February 11, 1823: Valletta Stampede of 1823, Another Religious Tragedy

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A Brief History

On February 11, 1823, a tragedy occurred at the Carnival celebration mass at the Convent of the Minori Osservanti in Valletta, in what was then the British Crown Colony of Malta.  Also referred to as the Carnival Tragedy of 1823, 110 boys were crushed to death in a rush to leave the church after celebrating a Carnival related bread ceremony.  Previously we have discussed disasters and tragedies related to religious events or gatherings, and today we take a look back on the sad events on Malta in 1823.

Digging Deeper

The Island of Malta is an independent island country in the Mediterranean Sea near Sicily, at 122 square miles the 10th smallest country in the world by area, although it is also the 5th most densely populated with nearly a half million people.  Once a colony of the United Kingdom, Malta was granted its independence in 1964 and in 1974 declared a republic.  Malta has been inhabited by humans at least since 5900 BC.  Malta occupies a strategically important location and has been invaded and conquered numerous times, by Greeks, Romans, French, Vikings and the British among others.  Over 84% of the population is Catholic, which brings us to the tragedy of 1823.

Location of Malta (green circle) in Europe (light green & dark grey) and in the European Union (light green).  Map by NuclearVacuum.

Malta, like many Catholic countries, celebrates the coming of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, with a week-long celebration called Carnival.  Parties and religious events culminate with day before Ash Wednesday being called “Fat Tuesday,” a holiday you may be familiar with by its French moniker of “Mardi Gras” as known in New Orleans.

On the fateful day in 1823, a throng of young boys had attended mass at a church now called Ta’ Ġieżu after participating in a procession and had lined up to receive bread in a ceremony after mass.  The boys were joined by an unknown number of trespassers, both men and boys, that had crowed into the church in an effort to get some free bread.  A candle lighting a hallway crowded with boys went out, leaving the crammed throng in darkness.  As the crowd began heading for the stairs, the push of the trespassers eager to score some bread caused the boys in front to fall down the stairs in a Niagara like cascade of bodies, resulting in over one hundred of the lads being crushed to death as the fallen boys blocked the way out and those in the rear continued to press forward.

Façade of the church.  Photograph by Continentaleurope.

Ironically, the procession, mass and bread ceremony was orchestrated as an effort to keep the 8 to 15 year old boys off the streets and out of danger from the revelry of adults celebrating Carnival.  On February 10, 1823, the entire routine was performed without any negative consequences, and no problems were anticipated for February 11, 1823.

Investigation into the incident by the Lieutenant Governor of the Island found that while poor planning played a part in the tragedy, the incident was certainly an accident and no particular person was to be blamed or held accountable.  Of course, changes to the procedure were implemented to prevent such a tragic accident in the future.

Corridor with stairs where the incident took place.  Photograph by Continentaleurope.

The church involved in the tragedy, Santa Marija ta’ Ġesu (St Mary of Jesus), was first built in 1500 by Franciscans that had come to the island a few years earlier.  The church was expanded in 1757, and in 2017, the building suffered a serious collapse as the roof caved in.  This time, the church avoided catastrophe by being empty overnight when the collapse took place, probably due to the ancient timbers becoming somewhat rotten over the centuries from the moist air.  In 1600, the church had also collapsed, this time due to an earthquake.

Question for students (and subscribers): Why would God allow his faithful to be cruelly suffocated and crushed in such a mass tragedy when they are acting to glorify His Name?  (Presuming that you are a believer yourself.)  Do you believe religious related tragedies happen “for a reason?”  Could it be that the people involved and their families are being “tested” by God?  Are such catastrophes merely coincidental?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

People came early to Shiloh Baptist Church on the evening of September 19, 1902.  The featured speaker on this night was Booker T. Washington.  Spectators hoping to hear Washington began arriving hours before the event, and all seats were taken well before the speaker arrived.  As Washington finished his talk two men began to argue over a seat on the stage.  A woman nearby yelled, “Fight!”  Many in the crowded and noisy sanctuary mistook “Fight!” for “Fire!” and people in the rear of the church scrambled for the door.  As people pushed from the main floor and down the stairs from the balcony the crowd clogged the door and entranceway.  In the entranceway the bodies piled up eight to ten feet deep and those on bottom were trampled to death or suffocated from the weight.  Between 70 and 80 people died at the church during the ten minute stampede.  Hundreds more were injured and the final death toll was 120.  Several months after the tragedy Robert Henry Walker, Jr. collected survivor accounts and photographs relating to the tragedy and published them as The Trumpet Blast.  Walker’s book, along with the newspaper coverage, provides most of what we now know about the stampede.  This online exhibit includes the full text of The Trumpet Blast as well as newspaper articles and photographs relating to the tragedy.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Koenig, Harold. In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe. Templeton Press, 2006.

Lansink, Edward. Valletta: An Insider’s Guide to Malta’s Capital (2019). Amazon Digital Services, 2019.

Stevenson, Chas. God, Why?: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Stevenson Ministries, 2017.

The featured image in this article, an astronaut photograph of Valletta, Malta taken from the International Space Station (ISS) during Expedition 23 on May 10, 2010 (http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/scripts/sseop/photo.pl?mission=ISS023&roll=E&frame=377480), is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.