Posts Tagged ‘1823’

  • To die for a piece of bread

    Although Carnival is generally associated with fun, exuberance and colour, it was sadness, tragedy and darkness which marked this festive season on 11th February 1823, after more than a hundred children died in Valletta. Details of this terrible tragedy are immortalized in black and white in the Malta Government Gazette of Friday, 14th February 1823 which is archived at the National Library of Malta in Valletta.

    Initially, news of this tragedy was recorded as a Government Notice in the Malta Government Gazette (No. 557) by Richard Plasket, Chief Secretary to Government, wherein he declared that an investigation was taking place in order to obtain any possible evidence regarding this fatal accident. A published report of these findings was later annexed as a Supplement (pp. 3391-2) to the same journal of 14th February 1823.

    In this long report, Plasket includes information that was provided to him by the Archbishop of Malta, persons examined before the Magistrates of Police which comprised both relatives of the victims and other individuals who were present during this incident, and also a medical report related to this case.

    The story in the journal (Photo - Fiona Vella)At the beginning of this statement, he furnishes a context for this mishap wherein he mentions that in those years, during the last days of the Carnival celebrations, it had become a tradition to gather a group of boys aged from 8 to 15, who came from the lower classes of Valletta and the Three Cities, to participate in a particular activity. In this event, children who opted to join were taken in a procession to Floriana or elsewhere, and after attending mass, they received some bread which was financed by the Government and other beneficiaries. The main aim of this activity was to protect the children by keeping them out of the riot and confusion of the Carnival that took place in the streets of these cities. The arrangement of this procession was under the responsibility of the Ecclesiastical Directors who taught Cathecism.

    Indeed, according to this tradition, on the 10th February 1823, some children were taken to attend mass at Floriana and were then accompanied to the Convent of the Minori Osservanti in Valletta (today known as the Convent of the Franciscans of St Mary of Jesus or Ta’ Ġieżu) where they were given bread without any difficulty or trouble. The same ritual was intended to take place the day after. Yet no one had any idea that a series of errors would eventually lead to such a great tragedy.

    Ta' Giezu Church in Valletta (Photo - Fiona Vella)Everything started according to plan on 11th February 1823. The children were gathered in a group and were taken to mass at Floriana. However, when the ceremony lasted an hour longer than usual, the children’s procession to the Convent in Valletta coincided with the end of the Carnival celebrations, when a great number of jubilant people were returning home. This led to the next blunder, as a number of adults and children who were passing by and who knew of this tradition, secretely mixed in with the other boys in order to share the bread which would be distributed.

    In line with the usual arrangement, these boys were to enter into a corridor of the Convent from the door of the vestry of the Church, and were to be let out through the opposite door of the Convent in St Ursula Street, where the bread was to be distributed. In order to prevent the boys who received their share from reentering to take a second helping of bread, it became customary to lock the door of the vestry. Yet this time, since the children were late, this door was left open for a longer time so that they could enter. As the sun was setting and darkness crept in, nobody realized that other men and boys who did not form part of the original group were entering too.

    Soon, the boys who were queuing in the corridor found themselves being pushed by these trespassers as they forced themselves in. The situation worsened when eventually the vestry door was closed as usual and the children were shoved further at the end of the corridor where a door stood half open so that no one could get back in a second time.

    That day was certainly ill-fated when further mistakes continued to occur. In fact, a lamp which was usually lit in the corridor was somehow put out, leaving the overcrowded area in total darkness. This confused the people even more and as they tried to push themselves forward in order to get out, the boys who were at the front fell down a flight of eight steps on top of each other, thereby blocking further the door which happenned to open inwards.

    Suddenly, both those who were distributing the bread and the Convent’s neighbours began to hear children shrieking out. They ran to give their assistance but a lot of time was wasted as they tried to open the two doors which led to the corridor in order to reach the people inside.

    Eventually, many children were taken out fainting but recovered soon. Others appeared lifeless but were brought to their senses some time afterwards. Regretfully, 110 boys from 8 to 15 years of age perished from suffocation when they were pressed together in such a small place or because they were trampled upon.

    Colonel Marquis Giuseppe De Piro (Photo provided by Marquis Nicholas De Piro)After investigating this accident, the Lieutenant Governor concluded that this was an unfortunate accident caused by the succession of errors mentioned above. Consequently, no one was accused for the death of these children since these acts were not done on purpose to harm them. In fact, Plasket commented that everyone had collaborated to assist these poor boys and even the victims’ relatives had allowed the police and the soldiers to work speedily and diligently in order to save as many children as possible. He insisted that were it not for this, the tragedy could have been much worse.

