Professor Godfrey Pirotta from the University of Malta, describes how the protests of 7 June 1919 were a result of a long and painful road of dire economic hardship which started many years before.
The first signs of turbulence began 20 years before the end of the 19th century with the debate on language. Three reports by Frederick Roswell, Penrose Julyan and Patrick Keenan had urged that the English language should be given the priority in the Maltese Islands. This was not well received. The Chief Secretary at the time, Gerald Strickland, even made it clear that anyone who opposed the English language had no chance of employment. Another major issue at the time was the Government’s expenditure on public project which albeit essential at the time, had a huge strain on the country’s finances and could also increase taxes.
Malta’s economy was doing well at the time, though this changed in a matter of three years. The economic crisis that hit Malta after 1906 together with the repercussions of the The Great War, led the Maltese people to a near rebellion.
During the time when Malta was a British colony, the economy relied almost completely on the spending of the British forces. Malta was a strategic fortress in the 19th century and major investments were made in the early 20th century to reinforce it further. Whenever there were public works commissioned by the British, or when there was an increased military presence in Malta, the economy was given a boost. However, when there were no public works projects taking place or when the presence of the British military was limited, the economy started to suffer.
These public works were funded by the people’s taxes and until these works were underway, the Maltese enjoyed immense prosperity. Yet in 1906, these works ended and employment decreased dramatically, salaries dropped at a fast rate, and in a very short period of time, Malta was taken over by panic. A large number of people started emigrating at this time.
The economic crisis that hit Malta after 1906 together with the repercussions of the The Great War, led the Maltese people to a near rebellion.
That same year, the Governor set up a sub-committee to consider how a permanent solution can be found to balance the Government’s income and expenditure, and the two options were to reduce the number of government employees or increase current taxes, or alternatively introduce new taxes. The committee then decided that the best option was to increase taxes by not more than £37,800 per year. A decision which not only turned out to be wholly unpopular with the public, but also failed to reach its target as in 1908 the Government set up yet another committee to investigate the spending by Government Departments. This committee also failed and called for an increase in tax of over £43,000 per year. Officers at the Colonial Office were far from pleased with this outcome and expressed concern that this decision could lead to unrest and resentment towards the Government.
The working class at the time was the most heavily taxed demographic. For over a century, the Government’s revenue relied heavily on Wheat Tax, which was quite frankly a tax imposed on the daily bread and butter of the working class. This is worth remembering as the protests of 7 June were also a demonstration against the increase in the price of bread and the gathering of people on the day was targeting wheat importers. These events clearly demonstrate the link between the anger of the people and the heavy taxes that drained people for over a century.
In July 1914, the First World War began and brought about immense scarcity of food which resulted in soared food prices. The price of bread tripled and the price of sugar quadrupled. During the war, government employees in the lower grades sent numerous letters to the Government asking for help and the Government would, from time to time, announce ‘War Bonuses’ to offer assistance. In 1917, the employees of the Malta Shipyards (Tarzna) called for industrial action and as a result, were given 50% increase in salary.
In May 1918, government clerks – possibly influenced by the success of the shipyard workers – protested to the Governor, Lord Metheun, and requested a review of their conditions. As they were not happy with the feedback received, or rather, with the little feedback or interest shown, a meeting with all clerical employees was held. In this meeting, the clerical staff collectively stated they were suffering from malnutrition, had to take their kids out of school and abandon their insurance police. Regardless of these efforts, the feedback from London was still not satisfactory.
In October of the same year, things got progressively worse as the police started industrial action. An investigation into the protests showed that the police force together with the military did not contribute to the controlling of the crowds and were evidently uninterested in doing so.
At the same time, there was a significant increase in requests for political reforms which would make way for a representative Maltese Government. In November 1918, Advocate Filippo Sciberras, who was known for his moderate views and approach, called for all constituted bodies to meet in a General Assembly to discuss a new Maltese constitution. Filippo Sciberras’ call generated uproar and the constitutional bodies responded with great interest and enthusiasm.
Further to this, at the end of the war there was a large number of redundancies at the Shipyard, and loss of jobs in the British military and naval forces. The price of food continued to increase as well. Large groups of people entered Valletta to get a reaction or some form of response, and some of them were in a desperate state. The heated debate culminated on the protests of 7 June 1919 which resulted in the death of six people. The Acting Governor, General Hunter-Blair, when reporting what happened in Malta, said that a constitutional change was now inevitable. London agreed and in 1921, Malta has its first constitution with a representative government, although a lot of matters still remained the responsibility of the UK government.
Hence, this article clearly shows that the difficulties and suffering faced by the Maltese public started many years before the historic date of 7 June 1919.