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NEWS | Sunday, 8 June 2008

Unpublished letter sheds new light on Sette Giugno

Raphael Vassallo

A document written by a leading Maltese miller who was Flour Control Officer in 1919, published for the first time by MaltaToday, provides new insight into the “Sette Giugno” riots of 89 years ago, in which four Maltese rioters were shot dead by British troops in Valletta.
The incident is now commemorated by a public holiday, and is often presented as an act of sedition against the Colonial forces, as well as an early manifestation of Maltese nationalism. But a letter written by Dr Antonio Cassar Torreggiani, whose home and flourmills were overrun during the unrest, describes the goings-on from an altogether different perspective, revealing little-known details about the millers’ unsuccessful negotiations with British governor Lord Methuen for a bread subsidy, as well as describing the personal financial risks undertaken by flour importers in an effort to keep down the sky-rocketing price of wheat.
This new documentary evidence suggests that millers such as Cassar Torreggiani may have been unfairly blamed for an economic disaster they themselves tried their utmost to avert.
“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.
The document, released by the late Cassar Torreggiani’s family, also reveals how he had been virtually laughed out of the Governor’s office for requesting a subsidy on bread: “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.
In his letter Cassar Torreggiani also expands on the economic forces which led to the astronomical increase in the price of wheat in the first place: namely, a sharp hike in shipping insurance premiums, on account of German submarine action in the Mediterranean.
“To keep down the price of bread, I imported a shipload of wheat which was loaded and carried by my ship, the S/S Ant. Cassar... On arrival of the ship at Gibraltar, it was rumoured that the Mediterranean was infested with German submarines. I cabled to London for a war insurance quotation, and my London agents Mr Hick & Co. of St Helens London, telegraphed 60% premium – I repeat, 60% – which would have raised the price of bread by 3 pence per rotolo...”
Cassar Torreggiani therefore took the considerable risk of allowing his cargo ship to sail uninsured through the mine-infested Mediterranean. The Ant. Cassar succeeded in delivering its cargo of wheat to Malta, although 15 out of the convoy’s 17 steamers were sunk by enemy action. But this unexpected supply was greeted “with no gratitude from any quarter”.
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 the Francia’s mills in Hamrun. However, the St George mills in Marsa were spared, and Cassar Torreggiani describes the successful defence put up by his staff: “My employees were a happy crew and defended the mills with crowbars and bayonets,” he observes. “The diplomatic manager Mr W. Chetcuti told the crowd, ‘you won’t have any bread if you burn down this mill’”.
It seems he persuaded the looters to take a bag of flour each instead of burning down Malta’s only remaining flourmill... an eventuality which would almost certainly have condemned Malta to widespread starvation.

A fictionalised version of Cassar Torreggiani's account was published in 'Lost Letters', a book by Marquis Nicholas de Piro: one of the four grandchildren to whom the letter was addressed. The original document is published below for the first time.


