Immigrants and Conscription

In 1916 an unhappy incident took place which showed how far tempers had risen on the conscription issue and on immigration. A number of unsuspecting emigrants from Malta were to provide an excuse for those who opposed conscription to vent their feelings against Prime Minister Hughes, conscription and the immigration of aliens.

At a sitting of the Council of Government in Valletta on January 13, 1917, the Acting lieutenant Governor and Chief Secretary, Mr. E. Bonavia, said that on August 18, 1916, 98 emigrants had left Valletta for Sydney on the s.s. Arabia. The migrants on that ship were mostly labourers and farmhands. Their departure was wholly regular as they possessed valid passports and had paid for their passage. They were all travelling independently and had no ties or contracts with any organised scheme of emigration. This group arrived safely and were allowed to travel to their final destination in Australia without any difficulty.

Mr. Bonavia continued to say that on September 12, 1916, another party of 206 Maltese left for Sydney on the French steamer "Gange". These, by an unfortunate coincidence, arrived in Australian waters at the same time as Prime Minister Hughes was conducting very forcefully his campaign in favour of conscription. The opponents of Hughes saw the arrival of the Maltese as part of an evil scheme concocted by Hughes and his supporters with the support of the Maltese authorities to introduce cheap labour into Australia at a time when Hughes wanted to send Australian men to the fronts.

The captain of the "Gange" was told to steer clear of Australian ports and to slow his speed so that he would approach Melbourne sometime around October 30 when the referendum on conscription would be over by two days. But when the "Gange" arrived in Melbourne the Maltese were not given permission to land. Eventually they were taken to the French island of New Caledonia where they were kept for six months. Even when they were returned to Sydney their harassment was not over because they were transferred to an old ship where they were kept till employment was found for them.

Mr. Bonavia knew of the current unrest in Australia. At the same sitting he admitted that ... "there has been for some time past a good deal of unrest in Australia in the matter of importation of labour and a strong public feeling has all along existed against any newcomers who could, with or without reason, be regarded with suspicion as people who were willing to work long hours for low wages. They were not looked upon with any friendly eye by the Labour Unions".

While there were Australians who did not support the idea of encouraging immigration from Malta, there were Maltese politicians who opposed sending migrants to that country. One such politician was Dr. Enrico Mizzi who felt that the Maltese should be spared the humiliation of going to a foreign country like Australia which was hostile to aliens. In another sitting of the Council of Government held on January 20, 1917, Dr. Mizzi asked for information about those Australian newspapers which were spreading a virulent campaign against the entry of immigrants from Malta.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph of October 16, 1916, carried an official statement meant to counterbalance the scurrilous nature of the attacks made on the Maltese living in various parts of Australia. That statement was published by Mr. Holmer and Mr. Wade. The two gentlemen stated that long before 1916 small groups of immigrants from Malta had been arriving in Australia and these migrants had never created problems within the areas where they were living. Those who were now trying to alarm the nation against the Maltese invasion were attacking the unfortunate Maltese in order to hit at Prime Minister Hughes.

The statement said that the Maltese in Australia had gained entry into the country in a legal manner. They paid their fare and settled in Australia of their own free will. On settling down they sought membership of their respective unions, paid their dues and worked at established rates and under union conditions. Holmer and Wade made reference to those numerous Australian soldiers who had found solace and care in Maltese hospitals. They also said in their statement that Maltese living in Australia had written back to their relatives at home telling them of the high wages they were earning and praising the freedom and the good standard of living prevalent in Australia.

The statement by Holmer and Wade condemned the unfounded allegations made against the Maltese. The opponents of conscription were also opposing Maltese immigration when the two issues were completely separate. The Anti-Compulsionists claimed that the Maltese had been brought to Australia under contract for employment on Government railway construction or on other State enterprises. This allegation had already been denied the day it was made by both Federal and State governments.

The statement also declared that the Maltese were in no sense coloured labour. The Maltese were a European race and loyal to the British Empire. During the Battle of Jutland in May of that same year many Maltese had given up their lives for the victory of the Empire. The statement also said that while some quarters in Australia were fanning the flames of racism against the Maltese, those gallant British subjects were giving their loyal service to the effort of winning the war not only in the North Sea but also in the Mediterranean and on the European mainland.

The statement of October 16, 1916, said that since the Maltese were proud of their British citizenship, they were only too willing to give their share to defeat the Kaiser. They were prepared to do this whether they lived in Malta or in Australia. Moreover, there was no question of the Maltese swamping the empty spaces of Australia. The total population of Malta was less than a quarter of a million and the Maltese who were willing to emigrate probably numbered about 10,000. Only a part of this figure would choose to emigrate to Australia since many Maltese had opted to settle in other parts of the world, particularly in North America.

The statement issued over the signature of Holmer and Wade reminded Australians that Mr. Hughes had already requested the Imperial authorities not to issue passports during the war to intending migrants of military age. Hughes's wish did not apply to Maltese only but to citizens of the United Kingdom and all the British Dominions. Consequently, Holmer and Wade claimed that those who opposed the entry of Maltese immigrants because they also opposed conscription were doing a disservice to Australia, to Malta and to the Empire.

In spite of such a statement carried by one of the most influential newspapers in Australia, and the official intervention of Federal and State authorities, public opinion in Australia during the War remained hostile to Maltese immigration. The incident of the "Gange" had been a great humiliation. The Maltese Government was not able to do much to help the migrants caught between the opposing factions of Australian politics. Malta was not an independent country and the Maltese had no representative in Australia to speak up for them. Mr. Casolani, writing six years after the fiasco, could only say that most of the Maltese on the "Gange" were "of poor quality and mostly unskilled".

By 1919 Australia had stopped the entry of Maltese except for wives and dependent children of Maltese nationals who were permanently settled there.

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

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