1.1 By way of introduction: Migrating to Australia

Malta and Australia: the contrast between the two countries need not be exaggerated. In geo-physical terms Malta is as tiny as Australia is enormous. In cultural terms Malta has had a continuous tradition for over 5000 years, coming out of the mist of pre-history, and developing slowly over the centuries under the influence of all the powerful rulers that held sway over Southern Europe. Australia, on the other hand, knew peace and dream-time over the vast extent of its history until the last couple of centuries when it experienced a cataclysmic cultural upheaval so that there is now no real continuity between the (ab)original population roaming the continent 40,000 years ago and the invaders of recent years.

Malta has always endeavoured to keep itself to itself, jealously guarding its traditions, accepting no person who cannot prove identity. By contrast, Australia has made it a point, essential for its survival anyway, to attract a polyglot mixture of races that can claim parentage from Celtic, Viking, Norse, Roman, and Greek as well as, more recently, a considerable input from the East . Indeed one might safely predict that in a hundred years' time (say three generations from now) Malta will remain tolerably homogeneous, with no marked change in the physiognomy and cultural characteristics of its citizens, whereas Australia will be reclaimed by its vast neighbourhood to become an exotic, exciting, variable concoction of genes that will mould and change the current prototype beyond recognition.

I left Malta originally (in 1969) to become one of the many who intended to play their part in producing an emerging country called Australia. Like many others I was worried by the contracting economy of my homeland, the inability of a small country to produce sufficient variety, to support specialisation. For a young ambitious person with no established family business or professional tradition, anxious to get on, Malta was a difficult place. There were other reasons, no doubt, less well articulated and defined. Maybe the need to escape, the need to start a new life, indeed the need to cut roots and strike elsewhere, were factors at least as important as societal and economic ones.

I left Australia nearly a quarter or a century later (in 1992) when I thought I had lived through what it had to offer and was beckoned to pursue a final 5-year plan in the old country. It was a time when an economic slump in Australia coincided with a sense of re-invigoration in Malta, and these were important factors in making me make the decision to leave one country and resettle in the old, at least for a short time.

So it was with a sense of expectation, not to say exhilaration, I embarked on this extended visit. There were a number of questions that I wanted to ask relating to others like myself who have made a decision to move, at least once, often several times; there were a number of answers that I was looking for.

I have asked myself these questions several times. They are relevant not because they are personal, but precisely because they have affected so many thousands of migrants over the years. Up to one-third of migrants return home, each time trying out new ideas and new environments. It has been said that "once a migrant, always a migrant" and re-settling in the old country is not simply a matter of coming back and picking up the pieces. It involves a re-adjustment, a re-thinking, a re-acceptance of the changed mores of the country, and a risk of being rejected by its citizens. It is a risk in economic and psychological terms of considerable proportions. For children it is a particularly traumatic experience.

Maltese migration to Australia, while part of the general pattern of migration, shows unique features of its own which has left their imprint on the pattern of settlement. Particularly impressive is the magnitude of the move itself, the relative enormity of the displacement which have had long-lasting effects. These factors affected Malta to a relatively larger extent than any other donor country (with perhaps the exception of Ireland).

By contrast to most contributing countries, the migration stream from Malta became a torrent, reaching a peak of over 8000 migrants a year during 1950s and 1960s. This figure, sizeable in absolute terms, is far more significant when looked at as a proportion of the population of Malta (around 300,000 at the time). During this period, Malta was the fourth largest contributor of migrants to Australia, (after UK, Italy and Greece). By the mid 1980s there were around 56,000 Maltese first generation migrants in Australia.

Australia was only one, albeit the largest host country to receive migrants from Malta A not inconsiderable number of migrants went to other countries, particularly, Canada, UK, and the USA. The total number of first generation migrants living outside Malta at this time amounted to half the population of Malta. In no other country (again with the possible exception of Ireland) was the proportion of migrants to total citizenry so high. In no other country was the migrant movement such an outstanding feature.

