Emigration and Education for the Masses

Before 1921 the people of Malta had clamoured for self-government because they thought that only the Maltese were capable of caring for the unemployed of the Island. Lord Plumer had promised to do his best to set up new industries and revive old ones. The challenge confronting the new Maltese Government was to find work for the thousands who had been laid off since the Armistice two years before. Emigration had a twofold importance: to check the natural increase of the local population and to reduce the numbers of those who were idle. The combination of emig-ration with a modest programme of industrialisation was expected to put the people of Malta out of their predicament.

The unemployed people of Malta and Gozo were not waiting for their statesmen to tell them what they should do. Between November 1919 and December 1921 more than 14,000 emigrants had left the shores of the Maltese Islands. Too many of them were unprepared for life in strange lands and the number of returnees for the same period amounted to 5,000. Yet even those who had come back had helped to relieve the congestion prevalent at home and some of them brought money and expertise with them. Also, they had acquired a personal knowledge of the big world outside.

In spite of the stories related by those who had come back and of the reports sent to Malta by those who stayed in the countries of their choice, the local authorities remained adamant against financing organised emigration. In his speech of November 3, 1921, Lord Plumer boasted that Malta had no public debt. He said: "I do not think that any country which has suffered as Malta has from the trade depression of the past seven years, has emerged from the trial in so sound and satisfactory a condition".

Yet the Government remained indifferent to those who were asking for help. Mr. Henry Casolani gave some ten years of his very active life to working and pleading for the Maltese emigrant. Yet, when it came to financial assistance to those migrants who needed such assistance, Mr. Casolani simply told the official line. He too remained against subsidised emigration and his thoughts on the matter were very clearly explained by himself in 1921:

"If left to himself, the Maltese of the emigrant class will work wonders; there is no limit to his resourcefulness, for besides brawn he possesses brains. He is thrifty and will live on a crust and by the sweat of his brow will build a future. Let him feel that you are behind him and he will come stagnant, unproductive and a nuisance to the nearest British Consul. In the end he will contrive to obtain subsistence and repatriation at Government's expense".

That line of thought was to hinder the development of emigration for a number of years. When eventually the scheme for assisted passages came into operation, much hardship was avoided and a better class of prospective emigrants came into being. The Malta Government Gazette of April 29, 1919 had carried a notice which announced that the Emigration Committee had been formed to deal with questions regarding emigration from Malta to British Dominions beyond the seas and ) other countries. The original Committee was formed of four persons: Judge G. Pullicino as chairman, Mr Antonio Lanzon and Mr Joseph Howard as members and Mr Henry Casolani as secretary and executive officer. Mr joseph Howard soon replaced judge G. Pullicino because of the judge's death. On November 11, 1921 the Governor, Lord Plumer, appointed Mr H. Casolani as Superintendent of Emigration, and in 1922 Casolani went to London to plead for the unhindered entry of Maltese emigrants into Australia.

Another effort to put some organisation into the movement of emigrants from Malta was the setting up of an Emigration Bureau on October 1, 1919. The Bureau was an offshoot of the Emigration Committee and its aim was to furnish information to emigrants and to the unemployed about those countries where work was available. Information was given either by word or in writing. The Bureau also organised literacy tests, issued health certificates and examined those prospective migrants who had applied for a visa. It also issued passports and kept statistics on the movements of migrants.

In a dispatch from Malta dated September 9, 1920, Reuter's correspondent had this to say about the function of the Emigration Committee: "From November 11, 1918, to March 31, 1920, 5,601 Maltese emigrants have left Malta for British Dominions and other countries. Since then about 3,000 have emigrated. The exodus, which is unprecedented within living memory, proved a great blessing in many ways, considering that 15,602 Maltese workers were discharged from naval and military establishments and the mercantile marine. Only 4,029 obtained engagement. It is admitted that a serious crisis has been averted. In this connection, the work of the Emigration Committee is beyond praise and but for its assistance, emigration would have been a failure. America, Canada, Australia and France have seen and appreciated the fine specimens arriving and are all anxious to have Maltese immigrants. The surplus population is leaving for these countries in small numbers week by week".

