The Maltese of New Caledonia, 1916

Author: Dr. Barry York, Europe-Australia Institute,

The incident involving the biggest single group of excluded Maltese has been well documented through my own publications and those of others, such as Mark Caruana and Frank Zammit of Sydney. The group of 214 Maltese 'prohibited immigrants' in 1916 comprised a boatload of agricultural labourers who were turned away at their intended port of disembarkation, Sydney, after having failed the dictation test while their boat was offshore at Melbourne. The method used by the Hughes' federal government was to have the test administered to the Maltese in the Dutch language.

On failing the Dutch dictation test, the Maltese became prohibited immigrants, unable to disembark anywhere within the Commonwealth of Australia, and liable to six months imprisonment and deportation should they somehow make it to shore. In addition to the official immigration statistics for 1916 which clearly show that 208 Maltese were kept out by section 3(a), there is evidence in the form of letters written by a Maltese priest in Sydney, Fr William Bonett, who had boarded the Gange, the ship on which the 214 travelled to Australia, and spoken directly with them. According to Fr Bonett's letters, the men were tested in the Dutch language, and the test was administered by a professor from Melbourne University.

The 1916 incident is remembered throughout Maltese communities today as either the 'Maltese of New Caledonia' incident, because that is where they ended up for a while, or as 'the Children of Billy Hughes', after the Australian prime minister who made the political decision to keep them out. Further details and analysis may be found in the following publications: Frank Zammit's Il-Ballata tal Maltin ta' New Caledonia and my book Empire and Race: the Maltese in Australia 1881-1949, especially chapter 5. Also, the National Library of Australia holds an interview that I recorded with Mr Emmanuel Attard, who was on the ill-fated Gange in 1916. A copy of Fr Bonett's letter to the Australian Governor-General, dated 1 December 1916, appears as an appendix in my research paper, published by the Australian National University, Exclusions and admissions: Maltese arrivals at Australian ports 1911-1946.

It was rare indeed, by 1916, that such a large group - regardless of nationality - should have been excluded. As mentioned earlier, the Immigration Act proved highly effective in deterring Asian immigrants during the first five years of its implementation. A penalty of one hundred pounds for each prohibited immigrant was imposed on the masters, agents, charterers and owners of ships that brought such persons to Australia. Thus, after a few years of harsh experience, shipping companies dissuaded persons who stood a chance of being excluded at an Australian port from proceeding with their intended voyage. The French shipping company Messageries Maritimes clearly had no idea that the Maltese on the Gange would be declared prohibited immigrants and excluded from Australia.

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