The marked micro-economic impact that migration has had on the Maltese Islands remains an unexplored and neglected area of Maltese history. The migrant mix was not a homogenous one, and many more migrants came from the south and east of Malta, and from Gozo, than from the relatively better off areas of the north-east (Sliema, and surrounds). In some of the villages in Gozo in the mid-1950 for instance, there was hardly any able-bodied person left under the age of 40 Indeed this is best illustrated by the birth-rate which shows a remarkable drop around this time, a drop which was more profound than that produced by the second World War. In any terms this was a cataclysmic upheaval, bound to have a lasting effect on the population structure of a particular locality.

Figure 1.1 - Effect of migration on the birth rate in one particular village, (Gharb, Gozo.) Note the massive fall in births in the 1950s and 70s. Recovery occurred only in the 1980s.

Figure 1.1 - Effect of migration on the birth rate in one particular village, (Gharb, Gozo.) Note the massive fall in births in the 1950s and 70s. Recovery occurred only in the 1980s.

Looked at from the original ('donor') country point of view, the phenomenon of migration is not merely a pseudopod that stretches out from the old organism looking for nourishment in a more remote locality. It is not a mere moiety of the population that decides to leave. It is more akin to a fracture that splits a diamond into two unequal parts, one of which remains stationary, while the other is carried downstream to lodge in some remote corner of the ever-changing river.

Most donor countries realised at one point or another that there was a bond between the donor and host country. Most accepted the fact that there was a moral obligation of some kind to keep in touch with the departed citizens. There were also other considerations that had to be kept in mind, including political and economic ones, which played some role in ensuring that the mother country did not cut all ties with migrants in a new land. Educational and cultural institution also played a considerable role in ensuring that ties were not broken. Thus we see the setting up of significant consular offices, the opening up of local branches from well-established cultural organisations such as British Council, Alliance Francaise, Dante Alighieri circle, and the Goethe Institute. What this meant was that there was always a live cord of communication between the old and the new. There was always an effort to keep alive this communication which presumably benefited both the migrant as well as the donor country. The introduction of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) also encouraged a renewal of ties with those countries who could provide suitable material for television, and migrants from the larger countries with a vibrant film industry could obviously benefit from this development.

Unfortunately this was not the case with Maltese migrants. Ties with the old country were often minimal. There was very little support for migrant settlement programmes once the migrant left the Maltese Islands. There was no cultural establishment in Malta comparable to the giant organisations which bigger countries could afford, and hence none were available to help the Maltese settler. To a large extent Maltese migrants were left to fend for themselves, in splendid isolation. The authorities at home either could not or would not get involved in any major project aimed at helping the settlement process. In vain did representatives of migrants ask for such assistance, because very little was forthcoming (largely, it must be said, because very little was actually available at home).

The reasons for this neglect are many and varied. The politics of migration from Malta have always been a complex issue. Often there were conflicting views about whether migration should be encouraged or otherwise. One group saw migration as the economic salvation of the Islands, the other as political suicide. One was in favour of active migration, the other against. The migration issue for a considerable time was no more than a political football to be kicked this way or that depending on the whims and views of a particular party. Most agreed, however, that having left the mother country, the best thing for a migrant was to settle down as quickly as possible, integrate as intimately as possible with the locals and forget about the old ties. The need for maintenance of culture or even language was not really appreciated either by those in authority at home, and still less by the migrants themselves.

It must be pointed out however that one aspect of culture has always been kept very high on the agenda, and that was the catholic religion. The Church in Malta has always been involved in the process of migration. The Maltese chaplain who accompanied successive waves of migrants was often the only link with the old culture, providing not only spiritual support, but also, in times of desperate isolation, economic assistance. The individual settlements of Maltese migrants that sprouted in various localities around Melbourne, Sydney and to a lesser extent in various other States of Australia often grew around a local church which, as often as not, boasted of a Maltese religious or lay priest. The Missionary Society of St Paul in particular made it a point to ensure that the Maltese religious traditions were kept alive. Nuns also began to arrive and help maintain these. Eventually church schools arose to help with the education of migrant children; some of these (such as St Bernadette in Melbourne) are still active educational establishments. While these were primarily and originally religious in background and aims, they certainly helped maintain a cultural and language nexus.