The Miller's Tale: Cassar Torreggiani’s letter to his grandchildren

A lamentable episode in the aftermath of World War One developed in Malta on the 7th June 1919, resulting in deplorable shooting, arson of flourmills, and pillage of private houses.
The causes of the disturbances were various, the background including the introduction of succession duties without proper representation, the agitation of a National Assembly for Self Government, and the exasperation of the high cost of foodstuff and the low standard of living.
The movement for proper representation was started by the Chamber of Commerce, when Col J. L. Francia M.V.O. was President, and the writer Secretary of what was then, and I believe still is, the premier constituted body in the Island. The President invited to a meeting at the Exchange, then known as the “Borca”, the presidents of all the Constituted bodies of the Island, and the local representatives of the Council of Government. A letter was written to the Secretary of State for the Colonies requesting that a more ample and liberal Constitution be granted to this Island on the plea of “No taxation without representation”.
As no result appeared to be forthcoming, the movement was subsequently taken up by Dr Filippo Sciberras, who aided by his friends set up a National Assembly, which held its first meeting on the 7th June at the Circolo Giovine Malta, Kingsway, corner with St Lucia Street in Valletta. All the Constituted bodies were represented, including the Casino Maltese, of whose members the writer was then elected as representative.
On my way to the Circolo Gwan Malta, I was accosted by some intimate friends, who asked where I was going, and to whom I replied I had prepared a fine speech on “No Taxation Without Representation”, which I was to read at the Assembly.
I was told I had better change my mind, for apparently I was no longer wanted at the National Assembly, and that riots had broken out. They further pointed out (that) my house in Valletta had been attacked, had been literally sacked, and that three bodies of unfortunate victims lay prostrate dead before my door. I was literally stunned, the first thing I thought of were my children, and I turned round (and) succeeded to take them to a place of safety.
I should now at this stage be excused, if for no other motive but that of history, I relate the background of one of the causes of riots, the high cost of foodstuffs in which I had incidentally been involved. As one of the leading millers of Malta, I was ordered to act as Flour Control Officer and to import the wheat requirements of the Island, which by the Grace of God I succeeded to do, and for which I am sure my country is grateful to this day. The difficulties of those times, however, should not be forgotten.
To keep down the price of bread, I imported a shipload of wheat which was loaded and carried by my ship, the S/S Ant Cassar, from Philadelphia to Malta: a cargo of Durum wheat purchased from Messrs. Facey & Co. On arrival of the ship at Gibraltar, it was rumoured that the Mediterranean was infested with German submarines. I cabled to London for a war insurance quotation, and my London agents Mr Hick & Co. of St Helens London, telegraphed 60% premium - I repeat 60% - which would have raised the price of bread by 3 pence per rotolo. I risked the greater part of my family belongings not to raise the price of bread, and did not insure. The convoy from Gibraltar to Malta consisted of 17 steamers, 15 of which were sunk by enemy action; the remainder, one of them the “S/S Ant Cassar” unexpectedly arrived safely to Malta after a long delay, with a low priced wheat cargo, but with no gratitude from any quarter.
My ship S/S Ant Cassar was subsequently torpedoed and sunk by German submarines, off Grimsby just before Armistice Day, on the 6th November 1918, and subsequently freights were almost doubled through the scarcity of ships remaining afloat.
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. Lord Methuen, the Governor of Malta at the time, received me on several occasions in company with the Lieut. Governor Sir (William) Robertson. My pleadings and exhortations to suspend the bread tax until more favourable times were of no avail, as the current Government expenditure had risen over £800,000 and Lord Methuen would on no account give way to suspend the bread tax.
Capt. Ingham, who was Lord Methuen’s adjutant at the time, and whom we have the pleasure to have among us at the time, was helpful in arranging my meetings with Lord Methuen.
No alternative appeared open to me at the time, and I had to decide either to import wheat at the current high price, or leave the Island without breadstuff, the first necessity of life. I decided to face the situation but could not easily get the millers to decide. I asked the Lieut Governor S/S Robertson to guarantee the millers against any loss in money or possible riots, and with this object in view, I had the valuable assistance of Sir Arturo Mercieca who made out the necessary contract, on the Signature of which, a cargo of wheat was afloat secured per S/S Priestfield through which it was made possible to continue the supply of bread without any interruption. 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 unheard of, for something more than the suspension of the bread tax, for something that did not exist in any country of Europe.
Times however have shown I was right, for a subsidy of bread was introduced, throughout the whole of Europe, and still exists in Malta, after 15 years that Second World War is over: a policy which beyond any doubt has justified my pleadings for the suspension of the bread tax in World War I.
Col J.L. Francia, who originated the movement to obtain proper representation on changes in local taxation, after the imposition of Succession Duty, received no thanks from the mob rule. On the contrary, coerced by other political factions, the mob sacked (his) house and his valuable furniture was carried away to the disgust of responsible opinion. My house in Old Bakery Street was likewise looted, and some fine oil paintings by Maestro Cali, which I miss to this day, were torn and trampled upon.
Strangely enough, after the lapse of one year, several men whom I always held as friends, especially a trader in the import of potatoes, whom I had assisted and financed on several of his enterprises, at last came to my office, and kneeling before me, confessed to the prominent part he had taken in burning my house, asking for pardon, which I willing gave him, telling him however that I forgive, but do not forget.
Messrs. L. Farrugia & Sons, who were conspicuous millers at the time, and who are now the leading brewers in the Island, had their flour mills burned down. St George's flourmills were also attacked by the mob, but the arson failed, as my employees were a happy crew and defended the mills with crowbars and bayonets. The diplomatic manager Mr W. Chetcuti told the crowd, “you won’t have any bread if you burn down this mill.” They took a bag of flour each as it was thought better than putting their comrades out of employment by burning down the mills. A man who attempted arson had his arm pinned down by a bayonet, and several men were wounded in the defence of the mills, which were miraculously saved by men who are still in the service of the country.
After three days’ rioting Lord Methuen ordered me to leave the Island, and I left Malta by the S/S Iris, bound for Marseilles. Captain Roberts, who was in command, was very courteous to me, and later he became Capt. of my ship the S/S Knight of Malta.
On arrival in London, and on entering my hotel, I was accosted by a fine looking gentleman, who informed me I was wanted at 10 Downing Street. The gentleman took me there and I was ushered in a room where Lord Morley received me in a kind and courteous way.
He wanted to know from me what was happening in Malta, and I related to the best of my ability the causes which in my opinion had led to the disturbances. My mind at that time reverted to the speech I had to deliver at the Circolo Giovine Malta, and I tried to explain in my way that after all there was no harm, if on little Malta a form of Self Government (were) instituted to ensure the imposition of local taxes by local representation. Lord Morley was in a good mood, and I felt he was agreeing with what I said, and encouraged in this way I ventured to suggest the necessity of a House of Review. I was told a House of Review without the power of the purse is of little use.

 


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