THE VOYAGE OF THE T/S.S. COLUMBIA
MALTA - AUSTRALIA - 21.11.49 to 26.12.49
By Evelyn Spiteri
Following are excerpts from the diary of my father, Victor Semini, Welfare Officer on this particular voyage. It is a portrayal of the good, the sad and the ugly. It is at once objective, narrative and subjective but perhaps most of all it tells the story of the hopes, fears, frustrations and agonies of those early migrants who travelled from Malta to Australia, many of whom, including my father are since deceased.
The T/S.S Columbia sailed from Malta on the 21.11.49 under Captain Coufoudakis. The Senior Welfare Officer was Mr.Ugo Mizzi. Besides Victor Semini there was a female Welfare Officer, Mrs.Mifsud Speranza and the Chaplain, Father Micallef. There is no record of the exact number of migrants but there were over 400 children on board.
Accommodation was in 4 sectors. First, Second and Third Class and Dormitory - the latter being segregated. Embarkation commenced at 8.00 a.m. with First Class Passengers. At. 10.20 a.m. Colonel Boyle of the Australian Immigration Department gave a lecture to the Welfare Officers. Points of importance were:
º Cleanliness of the ship - decks to be washed down daily,
º Cabins and alleyways to be ready for inspection by 10.00 a.m.
º Watch water supply.
º Warn migrants to wear hats while in the tropics.
º See to the supply, of milk for children and bathing facilities for babies.
Following the usual teething troubles of lost children, mislaid luggage etc. lunch was served. Embarkation was completed by 5.20 p.m. The Hon.J.J. Cole and other migration officials accompany the ship to the breakwater in the police launch while the bastions surrounding the harbour are crowded with people waving handkerchiefs and flags.
Spiritual needs of the passengers were attended to by daily Mass and evening rosary. Much space is given to the range, quality and quantity (or lack thereof) of the meals served. Complaints begin to emerge to the effect that although many of the passengers are early risers no provision had been made for serving tea or coffee at that hour
Lunch times for 2nd, 3rd class and dormitory passengers commenced with the first sitting at 10.30 a.m. - the last sitting being 12.30 p.m. There was a great deal of regimentation with constant reminders on the Public Address System to produce Berthing Cards and table numbers to be strictly adhered to, exhortations to maintain cleanliness on board with reference to personal hygiene, litter and "behaving in a civilised manner", i.e. requested the men remove their respective headwear. and wear jackets" and observe table manners.
The kitchens were inspected regularly by the Welfare Officers, deck sports, cinema, tombola were organised. Cultural cringe and patronising attitudes emerge. “Emigrants will not co-operate and keep out of alleyways leading to the dining rooms and hang about waiting like a pack of hungry wolves before the gong’ announcing the "meal is served is sounded".... I take this opportunity to remark that prospective emigrants should be selected at least three months before they are actually due to leave, and during this time lectured at least twice a week by an experienced Welfare Officer regarding the behaviour on board ship and the necessity of discipline. Before being permitted to leave Malta they should be examined and if found deficient of the required standards they should be kept back”.
Concern was expressed at the amount of water that had been used (.350 tons) between Malta and Suez. “Salt water soap has now been obtained and is purchasable in the bars on board the ship. Only 12 baby tubs have been procured at Port Said with an equal number of cots.”
By the third day out of Malta, other difficulties are experienced. The children will persist in standing on deck chairs and tearing some. The Asst.Purser, Mr,Lanare informs the Welfare Officers that the deck chairs will be removed little by little. Tea is of very poor quality and many complaints, (some quite heated) are received. This situation with regards to the tea seemed to be unresolved during the entire voyage. There is dissension between passengers and stewards with the latter threatening to leave the ship at the next port. Lost and/or stolen property were rampant with claims and counter—claims in abundance.
Mrs.Mifsud Speranza is kept busy assisting with the bathing of infants and is much appreciated by her co—workers. Later she organised a Boy Scout and Girl Guide troupe to “do their daily good deed in assisting women with children”.
During this sector it became evident that the ship was grossly under—staffed, particularly with deck stewards, nurses and cabin attendants. Kitchen utensils were inadequate. “This ship is not equipped with a potato peeler machine, nor a large size mincing machine, only a home sized one is available”... There was no mustard or any kind of sauces available on the tables and passengers were complaining about the lack of variety in the meals. Consultations between the ship’s Captain, Welfare Officers and a deputation of passengers have positive results and it was resolved to try and obtain better kitchen equipment at Colombo. Meanwhile the rough seas continue unabated and, many passengers opt to sleep on deck to get some relief from the heat. Some of these passengers complained when caught up in the washing down of decks early in the morning. Advised to vacate before decks are serviced.
Tempers begin to flare while crossing between Colombo and Fremantle. “The rudeness and violence of some of the emigrants is to be seen to be believed. Besides yelling, screaming, banging of utensils on tables and food refuse etc.. being thrown under the tables, one fellow takes some half dozen rashers of bacon which he had on his plate into his hands after pawing them from the right to the left hand because he alleged the bacon was not sufficiently done, he banged them flat on to the table—cloth and then wiped his paws on the very same cloth. The service on the ship leaves much to be desired but the violence and general behaviour of some of the migrants deserves nothing better”. Some of the crew declare they will not enlist on another ship with Maltese migrants on board.
