1919: Repression, Riots and Revolution

Student demonstrators at the University of Malta (Times of Malta: Malta and Me – colonial politics, Il-Gross and university students)

Hillary Briffa
Royal College of Defence Studies

In the spirit of the current global movement for racial justice, many across the UK have raised the need to decolonize history curriculums. In seeking to learn more about the colonial exploitation upon which the British built their empire, 1919 would be an excellent place to start. Given that Sunday, 7 June, marked the commemoration of the Sette Giugno anti-colonial uprising of 1919 in Malta, this year opens a door to understanding oppression in countries as diverse as India, Ireland, Malta, British Honduras (Belize), Egypt and Trinidad – global outposts where colonizers and colonies clashed throughout that fateful year.    

Last year marked the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the most important of the peace treaties which brought the First World War to a close. The end of formal hostilities is often remembered solely for such peace treaties, without considering that their drafting excluded many active participants in the battles of the preceding four years, now yearning for their own liberation. The very term ‘First World War’ highlights the expansive reach of the first total war waged between industrialized world powers whose Empires spanned the globe. The Great War (1914-1918) was globalised and totalised by the inclusion of colonial subjects, and throughout the conflict the French and British empires were mobilised to aid in the Allied war effort.

Such large-scale mobilisation and the ensuing challenges of demobilisation placed tremendous pressure on the imperial system, which were inadequately addressed through post-war reforms. The First World War had released an unprecedented ideological challenge to colonial rule and the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism pervaded. For colonial subjects, who yet remained subservient to foreign overlords, the Treaty of Versailles held a promise of liberty. As soldiers on the Western Front headed home, domestic resentment continued to grow as the ramifications of the war effort left imperial subjects in the throes of economic depression and unable to administer their own internal day-to-day affairs.

The First World War had been a conflict unlike any that had come before. Industrialization saw the advent of trench warfare and innovation in such forms as U-boats, tanks, and advancements in automated weaponry. Yet for the colonies, the realities of the war offered little opportunity for change: least of all political change or more democratic representation. The French clung to their possessions in Algeria and Indochina, whilst the British only tightened their grip on India, Egypt and their white settler Dominions. Yet despite imperial best efforts, the nationalist flame had been lit.

1919 was therefore a year of anticolonial upsurge. It was marked by the violent suppression of nationalist challenges during the aftermath of the conflict – a period described by James E. Kitchen as characterised by violence and dislocation in the attempts at imposing order and cohesion.[1]

For more on how rebellious colonies changed British attitudes to Empire, check out  Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and the Making of British Dissent by Priyamavada Gopal. Although this article focuses on British imperialism, for more on colonial Algeria check out Electric News in Colonial Algeria by Arthur Asseraf.

January 1919: Ireland

Although not a colony in the traditional sense, the Irish experience is important to consider in the context of British anti-imperialist sentiment in this period. Today we are familiar with Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland as an independent country. However, prior to 1921 all of the island of Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom. At the height of the world war, a nationalist rebellion – known as the Easter Rising – broke out in Ireland. This was crushed by the British government, with its leaders arrested and even executed. Many of those involved in this uprising banded together to form the political party Sinn Féin (Irish for ‘We Ourselves’), campaigning in pursuit of an independent Irish republic. Upon achieving a majority in December 1918 election, Sinn Féin refused to represent Ireland in the British Parliament, establishing, instead, a separate Irish parliament in Dublin in January 1919. Refusing to be legally bound to the UK, they declared Irish independence. On the same day, two members of the British-backed police force were killed by the armed nationalist group that became the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This led to the Irish War of Independence, with the IRA and the British engaged in guerrilla warfare throughout the following two years.

For more on this, check out the book Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal O Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo.

Front page of ‘The Bulletin’ newspaper on 21 January 1919.

March 1919: Egypt

Egypt was first occupied by the British in 1882, with the sea power determined to acquire the Suez Canal – the strategic route for Britain to access her imperial empire in the East. What was intended to be a temporary occupation lasted until the early 1950s (similar to the way in which the ‘temporary’ occupation of Malta in 1800 lasted until 1964). Although Egypt was formally part of the Ottoman Empire, when the Ottomans supported the Axis powers in the Great War, Britain declared Egypt an official protectorate in 1914. Egypt was crucial to the war effort and to protecting the Suez Canal, and served as the staging post for the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign, as well as the more successful invasions of Palestine and Syria. Egyptians were forcibly recruited into the Egyptian Labour Corps, whilst domestic conditions in the country deteriorated. Unemployment was rampant, curfews were imposed, inflation soared, basic commodities (including foodstuffs) became unavailable, and working conditions were horrific. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination, Egyptian nationalists petitioned the British for independence in November 1918, but the requests were denied. Leading figures, such as Saad Zaghlul, were arrested in March 1918 and exiled to Malta. These arrests sparked the Egyptian Revolution as the Egyptians united, across religion and class, to overthrow their colonial overlords. In March 1919, mass demonstrations broke out in Cairo. In response, the British shot and killed protestors, and brutally suppressed the revolution.

