The Mediterranean and beyond

The lands within the basin of the Mediterranean were the first obvious choice of the Maltese emigrants. By the middle years of the nineteenth century European powers, particularly Great Britain and France, were extending their spheres of influence in the Mediterranean and as the strength of the Ottoman Empire waned, the influence of these two nations grew even more evident.

Palestine had fallen under the Turks' sway since the eleventh century, but as the hold of the Sublime Porte grew weaker over that land, the British began to fill the vacuum. To Maltese observers Palestine was a Mediterranean country where Great Britain was exercising significant political power. The Governor of Malta, Lord Methuen, referred to the possible creation of a Maltese Colony in Palestine in a speech he delivered on January 21, 1919. In his speech at the Aula Magna of the University in Valletta, the Governor made a reference to the serious unemployment situation in Malta since the Armistice and said that he knew that there were about 10,000 Maltese workers lying idle. The distinguished audience which was invited to hear Methuen's speech heard the speaker say:

"I cannot point out too strongly to the people of these islands the absolute necessity of encouraging people to emigrate from Malta. The total number of the population of Malta is at the present 226,000; and if you think of the enormous increase there has been within recent years, do reflect for one moment, what the number must be in ten years hence, and how dangerous epidemics would be and how impossible it would be to find employment for the number of people that would be then living in these islands. I am therefore not only speaking to you here, but to all Maltese, and 1 hope that by means of the press and by means of the pulpit, every endeavour will be made to place clearly before the people of Malta to carry out the scheme which 1 think is feasible. Not only do I see the possibility of a colony being formed in Haifa, but also in other parts of Palestine, for instance Jerusalem, where there is plenty of available ground".

The speech delivered by Governor Lord Methuen was acclaimed by loud and prolonged cheers. Most of the invited guests were of the affluent classes and they knew that Palestine was f no direct interest to them. They did approve however of the idea, that those less fortunate than themselves should not let Methuen's suggestion fall on deaf ears.

On February 2 of that same year the Governor delivered the traditional Candlemas speech to the parish priests of Malta. That speech was also his farewell to the people of Malta as he was relinquishing his post. In the presence of those parish priests Methuen reiterated his strong support for Maltese emigration to Palestine. He said: "Fathers, the subject that is nearest to my heart is that of emigration. We can do no more than what we have done in the matter....When I was in Palestine the other day, I saw there what I believe and hope to be a great opening for the people of Malta. There will be in the future a demand for labour which cannot be met. That means that men and women will be unable to purchase food for themselves and their families. You can depend on it that the seeds of death will be sown thick and fast in many a house in Malta, unless you priests help us, and I believe you will help us by urging from your pulpits on your flocks the absolute necessity of some amongst your charges leaving Malta".

The British Governor of Malta had visited Palestine as that country had been recently pushed into the sphere of Imperial policy-making. Towards the end of 1917 field Marshal Lord Allenby had entered Jerusalem, thus becoming the first Christian conqueror to enter the Holy City since the end of the crusades. Allenby broughtto an end four centuries of Moslem and Turkishrule and the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with a mandate over Palestine. That mandate came into force on September 29, 1923. Maltese emigration to Palestine would have eased the problem of unemployment at home and provided the British with manpower.

The Catholic hierarchy in England supported the Palestinian project because the Maltese were staunch Catholics of the Latin rite and they were also loyal to the British crown. Cardinal Francis Bourne of Westminster was an ardent supporter of Maltese emigration to Palestine. He had a meeting with Admiral Sir S.A. Gough Calthorpe about the project. It was Calthorpe who contacted Methuen about enlisting the support of the Maltese Church for initiating a scheme by which Maltese settlers would be sent to Palestine.

On February 17, 1919, Admiral Sir S.A. Gough Calthorpe wrote to the Governor of Malta:

"Dear Lord Methuen,
I had the opportunity at Constantinople last week, of talking to Cardinal Bourne on the question of Maltese Emigration.
His Eminence, who had just arrived from Palestine, was strongly of the opinion that both the country in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and in other parts of the Holy Land, was exceptionally adapted for the purpose. He observed that the climate was very similar to that of Malta, that the land under cultivation bore a strong resemblance to the land here, and that the Maltese language had much in common with Arabic".

Cardinal Bourne was enthusiastic about the prospect of a Maltese colony somewhere in Palestine. He applauded the sobriety, thrift and industry of the people of Malta and felt that a Maltese settlement in the Holy Land would benefit Malta, Great Britain and Palestine. The Cardinal promised both Methuen and Calthorpe that on his return to England he would pursue the matter further.

Mount Carmel in Palestine had been a holy place of pilgrimage for centuries. The Maltese had known about Mount Carmel as there were Maltese priests serving some of the shrines on the slopes of that mountain. A certain priest, Father Lamb, had contacts with Maltese Catholics and he offered free land to those who would decide to settle in the area of Mount Carmel.

By 1921 Palestine had been transferred to the Colonial Office. In the meantime the British authorities had undertaken a programme of public works which involved a substantial number of workers. The Palestinian Government cabled London in January of that same year asking for arrangements to be made for the dispatch of one thousand immigrants to be given immediate employment as all available local labour had already been absorbed. Statistics show that in 1921 Palestine had absorbed 9,149 immigrants.

Maltese links with Palestine were strengthened when field Marshal Lord Plumer, an ex-Governor of Malta, was appointed High Commissioner for Palestine on August 25, 1925.

However, not all the Maltese shared the enthusiasm about Palestine which Governor Methuen, Cardinal Bourne and Admiral Calthorpe had exhibited. In February 1919, Professor Lawrence Manche' cautioned against the Palestinian Project because he felt that Palestine was then not sufficiently civilised, had an unstable population and lacked the basic comforts necessary for establishing a Maltese Colony capable of absorbing Malta's surplus population.

What really militated against the founding of a Maltese Colony in Palestine was the emergence of Zionism which postulated the return of the Jews to that part of the world. Max Nordau, a veteran Jewish leader, urged mass Jewish emigration into Palestine. In 1918 Nordau had already warned that if the Jews of the Diaspora failed to pour in their hundreds of thousands into Palestine they, would never again be offered the chance of fulfilling their ancient dream of returning.

In 1896 Theodore Herzl had already issued his proposal for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1917 Arthur Balfour, a British statesman, had issued his declaration which vaguely envisaged a settlement in Palestine of loyal Anglophile Jews who would offer the British Empire a strategic post in the Middle East which would also safeguard the route to India and act as a bulwark against Russian ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Palestinian project lingered for many years but it never materialised. In Malta there had never been any enthusiasm for the idea. Moreover, although the Colonial authorities spoke favour-ably about Maltese settlement in Palestine, they never offered concrete financial inducement to intending emigrants. In later years the British were to realise how burdensome their mandate in Palestine had become and they too were more than willing to wash their hands of that part of the world.

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

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