Egypt and Libya
For many centuries relations between Malta and North Africa had been conditioned by the legacy of mistrust and fear which had been generated by the crusades. When the Knights of St. John took possession of Malta in 1530, they-made the island their last stand against the advance of the Turks. Malta and the Maltese were to be the last bulwark of the crusading spirit.
The Knights Hospitalliers of St. John defied the power of the Turks till the very end. Their final defeat came from the Christian French not from the Moslems. Napoleon Bonaparte brought to an end not only the longest surviving chivalric Order in Europe, but when he took possession of Malta in 1798, he also brought to an end the association of the Knights with the Maltese which had lasted for two hundred and sixty eight years. During their long stay in Malta the Knights of St. John had profoundly influenced the Maltese. Many Maltese manned and sailed the galleys of the Order and on numberless occasions Knights and Maltese attacked Arab and Turkish coastal towns. Maltese captured during such raids were probably the first unwilling emigrants to the unfriendly shores of North Africa.
The Knights of St. John never made their peace with the Turks. The French interlude in Malta lasted for about two years and that short period was one of insurrection and revolt against the French invaders. When Napoleon left Malta for Egypt about 2,000 Maltese left with him in what was later called La Legion Maltaise.
Eventually most of these men dispersed through-out the Levant after the defeat of Aboukir on August 1, 1798. The remnants of the Legion Maltaise could be considered as the pioneers of the Maltese settlement in Egypt.
Later on, when Egypt was drawn into the sphere of British influence, other Maltese sought employment with the British forces there. When the British besieged Alexandria in 1822 about 8,000 Maltese refugees returned home in June of that same year. When peace was restored Alexandria became an important place for Maltese settlement in Egypt. Other Maltese decided to live in Cairo, Suez, Rosetta and Port Said.
1859 was another important year in the history of Egypt and of the Mediterranean. On April 25 of that year Ferdinand de Lesseps started working on the Suez Canal and that zone was to attract thousands of workers from the European shores of the Mediterranean. Some Maltese sought their fortune in that area. Manual workers left Malta on their own initiative to find employment with the British Forces in Egypt. Most of the immigrants from Malta earned their livelihood in the construction business as masons, carpenters, smiths and glaziers. Their British employers found them useful because some Maltese knew English and they were able to pick up Arabic much faster than other European workers. The Maltese were proud of their association with the British Empire and they were also very hardworking.
The number of Maltese immigrants in Egypt went on increasing. Their close relations with other immigrants from Europe helped them to appreciate the importance of education. Though many of them had left Malta practically illiterate they were eager to learn. They sent their children to French schools because these were run by Catholic missionaries. It so happened that the sons and daughters of the original humble immigrants from Malta became accomplished linguists fluent in English, French and Arabic. Most of them also picked up Italian while they kept their own Maltese mother tongue.
This flair for languages made them a useful asset to the British authorities who very often employed the Maltese in their consular offices throughout Egypt. European companies operating in the Canal Zone found the polyglot Maltese very useful. The culture and religion of the Maltese immigrants opened for them most avenues which were available to Europeans, though it is also important to state that they were occasionally subjected to humiliation owing to racial prejudice. Their willingness to learn and speak Arabic made them acceptable to the native Egyptians, though when the hour of destiny struck in 1956 they were told to leave and go like all other foreigners.
As early as 1893 two Maltese gentlemen, G. Palmier and M. Nuzzo issued a weekly publication which carried the patriotic name of "Melita". Some four years later a second publication appeared which bore the title of "Egittu". In 1909 Mr. George J. Vella edited a weekly newspaper in Maltese which he called "Li Standard tal-Maltin" which meant that he considered his newspaper as the banner of the Maltese living in Egypt. George J. Vella was based in Cairo and from there he hoped to inspire his Maltese countrymen with intense patriotism towards their Island. Vella's newspaper ceased publication in 1912 but was resumed seven years later and survived till 1924.
