing more riots, called Dr Filippo Sceberras, who had been presiding the National Assembly, Dr Enrico Mizzi, president of the Circolo Gioventù, and other politicians to the Palace in Valletta and asked them to use their influence to prevent further disturbances. During the meeting the Lieutenant-Governor warned that should the police prove unable to maintain order he would be obliged to use all the forces at his disposal. He added that if troops were called out he would not be responsible for the consequences.
The deputation promised to do their utmost to calm the people, but they also requested a full inquiry into the events of the previous day and that no person involved should be allowed to leave the island until the inquiry had been completed.
Moreover, the delegation requested that should the use of soldiers be necessary, only local troops should be used. General Hunter Blair promised this would be done and he also agreed to the inquiry.
(The concluding part of this article will be published next Sunday)
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