The 7th of June is an important day in the history of the Maltese islands as it commemorates the events of 1919. For us who reflect on the life and writings of the Servant of God Joseph De Piro, this is also an important day as De Piro was heavily involved in these events.
The document of Pope St Paul VI Evangelica Testificatio (1971) speaks of justice is being an integral part of the virtue of poverty. The Servant of God lived the virtue of poverty and his poverty included the virtue of justice. In June 1919 De Piro spent three days trying to help the Maltese have their fundamental rights respected by the colonial government.
De Piro’s love for the underprivileged through promotion of justice
Justice was a central element in the charity of De Piro.
(i) Stole-fees to confessors and conference masters
In Malta, members of religious congregations do not usually give a stipend to the priests who visit them to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with them. Although he needed money for his Society and the orphanages under his administration, De Piro always gave a stipend to the priests who visited the community or the the boys at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Hamrun, for the sacrament of reconciliation or to give a conference.
(ii) Justice to employees depending on him
At the Major Seminary, Mdina
The Servant of God presented a report about the seminary at the end of the 1919-20 scholastic year. He analysed the academic aspect and then spoke about the employees at the seminary. During the year, all the seminary employees have served us satisfactorily. Permit me to request Your Grace to revise their salary as it is proving to be insufficient, considering the present state of affairs (of the Maltese economy).
At St Joseph’s Orphanage, Hamrun
During the time of De Piro’s administration, there were two groups of employees at the orphanage: the housekeepers and the workshop instructors. The first group was made up of the cook, the porter, the bandmaster, the wardrobe master, and a man called Rosario. The printing composer, the printer, the carpenter and his assistant, the shoemaker, the bookbinder, the tailor and the shoemaker’s son worked in the workshops. George Wilson, the bookbinder spoke about the Director’s relationship the Director with the employees. He paid the employees himself, always careful to give extra pay to any who needed it, without letting others know. He was a respectful man.
In the beginning of the twentieth century very few received any financial social benefits from their employment. In 1920 Dr Nerik Mizzi, a Maltese politician, presented the first draft of a law in the Council of Government. During this time the Maltese Chamber of Work was established, with the aim of protecting the interests of the working class in the upcoming elections under a new political constitution. In April 1921 this Chamber called for the establishment of a Workers’ Party. This party was established in May 1921 and prepared for the upcoming elections with an electoral programme that spoke about unemployment, wages and working hours, compensation for injuries at work, old age pensions and other social benefits. The Widows and Orphans Pension Act was presented in parliament in May 1927.
Despite this lack of legislation to support any financial social assistance, the Servant of God helped those employees who needed medical assistance due to injuries suffered at work. One such case was Nazzareno Attard.
At times it was necessary for De Piro to delegate Fr Joseph Spiteri, one of the members of his Society, to issue the salaries of the employees at the orphanage. He left Spiteri detailed instructions about this. Here De Piro mentions the payment of a pension to Sciberras, the carpenter, and the wife of another employee. A pension was also issued to the widow of another employee, Bianco the shoemaker, who probably died while still employed at the orphanage.
(iii) Justice during the Sette Giugno 1919 riots
The socio-economic history of Malta before the riots of 7th June 1919
Due to the efforts to implement parts of the recommendations of the 1911 Royal Commission, the local economy was on the mend in the years leading to the First World War. By 1914 the islands were no longer on the verge of isolation. Moreover, with the outbreak of the war, employment returned to Malta. The island was increasingly used by the Royal Navy, and the navies of the allies, particularly the French. The dockyard was working at full capacity, repairing and refitting vessels. Malta became the hospitalisation centre for countries from the Dardanelles and Salonica campaigns with tens of thousands of wounded men treated there. However, an economy depending on wars is not a healthy one. Moreover, the War brought with it an increase in the cost of living and the price of several basic commodities rose. The table below demonstrates this.
Euro 0.022 per kg
Euro 0.066 per kg
Euro 0.033 per kg
Euro 0.085 per kg
Euro 0.054 per tin
Euro 0.326 per tin
Unfortunately, wages did not increase proportionately. While a war bonus was distributed, wages were still very low compared to the rising cost of living. The situation worsened after the war as the rate of unemployment rose. For the Maltese bread is their staple food. An increase in the cost of bread meant starvation. This happened because the London Royal Commission of Wheat Supplies refused to give Malta the wheat at a moderate price. In December 1918 the price of wheat was higher than in England itself. The table below shows the escalation:
Bread per Kg
If people with low wages were suffering, the unemployed suffered even more. The situation became untenable. In April 1919 a crowd of people gathered in front of the Casino Maltese, Valletta, where the wealthy members of society gathered, in order to ask them to intercede with the government to achieve a reduction in the price of bread. A temporary solution was found and, for a few months, the price of bread was reduced from Euro 0.059 to Euro 0.037. This was still a high price for the poor among the population, leading to the riots of the 7 June 1919.