    As I followed further this narrative by focusing on the names mentioned in Plasket’s report, I succeeded to trace the Captain of the Malta Fencibles who led the soldiers during this tragic moment. It was his descendant, Marquis Nicholas De Piro who led me to see Colonel Marquis Giuseppe De Piro’s portrait which is located at Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta.

    Sir George Whitmore's illustrationAn interesting discussion ensued between us during which the present Marquis informed me also about General Sir George Whitmore who headed the Royal Engineers’ detachment on Malta as its Colonel Commandant between 1811 and 1829. Whitmore had written about his experiences in Malta and had also produced some illustrations related to our islands. Interestingly, Marquis Nicholas De Piro was in possession of a copy of one of these ancient illustrations in the form of a very small slide, which showed some individuals being trampled upon by a group of other people. He wondered whether this slide could be portraying this misfortunate accident of the Carnival of 1823. Yet no children are included in this representation and so it is not clear whether it actually depicts this narrative.

    My research ended at Ta’ Ġieżu Church and I watched in silence the area where these children lost their lives. Sadness engulfed me when I climbed up the steps on my way back while pondering how these children could end in this way for a piece of bread.

    (This article was published in the Carnival Supplement issued with the Times of Malta dated 3rd February 2016)

    2016.02.03 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta


    The story in the 1823 journalDan l-aħħar, għaddiet ġrajja minn għala widnejja li qatt ma kont smajtha qabel. Tikkonċerna traġedja li seħħet fil-Karnival tal-1823, fil-ġurnata tat-11 ta’ Frar, li fiha, għadd kbir ta’ tfal mietu ġewwa l-Kunvent tal-Franġiskani, fil-Belt Valletta.

    Iddeċidejt li nistħarreġ dan ir-rakkont aktar fil-fond sakemm irnexxieli nsib id-dettalji kollha ta’ dan l-inċident miġburin fl-arkivji tal-Librerija Nazzjonali tal-Belt. Inizzjalment, l-aħbar ta’ din it-traġedja twasslet permezz ta’ nota li nkitbet mis-Segretarju Prinċipali tal-Gvern, Richard Plasket, fil-Malta Government Gazette (Num. 557) tal-14 ta’ Frar 1823, fejn dan fosthom informa illi kienet qed issir inkjesta dwar dan il-każ. Sussegwentement, id-dettalji kollha tniżżlu f’Suppliment (paġni 3391 -2) marbut mal-istess ġurnal li jġib l-istess data msemmija hawn fuq.

    F’din il-kitba dettaljata tiegħu, Plasket jinkludi informazzjoni li waslet għandu minn tagħrif tal-Arċisqof ta’ Malta, minn evidenza ta’ persuni li dehru quddiem il-Maġistrat tal-Pulizija (li kienu jinkludu kemm familjari tal-vittmi u anki individwi oħra li kienu preżenti waqt dan l-inċident), u kif ukoll minn rapport mediku relatat mal-każ.

    Huwa jibda billi jagħti sfond lil din il-ġrajja, hekk kif isemmi illi f’dawk l-aħħar snin, f’Malta, kienet nibtet id-drawwa illi fil-ġranet finali tal-Karnival, kienu jinġabru għadd ta’ subien tal-età bejn it-8 u l-15 il-sena li kienu ġejjin mill-klassi baxxa tal-inħawi tal-Belt u tat-Tliet Ibliet (Birgu, Isla u Bormla). Dawn it-tfal, li kienu jipparteċipaw għal din l-attività minn jeddhom, kienu jinġabru f’purċissjoni u jittieħdu l-Furjana jew f’xi inħawi oħra fejn wara li jisimgħu quddiesa, huma kienu jirċievu xi ħobż u frott. Dan l-ikel kien jiġi provdut permezz ta’ ftehim li kien isir bejn il-gvern u xi benefatturi oħra. L-għan prinċipali wara din l-attività kien li jżomm lit-tfal protetti mill-ġlied u mill-konfużjoni tal-Karnival li kien ikun hemm f’dak il-perjodu fl-ibliet imsemmija. L-arranġament ta’ din il-purċissjoni kien jaqa’ taħt ir-responsabbiltà tad-Diretturi Ekkleżjastiċi tal-Istituzzjoni li kienet tgħallem il-Katekiżmu.

    Infatti, jidher illi fl-10 ta’ Frar 1823, skont din it-tradizzjoni, xi tfal kienu ttieħdu jisimgħu quddiesa l-Furjana u mbagħad kienu twasslu lejn il-Knisja ta’ Ġieżu l-Belt Valletta fejn hemmhekk ġew irregalati xi ħobż u frott, mingħajr ma nqala’ l-ebda inċident.

