Maltese-Australian Historiography

Author: Dr Barry York (Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia)

In 1983 the Maltese communities around Australia celebrated the centenary of the first organised and subsidised large-group migration from Malta to Australia. At that time, there were no books available that offered an Australian perspective on Maltese migration. All that was available was Charles Price’s 1954 book, "Malta and the Maltese: a study in nineteenth century migration", which contained only a few pages on Maltese settlement in Australia. Those few pages, however, fuelled some enthusiastic research in the 1980s. Individuals within the Maltese communities in Melbourne and Sydney, mainly retired persons or persons approaching retirement and professionals with backgrounds in education and literature, found vital support for their work in the pages of Australia’s principal Maltese newspaper, The Maltese Herald, which continues to publish feature articles with historical and sociological bents. Also, in 1983, Hugh Azzopardi’s book, The Maltese, was published for use in schools. It was the first published attempt at a comprehensive promotion of Maltese history and cultural life in our schools.

It was no coincidence, in my opinion, that the upsurge in active interest in Maltese-Australian history occurred in the 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Maltese settlers, who mainly migrated to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, were in a position to afford the luxury of research. Most who had come here in the ’50s and ’60s found employment as manual workers and, like other ethnic groups who provided factory labour, their priorities were with buying a house and creating economic security for their families. For many, this was achieved in a rudimentary way by the 1970s. Whatever spare time they had, they devoted to the greatest of Maltese passions: family life and soccer!

During the 1960s and 1970s, a small number of middle class Maltese, including graduates of Malta University, had migrated to Australia. Within this group were individuals who would play a central role in Maltese-Australian research. They brought with them research skills learned in Malta.

A third factor, however, is more Australian-grown. While Maltese-Australians still lag behind other ancestral groups in terms of educational achievement, by the 1980s the children of a few of the post-war immigrants were beginning to graduate from universities. These Maltese-Australians rarely studied the arts, preferring to more career-oriented courses, but among them were a handful who studied history.

I suppose I am an example of the latter type. My Maltese father worked in factories after migrating to Melbourne with my London-born mother and I. We sailed from England on the Himalaya in 1954. My father had been stationed there with the Royal Air Force, which he had joined in Malta during the second world war. My parents came from poor working class families in their respective homelands and saw the act of migration as an opportunity to improve their lives and to widen the life opportunities of their son as well as themselves. Thus, I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to study at school and to go on to university where, they hoped, I would eventually graduate as a high school teacher.

I enjoyed researching and writing and never gave it up, when while working as a school teacher in a Melbourne inner suburb. In the early 1980s I left teaching – at Melbourne – to pursue postgraduate studies in history at Sydney University and, later, at the University of New South Wales. Faced with choices of topics for a doctoral thesis at the latter institution, the Maltese side to my background won the day. My thesis was based on an intensive four year study of the history of Maltese immigration into Australia between 1881 and 1949. When I formally graduated with my doctorate in history in 1988, I was probably the first "Maltese-Australian" to attain a Ph.D. in history. I make that point to illustrate the time lag between the initial post-war settlers on one hand and the practicability of one of their descendants being able to complete detailed research, under the auspices of a university, into an aspect of the Maltese community in Australia, on the other.

During the course of my research, a book titled The Maltese in Australia was published in 1986. It was the first book on the history of Maltese settlement in Australia to provide a broad outline beginning with Maltese convicts around 1810 and concluding with the achievements of prominent young Maltese-Australians such as musician Joe Camilleri, jockey Darren Gauci and boxer Jeff Fenech. Next, in 1990, came a more substantial work based on my doctoral thesis: Empire and Race: the Maltese in Australia 1881–1949.

In the meantime, between 1986 and 1990, a few other notable books and booklets were published in Australia sharing the fruits of much research labour into aspects of the Maltese-Australian experience. These works included Michael Dugan’s The Maltese Connection (which drew heavily on my book The Maltese in Australia), Frank Zammit’s Il-Ballata tal-Maltin ta’ New Caledonia and George Griffiths’ Ritratt: Maltese Migration in Focus.

Undoubtedly, the fact that Australia was celebrating two hundred years of European settlement in 1988 played a part in prompting the Maltese and other communities to look into their own part in Australian history and society. Multiculturalism was by now not just official but also respectable.

Apart from Charles Price’s 1954 book, it should be mentioned that important speeches and articles had been published during the 1950s by such significant figures to the Maltese as Eligio Castaldi, who had settled in Australia prior to the first world war, Frank Corder, who had acted as Malta’s representative in Australia for a while during the 1930s, and Captain Henry Curmi, Malta’s first Commissioner to Australia. Their works were never published in book format they provided interesting perspectives and many leads for the later generation of researchers.

Also, it would be amiss of me to neglect the pioneering work of a researcher in Malta itself. Pre-eminent among those in the migration history field is Fr Lawrence Attard, of the Malta Emigrants’ Commission. In 1983 Fr Lawrence’s booklet, Early Maltese Emigration 1900–1914, was published at Valletta. It was followed in 1989 by The Great Exodus and the third book appeared more recently. Distribution of Fr Lawrence’s works was very limited in Australia but their impact was felt among those with an active research interest in the subject matter. Fr Lawrence’s books covered the field of migration to all principal destinations, not just Australia.

During the 1990s, Maltese-Australian publishing took a big step forward when, with an initial grant from the Government of Malta, the Australian National University subsidized the Maltese-Australian Studies Series. The Series was published through the Center for Immigration & Multicultural Studies and edited by me. Sixteen titles were published between 1992 and 1996, including a popular oral-history-based book, Emmanuel Attard: from Gozo to Gallipoli and Australia.