A major headache for the gentlemen serving on the Emigration Committee was illiteracy. It was then estimated that half the adult population was unable to read and write. The governments of the USA and of Australia had already imposed literacy tests. Canada soon followed suit. Illiterate men and women were also ignorant of the English language and generally unprepared for life overseas. Although the worker who wished to emigrate was usually a reliable person, sober and hardworking, his lack of formal education very often relegated him to the category of the unskilled and therefore unable to seek profitable jobs. The lack of the English language very often meant that the doors of North America and those of Australia were closed to him.

The Emigration Committee began organising evening classes for those who were planning to emigrate. Twenty centres were opened, eighteen in Malta and two in Gozo. Classes were of two grades: one for those who were completely illiterate and another for those who knew how to read and write but felt that their English was poor. In Malta the development of emigration helped the spread of popular education.

A notice in the Malta Government Gazette of August 8, 1919, stated that intending emigrants between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were eligible to apply for admittance into the evening classes. Those who qualified for such classes were to apply for admission to the headmaster of the local centre not later than August 31, 1919. The members of the Emigration Committee advised those who intended to emigrate to avail them-selves of this free service. If they did not they ran the risk of being ignored by those who could offer good jobs and being treated with contempt because of their lack of education.

On March 31, 1920, the evening classes for migrants passed under the administration of the Elementary Schools Department. At that time it was calculated that each student cost the Govern-ment about Is 41/2d a month.

According to official statistics in 1920 there were in Malta and Gozo 142,113 men and women who were classified as illiterate and therefore not eligible for emigration. Besides the illiterates there were those whom Casolani called "incompetents". These were sons of well-to-do families who had received a formal education but who had not been trained for any useful occupation. In pre-war times such "incompetents" usually did clerical jobs and Maltese Society never expected from these privileged few that they should do manual work if they had found no job to occupy themselves with. Emigration was a solution for the working classes, not for those who looked down on manual work with open disgust. Casolani did demonstrate unusual courage when he called these people incompetent at that time. He was also far-sighted when he suggested that those who considered themselves superior had better take a course in a technical college.

In 1919, 2,011 intending migrants registered as students, and of that total 1,285 managed to attend their evening classes regularly. When classes re-opened on October 1, 1920, as a branch of the Elementary Schools programme, there were only eight centres functioning against the original twenty. Six centres were operating in Malta while the remaining two were in Gozo.

Within two years of operation the evening classes for those who wished to settle abroad were in serious trouble. During the first scholastic term of 1921 student registration in Malta and Gozo had fallen to 112 and of these only 55 attended regularly. By June of that year Government decided to discontinue the experiment.

On February 3, 1919, someone had commented that the fittest subjects for emigration, types that would be welcomed in any country, were also the least educated. While the Colonial Administration adamantly refused to finance those emigrants who did not have the necessary cash to buy their tickets, education for the illiterate had to wait for many years until Malta too made education compulsory for all. In the meantime the evening classes for those who wished to emigrate had come to their untimely end.

Malta's Superintendent of Emigration, Mr. Henry Casolani, wrote a book about emigration which was published in 1927. In his book, written in Maltese and titled aptly: "L-Emigrazzjoni tal-Maltin" Casolani noted that 400 students had finished successfully their courses during 1919 and 1921. Yet even among these, many failures had been registered as many did not pass the simple literacy test. It was not easy to teach an illiterate person how to read and write within a few months. Casolani himself wrote down the post-mortem of the system: "In spite of our good will, the efforts shown by teachers and the wish to succeed shown by the emigrants, hundreds failed to pass their tests and therefore 1 can honestly say that the system did not produce the results we waited for. It is impossible to describe the frustration felt by those who, after so much effort, are told they cannot emigrate".

Casolani's scepticism went further than that. He even doubted the effectiveness of the system on those who had managed to pass their tests. He complained that what was hurriedly learned was also hurriedly forgotten and therefore the evening classes did not produce permanent results.

Casolani also noted that as soon as a former student reached Australia he sought out the company of other Maltese and soon forgot the little English he had so painfully acquired. In short, Casolani pointed to a complete overhaul of the education system in Malta where the study of English would be based on a sound foundation. Only then would students acquire a permanent command of the English language which would last them their lifetime. Here Casolani was years ahead of his time and the passion aroused by the Language Question did not permit clear and logical thinking. Eventually however, the line of thought pursued by Casolani was to be accepted by those who held the reins of power.

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

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