8.12.49 “Second Mass is celebrated at 7.30a.m. It is only during Mass or some religious service that all the emigrants behave in anything like human and civilised beings. Ever since leaving Aden the ship has been looking~ like a Manderaggio or one of the worst slums, with banana skins, coconut shells and other fruit peel, papers etc. The children and mothers will not co-operate by throwing rubbish overboard or place it in the receptacles provided for the purpose. Notwithstanding all the efforts of the crew, and the appeals of the Welfare Officers the ship cannot be kept clean for any length of time.
By 9.12.49 some of the infants had become dangerously ill. Carmel Bugelli, 45 days old had contracted gastro-enteritis while Johnny Spiteri aged 4 months developed pneumonia. Both subsequently died and were buried at sea, one at 3.00 a.m. and the other at 9.05 p.m. while the passengers were distracted watching a movie. At the same period a child is born to Carmel and Rita Piscopo. Meanwhile other children come down with gastro—enteritis and fears are held for their lives.
The socio-economic status of some of the passengers is highlighted in the following entry “Mr. Mizzi and I were called to the Captain’s cabin where the Master showed us a pair of lady’s knickers made out of the ship’s towe1s. The Captain added that "it has been reported to him that several sheets and pillowcases have disappeared and most have been made into underwear". The Captain, however, requested us not to mention the matter as he is afraid that. the acts of vandalism will be augmented.
14.12.49 Drama develops with a woman screaming “Isa ghax qed jaghtu bl'armi”. “I ran into the alleyway to find C.G. in the arms of some of the emigrants holding his left side from which blood was oozing. About five yards away I saw M.G. standing rigid and holding •a penknife in his right hand”. M. G. was soon overpowered and take-n down to the Brig to be dealt with by the Law at the next port of call.
15.12.49. “The last sacraments were administered to Mrs.Darmanin who is suffering from cardiac disease”. By 5.00 p.m. of the same day, baby Piscopo was christened Joseph, Columba, John, Ugo, Maria. Mr. Ugo Mizzi was godfather and Mrs. Mifsud Speranza godmother”.
A cinema show scheduled for 6.10 p.m. and dance at 8.00 p.m. were cancelled due to the~ death of yet another infant, Josephine Mifsud aged 7 months.
17.1-2.49. Fremantle and “The promised land can now be seen as the dawn is breaking. First impressions are most favourable”. The usual milling around takes place. “All emigrants are mustered on the Poop Deck, they are to be bareheaded and have their respective sleeves rolled up to the elbows. They are then requested to file into 2nd class lounge presenting their yellow quarantine cards, and be seen by one of the Medical Officers”.
Eventually the migrants are allowed ashore. “We tour the town which looks very much on the Colonial style with covered boardwalks in front of some very fine shops... the emigrants are disappointed that they cant buy anything except newspapers and fruit. All the bars are however open and most of Australians seem to pass their time on. Saturdays drinking beer Perth is a beautiful city.... everyone seems to have pots of money and is well dressed. Many women are in evening dress... .this town gives the impression of great prosperity. . .We have a light supper in a Greek restaurant. It only cost 10/— for five of us, steaks, eggs, vegetables, tea, bread and as much butter as one wanted”.
23.12.49. “Arrived in Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay at around 8.00a.m. and docked at. 3.00 p.m. A beautiful and touching reception is accorded the migrants by the local Maltese Community who welcome us with waving Maltese and British flags. The Malta Trade Commissioner Capt. Curmi comes on board and assists us in the disembarkation of migrants till 6.00 p.m. when all have landed. On returning to the ship at 11.10 p.m. we regret to learn that Mrs.Darmanin has peacefully passed away”.
25.12.49. We have now turned round the southernmost point of the Australian coast and are on a straight home run to Sydney, our last port of call. Christmas lunch is being served.. The Master and all Senior Officers, Welfare Officers and some selected passengers sit at one table. Baked rice, turkey, fish, fruit, nuts, pastry, wine and champagne. Photographs taken, after all it was not such a bad Christmas dinner as was expected Quite a large section of the male migrants are already the worst for drink and are becoming very noisy. I abstain from drink, as with the temperament of the drunken section, trouble may be expected. .... A number of Gozitans were fighting. drunk in the 2nd class bar and cause a considerable amount of damage. After a lot of persuasion I manage to. convince them to leave the bar but a fight takes place between two of them in which others join freely....I receive kicks to the left leg and thigh. However, all is well that ends well and I manage to get them all into their bunks.
26.12.49. “We enter Sydney Harbour and come to a stop. A large amount of mackerel is caught by some of the migrants and members of the crew. All one has to do is lower a line with a hook attached and a mackerel takes it and is hauled on board. Most of the Gozitans have two or three fishes each which they roast and. have for breakfast. At 8.00 a.m. we pass under Sydney Harbour Bridge and moor alongside No.16 Quay. All migrants are exhorted not to crowd.., only Customs people, ‘St.John’s Ambulance nurses and other representative bodies come on board.”
“By 11.00 a.m. somehow the migrants are all ashore. An epic comes to and end. DEO GRATIAS”. .