The contribution of George J. Vella was immensely positive. His "Li Standard tal-Maltin" inspired the foundation of 'ne Maltese Benevolent Society, The Melita Band and The Ladies Union. It was also due to the effort made by George J. Vella that other organisations came into existence within the fold of the Maltese Communities in Egypt. Among these organisations were: The Maltese Club of Suez, The Maltese Boy Scouts, The Maltese Girl guides and The Maltese Band of Port Said.
Toni Said of Port Said founded an association for the diffusion of the Maltese language and literature. He also published a literary review called "II-Qari Malti". This review appeared at intervals and survived till 1946 when Toni Said left Egypt.
Another prominent Maltese in Egypt was Ivo Muscat Azzopardi who lived in Egypt for a number of years. In Alexandria, Mr. Ivo Muscat Azzopardi founded a Maltese literary society to foster interest in the language and history of Malta among the Maltese then living in Egypt.
In 1937 there appeared another publication called "Bulletin of the Maltese Community of Cairo". In 1943 this publication changed its name to "II Habbar Malti" and although it was at first printed in Maltese, later on there were also articles in English and in French. The editors distributed this newspaper free of charge until it ceased publication in 1953.
In 1910 The Maltese Benevolent Society of Cairo came into being through the initiative of Gj. Vella. On February 12, 1910, Adolphe Bartolo called a general meeting which resulted in the setting up of the Society. The twofold aim of the Society was to alleviate financial hardship among the Maltese and to provide help and assistance to the sick and the aged.
The idea of helping Maltese immigrants was not new. In 1880 Carmelo Cachia founded his Maltese Mutual Help of Cairo. Its first president was Professor C. Debono. The aim of this organisation was to provide financial and medical assistance to its members. It was dissolved in 1950 but it had inspired a number of ancillary bodies to come into existence for the benefit of the Maltese in Egypt.
In 1912 the Government of Malta contributed the cnosiderable sum of £300 to be used for the benefit of those Maltese who found themselves in straitened circumstances. There had been a number of similar contributions throughout the years.A Maltese benevolent society in Alexandria received an annual grant from Malta of £40 in order to help indigent members of the local community. That community was believed -to he one of the largest in Egypt in 1926. In that same year a British benevolent society offered a grant of £120 for the same purpose.
In October 1922 Dr. Ugo Abela Hyzier, President -of the Maltese Boy Scouts of Cairo wrote about his troop of fifty boys who had enrolled in March of that same year. He also wrote about the Maltese Community in Cairo and mentioned the mutual help associations, dramatic companies and band clubs which were to be found in places where the Maltese tended to congregate. R. Vadala' wrote about the La Valette band of Alexandria which actually owned its own premises. The Maltese in Alexandria frequented the church of St. Catherine where a Maltese priest administered to his own people in their own age.
Up to 1927 the various Maltese communities in Egypt had no real link between them. To provide better cohesion a Community Council was formed after an appeal which had been launched in the pages of "Li Standard tal-Maltin". In December of that year the Community Council was formed with the support of Lord Lloyd of Dolobran who was then High Commissioner in Egypt. The news-paper "II-Habbar Malti" became the Council's official organ.
In 1926 the number of Maltese living in Egypt approached the figure of 20,000. Alexandria, Cairo, Suez and Port Said, all had sizeable communities. The Maltese in Port Said had built their own church which they dedicated to Saint Eugene. The church was built of Malta stone which had been imported at the expense of the Maltese. They had their own priest, Rev. Mark Sammut. This Franciscan friar was born in Egypt and had never been to Malta. He was however, intensely proud of his Maltese heritage and was very dedicated to the Maltese community in Port Said.
The Maltese in Egypt represented all classes. They were to be found in all professions and trades. But the political base of the European presence in Egypt was not very sound.
Constitutional changes had been introduced which gave more power to the Egyptians. By 1926 Egypt was practically independent. Europeans were less secure as British power over Egyptian affairs declined. Zaghlul Pasha represented the nationalistic trend which was to appeal to all Egyptians and that trend did not take the presence of foreigners very lightly. The British Army of Occupation provided a guarantee of law and order but it could not rely on popular Egyptian support. Zaghlul Pasha made his intentions very clear to Lord Lloyd, who was at the time the British High Commissioner. Zaghlul Pasha wanted no reservations on the control of the Sudan and of the Suez Canal. He also hinted at the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt.