    Iżda dan il-pjan sfratta għal kollox l-għada, meta akkost li din l-attività kienet mistennija li tirrepeti ruħha bla problemi, sensiela ta’ żbalji, wasslu għal traġedja kbira li ħadd qatt ma kien basar li għad tiġri.

    Ta' Giezu Church in VallettaGħall-ewwel, fil-11 ta’ Frar 1823, kollox kien miexi ħarir u kif suppost. It-tfal inġabru bħas-soltu u ttieħdu jisimgħu quddiesa l-Furjana. Madanakollu, did-darba, iċ-ċerimonja damet ma ntemmet siegħa aktar mis-soltu u għalhekk meta dawn it-tfal twasslu sal-Knisja ta’ Ġieżu, il-festeġġjamenti tal-Karnival kienu laħqu spiċċaw. B’hekk, il-wasla tagħhom ħabtet mal-ħin meta n-nies li kienu qed jieħdu sehem fil-briju tal-Karnival, bdew jirritornaw lejn djarhom. U l-bużillis inqala’ meta numru ta’ tfal u adulti oħra li saru jafu b’din l-attività f’Ta’ Ġieżu, tħalltu baxx baxx mat-tfal l-oħra bil-ħsieb li jieħdu xi ħaġa anki huma.

    Issa, skont il-pjanijiet tas-soltu, is-subien kienu mistennija jidħlu mill-bieb tas-sagristija tal-Kunvent ta’ Ġieżu u kellhom joħorġu mill-bieb ta’ faċċata li kien jagħti għal Triq Sant’Ursula, fejn hemmhekk, huma kienu jirċievu l-ħobż u l-frott. Sabiex jiġi evitat illi ċertu tfal jidħlu dabtejn, huma kienu jitħallew jistennew f’kuritur u l-bieb tas-sagristija kien jingħalaq warajhom.

    Però ġara li f’din il-ġurnata, il-bieb tas-sagristija tħalla miftuħ aktar mis-soltu minħabba li kienu qed jistennew lit-tfal ġejjin mill-Furjana, b’konsegwenza illi nies oħra, apparti t-tfal tas-soltu, baqgħu deħlin. B’hekk, minflok madwar mitt tifel, kif kien ikun hemm fi drabi oħra, inġabar ammont ħafna akbar ta’ nies u din il-folla bdiet kull ma tmur timbotta lit-tfal li kien hemm aktar il-quddiem. Dawn bdew jingħafsu kontra bieb li kien jinżamm nofsu magħluq, biex it-tfal joħorġu minnu wieħed wieħed.

    Hekk kif sar il-ħin, min kien responsabbli milli jagħlaq il-bieb tas-sagristija, sakkar din id-daħla u peress li kien qabad jidlam, dan ma ntebaħx li kienet daħlet miġemgħa mhux mistennija. Biex tgħarraq is-sitwazzjoni, lampa li s-soltu kienet titħalla mixgħula f’dan il-kuritur, għal xi raġuni ntfiet, u b’hekk kulħadd spiċċa fi dlam taqtgħu b’sikkina.

    Hekk kif sabu ruħhom fid-dlam, in-nies bdew jimbuttaw lil xulxin biex joħorġu mill-bieb l-ieħor, u t-tfal li kienu l-eqreb tal-bieb l-ieħor, tgerrbu fit-tmien tarġiet li kienu jinsabu biswit l-entratura, u waqgħu fuq xulxin. B’hekk, l-uniku bieb minn fejn setgħu joħorġu, kompla jiġi mbarrat u minħabba li dan kien jinfetaħ il-ġewwa, aktar żdied il-paniku.

    An ancient illustration produced by Sir General George WhitmoreL-individwi li kienu fuq barra jqassmu l-ħobż u l-frott lit-tfal ma damux ma bdew jisimgħu t-twerżiq tat-tfal l-oħra li nqabdu f’dak is-saram. L-għajjat wasal anki s’għand il-ġirien tal-madwar u minnufih in-nies ħarġu sabiex jaraw x’ġara u biex jagħtu l-għajnuna. Naturalment, huma ppruvaw jiftħu n-nofs l-ieħor tal-bieb li kien jagħtu fuq Triq Sant’Ursula iżda dan ma seta’ jinfetaħ b’xejn peress li kellu t-tfal mixħutin fuqu. Għalhekk, xi wħud ġrew lejn is-sagristija biex isibu ċ-ċavetta tal-bieb l-ieħor u meta għamlu dan, huma daħlu minn fost in-nies li kien hemm fil-kuritur sabiex jilliberaw lit-tfal mill-bieb ta’ wara. Iżda, sfortunatament, għal ċerti tfal, kien diġà tard wisq!