The National Assembly – justice with all the Maltese
In 1918 Dr Filippo Sceberras called together a National Assembly with the aim of drafting a political constitution for the islands. Sceberras invited all associations in Malta and Gozo to send delegates for this assembly. Two hundred seventy delegates attended, the Servant of God Joseph De Piro took part together with another three members of the Cathedral Chapter and the Maltese clergy. The National Assembly had its first meeting on 25 February 1919.
Saturday, 7 June1919 – justice with the unemployed and the other poor Maltese
The second meeting of the Assembly was on the morning of Saturday 7 June 1919, at the Giovine Malta, Valletta. On that day a riot started in Valletta. The Maltese policemen could not control the crowd and British soldiers were called in. The soldiers fired some shots and six Maltese men were fatally wounded.
The National Assembly meeting was interrupted when one of the wounded men was brought into the meeting room. The delegates were begged to intervene with the British government on behalf of the crowd. Six delegates accepted this role, among them Joseph De Piro. They went out into the street and tried to calm down the people.
In the days following the riots a commission of inquiry was set up to discuss the events. De Piro was called to testify:
I was present at the meeting of the National Assembly as Delegate of the Cathedral Chapter. After the discussion had lasted an hour and a half, someone entered the hall of the ‘Giovine Malta Club’ where the Assembly was holding its meeting. The person who came in showed us a handkerchief stained with blood and said: ‘See what they have done to us; you must protect us, you must protect us’. After this, order was restored and the meeting was closed. I was asked to find some other members of the Assembly so that we might try to restore peace among the people. I accepted the request. We were six or seven. We tried to find out by telephone where to locate Mr Robertson, the Lieutenant Governor, and we were informed that he was in the office of the Commissioner of Police. We rang up the Assistant Commissioner of police to give us police protection, to accompany us to the police station; but no help was forthcoming.
We went on our own and tried to enter the Law Courts by the back door in Strait Street, then we could reach the police station; but we did not succeed. We tried again and from Strait Street we went on to St John Street, but as we reached Kingsway Street we heard a shot. So we turned back to the Club, the ‘Giovine Malta.’ Later we learnt that those were shots fired accidentally by soldiers in the Police Station.
In the Club, the ‘Giovine Malta,’ we found the Assistant Commissioner of Police waiting for us, and he accompanied us to the police station.
In his testimony Advocate Caruana Gatto said: The first time we tried to enter the Law Courts, people in the crowd were unfriendly towards us, especially towards Mgr De Piro, and shouted: ‘You are to blame for all this!’ Mgr De Piro replied: ‘Well, well. We are trying to save you, and you are blaming us!
At the end of his evidence, De Piro was asked many questions. One of these was, “Did not someone swear at you?” De Piro answered all the questions, but gave no importance to the above as he did not want to harm his countrymen, feeling that the impatient crowd was not inciting an attack on the clergy. Words, said in anger by persons in a frustrated crowd and addressed to him as a priest, were ignored and omitted in his evidence. On 9 June there were signs of anticlericalism in the angry mob. De Piro’s equanimity in his evidence again revealed his integrity:
We spoke to the Lt. Governor, asking him to withdraw troops from the streets, and we guaranteed that the people would be pacified. Robertson was not fully convinced, and several times he asked us the same question: ‘Were we really able to guarantee a peaceful outcome?’ We answered that it was necessary for us to obtain permission to address the crowd from one of the windows of the Law Courts. This was granted. Advocate Caruana Gatto spoke to the crowd, relating what had passed between us and the Lt. Governor. He asked the people to disperse, thus helping us as mediators to keep our word to the Lt. Governor. The crowd showed signs of co-operation, and we thought we had succeeded in our task. This, however, was not yet to be. The crowd first insisted on the soldiers leaving the Law Courts. This request was passed on to Mr Robertson, who promised to order all soldiers back to their barracks. The excited crowd demanded more than the departure of soldiers from the Law Courts and in loud voices they claimed that justice be meted out to them.
