‘The present system cannot go on’ | Paul Bartolo

As the events of Sette Giugno continue to reverberate across Maltese society in fresh protest movements and even upcoming Hollywood movie treatments, author Paul Bartolo sits down with TEODOR RELJIC to chat about the new edition of his landmark study, ‘X’Kien Gara Sew Fis-Sette Giugno’

Paul Bartolo
Paul Bartolo

For the sake of giving a full picture to our readers, could you kindly walk us through the history of the book itself, and tell us a little bit how its first edition came to be, and what has been added to this new one?

This book combines my post-graduate training and experience in three disciplines: history, education, and psychology. Though my main work at the University is now coordinating the training of psychologists, my first degree and master were in history. While researching the national archives forty years ago at the Palace in Valletta, for my Master’s dissertation on ‘War and social change: Malta 1914-19’, I discovered documents of the ‘Commission of Inquiry into the events of June 7 and 8, 1919 and the circumstances that led up to them’ and the evidence given by 150 witnesses in August-September 1919.

These witnesses were people who were in the streets of Valletta during the rising and who saw the firing on the crowd, and included people from all walks of life: the person who had gone to Valletta with Manuel Attard from Sliema who was shot in Old Bakery Street; the doctor who tried to tend to Wenzu Dyer who was fatally hit by a bullet in Palace Square; the soldiers who actually shot at the crowd; the politicians who were meeting in the National Assembly including Nerik Mizzi and others who tried to placate the crowd after the shooting; the police; the Acting Governor; the representatives of the dockyard Imperial Government Workers Union; the merchants; and newspaper editors. There was also the report of the Commission of Inquiry that collected the evidence; however, this report was criticised as being too biased in favour of the Colonial Government.

In taking note of these documents, I had been influenced by my post-graduate training as a history teacher when there was the development of a new approach to teaching: rather than having students just read the conclusions about events reached by historians, they were to be provided with copies of original materials so that they could have direct experience of historical investigation and reporting by trying to make sense of historical documents themselves.   

All this led to the production of the first edition of ‘X’kien gara sew fis-Sette Giugno 1919’ (What really happened on the Sette Giugno) that was published by Klabb Kotba Maltin in 1979. I had constructed a chronological collage of evidence given before the Commission of Inquiry that provided a very intriguing narrative by the people who were direct witnesses of the events. This was accompanied by commentary based on an analysis of the archival material that included the Colonial Government’s correspondence with London, as well as reports of the various departments of the Colonial administration and petitions by individuals and groups sent to the government, together with an analysis of the newspapers of the time.

That edition went quickly out of print, partly because there were still people alive who had themselves been present at the Sette Giugno 60 years earlier or whose description of the Sette Giugno events was still treasured by their children. The occurrence of the centenary of the Sette Giugno spurred me to delve once more into the archives, and particularly the National Archives of the UK at Kew, to produce a second edition with a completely new chapter that addresses questions raised since the first edition as well as providing over one hundred pages of new visual materials and documents.  

On a similar note, how would you trace the evolution of the very discourse surrounding the event? How has the way we talk about Sette Giugno changed over the years, and how is this evident in this latest edition of your book?

Over the past 40 years since the publication of the first edition, the Sette Giugno has become recognised more widely as an important national event. Suffice to say that the Labour Administration set up a Sette Giugno monument in Palace Square in 1986 while, three years later in 1989, the Nationalist Administration included the Sette Giugno as one of five national days.

This recognition of the national significance of the Sette Giugno differed considerably from the approach taken by the British Governor of the time Lord Plumer. In the book I describe how this new Governor who took office on June 10, 1919, while endeavouring to support Malta’s prosperity, tried to erase the memory of the Sette Giugno, portraying it as a “deplorable incident among friends” that was best forgotten.

Maltese governments since 1921 had also tended to avoid celebrating the memory of the events, fearing it will be used to encourage protests against their administration. The first two booklets about the Sette Giugno were published by the parties in minority positions – the Labour Party in 1927 and the Nationalist Party in 1930. The Strickland party and richer classes also feared riots and portrayed the Sette Giugno events as a fete for thieves, suggesting that those who were killed were no martyrs but simply bystanders.