The migrant Involvement in culture maintenance:

Maintenance of cultural ties, like dancing the tango, involves two parties, in this case, the migrant and the authorities in the country of origin. It would be a mistake to put all the blame for loss of cultural ties on the political authorities alone. It would be of interest to ask whether the Maltese settler in Australia was comparable to settlers from other ethnic groups, or whether there were some intrinsic, inherent characteristic, which allowed or even encouraged cultural schism.

The various ethnic communities that have settled in Australia have characteristics, which they share in common, but they also have a considerable degree of variability and diversity. However, many ethnic groups have shown a sufficient degree of homogeneity which can be identified as characteristic for the group. For instance it is well established that the Jewish community in Australia had a considerable proportion of well-educated and highly education-motivated members in their group which soon established them as the intellectual core of many societies in Australia as elsewhere around the world. It is also fair to say that most migrants from the UK and Ireland (who formed by far the majority of migrants), as well as those from Northern. Europe in general, had a level of education unknown among the Maltese migrant. Most had a culture of reading, at least a tabloid newspaper if not more advanced literature. The degree of literacy among the average migrant from Northern Europe was variable, but one can confidently say that it was higher than that of the average Maltese. To this day, both among Maltese migrant as well as in the mother country, the reading public as a proportion of the total population is very low, and probably much lower than the average European or Australian.

A large number of the original Maltese migrants to Australia were illiterate, coming from an environment where reading was not encouraged. Therefore it was no great loss when they found themselves in a land where they could find no books, no libraries and for a long time hardly any newspapers. This, one might add, was merely a reflection of the status quo in the old country and not a bad habit picked up by migrants as soon as they hit the host country.

Combined with the above was the poor level of English language mastery available to the average migrant, which certainly did not encourage browsing in the literature available in that language. Curiously enough, there was a perception for a long time that Maltese migrants, having been under British rule for a couple of centuries, had an adequate command of the language and therefore had no need for interpreters or additional assistance in learning English. For a long time this was a misperception which hindered the provision of interpreter and translation services for Maltese migrants.

The lack of pride in culture and tradition exhibited by the average migrant was the direct result of the absence of such a tradition in Malta before the revolutionary wave swept over it culminating in independence from Britain (1964). Prior to this time, the amount of emphasis on Maltese history and culture in secondary school was minimal. The emphasis on British-type examinations ensured that the curriculum reflected the needs and philosophies of a foreign culture rather than a Maltese one. It was only since the 1960s that a 'risorgimento' has occurred which encouraged achievement in literature and other aspects of culture, and which began to be taken seriously by an increasing number of students. Unfortunately this was too late to affect the migrant mentality and has largely left untouched the average migrant.

One might also add that the proportion of tertiary-educated citizens in Malta up until a decade ago was also extremely low - one of the lowest in Europe. The number of students at the University hovered around a thousand students until the mid '80s when it suddenly began its meteoric rise, so that within 10 years the number of students has reached 8000, (an increase of 800 per cent!). Small wonder then that the proportion of tertiary educated Maltese migrants was no more than around 2%.

It is therefore fair to say that the migrant did not feel the need to maintain cultural ties with the old country, because they were not part of his or her tradition before they left. The cultural baggage they brought with them, while not necessarily different from that of the average Maltese, was not something they had been proud of, and therefore it was not something that they were keen to maintain.

The 'dockyard' mentality

One cannot help blaming the absence of a solid educational substratum as contributing to the absence of cultural maintenance. As mentioned above, the higher education of Maltese, both in Australia and at home left a lot to be desired. On the other hand this was handsomely compensated for by the enormous investment that Maltese have made in obtaining a trade qualification. Indeed for most Maltese migrants, if it were a choice between getting an apprenticeship in a trade or getting a tertiary education, they would almost invariably opt for the former. Statistical analysis of census data amply supports this conclusion. The proportion of Maltese migrants having a trade qualification is higher than that for any other ethnic group, reaching up to 30 percent of the population.