It took two and a half hours to calm down the crowd, because the Marines appeared to be heading towards the Law Courts. Whistling and booing became tumultuous and it was feared shooting would start again if the people lost their control. Fortunately, this did not ensue. The delegation remained there until all the Marines had left the Law Courts.
Sunday, 8 June 1919 – justice with the unemployed and the other poor Maltese (continued)
The following day was very turbulent and a time of grave anxiety for the Servant of God. The Maltese were still restless, and, as usually happens in times of riots, criminals took advantage of the situation for their own interests, and are not because of love of their country. De Piro did not speak about his efforts in mediating for peace, but in his testimony Caruana Gatto revealed that De Piro was acting as leader of the mediators, “Sunday morning I was not feeling well. At 8:30, Mgr De Piro came and said: ‘Yesterday we assumed the responsibility of calming down the people. It is our duty to see what we can do to put a stop to this unrest. We must do something this very day.’”
Caruana Gatto was prepared to do his part but wanted De Piro’s support because his presence made him feel strong enough to face the unruly mob. Sunday morning some more serious incidents took place: an English soldier had been seriously injured, the Malta Chronicle printing office was attacked and there had been abusive shouting in front of the Casino Maltese. Joseph De Piro testified:
On Sunday morning I went with Advocate Caruana Gatto and Advocate Serafino Vella to Dr Sceberras in Floriana, who came back with us to Valletta and we decided to go to General Hunter Blair, who was the Officer Administering the Government. We wished to warn him that we were expecting trouble, as there was great unrest among the Maltese. A rumour was going round that a British soldier had been killed, and we wanted to stop the riot from getting out of control. I cannot remember exactly what we said to General Hunter Blair; I was very upset like the rest of us. The General addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Government Palace. The crowd clamoured for an inquest and the General promised to authorise it.
The President of the Commission of Inquiry asked De Piro if he had asked the General to address the people from the balcony of the Government’s Palace. De Piro replied:
It was the General himself who offered to speak. The crowd demanded that the troops would not be allowed to leave the island before the inquest could be held. The General promised he would see to that. We also spoke to the General who promised the inquest would be held, and further promised that officers and persons involved in the happenings would not leave the island until the inquest be closed.
Joseph De Piro defended the Maltese cause:
I spoke to the General regarding the discharges from the Dockyard because the people were affirming that about 2,000 workmen had been discharged, and I personally felt this was unfair to the Maltese, who had done four years of valid work during the war. The General replied that my statement was not correct; only 500 had been discharged.
There was more turbulence on Sunday afternoon. Lt. Governor Robertson was again in touch with the mediators, asking them for help. Here Advocate Caruana Gatto said:
On Sunday afternoon, I received a message from Mr. Robertson, sent by the Inspector of Police, saying he wished to see me. I went to the Police Office in the Law Courts building and met Mr. Robertson, who told me he wished me to be with him when he spoke to the people because he knew the crowds were still very agitated. I told him that my presence alone would be useless, and I had to have with me Mgr De Piro and Advocate Serafino Vella. It was necessary for the people to see the same faces they had seen before.
When Advocate Caruana Gatto went to ‘La Valletta Band Club,’ he found greater unrest: firing had taken place and the Maltese were being pelted with pennies. Advocate Caruana Gatto met Advocate Vella, and together they went to Robertson, who was at the General’s house. De Piro entered and gave them the news that the crowd was becoming uncontrollable, and that Francia’s mansion, opposite the Royal Theatre, was being attacked. De Piro said, “We must go and tell the people to stop this aggressive rampage; it will only delay and ruin our good cause.”
The Servant of God did not elaborate on his contribution: “I was asked to join Advocate Caruana Gatto and Advocate Serafino Vella for the same reason: to calm down the people. I accepted, and together we went close to the area of the Theatre.” De Piro did not say what he saw. Caruana Gatto said, “Mgr De Piro, Advocate Vella and I were standing on the portico of the Theatre, and from there we witnessed the assault on Francia’s mansion. People with wooden rods in their hands were trying to break down the front door of the house.”
Caruana Gatto noted: “I must say that on that day, the crowd was not made up of the same people as the day before. I saw many faces familiar to me in the Criminal Court.”
The President of the Commission of inquiry asked Joseph De Piro if he had spoken to the people that afternoon. The Servant of God answered, “No; only Advocate Caruana Gatto tried to speak and later when his voice was not audible because of the deafening noise, and he was inclined to leave the spot, I was asked to tell the people to come closer to us to be able to hear us.” The President asked again: “Did you not tell them that what they were doing was wrong?” De Piro answered, “I wished to say something, but all I said was for them to come closer.”