Owing to the gravity of the situation prevalent in Egypt, the battleship "Resolution" was ordered to sail from Malta to Egyptian waters. This move forced Zaghlul Pasha to resign his premiership to the Liberal leader Adly Yeghen. Some respite had been won but Europeans in Egypt must have had their presentiment that once they lost the support of British military and naval protection, they had to depend on the will of the Egyptian people. Once the transfer of real power had been made to the people of Egypt, the exodus of 1956 became inevitable. That date meant the effective end of the Maltese colonies in Egypt.
Close to Egypt lay the two Libyan provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Maltese emigration to these parts had been governed by the same conditions that had guided the establishment of other Maltese settlements in most parts of North Africa. However, Maltese movements to Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were slower than to other places because the two provinces were under direct Turkish rule as late as 1911. Prior to that date there were probably some one thousand Maltese living in Tripoli and Benghazi.
One reason why some Maltese traders had decided to set up business in Tripoli and Benghazi was to establish contact with Saharan traders. Caravan leaders from the Sahara had shown interest in the lucrative markets of Europe and the Maltese had intended to establish contact between the Sahara and the North. The Maltese offered their boats to ship Saharan products to Malta and thence to Europe. Although the trade left good profits, the Maltese had to contend with Italians and Jews. The latter had been on the scene for ages and had their significant contacts on the shores of Africa and on those of Europe.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the colonies of the Maltese in Cyrenaica and Tripoli had already shown signs of weakness and decay. The fact that the populations of Maltese settlers in Tripoli, Benghazi and Derna remained stable for almost half a century showed that these trading centres were not flourishing. Those who were able to afford to go back to Malta did so; those who stayed lived under the threat of poverty.
In 1911 Italy felt that she had a right to join in the European scramble for Africa. Cyrenaica and Tripoli were still parts of the Ottoman Empire and Rome felt that national prestige was a valid enough reason to claim this old part of the old Roman Empire. War was declared on Turkey and within 'a few months a number of coastal towns were taken over by the Italians. The territory came to be known as Libia Italiana.
The coastal towns where most Maltese lived came under the occupation of Rome and many immigrants from Sicily and Calabria settled in Tripoli, Benghazi and Derna. The Italian connection brought a revival in trade to the coastal areas, but the Italian connection also brought a new hazard to the Maltese colonies in Libya. Unlike the French in the Maghreb, the Italians did not need foreign settlers in Libya because they had a surplus population in their South.
While the French had accepted the Maltese, Spaniards and Italians as immigrants who would augment the European element, particularly in Algeria, the Italians in Libya feared the foreigners as competitors. The Maltese were not only competitors but they also liked to remind the Italian authorities that the mighty British Fleet was only a few miles away harbouring in Maltese waters and that the Maltese themselves were British subjects.
The tension between Maltese and Italians got more evident when Italy and Libya were ruled by the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In 1924 Mussolini threatened the Maltese in Libya with deportation unless they opted for Italian citizenship. At first the threat was meant to intimidate government employees of Maltese origin who still clang to their British passports.
These employees were granted a period of three years to decide whether they wanted to take Italian citizenship or hold on to their British nationality. As the Fascist dictatorship got more severe in Italy, life in Libya for those Maltese who refused to take Italian citizenship became more intolerable. It was no wonder that the Maltese settlements in Libya did not grow under the threat of persecution and expulsion. Such a situation lingered on till the British Army occupied most of Libya's territory during the invasion of North Africa in the Second World War.
When Italy lost the war Libya was granted independence. The Maltese settlers in Libya knew that now they had to live with the challenge of Arab nationalism. Many of them left for Europe, America and Australia. The end of the effective Maltese presence in Libya followed the pattern of what had happened in other areas of North Africa.
Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.