Irredentism, Language and Emigration

The experiment in self-government for Malta began in November 1921. Senator Joseph Howard was appointed head of the ministry. Howard had been very active in the Emigration Committee which had been set up in 1919. Soon after his appointment he made a statement of policy on emigration. The statement was made in December 1919 and it had three fundamental points:

  1. The information in possession of the Government and a close study of the situation made by the Emigration Department during the past two years indicate Australia as the most suitable, if not the only country, to which the flow of Maltese emigration should be directed.
  2. Australia expected all immigrants to possess a colloquial knowledge of English. Joseph Howard also noted that there was then no country worth mentioning which had not laid down a condition that all arrivals should undergo a literacy test before being granted admission.
  3. The Maltese Government intended to revive without delay classes for intending emigrants. Such classes had been held till 1919 and had proved to be very useful.

These three points showed that already in 1920 Australia was becoming very popular with Maltese migrants. This was before the US government had adopted stringent conditions on entry into that country. Howard also admitted the need to combat illiteracy which was then the scourge of the Maltese seeking work. Finally the importance of learning English was becoming more evident as the Maltese preferred to emigrate to countries where that language was spoken.

The need to learn English was obvious enough. However, at the time that Joseph Howard was speaking, many saw that suggestion as an excuse to help English to oust Italian in Malta. What became known as the Language Question was a very divisive issue. In January 4, 1922, the pro-English language newspaper, itself printed in English, The Daily Malta Chronicle, had this to say on the burning issue of language in Malta: "The Language Question remains the main cause of division.... The upper classes can perhaps afford to waste time and energy over idle questions of this sort, but with the lower classes generally, and with the workers in particular, the Language Question is one of bread and butter. Even the present Government realists that English, and English alone, is necessary for the working classes which constitute the backbone of the nation".

The Language Question was a political issue which for many years drained Malta's limited intellectual capacity. For over sixty years Maltese argued with fellow Maltese as to which foreign language should be dominant in Malta. Was it to be English or Italian? Italian had been the language used in administrative circles since the sixteenth century. It is possible that Italian, or the Sicilian version of it, was in use in the Island before 1530 when the Crusader Knights of St. John made Malta their home for 268 years. Malta and Sicily were not only neighbours in the Mediterranean, but they also shared a common heritage in history, culture and religion. Although the Maltese did not speak Italian as their native language, the ruling classes had imposed that language as the official idiom of government and culture.

Trouble started when after 1878 the British administration began to enforce the teaching of English in State schools at the expense of Italian. The vast majority of the Maltese were illiterate and did not feel involved in the Language Question. Politicians however, soon found them-selves with something to shout about. The Reformers insisted on a reform of the educational system making English the language of a British colony. The Anti-Reformers were determined to oppose any change which would jeopardise the privileged status of the Italian language in an island which considered itself as European, Latin and Catholic.

The Constitution of 1921 had recognised Italian and English as the official languages of Malta, but the preponderance of English was becoming obvious. The Colonial Administration had all the power it needed to advance the cause of English, and the Maltese in general realised the advantages of English. After all English was spoken in USA and in Australia and those were the countries most Maltese who wanted to emigrate wished to settle in. Italian was the language of the past. English belonged to the present and to the future.

The position of the Anti-Reformers became compromised when Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in 1922. Fascists claimed Malta as part of unredeemed Italy. Most Maltese, even those who favoured the language of Italy, did not cherish such claims put forward by Fascists. There was a negligible minority who not only loved Italy's language but also saw Malta as a geo-graphical extension of the Italian mainland. Senator Caruana Gatto in a speech delivered at the Royal Opera House in honour of the celeb-rated Maltese tenor Calleia, described Malta as "the extreme end of Italian soil". Caruana Gatto represented the nobility in the Senate. His speech was delivered on March 21, 1923.

Such irredentist claims were ignored by most Maltese. When sustained efforts were made to educate the masses the people wanted to study their own Maltese language. They also preferred to learn English because it was the language used by most Maltese emigrants and it had an international status. When Italy and Great Britain found themselves at war, Italian bombers began dropping their bombs on Maltese towns and villages. The Second World War buried the Language Question.

More than sixty years had been wasted in disputes which had caused deep and painful rifts in an insular society. At a time when the Maltese economy was beset by over-population and unemployment, Maltese politicians generated an abundance of verbal heat which was of little practical use to the nation and to the people who needed urgent help. At a time when emigration was one possible solution to the thousands who had no work, a section of Malta's politicians was greatly hindering the migratory flow towards the English-speaking countries.

The anti-Reformers knew that emigration to English-speaking countries was providing a telling argument against their position. It was only logical for them to embark on a vicious propaganda in Parliament and in their newspapers, to discourage intending migrants from emigrating to countries which were either English-speaking or else within the British Empire.

The pro-Italian press printed reports of dis-crimination against the Maltese in Australia while urging prospective migrants to emigrate to Argentina where there was a Latin culture and where the people spoke Spanish, which as a language was similar to Italian.

O.F. Tencajoli in 1927 wrote an article which put emigration to Australia in an unfavourable light. Tencajoli wrote at a time when Fascist propaganda was at its highest. He condemned emigration according to the selective system because the healthy left their country and thus the process debilitated the whole population. Tencajoli claimed that the Maltese were Southern Europeans and therefore unacceptable to the racists in Australia.

Tencajoli admitted that the Federal Australian Government was not against admitting the Maltese into the country, but he claimed that the Australians wanted the Maltese to populate the unhealthy regions of Australia and thus help them defend Australia against the Asian Peril.

Tencajoli asked his Maltese readers why they should let the British use them to defend their Empire? Did they realise that not only were they allowing the British to use them under conditions which the British themselves would not accept, but when they left Malta for distant lands, did the Maltese realise that they were vacating their own Island to make room for British settlers?

The arguments went on till the outbreak of the Second World War. But even before that unhappy event most Maltese ignored their politicians and settled in their thousands in countries which they themselves preferred.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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