At this point a nasty incident occurred, of which we have first-hand evidence from Advocate Caruana Gatto, but De Piro preferred to keep silent about this:
At first the mob abandoned the attack on Francia’s mansion, and gathered around us. I told them that attacking that house had nothing to do with politics, and asked them to stop if they wanted our political demands to have a successful outcome. However, the criminal element in the crowd gained the upper hand. They started booing us, swearing and stealing money from our pockets, and returned to Francia’s mansion to break down the back door. We warned them that if they carried on in this way, the army would be called in again, and there would be bloodshed. Our words, however, had no effect.
De Piro did not speak about this pillage and simply said, “We realised all we were doing was of no avail; the two gentlemen with me (Caruana Gatto and Vella) decided to leave the site, and I went with them.”
Although six members of the National Assembly had initially got involved in the mediation between the Government and the Maltese, only three were continually following the events and placing themselves in danger: De Piro, Caruana Gatto and Vella.
On 8 June, a committee was formed For the Maltese who died and were injured for the national cause on 7 June 1919. De Piro was the only priest on this Committee, which continued meeting until January 1926. He was chosen as Treasurer.
Monday, 9 June 1919 – justice with the Archbishop
Events occurring on 9 June show us how the Servant of God endeavoured to prevent the turmoil from growing in intensity. Some Maltese were plotting to attack the Bishop’s residence in Valletta. There was a rumour that Archbishop Caruana was siding with the British and the public condemned him unjustly for not sufficiently supporting the Maltese. On Sunday evening rumours were going around that they wanted to blow up the Bishop’s residence.
The Dominican Bishop Portelli and Joseph De Piro heard this rumour. Early Monday morning the Servant of God went to Valletta to carry on with his mission of peace. He went straight to the Bishop’s residence, where he found Portelli and Caruana. They had asked the Royal Marines to withdraw from guarding the premises. The presence of the Marines had further angered the crowd. De Piro encountered a crowd of people in front of the Bishop’s residence. He asked his family’s butler to stay among the people and report to him what was being said. The butler told De Piro that threats were being directed against the Archbishop.
At the Bishop’s residence the atmosphere was growing tense as the Archbishop, surrounded by some priests listened to the tumultuous uproar of the crowd outside. One man hung onto the front door bell tugging at it with all his might. Bishop Portelli and De Piro went out to address the crowd. De Piro asked: “What do you want, my sons?” Some shouted: “We want to burn down the Bishop’s office.” The Servant of God answered: “All that is in belongs to you. Come on, calm down, and move on quietly.”
This approach by Portelli and De Piro, two individuals renowned for their work to help their countrymen, somewhat calmed the angry crowd. Archbishop Caruana authorised Portelli to address the people in his name.
Portelli addressed those in the square in front of the Bishop’s residence and later again from the balcony at St John’s Co-Cathedral. His speech calmed those present. “Do not listen to the few inciting for trouble. Follow the leaders of the National Assembly: Dr Filippo Sceberras, Advocate Caruana Gatto and Mgr De Piro. These are leaders you can rely on.”
The attempt of the Maltese to achieve freedom from foreign occupation was gradually materialising. De Piro was well-regarded by the British Authorities. In him they recognised the ideal mediator; one who had true Maltese blood running in his veins. As a Maltese patriot, with a deep love for his country, De Piro was of the opinion that the Maltese ought to have the freedom to govern themselves. His contribution was valuable at a time when it would have been easy for hot-headed members of the public, or ambitious individuals, to take advantage of the situation for their own selfish interests. His kind and calming words united the Maltese, and the British were prepared to understand what was expected of them. De Piro’s endeavours, as well as that of those who shared the same ideals for the good of their country, was a great help in the movement towards the approval of a Maltese Constitution giving the Maltese limited self-government.
De Piro’s mission in June 1919 marked a step forward, made by a true Christian convinced that, as an active member of the National Assembly, his efforts to help his countrymen would lead Malta to obtain what the Island deserved. It is befitting to stress this fact by a statement published eight years later:
Joseph De Piro is a most honest priest, a living example of true piety and holiness; a patriot who experienced the anxieties, the tribulations and the sadness of the uprising of 7th June 1919 because he was there, in the midst of the firing and among the injured. Fr Joseph De Piro offers his Church and his country the prototype of a model priest and a patriotic citizen, and that is why he is loved and admired by all.