For more on this, check out the work of Dr Robert L. Tignor, starting with this article, and Dr John Slight, starting with this article. For insight into the role of women in this revolution, start with this article by Nabila Ramdani.

Veiled Egyptian women protest against British colonisers in 1919 in Cairo. Photo: LSE Blog.

April 1919: India

Due to its size and vital economic importance, India is perhaps the most well-known of the British colonies. Over a million Indians fought on behalf of the British during the Great War, and 60,000 lost their lives over the course of the conflict. At the same time, India was a source of food, money and ammunition – essential supplies for the war effort. In the wake of the war, nationalist sentiment surged as Indians sought independence. In March 1919, the Rowlatt Act was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi, indefinitely extending the emergency measures which allowed for preventive indefinite detention, and incarceration without trial and judicial review (initially put in place during WWI in the Defence of India Act 1915).

The Act meant that British police could arrest any individual, without any reason, and imprison them for up to two years without trial. It was intended to counteract the growing revolutionary sentiment across the nation. In line with this, in April 1919 nationalist leaders in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar were arrested. This sparked riots, which led to the deaths of a number of Europeans, as well as the looting of banks and public buildings. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer sought to restore order and banned public gatherings. Flouting this command, thousands gathered in the enclosed garden of Jallianwala Bagh for a peaceful protest. Dyer and his ninety-strong army responded by opening fire on the crowd of protestors (which included men, women and children of all ages and religions). 379 were killed, and over 1500 wounded as the massacre unfolded.

‘With their own blood, they wanted to bloom

The parched soil of the Bagh, my friends.

Like swarms of moths, they gathered around

To be singed by violent flames, my friends.

They won’t come back, once they go.

Says Nanak Singh, Can’t stop them now

For nation’s sake to die they go.’

– extract from Khooni Vaisakhi, a Punjabi poem by Nanak Singh, a survivor of the Amritsar massacre in 1919

For more on this, check out the work of Kim A. Wagner, particularly his comprehensive 2019 book Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’ by Priya Atwal, For King and Another Country by Shrabani Basu, and ‘Faithful Fighters by  Kate Imy.

A painting depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was unveiled at Manchester Museum on the centenary of the atrocity. The painting by the Singh twins, Rabindra and Amrit, is titled Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution. Photo: The Telegraph India.

June 1919: Malta

The start of the war brought prosperity to the Mediterranean island of Malta, the British fortress colony and ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’. The war brought full employment, as the hospitals and dockyard proved invaluable to the war effort. By the end of the war, however, the country was in crisis. Wartime appeals to patriotism were tempered by the decline in the standard of living, particularly the unavailability of basic commodities (including foodstuffs and petroleum) and rise in cost of living, which the lower classes were unable to adapt to. At the same time, mass unemployment in the dockyards led to the establishment of trade unions, through which disgruntled Maltese workers expressed their frustration at ongoing exploitation by the British. This decline in enthusiasm for the occupiers led to a surge in nationalism.

As the political aspirations of the Maltese grew stronger, the Treaty of Versailles held a promise of liberty. In February 1919 a newly constituted National Assembly (established to seek social changes from the colonial rulers) unanimously resolved to request the British government to grant Malta all the rights given to other nations by the Versailles peace conference; this would have meant independence from the British Empire through a new constitution with full political and administrative autonomy.

The meeting adjourned and the second meeting of the National Assembly was held on 7 June 1919 to press on for self-government. That day, thousands of Maltese flocked to the capital city to show their support, but riots broke out and British soldiers fired on the crowd, leading to the death of six and fifty wounded. These events represented the first national call for self-government, reflecting the unsatisfactory nature of economic and political life in colonial Malta. At the same time as the British were one of the three driving powers of the Versailles Peace conference, their imperial fortress was so vital that political development was stifled with tragic consequences. Today, the ‘Sette Giugno’ is celebrated as one of five Maltese national holidays and its shedding of blood serves as a reminder of the bitter price that the Maltese victims had to pay in order for the ‘peace-making’ British to finally give Malta its first self-governing constitution in 1921.

For more on this, check out the book The Sette Giugno – In Maltese History 1919-2019 by Malta’s preeminent historian Henry Frendo and other contributors, and the phenomenal musical Sette by The New Victorians, which is temporarily available to view online.

Sunday 8 June 1919: People gathered in St George’s Square the day after the Sette Giugno riots. They protested and raised funds for the victims and their families. Lorenzo Dyer’s bloodstained cap, one of the victims, was placed on the Maltese flag. Photo: Giovanni Bonello Collection, shared with permission from The National Archives of Malta.

