1.2 Migration in the 19th Century

The history of migration in the 19th Century is one of individual struggle rather than organised effort. It is a history of how the Maltese struggled to overcome the despair of famine and epidemics, and with considerable courage and initiative, travelled all along the Mediterranean coastline in search of a better life. And this with very little help from the authorities of the time.

Following the departure of the Knights of Malta (1798), the ensuing Anglo-French struggle in the Mediterranean led to considerable prosperity of the Maltese economy. However, by 1813 the economic boom was at an end. By the 1820s famine was rife. A cholera epidemic in 1837 killed nearly 5% of the population and the subsequent quarantine restrictions closed all Mediterranean ports to Maltese imports and produced great hardship. The conditions of life were miserable. Infant mortality in 1826 - 1836 was up to 30%.

Table 1.1 Outline of Maltese History



Building of Neolitic Temples


First Phoenician traders in Malta


Carthaginian domination


Roman occupation



Byzantine Empire


Aglabite Arab rule


Norman Rule under Count Roger


Spanish feudal lords


Revolt of the Maltese against the Gonsalvo Monroy


Malta under the Knights of St John


Siege of Malta by the Turks


Napoleon takes Malta from the Knights


Revolt of Maltese against the French


Treaty of Paris: Malta to become part of British Empire


Establishment of Government Council


1st World War: Some 20,000 Maltese join British Force:


Self Governemnt announced


New limited Constitution granted


Malta enters the 2nd World War


New self-government Constitution


21st September: Malta granted full Independence. Member of the British Commonwealth.


13th December. Malta becomes a Republic

In spite of all this, the population of Malta was increasing apace, and certainly at a rate that could not be supported by the meagre Maltese economy. Girls still married early (at 16- 18 years) and had a large family.

The Maltese peasants did what they could to scrape a living out of a land which had been described by the Knights as "hard and sterile". J.Davy, an Army doctor stated that "probably on no spot of the same dimensions has the power of man, his skill and patient industry, been more exerted than in Malta" (see Price, 1954, p 13). Slade in 1837 wrote: " The habitual mendacity is truly painful to anyone who has not lived in Ireland ... Beggars appear to grow in the streets. You know not whence they spring" (Price 1954, p 19).

So a number of attempts were made to organise migration to various lands. In 1825 there was a proposal that Maltese migrants would go to the West Indies and work with the Silk company. In 1826 there was a project to send Maltese migrants to Cephalonia (Ionian Islands). By 1827 there were already those who were planning to populate the territories of South Africa and Australasia with Maltese migrants. In fact the Governor of the time (Ponsonby) decided in 1834 to send a batch of Maltese to Australia at his own expense, provided that the Government was prepared to continue the scheme should the first migrants be successful. However, the Colonial Office and the Treasury in London refused to subsidize such schemes and they all ended where they started - on the drawing board.

A number of organized attempts were made in the latter half of the 19th Century to settle Maltese overseas. Perhaps the most interesting scheme was that hatched in 1878-1880, when an attempt was made to populate the empty spaces of Cyprus. The report of Sir Adrian Dingli stated that:

" ... it was undoubtedly in Britain's interests to encourage Maltese emigration to Cyprus ... Britain needed the influx into Cyprus of people indisputably loyal to the Empire ... the Maltese alone, about the Mediterranean, are a community feeling no blood or historical connection with any other nation. They have never looked upon themselves as part of any other people. They have passed successively under many different denominations and never amalgamated with the conquerors of the island. From time immemorial they had had the Italian as their written language, have been governed by laws almost identical with the Italian, and have professed the religion of Italy; but nevertheless they have at no period of time considered themselves Italians or taken any particular interest in Italian affairs." (see Price, 1954, p 173 -174).

However, this, like the Jamaica and Cyrenaic projects before it, did not come to fruition.

While the authorities were working on their plans, the Maltese workers, attracted by the lure of riches overseas, were emigrating in large numbers. Between 1818 and 1832 the number of Maltese emigrating was between 1000 and 2000 a year, and between 1833 to 1836 it rose to 1500-3000 per year, or about 2% of the population at the time.

They travelled along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Price writes:

"In Algeria there were over 5,000 Maltese concentrated principally in the east, in the province subsequently known as Constantine; the largest settlements were in Algiers (2000), Phillipville (1(xx" Bona (1500) - where they outnumbered all other European groups. In Tunis some 3,000 Maltese had distributed themselves along the whole coastline from Bizerta to Jerba island; about 2,000 lived in the capital, where, according to the Consul there, they comprised over three-quarters of the European population. There were also several hundred in each of the towns of Susa, Monastir, Mehdia and Sfax. In Tripoli, the 1,000 or so Maltese were concentrated in the environs of the town itself, though some 200 had moved east to Benghasi and a handful as far as Derna. In Egypt the 2,000 odd Maltese settlers preferred the rapidly expanding town of Alexandria, though five hundred or so had decided to try their luck in the capital. The figures of the other settlements are less certain: Smyrna contained a few hundred, Constantinople and the Bosphorus villages perhaps a thousand, Athens and Patras a few hundred each, the Ionian Island about 1,000. In addition to these larger groups there were a few Maltese in Morocco, Spain, France, Italy and Sicily, together with those who had ventured beyond the pillars of Hercules to the Caribbean and had not yet returned." (Price, 1954 p 60).

By 1842 therefore it is likely that there were about 20,000 migrants overseas, or about 15% of the population of Malta at the time.

The years 1842-1865 saw periods of relative prosperity alternating with extremes of poverty. The Crimean War (1853-1856) led to a massive increase in expenditure by the British in Malta, and unemployment virtually vanished. However, this did not last and as soon as the economic conditions took a down-turn, migration was on the upswing again. It is estimated that between 1842 and 1865, the net migration totalled about 12,000 persons. Overall, it is likely that there were about 10,000 migrants in Algeria, 7,000 in Thnis, 5,000 in Egypt, and 2,000 each in Constantinople, Tripoli and the Ionian Islands. Other smaller collections were to be found in Asia Minor, Greece, Sicily, Italy and France (see Price, 1954,p 115). Thus, by 1865, a total of about 40,000 Maltese or about 20% of the population of Malta were living overseas.

Fig 1 - Population increase in Malta 1842-1983 (Source

Demographic Review of the Maltese Islands, 1987

In the next decade, and particularly with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868, a better educated type of Maltese migrated to Egypt, including merchants, clerks, artisans as well as unskilled workers. Between 1911 and 1918, 533 Maltese signed as stokers at Alexandria and Port Said. In the opinion of the Chairman of the Emigration Committee at the time Mr J Howard: "excellent reports have invariably been received about these men both regards skill and sobriety ... men from Gozo are in most requisition". Pre- World War II, the Maltese in Egypt numbered about 20,000 (Hull 1988).

In spite of this migration, the population of Malta continued to increase. Between 1842 and 1911, the population rose from 114,000 to 212,000.

Source: Maurice N. Cauchi - Maltese Migrants in Australia, Malta 1990

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