Cyprus, Corfu, Constantinople and Smyrna

Another important British possession in the east of the Mediterranean was the island of Cyprus. Poised strategically on the doorstep of the 1evant, Cyprus was pushed into the British sphere Of influence when in 1878 that island was effectively taken out of Turkish control. Benjamin Disraeli saw Cyprus as the third British outpost to maintain Britain's control over the Mediterranean. The other two strategic British possessions were Malta and Gibraltar.

Political domination of Cyprus was the first step. Colonising that island was the second. TO achieve this aim London tried to entice some Maltese to settle in sparsely populated areas Of Cyprus to offset the growing importance of Greek immigration into the island. The British Army in Cyprus had already given employment to a number of Maltese. Later, a prominent Maltese lawyer, Sir Adrian Dingli, was dispatched to Cyprus to study, among other items, the feasibility of sending Maltese emigrants to that island.

In an extensive memorandum written by him, Sir Adrian Dingli came out in favour of a Maltese Colony on Cyprus. Sir Adrian noted that although Cyprus was a relatively large island, its population was not large. The land and climate were similar to those in Malta. Sir Adrian also noted that the Maltese were ideally suited to settle in a British colony because they were loyal subjects and they felt no blood connection with any of the neighbouring Mediterranean nations. Maltese colonists in Cyprus would balance the number of Greek settlers. Sir Adrian wrote that an increase of the Greek population in Cyprus would bode ill for the future of Britain in that island.

By 1880 Maltese entrepreneurs had bought land On Cyprus and had engaged some of their country-men to develop it. However this initiative was soon defeated by the spread of malaria. Yet some Maltese settlers did persevere.

The possibility of planting a Maltese colony on Cyprus was kept alive for many years after Sir Adrian Dingli. In 1925 Cyprus was declared a Crown Colony and two years later a scheme was presented to the Maltese authorities by Lt. Col. Harman Grisewood. Grisewood and others were willing to offer the capital to buy land which would be settled and worked by 320 Maltese families. The Maltese Colony would support some 2,000 people. Those people would have the services of a Maltese priest and a doctor. Grisewood also suggested the presence of butchers, cooks, clerks, mechanics, draughtsmen and storekeepers. These would all be recruited from Malta.

The land on which the Maltese were to settle was known as the Margo Estate. Its former owners were Jews who had abandoned it when they had left for Palestine. Grisewood said that the Margo Estate was near a river where water was abundant. But opponents of the Grisewood scheme claimed that that water was the source of malaria which had claimed Maltese lives before.

Grisewood tried to enlist the support of the Maltese Government. He had a conference with the Prime Minister of Malta, Lord Strickland, and with the minister responsible for Emigration, Dr. A. Bartolo. He also met Mr. Henry Casolani who was the Superintendent of Emigration. Grisewood declared that he was prepared to transfer Maltese emigrants from Malta to his Margo Estate where they were to be given free provisions, accommodation and they were to receive a payment of 12s to 14s a week. This applied to every working colonist.

Grisewood also said that after a period of thirty months, the farms on his Estate would be cultivated communally until they were all ready for cultivation, when the said portions would become the property of the colonists. Then the sale of produce would commence and repayments would be made by the colonists at the rate of 50% of net earnings.

Grisewood told his Maltese listeners that he intended to raise money in England, but he also asked for financial assistance from Lord Strickland. He envisaged such an assistance as a loan of about 220,000. Strickland naturally demurred from such a proposition.

In July 1928 three Maltese farmers left for Cyprus. They visited the Margo Estate and the impressions made on the visitors were entirely positive. As a consequence of this visit farmsteads were offered to prospective Maltese colonists on a basis of cash or easy instalments.

In August of that same year it was announced that by October 200 Maltese families would be established on the Margo Estate. These would settle there with their own capital and with financial assistance advanced to them by the Cyprus Government.

But the departure of these families never took place. Before October, the scheme had come under fire and influential people in high places declared themselves hostile to it. Many had decided that Cyprus was unfit for the Maltese because it was infested with malaria. Others asked: why emigrate to Cyprus when so many Cypriots were themselves leaving the island for North America and Australia?

On September 10, 1928, Grisewood was again in Malta. Then he complained that his scheme had become bogged down in the morass of Maltese partisan politics. He complained: "My scheme should be independent of party politics. I am the victim of misrepresentation and falsehood. Cyprus has just celebrated its jubilee of British Rule and more than 800 books are available to those who want to know about the colony. Emigration to Cyprus is no leap in the dark. Cyprus is not an island of wild beasts, malaria, usury and drought".

The idea of a Maltese Colony in Cyprus had been born in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There had been a number of false starts. The initiative had always come from private businessmen who looked on a Maltese settlement in Cyprus primarily as an experiment for making money for themselves. While much talk took place about different propositions, those who really controlled both Malta and Cyprus never involved themselves. Financial help to intending emigrants was never contemplated.

By 1931 the political situation in Cyprus began causing concern to the local Governor. The signs were already there. The Greeks were the majority on the island and they looked to Athens, not to London, for their political inspiration and loyalty. The first stirrings of the future "Enosis" were there, just as Sir Adrian Dingli had foreseen many years before.

