The claim of the Maltese to be considered British suffered from two ma or weaknesses: their inability to speak English and the fact that they often arrived in Australian ports in foreign ships with other aliens on board. Imperialist sources in Malta complained that Maltese immigrants disembarked in Australia from the same ships as the Italians and other foreigners. Moreover, the ships which carried Maltese immigrants to Australia were very often Italian. This system, some thought, helped to strengthen the misconception that the Maltese were Southern Europeans and that Malta could be associated with lesser islands such as Pantelleria. Those same Imperialist sources felt that the Maltese Islands should be associated with the Channel Islands and not with foreign islands in the Mediterranean.
In 1925, the Maltese Government proposed a bill which would make it mandatory for Maltese emigrants to travel on British ships. The Italians reacted by insisting that if the Orient Line wished to carry third class passengers from Naples to Australia, their steamers had to make an Italian port their point of departure. Eventually the Maltese had to admit that Italian shipping companies were capable of providing a reliable service to Australia. Two Italian ships, the s.s. Palermo and the s.s. Re d'ltalia, had in 1924, sailed directly from Valletta to Australia. The second ship had been used as a hospital ship during the war and was a frequent visitor to Malta.
When the Maltese on the s.s. Palermo arrived in Australia they spontaneously handed over to the captain a declaration in which they said that they wished to inform the company "Navigazione Generale Italiana" that they had been well served with food while the conditions on board were very comfortable. The declaration carried the signatories of thirty-five Maltese emigrants who had boarded the s.s. Palermo on October 23, 1924.
Not all travellers from Malta to Australia had been so favourably impressed before. Various letters of complaints have survived. An anonymous passenger from Malta wrote about his problems on September 2, 1920. His letter was written in imperfect English:
"I beg to give you few information of the bad treatment that are being met with the Maltese in foreign land and I expect that you will he kind enough to gather the essential of it and make up an article through which you advise the Officer in charge of the Emigration Committee to investigate the shipping agents and to check their lies.
All the accommodations, help, etc. that these rascals promise to the emigrants in foreign countries is a mere fantasy. At Syracuse, Mr. L.A. an emigrant that had in hands the instructions of the Shipping Company, did not succeed to satisfy our fellow countrymen for the simple reason that he is a toolmaker by profession and not an expert agent.
Another agent offered a stable for the Maltese emigrants where to lodge in. When a protest was made, he said that owing to the numerous Italian emigrants, he was not in a position to find a good place for them and the straw and the hay that covered the floor of the stable was paid at his own expense. Those who had the money could rest in hotels. Others had to rest in shady streets".
"The Daily News" of Perth echoed a number of complaints raised by a group of fourteen Maltese emigrants who had come all the way from Naples to Fremantle on the Italian ship "Racconigi". That ship had dropped anchor on June 26, 1922, and the Maltese passengers declared that they wanted to carry on with theirjourney to Sydney b y train because they were not satisfied with living conditions on board.
Some of them complained to "The Daily News" about food and accommodation which, according to what they said, were perhaps acceptable to foreigners like the Italians, but not to British people like the Maltese. The Maltese said that the "Racconigi" was not a passenger ship, but a cargo vessel which had taken on board a number of Italian emigrants. The engines kept breaking down and this prolonged the journey by eight more days.
That part of the trip from Colombo to Fremantle was especially slow and the food got worse. The menu consisted of macaroni, boiled French beans and meat. For breakfast they were served with weak coffee with sugar but without milk. They were given dry biscuits.
The disgruntled Maltese told the reporter of "The Daily News" that they protested to the ship's captain. They said the water tasted badly and that they had to go to the kitchen to get their own food because no tables were provided. There were no chairs and they had either to squat on the floor or else go on deck and sit on the hatches.
Their complaints were not even considered. The first mate told them that if they did not like their victuals they were free to leave them where they were. At first the Maltese did just that. However, when their hunger got worse, they had to eat what they were given.
Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.