    Infatti, numru ta’ tfal inħarrġu barra t-triq mejta, oħrajn b’ħass ħażin kbir fuqhom u oħrajn fi stat pjuttost ħażin. Eventwalment instab illi 110 tifel tal-età bejn it-8 u l-15 il-sena kienu mietu fgati billi ġew magħfusa fi spazju żgħir jew minħabba li ntrifsu waqt il-konfużjoni li nqalgħet.

    Skont il-Lutenent Gvernatur, mill-inkjesta li saret u mill-informazzjoni li nġabret, ġie konkluż li dan kien inċident sfortunat li ġie kkawżat minħabba d-dewmien fiċ-ċerimonja tal-Furjana li ta lok lil dawk li kienu qed jiċċelebraw il-Karnival sabiex jingħaqdu ma’ dawn it-tfal. Kaġun ieħor kien in-nuqqas ta’ dawl fl-imsemmi kuritur li ċertament kompla żied fil-mortalità. Iżda, finalment ħadd ma ġie akkużat bil-mewt ta’ dawn it-tfal peress li xejn ma kien sar bi ħsieb ħażin li joħloq din it-traġedja.

    Plasket kompla jsemmi kif f’dik il-ġurnata kerha, kulħadd kien ikkollabora biex jgħin kif jista’; anki l-familjari tal-vittmi li ħallew lill-pulizija u lis-suldati jaħdmu sabiex isalvaw kemm jistgħu individwi. Huwa faħħar ukoll lill-ġirien li għamlu minn kollox biex jagħtu daqqa t’id f’dak kollu li kien hemm bżonn.

    Ma naqasx li jirringrazzja wkoll lit-tobba u lill-infermieri li kienu ġrew lejn il-post biex jagħtu l-għajnuna malli semgħu bl-aħbar. Huwa wera l-gratitudni tiegħu anki lejn l-uffiċjali tal-Pulizija u lejn il-membri tar-Reġiment Royal Malta Fencibleli kienu mmexxija mill-Kaptan tagħhom, il-Kulunell Markiż Giuseppe De Piro. Bis-saħħa ta’ dawn kollha, Plasket ikkonkluda, il-konsegwenzi ta’ din it-traġedja tnaqqsu drastikament.

    Colonel Marquis Giuseppe De PiroGħall-ewwel bqajt bla kliem, inħares siekta lejn dawn iż-żewġ paġni antiki li kienu qed jitfgħu dawl fuq is-soċjetà Maltija ta’ dak iż-żmien u fuq il-faqar li kienu għaddejjin minnu wħud mill-Maltin. Ma stajtx ma nixxukkjax ruħi u nħoss għal dak l-għadd kbir ta’ familji, li f’jiem suppost ta’ ferħ u daħk bla tarf tal-Karnival, spiċċaw jgħixu ħabta w sabta din it-traġedja tal-waħx!

    Xi ħaġa ġegħlitni nkompli nfittex u nixtarr din l-informazzjoni ħalli nsir naf kemm jista’ jkun dwar dak li seħħ. Għaldaqstant, tkellimt mal-ħabib tiegħi, il-Markiż Nicholas De Piro li mill-ewwel rama jgħinni billi għaddieli l-informazzjoni li kellu ħalli nkomplu nibnu din l-istorja.

    Fil-fatt, huwa pprovdini b’immaġni tal-antenat tiegħu, il-Markiż Giuseppe De Piro li dakinhar tal-inċident, kien qed imexxi lir-reġiment tas-suldati tar-Royal Malta Fencible. Barra minn hekk, huwa għaddieli wkoll ritratt tal-Ġeneral Sir George Whitmore flimkien ma’ illustrazzjoni antika li probabbilment turi din it-traġedja, li pinġha l-ġeneral stess, peress li hu kien qed iservi f’pajjiżna f’dak il-perjodu.

    Għalaqt din ir-riċerka tiegħi billi mort infittex ukoll il-Knisja ta’ Ġieżu ħalli nara b’għajnejja fejn kien sar dan il-fatt. U hemm, 192 sena wara, hekk kif ironikament fil-Belt kienu qed jippreparaw għall-Karnival tal-2015, bħal deherli li fil-bogħod, smajt it-twerżiq tal-imsejkna tfal…

    (Dan l-artiklu ġie ppubblikat fit-Torċa tal-15 ta’ Frar 2015)

    2015.02.15 / 6 responses / Category: Torca - Features & Articles