Also during the 1990s was the publication, by Kallaya Publications in association with the Bank of Valletta, of the first regional study of Maltese settlement, Paul Calleja’s Maltese of the Western Third: a social history and commentary of the people of Maltese origin in the State of Western Australia. And there were also books by Terry Borg (From Known to Unknown), Maurice Cauchi (Maltese migrants in Australia and two others), Nicholas D. Chircop (Maltese Levantine Experience), Dr Barry Coldrey (Child Migration from Malta to Australia, 1930s to 1960s) and Lawrence Dimech’s The Ageing Maltese.

The Maltese-Australian Series ceased publication at the Australian National University in 1996 but was revived in 1997, as the Maltese-Australian Studies New Series, under the auspices of Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne. V.U.T. has published three installments, including a second edition of a Guide to Maltese Migration Sources and Raymond C. Xerri’s directory of migrant shipping.

The Guide to Maltese Migration Sources was compiled by me and is proof positive of the healthy condition of Maltese-Australian research. Contrary to the absurd claim made in one of Malta’s daily newspapers, by an Australian correspondent, last year, there is a great deal of published material on the Maltese in Australia and on Maltese migration. The Guide found that in 1997 forty-two books and booklets about, or of direct relevance to, the Maltese in Australia were held at the National Library of Australia. (Today, the figure would be closer to 50.). The situation is basically a good one, even if there is a tendency to repeat the work of others. What is needed is original research designed to further enhance the understanding of the Maltese in Australia on the part of people and governments in both countries. But there is no point in simply reinventing the wheel.

Of course, where practicable, projects in Australia should be undertaken with the support of the Government of Malta; though experience has shown that that is not always necessary.

One area which lends itself to such co-operation is the field of oral history. The National Library of Australia has a rich archive of recorded interviews with Maltese in Australia. The following description and analysis of the Library’s Maltese-Australian oral histories is based on my Guide to Maltese Migration Sources. It was written in 1997 but remains a good pointer to the extent to which Australia’s leading informational institution takes the Maltese seriously:

"As of April 1997, 48 individuals with relevance to the Maltese in Australia had been interviewed/recorded (by and for the National Library of Australia). Only two of these – (the late) Hubert Opperman and Charles Price – have no Maltese ancestral connection. (Hubert Opperman was interviewed on two separate occasions). Thus, 46 individuals recorded have a Maltese connection, either through birth or through having one or two Maltese parents. All these Maltese-Australians were interviewed by me. The first was in Canberra in 1988. The Library’s recordings of relevance to the Maltese in Australia go some way in capturing the diversity within the broad category of "Maltese". Of the 46 interviewees with a Maltese connection, 11 were born outside of Malta, namely: one in Egypt, one in London and nine in Australia. Of the 35 interviewees born in Malta, five were from the Maltese island of Gozo. The Library has succeeded in developing Maltese-Australian recordings that reflect the main spread of Maltese settlements across Australia. Thirteen of the 46 Malta-born and second-generation Maltese-Australians settled in Melbourne; 13 in Sydney; seven in Mackay (Queensland), six in Perth/Freemantle; four in Adelaide and two in Canberra. One interview, with a former High Commissioner, focused on his position as High Commissioner for Malta in Australia. He worked for Canberra but had not settled in Australia in the sense of being a migrant. Similarly, there is a reasonably good spread of migrant vintages. Of the 36 interviewees who migrated here (excluding the former High Commissioner), 20 arrived during the principal decade of Maltese immigration, the 1950s. Six interviewees were of 1940s vintage; two of 1960s vintage, one of 1970s and two of 1980s vintage. A highlight of the collection are interviews with pre-Second World War arrivals. These are: Emmanuel Attard (1916 migrant), Joe Vella (1920), Josephine M. Cauchi (1922), Antonia Bartolo (1925) and Joseph M. Camilleri (1928). It is interesting to analyse the occupational stats of each interviewee. Most Maltese who came here were working class people who worked in factories in Melbourne or Sydney. Again, this is reflected reasonably well in the range of persons interviewed. Seventeen were wage-workers; 13 professionals (teacher, journalist, estate agent, diplomat, etc.); three ran small businesses; three were farmers, and seven were housewives. These figures do not add up because of double occupational statuses. Two of those interviewed are Members of State Parliaments (New South Wales and Victoria) as well as having been, respectively, a school teacher and a wage-worker. Eight interviews had a specific cultural emphasis, seven of which were with Maltese poets in Australia. The eighth, with Joe Galea, focused on his role in ‘folk music’."

The National Library of Australia’s oral history collection has received official visits from several Maltese government officials and all the High Commissioners since the 1980s. The Library’s Sound Preservation Unit, a sound archiving group of world standard, aims for the permanent preservation of all recordings. Who knows: a hundred years from now, if one wants to hear the Maltese ghana performed, it may be necessary to visit the National Library of Australia’s oral history collection, where many hours of Maltese folk-singing in St Albans and Blacktown have been recorded and preserved.

And as for the conventional interviews, they are an invaluable source as they tell the migrant story from the perspective of those who experienced it – in their own words and through the actuality of their voices. Imagine what people will make of it all a century from now! It would be like us, today, having quality recordings with migrants of the nineteenth century!

In finishing up, I’d like to draw attention to the two most recent works in Maltese-Australian studies in Australia, again the work of Victoria University of Technology. In 1997, a bilingual book was published, called Maltese in Australia: wanderings through the Maltese-Australian Story. Also that year, the University subsidized the production of an audio-CD and cassette package called Maltese Voices Down Under.

There are currently a number of works-in-progress. Those that promise something original include Nicholas Chircop’s study of Maltese from Egypt and my own forthcoming book on the Maltese in Melbourne.

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