In fact, it was only in the late 1960s, when Prof Henry Frendo described the Sette Giugno as a Maltese revolution that the national importance of the events began to be more appropriately appreciated. My own publication in 1979 then set out the details about the events, showing that they were not simply the riots of a day or two but a national political movement that arose out of the first world war, similar to other national movements of the time in other parts of the British Empire, particularly Ireland, Egypt and India of which the Maltese were aware. Thus by the 1980s there was the development of a better understanding of how the Sette Giugno held an important place in the significant developments of the Maltese inter-war political scene.

Consequently, the Sette Giugno was declared as one of the national days in 1989. Since then, interest in the events continued to grow as official speeches and other commentaries on the Sette Giugno are made on every 7th June. But it has been the celebration of the 100th anniversary this year that has given rise to a number of more extensive publications and television programmes that are enabling people to understand better what the Sette Giugno was all about.

The new edition includes additional archival material. What would you say this contributes to the overall experience of the book? And how about the visual material supplied by Judge Giovanni Bonello?

The new edition has delivered the account of what really happened on the Sette Giugno more complete because, firstly I delved deeper into documents at the National Archives of Malta (now in Rabat). For instance, an interesting document in the Malta archives that I had not used earlier, was a report in August 1919 by Joseph Howard, who became the first Prime Minister of Malta in 1921, who had interviewed dockyard people about how their opinions on how the British were treating Maltese dockyard workers, and about whether the dockyard was “the hottest bed of the unusual agitation”.

Even more importantly for the new edition, I made use of all the relevant material in the National Archives of the UK in Kew. In this way, for instance, I found a full account of the evidence given before the Military Inquiry that was held only two weeks after the events of June 7, including the evidence of the four soldiers who admitted firing on the crowd; a copy of the lists of people who were injured on June 7 and 8, and of the 40 people who were court-martialled. In addition, I reviewed the comments written by the Secretary of State and officials at the Colonial Office in London about all that was reported from Malta, and about newspaper articles in Italy and the UK about the events. There was also information about visits to the Colonial Office by Strickland and Cassar Torregiani. I found some files that had been kept secret for 70 years, such as one on correspondence by Nerik Mizzi with an Italian colleague that had been censored by the British in 1917 and comments on Nerik Mizzi’s activities in December 1918.

Equipped with all this new information, I could answer many new questions that had arisen over the past forty years, such as: What was the role of the wheat and flour merchants? What role did the dockyard workers and Dimechians and Mizzians play in the rising? What was the nature of the student protests? How many and who were the injured and those arrested? Why and how was compensation given to those whose property was damaged during rioting over June 7 to 9? How was the Maltese rising suppressed? Why can the Sette Giugno be regarded as a Maltese revolution that gave birth to the current democratic processes in Malta?

Apart from providing answers to these questions through the addition of an analytical chapter of over a 100 pages, the new edition, thanks to a fruitful collaboration with the publisher, Joseph Mizzi, provides a new understanding of the Sette Giugno through another 100 pages of photos and illustrations. These show aspects of life and the protagonists of the time, particularly maps and views of Valletta together with the locations where the main events took place, photos supplied by Giovanni Bonello of the student demonstrations of May 1919, the only two photos of the June 7 crowd that had survived government censorship, and photos of the funeral for three of the victims held on June 9.

Moreover, there are many reproductions of archival documents such as the lists of the dead and wounded, the lists of those court martialled, tables showing the rise in prices and lower level of wages, a copy of the evidence given by the soldiers who fired on the crowd, a copy of the compensation sums claimed and received, and many reproductions of pages from the newspapers of the time. The appendix also includes a full copy of the 16-page Report of the Commission of Inquiry, of letters sent by Manwel Dimech on July 30, 1919 from exile in Egypt, and a letter about the Sette Giugno sent by Nerik Mizzi from exile in Uganda on June 7, 1944.

I should add that Giovanni Bonello also wrote a forward to the new edition. His piece is not only enriched by his erudition and expertise in the justice system, but also by the fact that his father was actively involved in the Sette Giugno events – he had saved a piece of the Union Jack flag that had been pulled down from the Lyceum and “insulted” by the crowd, a photo of which is also included in the book.

Apart from the centenary itself, Sette Giugno has also returned to the public conversation thanks to the production of ‘Just Noise’; an upcoming high profile film production chronicling the events, and starring industry stalwarts like Harvey Keitel and Malcolm McDowell. As a historian of this particular episode, how does it feel for it to be getting the big screen treatment, and what are your hopes for this production?