There are at least two aspects contributing to this mentality. Firstly no doubt, the immediate money-earning capacity of apprenticeship was always appreciated in economically depressed times. More important, however, is the long-term investment, which a trade is perceived to bestow on the holder. This mentality, which I have called 'the dockyard mentality' arose I believe in the days when the dockyard in Malta was the most significant source of employment, a place where a trade could be obtained which stood by one for life. Somebody who had been trained at the dockyard could find a job anywhere easily, or so would the average Maltese migrant have argued. I believe this has been a fundamental tenet of Maltese culture, which has permeated not only the first generation, but has also been transmitted to the second and even the third generation. Here also we find a disproportionate number of persons choosing a trade rather than any other career.

While an effort to obtain a trade qualification can only be seen as praiseworthy, such an overemphasis on one aspect of achievement might have a deleterious effect on choice of other professions. This has indeed been reflected in the degree of participation in higher secondary and tertiary education of Maltese migrants. It can also be added that while a technical education is a splendid insurance against economic ills, it is less well suited to provide a humanistic milieu likely to foster a burning desire for cultural maintenance.

While the above can be said about the majority of Maltese migrants, one must not forget that other streams have filtered through to give variety to the mix. In particular, there have always been migrants of Maltese origin from places like Egypt, Tripoli and elsewhere, who always considered themselves to be Maltese, spoke Maltese, and maintained a Maltese culture at least as strongly as the average Maltese that came directly from Malta. The experiences of these people have recently been written down by Nicholas Chircop, and Romeo Cini.

A second wave of migrants with quite a different background came to Australia from Malta in the mid 1980s, largely to escape the political scene there. These migrants had a different level of education and a different outlook and expectations. However, their number was never sufficiently large to make a real impact on the overall mix of Maltese migrants. Moreover, many returned to Malta as soon as political changes warranted such a move.

In conclusion, one might add that there is a perception that for a long time, there was a schism between the Maltese migrant and the old country. The reasons for these can be summarised as follows:

  • The small size and economic disadvantage of the mother country, which made it economically difficult to provide cultural and educational programmes to migrants overseas.
  • The relative size of the migrant pool compared to the population size of the original country.
  • The psychological/political views extant at the time of peak migration (1950-1970) that integration was the best policy, and that a close tie with the old country would hinder such a process.
  • This resulted in a dearth of printed, visual, televised educational/cultural material available for the migrant overseas.
  • The migrant contribution: The lack of preparation, minimal educational and poor expectations made it difficult to participate fully in the new country and to maintain a high level of culture.
  • Quick cash mentality.
  • 'Dockyard mentality" which believed in the superiority of trade over a tertiary education.

How is the present first generation different from those they left at home? One often assumes that the first generation migrants, because they were born in Malta, must have exactly the same characteristics of their Maltese brethren at home. This is a fallacy for various reasons.

Firstly, migrants are a selected cohort, and not an average sample of the Maltese population, as mentioned earlier. Although there has been a more recent admixture in the 1980s, this has had no significant effect on the migrant mix.

Secondly, Maltese migrants have not been exposed to all the outside influences from Europe, through travel, television, and tourist contact that have changed the ways of thinking of the Maltese in Malta. It is amazing to what extent the Italian language has infiltrated into Maltese vocabulary over the past couple of decades. One often hears complaints that Maltese migrants visiting Malta find it difficult to understand Maltese as it is now spoken. This is a result of an enormous infiltration of foreign (largely Italian words) into Maltese.

Thirdly, it is worth while noting also that the way of life in Malta has changed dramatically. Young people today behave very differently from those in the 1950s. They enjoy considerable latitude and a far less strict control than their parents did. While the average Australian youth is not that different from a modern Maltese youth, it is not perhaps surprising to find that their parents are quite different in respect to their expectation of youth behaviour.

There has also occurred in Malta a tremendous push to encourage children to continue with a university education, so that today the annual entry at University is around 40% of persons of that particular age group. There is a great deal of parental expectation, often transmitted to their children who are now expected to spend most of their time attending private lessons and doing homework. Many still hanker for the ideal of having a lawyer, doctor or an architect in the family, even when it is becoming clear that members of such professions might soon be joining the rank of the unemployed.

These comments of course represent generalisations, and there are many exceptions. However, they do emphasise the point that Maltese migrants have followed a different, maybe divergent stream, and have differentiated into individuals who are recognisably different from the stock they left behind. This has had a definite effect on the way the second generation has developed, as will be seen in the following chapters.

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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