2.1 Early Settlement
"I love Malta like my mother, but Australia is my wife." (Dom Puli, in B.York, 1988a, p 37)
It is difficult to imagine what impact the wild expanse of Australia must have made on the migrant from Malta where people meet and talk and socialise in the narrow streets of villages and towns. We have only fragments of information collected by individuals like Caruana J., York B., Bovingdon R., Griffiths G.H., Zrubzycki J and others who interviewed Maltese who migrated in the 1920s and since. Super-imposed on the trauma of separation, there were difficulties with accommodation and earning a living in a strange land. This is what some early settlers interviewed by Barry York (1988a) had to say about the problems they encountered in the early days of migration. Paul Said (b 1902, Nadur, (Gozo, emigrated to Adelaide 'm 1924, and then settled in Melbourne): "I never knew that I was going to starve here. For the first six months, I lived on bread and water' John Vassallo (b 1904, Hamrun, emigrated to Adelaide 1926,settled in Sydney) says that he cried with disappointment when he first came to Australia: " When I first arrived here, if there had been a bridge to walk home, then I would have walked home' (York, 1988a p 33).
Sam Xerri (b 1905, Xaghra, Gozo, emigrated 1924 to Melbourne and settled in Sydney) described the Innisfail Club in Sydney, where a number of Maltese used to congregate: The club was just a big shop, with a few rooms, a table, and a room out the back. You'd sit down for a game of cards, that's all." and he continues:
"People used to come here, make a bit of money, and go back to Malta and live on it, or buy a bit of land and make a living. I never dreamed I'd be here this long" (York, 1988a, p34).
Poor accommodation was the rule. York concludes (1988a, p 38):
"It can be said that, while the experience of the new arrivals in the 1920's was diverse, certain common patterns emerge. Few were happy, or satisfied, during their initial period in Australia. it is difficult to generalise but perhaps Paul Said was speaking for them all when he described the period after disembarkation as 'the saddest day of ibis] life'. Few would not have returned to Malta had it not been for the fact that they could not afford the fare, and they were determined to succeed. To return to Malta as a failure carried a certain stigma of disgrace."
Zubrzycki (1964) studied migrant settlement in the La Trobe Valley of Victoria where a sizeable colony of Maltese settled in the coal-mining region. The brown coal seam, which lies under about 40 feet of sand and clay, is 200 feet thick, and extends from Yallourn eastwards for 40 miles in a belt five to ten miles wide. In 1918, the State Electricity Commission of Victoria was constituted and "vested with power to erect, own and operate electrical undertakings; ... supply electricity retail to individual consumers or in bulk to any corporation or public institution; establish brown coal open-cuts; and own and operate briquette works" (Zubrzycki, p 4). By June 1925, 0.7 million tons a year of brown coal was being produced, and the output increased to nearly 12 million tons in 1960.
Maltese migration to this region started in the 1920's, and increased by a process of chain migration. In Yallourn North in 1954- 61, the Maltese formed 21-23% of the total overseas-born population - most of them males. There were also substantial numbers in in Moe (8.6%.), Newborough (9.1%), Morwell, (3.1%,) and Traralgon (1.9%). Most of the migrants were poorly educated with at best a primary education, and many were unskilled, although 40%, claimed to be crafts-men and operatives.
These are some of the stories as told by the migrants themselves (Zubrzycki p 57-58):
"The passage was round about L24 from Malta, we had an awful trip the ship (Ville de Strasburg) old, slow and hungry. It took over 40 days we landed in Melbourne everyone to himself not like today they come and meet you on the boat and take you to a hostel and find a job. I was in Melbourne for a week in search of work and then decided to go bush. I landed at Yallourn and got a job, lived in a tent for about a week then moved in a tin cubicle, and month after I boarded and lodged with a family."
Many of the early Maltese settlers preferred the secure though hard jobs in the mining industry. In Yalourn North, Zubryzcki (p 77) says that the occupations of Maltese males consisted predominantly of:
"unskilled and semi-skilled variety. Many were on construction jobs when they first arrived but when these finished they preferred to stay in the SEC with steady work and housing, even though doing labouring work, rather than to have to move elsewhere to keep up their trade (if any). The great majority of the men do not seem to be interested in bettering their positions by night study or moving elsewhere, and several have been in the same labouring job many years. One who arrived in 1932 has had the same job all the time - pick and shovel work in the open-cut - and has been very happy with it."
"No doubt they were homesick and would have wished to go back home. They missed the social life, soccer, fresh fish dishes, sea, climate, and above all the close village atmosphere back home, particularly on Sundays. As one migrant put it: 'Sunday here is a cemetery"' (Zubrzycki p 159)1.
They missed their Festas and their celebrations. This is how a middle aged carpenter from Malta describes his recollections of life in Malta, stressing by implication how very different it is from conditions in the Latrobe Valley:
"Besides the Mardi Gras which lasts for three days before Ash Wednesday every town celebrates the feast of its Patron Saint ... Celebrations last three days and begin with a solemn High Mass in the parish church. The day before people go to Confession and then receive Holy Communion at High Mass ... Thousands of people throng the streets and return to church for benediction with the Blessed Sacrament ... Another important celebration is the Feast of St Peter and St Paul on June 29. The celebrations consist of services in all churches throughout Malta and on the following day there are traditional donkey races at Rabat. On the third day the agricultural show opens at Busket and everybody flocks to the show. There is a custom that the newly-married couples spend their honeymoon at the Show in Buskett. People spend the night there under the trees singing folksongs accompanied by guitars, frying rabbits,eating fruit and drinking wine."(Zubrzycki p 160).
Fig 2.1 - Number of Maltese Migrants arriving in Australia between 1945 and 1994 (Cumulative 5-year intervals).
Some could not take it and decided to return back to Malta. However the majority were determined to stay, and eventually, by the end of the twenties they had paid the fares for wives and children left behind in Malta - the start of chain migration. As one migrant put it:
"We finished up in Australia for I like the conditions and climate in this country so much that I nominated him [work mate] and after that I nominated seventeen relatives and friends and another eight are on the way from Malta to Australia. They are all living happily in Australia and they are hundred per cent better off than they were in Malta" (Zubrzycki ibid -p 64).
During 1929-30, following a downturn in the economy, more migrants departed back to Malta than arrived, but the majority persisted. In fact, between 1848 and 1982 the number of migrants that left the Maltese Islands numbered 145,938. During the same period the number returning was 28,269, giving a net migrant force of 117,669 or about one third of the population. (See Koster, 1984 p 258).
For more detailed reviews relating migration and settlement patterns of Maltese migrants, the reader is referred to the works by York, Jupp, Zubrzycki, Caruana and others referred to above.
In the late thirties with improving economic conditions, a new wave of relatives was assisted: the brothers and brothers-in-law of the first settlers and their wives and families. Fifteen years later, in the fifties, there followed the third wave of immigration from Malta, financially assisted by the earlier arrivals". (Zubrzycki p 63)
1Compare description of Sundays in Malta as seen by the then Governor of Malta Governor Stuart: "This is a very wicked place. especially in the town on Sundays when fiddling and dancing and all kinds of games arc going on as if people did not know it was the Sabbath." The Governor eventually banned the carnival festivities an action which led to rioting and cries of 'Down with the Protestants" (See Koster, 1984 p 48).
Source: Maurice N. Cauchi - Maltese Migrants in Australia, Malta 1990