[WATCH] Why 1919 is important: ‘It was the first time the Maltese bit the hand that fed them’

It was the spontaneous, and violent uprising reaction of the Maltese masses against Malta’s privileged class and the British forces, over the rising price of bread

It was Malta’s first real ‘revolution’. 

The Sette Giugno uprising of 1919 occupies a fundamental place in Maltese national consciousness, marking an important step in the fight against colonialism and the development of the labour movement and trade unions, apart from the death of four Maltese rioters shot by British troops in Valletta. 

Historian Mark Camilleri speaks of the economic backdrop that pitted the Maltese masses in 1919 against not just the British colonial powers, but also the Maltese bourgeoisie and owners of the flour mills. 

“The Great War had raised the cost of living, and with it the price of bread, which the Maltese nation was dependent on as part of its diet. The flour mill owners believed they should keep making profits even in the post-war climate when the cost of living was rising, faster than wages,” Camilleri says. 

The Sette Giugno uprising is a seminal event in Maltese history as the uprising which marked a break between Malta’s vicarious servitude to the British powers, and the start of a class consciousness that challenged the powers of the Maltese Catholic church and the business classes. 

“The Church had stopped intellectuals like Manuel Dimech from fomenting this class consciousness and instilling within workers, the will to demand the right to strike and unionise. After 7 June, the Church was unable to stop the fight for workers’ interests,” Camilleri says. 

The privileged class that owned the maligned mills in 1919 is still part of Malta’s modern industrial owners: families such as the Cassar Torregianis, whose National Bank was nationalised by Dom Mintoff into the Bank of Valletta; or the Farrugias of the Farsons company.

People like Cassar Torregiani’s grandchild Nicholas De Piro, insist that it was the British governor Lord Methuen who refused to give the millers a bread subsidy, as compensation for the rise in insurance costs on account of German submarine action in the Mediterranean, which had raised the cost of shipping wheat to Malta. 

“In March 1919, the price of wheat had gone up considerably, and the local milling industry was faced with the dilemma: either to buy at a high price and face the public with a rise in bread up to 9 ½ d. per rotolo, or decline to import the wheat requirements of the Island,” Cassar Torreggiani wrote in a letter to his grandchildren in the early 1950s

“Having been refused the suspension of the bread tax, I again insisted that some sort of other assistance should be forthcoming, and when I mentioned a subsidy I was derided as having asked for something... that did not exist in any country of Europe.” 

Ironically, however, the price of bread was subsidised all over Europe shortly after World War II. 

Cassar Torreggiani was one of the island’s three leading millers alongside Col. J. L. Francia (also president of the Chamber of Commerce) and L. Farrugia and Sons (Farsons). All three families were targeted during the riots. The Francia and Cassar Torreggiani homes in Valletta were ransacked, and much of their furniture and possessions were looted and/or destroyed. 

The Farrugia mills in Qormi were razed to the ground, as were Francia’s mills in Hamrun.