The history involved in the 1919 Riot is complex and the causes and justifications for the riot are highly controversial, but in Malta, the four fallen rioters are regarded as heroes and June 7th is thought of as Malta’s “National Day.”
Although Malta had been under British rule for around 200 years and had generally led a peaceful existence, things began to change in the aftermath of World War I. The war disrupted the Mediterranean sea trade that Malta’s economy was so dependent upon and caused the price of grain, flour, and bread to rise sharply. This led to expensive shipping insurance for importers and resentment by many locals who suspected merchants were gouging them exorbitantly on every loaf of bread. Additionally, the British control over local affairs on the island, the “Language Question” involving English, Maltese, and Italian, and a general disdain for colonialism all contributed to the spirit of unrest.
Amazingly, during the course of the riots, the new British governor and local representatives were negotiating what would become a successful compromise that gave Malta greater self-rule. Islanders had learned, however, not to trust the colonial government, and the negotiators were unaware of the riots until they were well under way.
The first outbreak occurred when a mob broke into a shop flying a Maltese flag bearing a Union Jack to take down the flag and destroy even the flagpole. Soon, other buildings were stormed, including a flour mill, and police could not keep the situation under control without assistance from the military. When the Maltese National Assembly learned of the riots, one of them, Count Alfredo Gatto, spoke twice to the crowds and eventually dissuaded them from further rioting. This happened too late, however, to prevent certain British soldiers from losing their discipline and firing into an unarmed crowd and killing four.
The result of the 1919 Riot was greater self-rule for Malta but not independence, which finally came in 1964. Queen Elizabeth remained official head of state, however, until 1972, and a defense agreement with Britain was in force until 1979. Although Sette Giugno highlights the conflict between Malta and the U.K., their relationship was not always poor. For example, during World War II, Malta’s bravery in fending off Nazi sieges moved George VI to bestow the George Cross on the entire Maltese people as a tribute to their heroism. To this day, that cross appears in the upper lefthand corner of the Maltese flag.
Maltese keep Sette Giugno every year as an occasion for remembering the fallen and reflecting on their history and identity as a distinct people. Tourists can join in these commemorative events as well as engage in “ordinary” tourist activities. However, as Sette Giugno is a national holiday, be aware that banks and many shops will be closed. Tourist areas sometimes have more open, however, and restaurants are generally not affected.
Some ideas for tourist activities in Malta on Sette Giugno include:
- Attend the commemoration of the 1919 Riot held at St. George’s Square in Valletta or a similar event held in Xaghra, which is followed up by a ceremony where wreaths are laid over a Sette Giugno monument. You may also wish to attend the commemorative mass held in the Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, also in Xaghra.
- Visit Addolorata Cemetery just a few miles from Valletta near the village of Paola. Here, the four who died during the 1919 Riots are buried, having been moved to their present tomb in 1924. There are also graves of those who died in World War I and World War II.
- Tour the National Library of Malta, the Biblijoteka, in Republic Square in Valletta. It houses historical documents that make it seem almost a museum of Maltese history and has an extensive collection of writings of Maltese authors.
Anyone touring Malta during Sette Giugno will find there are many events to attend and places to visit that will enrich his or her appreciation of Maltese history and of the Maltese people.