July: British Honduras (Belize)

Ex-servicemen who had fought under the British in the First World War returned to Belize frustrated with the racist treatment they had endured as part of the British Forces. Inspired by successful Haitian Revolution – the only colony to have successfully asserted independence – on 22 July 1919, a group of 336 black ex-servicemen staged a protest in Belize Town. Their discontent over racial discrimination, unemployment and poor socio-economic conditions struck a chord among the wider society, and over three thousand civilians and members of the police – about a fifth of the population – joined them in solidarity. When the generator at the Electric Plant failed and darkness set in, the crowd went on a rampage, looting stores of goods that their poor wages and oppressive conditions prevented them from buying. By 1.30am the colonial forces managed to restore order, and on 24 July reinforcements arrived in the form of 100 marines and a machine gun crew. On the 25th, attempts to arrest leaders of the riot at the C.U. theatre resulted in violence. The police and naval patrol in attendance used their bayonets and fired on the crowd, injuring two. In the aftermath, martial law was imposed.

For more on this, check out the ebook Rights (1919 Revolution) by Delmer Tzib, and the website 1919 REVOLUTION a community and art process developed and promoted by The UEF Library of African and Indigenous Studies and The Image Factory Art Foundation.

Protestors gathered in Belize Town to voice their discontent over exploitation and discrimination, and to signify the growth of a black consciousness challenging racial and class hostilities. Photo: Amandala Newspaper

November 1919: Trinidad

Domestically, Britain was not isolated from the spirit of reform. A class struggle was epitomised by the January 1919 mass strike that culminated in the deployment of 12,000 English troops, 100 military lorries and six tanks to maintain order in Clydeside, Glasgow. The strikes were not restricted to the United Kingdom, however, but saw similar turmoil unfold in the Caribbean, with strikes and riots in Jamaica and British Honduras. In Trinidad, dockworkers could no longer endure the exorbitant living costs, unsustainable subsistence wages and precarious working conditions. The economic exploitation, political suppression, and racial discrimination endured by the Trinidadians led to mass strikes across the country from November 1919. In response, the colonial government arrested or fined 82 of the strikers; the leaders were imprisoned, or even deported. The reprisal was accompanied by repressive legislation, making it virtually impossible to foment political dissent.

For more on this, check out the work of Christian Hogsbjerg, starting with this article. For more on the race riots in the UK, start with this article by Yasmin Begum and for further reading, check out the 1919 Race Riots Open-Access Syllabus.

Members of the British West Indian Regiment during the First World War. Photo: The Socialist Review.

1919: What can we question?

Winston Churchill condemned the Amritsar massacre as ‘an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’. Yet these cases show that the underlying themes and even the actions that characterised that tragic exchange did not exist in isolation. A truly global shared experience and frustration with colonialism became manifest in uprisings across Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia. Examining the transnational historic events of 1919 requires confronting processes of militarisation and the challenge of militancy; class struggle; working-class mobilisation; racial injustice; religious contention; gender politics; geopolitics; hegemony; resources; and ultimately, revolution.

As the proving ground of English imperialism, the Irish case opens the door to questioning the structural foundations of the United Kingdom, and mandates interrogation of racial ideas underpinning the attempts to ‘civilise’ the Irish. Britain’s naval superiority and geopolitical ambitions are inherent to the oppression of the Maltese, a colony which also calls attention to the experience of subjugation by a ruler with a different religion to the populace. In British Honduras (Belize), brown middle-class Creoles understood that changes in colonial administration were only of benefit to white elites; this case calls into question the basis for real political inclusion and challenges the myth of unequal but harmonious cross-race fraternity as the colony’s central tradition. Egypt reveals how revolutionary sentiment can spread from the intellectual classes across a whole nation that refused to be politically, culturally and ideologically silenced. Indian exploitation exposes not only economic drivers of subjugation, but the way in which racialised violence begot racialized violence on both sides by the Indians and the Europeans.

Attempts to refashion the world in the wake of the Great War cannot be understood solely from the perspective of the powers at the table. It is also necessary to consider those who were not even allowed in the room. As David Headley, militant leader of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association poignantly explained: “Our inherent rights receive emphasis and new assertion at moments of political stress and strain, for whenever society is in travail liberty is born. Evolution is the outcome of revolution, and advancement in any sphere of human activity is expedited by epochal upheavals.”[2]

So, if we want to understand how oppression begets rioting, the drivers of insurrection, and to start unpacking the complex context of British imperial and colonial history, a year when the flames of anti-imperial revolution were lit across the globe – 1919 – is a good place to start.

Dr Hillary Briffa is a Teaching Fellow at the Royal College of Defence Studies and teaches international relations and war studies at King’s College London, Birkbeck University of London and Queen Mary University of London.

[1]  James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonization.” International Encyclopedia of the First World War, October 8, 2014.

[2]  Christian Hogsbjerg, “Trinidad 1919: A Glimpse of Liberation.” The Socialist Review, November 2019.