Eyes of the Maltese on Australia

In a statement of policy made in Maita's Parliament in 1921, it was said that Australia was then the most suitable, if not the only, country to which the flow of Maltese emigration should be directed.

In a sitting of the Legislative Assembly held on May 5, 1922, the minister responsible for emigration, Col. Savona, explained that the Maltese Government greatly favoured the idea of directing emigrants from Malta to the vast empty spaces of the Australian Commonwealth. Savona informed the Legislative Assembly that Mr. Henry Casolani was to go to London to discuss further emigration to Australia.

The Sydney Daily Mail of June 18, 1923, published an article under the caption: "Eyes of Maltese on Australia". In that article it was stated that the vastness of practically empty Australia was not only the envy of Asian neighbours but was also attracting the attention of many people all over the world. The newspaper found out that from the comparative obscurity of Malta came the suggestion of forming a society based in Malta and in Australia, made of capitalists from England, Australia and Malta. Wealthy investors in the three countries intended to buy large tracts of land in unoccupied areas to settle Maltese workers who would colonise those areas which had not hitherto attracted settlers from the United Kingdom. The newspaper felt that "the importation of Maltese labour would be a far more profitable and desirable scheme than the flooding of the North with Sir Sidney Kidman's Chinese".

The news that more Maltese were to be sent to Australia created no unbounded enthusiasm among the Australians. The unemployment situation, often referred to as "a war inheritance", was serious. Many Maltese immigrants did not wish to see more of their countrymen coming to Australia to compete with them for elusive work. In Sydney the Maltese living in and around Wooloomooloo were going through a rough time. In December 1920, the Rev. Gribble said that in that area some 2,000 newly arrived men were stranded with nothing to do and very little to eat. Gribble belonged to a Church movement which was then assisting immigrants and those Australians who had returned to civilian life after the war was over.

Mr. Charlton, leader of the Labour Party, had suggested the breaking up of large estates in order to settle on them qualified unemployed men. Michael Vassallo, a Maltese immigrant living in Sydney at that time, wrote back to Malta to say that many Maltese in New South Wales were lonely and penniless. Vassallo wrote that it was difficult to find a goodjob and impossible to work if one did not possess a union card. He also noted that the Unions did not like to issue such cards to aliens. Vassallo ended his letter by advising his readers against going to Australia in 1922.

Mr. Joseph Dingli, a Maltese who had been in Australia since he was eleven years old, kept a general store at 112, Riley Street. Many Maltese from the Wooloomooloo area considered him their spokesman. On November 5, 1922, Dingli wrote to the Premier of New South Wales, Sir George Fuller, about a Maltese immigrant who had had two days work in fifteen months. Dingli claimed that his friend used to go to the Labour Bureau every day. Eventually he was given a job with the Water Bureau. When he got there he produced his union card but was refused work.

Various letters were published in the Sydney press about hardship suffered by many Maltese immigrants. The result of such publicity was not to mobilise public opinion in favour of those who were unfortunate, but to restrict the entry of such people into the country.

Another intervention by Joseph Dingli was not very prudent. In a letter to Sir George Fuller, Dingli claimed that the authorities in Malta were inducing large numbers to emigrate to Australia because those emigrants were being fooled into believing that work in Australia was abundant. The Sydney Morning Herald of November4,1922, carried a sensational heading: "Maltese coming to Australia - Premier takes action". In that article Sir George Fuller claimed that Joseph Dingli had told him that hundreds of men in Malta had sold their homes and furniture in order to raise sufficient money to pay for their passage to Australia.

By the time Mr. Henry Casolani had written back to most Australian national newspapers to calm the fears of those who expected thousands of hungry Maltese to converge on the cities of Australia, the harm had been done. Casolani rightly complained about adverse statements and prejudiced reports that were being then circulated throughout the country, especially in New South Wales. He said that Dingli's reports were inaccurate because the numbers of Maltese intending to emigrate to Australia were never very high. Those whose applications to emigrate to Australia had been approved were going to stay with relatives or friends who had already established themselves in Australia or had assured employment. Casolani also claimed that his critics in Malta had accused him of skimming the Island of its cream, leaving only the wastrels behind.

Wooloomooloo and its surrounding area was a commercial zone highly favoured by unskilled Maltese and other immigrants, mostly from Mediterranean lands. On November 29. 1927, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that an Australian standing at no.2 East Circular Quay might have been pardoned for wondering if he had not suddenly been transported to the region of the

Mediterranean because the wharfside hummed with the soft sibilants of Southern Europe. Another correspondent noted that in that particular area if someone wished to find a Maltese all he had to do was to take a tram to Wooloomooloo or to Surry Hills.

The harbour area of Sydney was popular with the Maltese who back home had worked on the quays of Grand Harbour which were, in better times, humming with life generated by the British Fleet and many merchant vessels. Such migrants originated mostly from the area around the Dockyard known as Cottonera. In that particular area known also as the Three Cities made up of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, many workers earned their living as stevedores and it was natural for such migrants to seek work on the quays once they set foot in Australia.

Maltese from the industrial area, as distinct from those who came from rural zones and from Gozo, did notice some similarity between the way of life they had left behind them and the action going on around the Sydney quays. They were used to that type of hard work and the long hours. They were also familiar with foreign workers whom they met while loading and unloading ships from many parts of the world and most of them knew some English because of their connection with the British Fleet. Whether they were called stevedores or "wharfies" did not matter to them.

There were Maltese living in Wooloomooloo in the beginning of the twentieth century. They were mostly single men, or else married with their families left at home in Malta. After the First World War their numbers increased and some of these immigrants decided to send for their wives and children. But single men still predominated and by 1927 there were complaints about too many single men from Malta who were living in Wooloomooloo. These were cramming the available boarding-houses and sometimes earning a bad reputation for themselves and for the Maltese community.

It seems that it was not only the "wharfies" of Wooloomooloo who had been singled out for criticism at the time. Robert Pace was an educated Maltese who had emigrated to Australia in 1914, accompanied by his wife and five children. Robert enjoyed permanent Government employment and be . cause he spoke very good English he was able to mix freely with most Australians. However, in 1921, Robert decided to leave Australia and opt for Tunisia. In a letter signed by him on January 1, 1922, he gave his reasons for doing so:

"I say it loud - we cannot live in Australia; they had made it too hot for us. No man with a principle would live for any length of time under conditions which were most humiliating.

It is by no means a pleasure to be hearing all the time unpleasant reflections concerning Malta and the Maltese.

Had I wanted, I could easily have changed my skin, but I preferred to remain a Maltese, a decision which meant the ruin of at least one of my children.

Painful incidents which the Maltese had to endure during the conscription campaign:

In public meetings the name of Malta was boo-hoed and whistled.

In some newspapers the Maltese were described as 'me wants works'.

You cannot live anywhere. Go where you wish, sooner or later, you get insulted, worse than this you get called a Maltese!"

It is possible that Robert Pace was more sensitive about racism than most other Maltese because he was able to see and feel the oppression obtained by such unfair attitudes. Luckily, many of the Maltese were unable to realise how widespread the hostility was, either because they lived in closely knit communities or else because their lack of the English language mercifully spared them the meaning of what was being printed and spoken about them.

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

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