It is timely, given the increased amount of information available about the Sette Giugno, that it should be the subject of a film production. However, I am rather concerned that the title chosen was ‘Just Noise’ which seems to resonate with a particular, and in my opinion, partial point of view of the events as simply a sudden flare up of hungry people that led to nothing and had no impact on Maltese society, politics and government.

I hope that the production will do justice to the event as one of, if not the most significant event in the Maltese development towards democratic government. I argue, with reference to the documented events as they ensued, that the Sette Giugno had a most important impact on the Colonial administration that led the Secretary of State for the Colonies to make the case for the first grant of responsible self-government to Malta because, “There is now undoubtedly an almost universal opinion that the present system cannot go on and that some far-reaching change must be adopted”.

Finally, what do you hope will be the next step in our historiographic approach to Sette Giugno? How do you hope that we process this event in a way that’s most intellectually honest and nationally beneficial?

By now, a substantial amount of the abundant archival material about the Sette Giugno that is held by the National Archives of Malta and in the UK have been made available to historians and to the public. Of course, there are still some lacunae in the detailed understanding of the widespread political agitation of the time. There may be more evidence still hidden in private collections that could further clarify the processes that were taking place. Though it is difficult to think that these can lead to any radical change in our understanding of the events and their significance, such additions are always welcome. I have put specific references to all the evidence I used in the new chapter so that new researchers can go deeper into the events by making use of all existing known sources about the Sette Giugno.

On the other hand, there are and there will continue to be varied interpretations of the Sette Giugno. It was a complex coming together of the various elements of the population and, as has already happened over the years, different elements of the agitation may be highlighted – the Dimechian call for a radical change in society, the trade unions call for employment and better wages or of the hungry population for lower bread prices, or even the student protests. I have also made the case that the landowning classes were actually very active for the removal of the succession duty that had been introduced in 1918. Indeed, in the first Labour publication on the Sette Giugno in 1927, Orlando argued that it was the ‘privileged classes’ that had called out the crowds to show the strength of a united populace which in turn led to responsible government, though Labour was still then not using its new found strength.

However, I feel that the main significance of the Sette Giugno is the arousal of all sections of the Maltese population to a new sense of aspirations for a better way of life leading to a new national unity and strength that had not been previously experienced. This was, furthermore, coloured by the bloodshed at the hands of the British troops, and widely celebrated on the announcement of self-government.

I think that, at this point in national Maltese development and with the wider understanding of the Sette Giugno events, all Maltese can share a feeling of national pride in the fact that, under severe conditions of life arising from the first world war, all sections of Maltese society raised their voice to assert their needs, rights and aspirations for a more democratic consideration of their claims. The politicians of the time – the eight elected members of the Council of Government – did not represent the different sections of the Maltese population. But the combined movements of the National Assembly and the crowds that gathered in its support in Valletta during its first two meetings in February and June brought about all sections of Maltese society together.

The Assembly raised the strongest national call for self-government. The Assembly included representatives of all elected members of the Council of Government and political groups; all levels of Church organisations ranging from parish priests to diocesan chapters of Malta and Gozo; all the organs of the press, without any distinction of opinion or language; the nobility; all professional bodies – Advocates, Public Notaries, Architects, Legal Procurators, Pharmaceutical Chemists; all associations of business, historical, scientific, literary and politics; the trades and workers unions; the University students; all the clubs of all the band and dramatic societies of the two Islands.

Of course, there were open divisions among these representatives, and such divisions also appeared in the streets of Valletta. But all the members of this Assembly came to an agreement, through democratic discussion and voting, on the formulation of a new constitution for the Maltese to manage their own affairs. Their proposal was accepted in principle and the British announced the decision to grant self-government in November 1919, and formally proclaimed it in April 1921.

This was the first time under British rule that the Maltese had a prospect for electing a Maltese government that could plan and implement policies for the internal affairs and development of Maltese society. Of course, the level of democratic participation was still limited, but the process had been started in earnest. The Sette Giugno can, therefore, in its multi-faceted dimensions, be celebrated by all sections of the Maltese population as a strong call for the development of democratic respect for all citizens.

X’Kien Gara Sew Fis-Sette Giugno is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin