Political Agitation and Problems of Over-Population

Not all Maltese wished to emigrate. Many hoped that Dr. F. Sceberras and the National Assembly would defend the nation and bring about social and political changes. Dr. Sceberras had called for a second meeting of the National Assembly on June 7, 1919. The aim of the Assembly was to press on for the granting of self--government. Many delegates answered his call. Thousands of Maltese entered Valletta to show their interest in what the delegates were dis-cussing.

Among those who had converged on Valletta on that historic and tragic day were many who had recently lost their jobs with the British Forces. Others were politically motivated because they opposed Malta's political status. A few were anarchists who felt inspired by the recent events in Russia. There were also supporters of a local politician, Manwel Dimech, who had spread radical and nationalistic ideas particularly among the unemployed. Dimech had been exiled by the British during the war and he was to die in Alexandria, Egypt, never to return to his native land. Dimech's ideas however, did survive him.

Dimech's followers were never very numerous but they were determined in their quest for national independence and for the setting up of a Maltese secular state which was to be egalitarian and free from the impositions of external forces.

While the National Assembly was at its deliberations, it became known that the demonstration outside had turned into a riot. Some demonstrators tore down British flags to the delight of the excited crowds. They also attacked houses and other premises which belonged to Imperialist sympathisers. Those who were thought to have made good money out of the misery of the people were especially attacked. The crowd also taunted the few British soldiers who had been called out to contain the riot.

Someone in a British uniform panicked and shots were fired into the unarmed crowd. When the uproar died down four Maltese victims had lost their lives.

The Maltese now felt that not only did they have a just cause but that their wishes were hallowed by the blood of four of their brothers. The names of the four men were to be remembered and revered. The men killed were Lorenzo Dyer from Vittoriosa, Giuseppe Bajada from Gozo, Emmanuele Attard from Sliema and Carmelo Abela from Valletta.

The effects of the riot of June 7, 1919, were many. The British realised that the Maltese could not be taken for granted any longer. Constitutional progress was accelerated and on November 20, of that year the Maltese were promised their own parliament which would have jurisdiction over internal affairs. A new constitution was granted on April 30, 1921. In October elections were held and in November the first Maltese Parliament was convened.

Bread was again subsidised. The price of bread had been one of the major masons of unrest since 1917. In that year the situation had grown so serious that the Church in Malta had opened a Bread Fund. This same Fund had been closed on January 20, 1919. By that date the Fund had amounted to 5,000. That considerable amount of money had been used to alleviate suffering and hunger among the unemployed and during the time the Fund had functioned helpers had issued 598,394 tickets to needy persons. Those tickets entitled the holders to a portion of bread and a plate of soup. At times about 25,000 tickets a month were distributed to needy persons in Malta and Gozo.

The Bread Fund was only a partial solution. Those who had no steady income or no income at all were forced to roam the streets asking for alms. Beggars were a common and pitiful sight. They were numerous near churches at times when worshippers went to attend religious functions. Those who did not need to worry about their livelihood complained about the nuisance beggars were making of themselves and they expected the police to be more efficient in controlling beggars, especially children.

Men and women from the villages used to drive their herds of goats to the towns to sell milk. They drove their herds into the narrow streets and milked their animals by the doorstep of their customers. A resident of Valletta wrote on September 1920:

"Some 2,400 goats are driven into Valletta every day. This makes it impossible for pedestrians to walk. Each goat has a bell round its neck and the jingling which ensues wakes one up as the herds are driven into the street in the early hours of the morning. The pollution in the streets was incredible and the stench caused by the refuse of the goats was unbearable. Indeed the smell was so terrible that it was unadvisable to open the windows".

Had this disgruntled resident known then that those goats and their milk were the source of undulant fever so prevalent in Mediterranean lands in those days, he would have felt even more aggrieved against those animals.

The lack of nutritious food and poor hygiene made a fatal toll on child life in the Maltese Islands during the years between the two wars. Governor P.S. Methuen made a reference to premature death among babies and children in his farewell speech delivered on February 2, 1919. He complained about "the terrible loss of child life in Malta where one in every four babies dies before the age of one year". Maltese babies perished because of poverty, dirt and ignorance. Families were large and those who lived in the towns, particularly those in Valletta and in Cottonera, suffered from over-crowding and very poor sanitation. In a speech given at the Palace by a Maltese doctor, A. Critien, on February 14, 1919, the speaker claimed: "One sees a woman feeding her child, a few months old, with macaroni or other food unfit for a baby". Malta's record on infant mortality during the first year from birth was among the worst in Europe at the time.

In. 1919 The Mothers and Infants Welfare Association was set up in Hamrun. Later the Association opened other centres in Valletta and Zejtun. At these centres free medical advice was available and newly-born babies were given after-care till they completed their first year. During the first two years of its existence the Association had helped over 1,000 mothers. It had continued the work which had been initiated by an older society which was known as "Pro Infantia". However up to 1932 over 50% of registered deaths were those of children under five years and this was reputed to be one of the highest rates of infant mortality in any civilised country. Improper feeding and enteritis were then listed as the major causes of such deaths.

The year 1918 was momentous not only because the Armistice had been agreed upon but also because it was the year of the outbreak of the dreaded Spanish Influenza. It was first recorded in the Northern Hemisphere in 1918 and it carried off more people than the war did. It was in that same year that the epidemic visited Malta. Between September 1918 and March 1919, 651 people succumbed to it. The appalling lack of hygiene and the prevalence of dirt coupled with overcrowding and the lack of a healthy diet, all contributed to the spread of the virus.

The Public Health authorities issued a leaflet early in 1919 which gave some useful hints to those privileged few who could read and were capable of following those hints. The pamphlet suggested that the sick should be left in separate rooms which were to be well aired and with plenty of light. Nobody was to have access to the sick unless it was absolutely necessary. It was stated that visiting the sick and frequenting houses where the influenza was prevalent was dangerous. People were urged to avoid crowded places.

By March 1919 the spread of Spanish Influenza had become so serious that the Military Authorities placed the village of Mellieha out of bounds to all troops and no sleeping out was allowed. The Floriana Army School was closed. On March 13, all Government Elementary Schools were closed. The Lyceum and Secondary School in Valletta were closed for two weeks.

On the last day of March masses for the dead were said in all churches. The bishop gave orders that all churches were to be well-ventilated and kept clean and disinfected especially at the corners. People suffering from colds were asked not to frequent churches and priests were advised to send home gently any boy who during catechism classes gave signs of being unwell. No person accompanying Holy Viaticum was allowed to approach a person dying of the Spanish Influenza. Only the priest administering Holy Communion was to approach the sick person.

By the middle of 1919 the worst of the epidemic was over. A thanksgiving ceremony was held in Valletta where the bishop intoned the Te Deum. It was rumoured that in the crowded church someone felt sick, but he was quickly rushed out and the fear of the Spanish Influenza was soon relegated to the memories of the past. Many young and useful lives had been sacrificed and such a loss added to the general gloom hovering over the Island.

Illiteracy was a consequence of the general poverty in an island which depended largely on policies which considered the need of the Imperial Garrison as paramount and those of the civil population as very secondary.

The civil population of Malta in 1920 stood at 224,859. It was calculated that some 114,000 were men and women who were unable to read and write. The gentlemen on the Emigration Commit-tee who were expected to screen prospective migrants complained that of the. 5,601 emigrants who left Malta between November 11, 1918 and March 31, 1920, many were practically illiterate. On August 22, 1920, the Workers' Union called a meeting at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta which was addressed by a certain Mr Giles. Mr Giles had come over from England and was himself a delegate of the trade union movement in that country. Mr Giles decried the pathetic state of education in Malta, especially in so far as the workers of the Island were concerned.

The satirist Juan Mamo wrote a book in 1930 about the plight of Maltese emigrants to the U. S.A. in the 1920's. Mamo's book was in Maltese with a title that clearly showed that his book was about very ordinary men and women who expected no special treatment from contemporary society. The title in Maltese was: "Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-America". Freely translated that meant that Juan Mamo's story concerned the mishaps of the grandchildren of Grandmother Venut who had emigrated to USA

Mamo's heroes had humble origins like most Maltese who had to leave their homes to try to make a living in foreign countries. A number of young men and some girls from the villages decided to emigrate. They had never ventured out of their village square before. They were illiterate and could only communicate in a heavily accented Maltese. They had no money and no trade. Their insular upbringing mercifully spared them the realisation of what they were intending to do.

Juan Mamo's migrants had a limited vocabulary except when it came to untranslatable imprecations. Most of their expressions were foul. They decided to consult their village lawyer Baskal to get from him some information on how to travel from their village to the city of New York. Baskal was not completely illiterate but he knew very little of the world outside his surroundings and his knowledge of America was meagre.

Baskal spoke garbled Maltese interspersed with some legal expressions which must have had their origins in Latin. His clients did not comprehend and they assumed that their lawyer was a very learned man. The only phrase that they understood clearly was when Baskal wanted a fee of 1 before the discussion could become really professional.

The grandchildren of Nanna Venut left Malta by boat for the port of Naples. Thence they travelled overland to Marseilles, Paris and Le Havre. From Le Havre they boarded their trans-Atlantic ship for North America and finally disembarked at New York. Juan Mamo follows the footsteps of those who stayed in New York, even though some of the others went to Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Charleston and New Orleans. Some even crossed the border into Canada.

Ten of Venut's wandering grandchildren settled in New York. They were six men and four women. They rented one room. The women hardly ventured outside, frightened as they were by the vastness and the noise of the great unfamiliar city. Baskal had never prepared them for the life of metropolitan New York. The men went out for work and then hurried for the relative security of their room.

Juan Mamo's fictional characters were uneducated, unbearably rude and very often blasphemous. The author knew of the defects of men and women of his time and he consciously exaggerated them. He produced a satirical attack not on the Maltese uneducated masses but on the system which produced such characters and then wanted to get rid of them through emigration. Although it cannot be said that Mamo's picture of Maltese emigrants was fair or accurate, at the same time many of his insinuations were basically justified.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.


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