Another Greek island of interest to the student of the history of Maltese emigration within the basin of the Mediterranean, was Corfu. The Ionian Islands, off the north-west coast of Greece, had been declared a British protectorate in 1815 and they had come under the sway of the British more or less at the same time as the Maltese Islands did. Corfu and Cephalonia were the major islands within the Ionian Group. The British wanted to entice Maltese emigrants to obtain reliable workers and also to strengthen their hold on the islands. Sir Thomas Maitland had been appointed High Commissioner for the Ionian Islands and he tried to obtain Maltese workers because he was familiar with Malta.

In 1901 there were almost one thousand people in Corfu who considered themselves as ethnic Maltese. In Cephalonia the number was 225. There were another hundred Maltese spread among the other lesser islands of the Ionian Group. Maltese emigration to these islands practically ceased when they were returned to Greece in 1864. Because of the union with Greece a number of Maltese families abandoned Corfu and settled in Cardiff, Wales. Their descent still live in that city.

The Maltese colony in Corfu did not vanish. Two villages on the island bear name a Maltese derivative: Maltezika is named after Malta and Cozzella got its name from Gozo. In Cozzella the Franciscan Sisters of Malta opened; convent and a school in 1907. Those two institutions still flourish.

In 1923 there were some 1,200 ethnic Maltese left in Corfu, but many of them spoke either Greek or the local dialect which still bore traces of the Venetian occupation of the island. Because of this Venetian connection Fascist propagandists tried, to build up an irredentist case for Corfu. Guido Puccio wrote in "Tribuna" a leading Roman newspaper, on September 12, 1923, that the Maltese element in Corfu could be used as an instrument to further Italian claims on that island

In 1930 the Maltese in Corfu had their own priest who looked after their welfare while he kept useful contacts with the ecclesiastical and civil authorities in Malta. The priest was the Rev Spiridione Cilia. He had been born in Corfu of Maltese parents and was then the parish priest the Maltese community. In 1930 Father Cilia launched an appeal in Malta for funds to build, home for the elderly who besides being old, were also destitute.

Rev. S. Cilia said that most elderly Maltese in Corfu lived on their own and received no support from their children. The sons and daughters of these old men and women were in no position t help their parents. Some of these people still held on to their British passports and therefore the. Greek Government showed no interest in them The Maltese Government sent Rev. S. Cilia a donation of 50. In October 1930 the priest wrote, back to the Maltese authorities to let them know that his home for the aged was by then almost completed.

Constantinople and Smyrna were, within the Ottoman Empire which number of Maltese emigrants. These were cosmopolitan and the Maltese one small group in a very mixed population.

During the middle years of the century, Constantinople had began gates to European traders. The Ottoman empire was in decline and the Sultan depended on Christian traders to replenish his depleted coffers. Constantinople attracted small businessmen from Malta. There were also some sailors and labourers -recruited by other Europeans who had visited Malta. R. Vadala' claimed that in 1912 the Maltese in Constantinople had formed their own community..

At the time Vadala was writing most Maltese had congregated within the district known as Galata where one of the streets was named after them. They frequented the church of St. Peter in Galata and that of the Virgin Mary in Pera. Although most of the Maltese belonged to the working and merchant classes, R. Vadala men-tioned two Maltese gentlemen who were very prominent at the time. Dr. Lewis Mizzi was claimed as one of the best lawyers in Constantinople where he also edited a popular newspaper which carried the name of "The Levant Herald". The late Dr. Parnis was a legal adviser to the Sublime Porte. Vadala claimed that at one time were some 3,000 Maltese living in Constaninople. There were also Maltese priests who not not worked among their fellow countrymen but also ministered to the Italians.

Smyrna was an important seaport on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. By the end of the First World War the Maltese population in Smyrna was estimated at about 1,800. In 1922 war broke out between the Greeks and the Turks. The victory of the Turks and the atrocious treatment given to the Europeans in Smyrna meant the effective end of the European community. The massacres perpetuated by the Young Turks made frightening head-lines in Europe's newspapers. As the Turks advanced on Smyrna a terrible fire broke out which rendered most of the inhabitants homeless. Many Maltese lost everything and their only hope was to petition the British Consul to repatriate them to Malta.

Most of the Maltese in Smyrna had been born there and had no relatives in Malta. Some were four generations removed from the island of their ancestors. Their only link with Malta was sentimental.

On September 15, 1922, the British hospital-ship "Maine" entered Grand Harbour. She carried 407 refugees from Smyrna. Among those refugees, eighty-one were of Maltese origin. They carried little else besides the clothes they had on them. Crowds gathered on the quays to look at these refugees who had been the victims of horrible atrocities. They spoke no Maltese but they made it obvious that they were happy to be miles away from Smyrna as they gazed at the peaceful surroundings while the "Maine" dropped her anchors.

Those refugees were relatively lucky. After the attacks and the massacres, plague broke out among the miserable survivors. By the end of 1922 the Maltese authorities had housed some 1,300 refugees from Smyrna.

In 1932 the Turkish dictator, Kemal Ataturk, decreed that all foreigners had to leave Turkey. What had remained of the Maltese colonies in Constantinople and Smyrna had now been dispersed to various European and North African countries. About another 200 refugees from Turkey, penniless and with nowhere to go, were given shelter by the Maltese. The Sunday Express of July 1934 published a report about "two hundred Maltese crosses" who had been ordered to leave their homes in Turkey within one week. The report said that those Maltese Crosses had been born and bred in Turkey and spoke neither Maltese nor English, even though technically they were British subjects.

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

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