The Price of Peace

Trainees at a Technical School

Trainees at a Technical School

In March 1945 the Colonial Administration decreed that by the end of the month it was to be illegal to offer even temporary jobs to those who had other sources of income because many young men where then being released from the British Forces with no prospects for immediate employment. Dockyard workers were also threatened with redundancies. Between November 4, 1947 and July 14, 1948, the number of those who had been discharged or had left of their own accord rose to 941. In August 1949 the Admiralty made it known that 1,200 workers were to be dismissed. (5) The argument of the rulers in London was that Malta was a strategic base of the Empire with a population too heavy to support. Whitehall urged a solution to the double problem of over-population and unemployment. The situation was very similar to that which obtained after 1918 when some 30,000 men who served as soldiers, sailors and dockyard workers lost their jobs and had to fend for themselves. In less than two years after the signing of the Armistice more than 10,000 Maltese left for foreign destinations, mostly to North America. (6)

This time however, the workers of Malta were not so submissive. The threat of massive unemployment forced the General Workers Union to call a historic meeting on March 31, 1946. The venue was at the Mile End, just outside the capital city of Malta, Valletta, and within shouting distance of the Dockyard. Speakers and listeners showed their determination that they were not to be bullied by anyone, Maltese or foreign. The British Government was accused of lack of tact and of ingratitude to Malta's heroic contribution to the Allied victory and that it made no sense to choose the workers as victims of what was denounced as Imperial avarice. They also warned that they were not willing to accept any dismissals unless alternative employment was offered.

It was also pointed out at the Mile End that at that time the United Kingdom enjoyed full employment and that dockyards throughout Great Britain were very busy. The speakers asked why not take redundant workers to the British shipyards, or better still, why not send more naval ships to be repaired in their own dockyard.

The General Workers Union made it plain to the British that now the Maltese workers were organised and they would not be treated in the same manner as their fathers had been in 1918. The Union also warned that rampant unemployment would create crime, violence and political turmoil and that Britain's interests in Malta would be certainly compromised.

One speaker referred ironically to the way the people of Malta were being treated for their extreme loyalty shown during the war years of 1940-1943. What the Maltese now had to show for their sacrifices were two marble slabs on the facade of the Palace in Valletta recording the praises from the King of England and the President of the United States of America. It was symptomatic of the sullen mood of the crowd that many booed when reference was made to the British monarch but clapped when they heard President Roosevelt mentioned. Three main resolutions were unanimously adopted at the Mile End:

  1. No sackings from the Dockyard unless alternative jobs were offered.
  2. Reconstruction work was to be speeded up. This was urgent because many were still living in temporary accommodation and a more vigorous reconstruction programme would generate sorely needed new jobs.
  3. The authorities had better keep in mind that economic hardship imposed on the workers would make them sympathetic to the calls of the Communists. (7)

Asked for his comments on the Mile End meeting, Mr George Hall, Secretary for the Colonies, said, that the top priority for Malta was now to encourage emigration. (8)

On January 24, 1947, Mr Arthur Creech Jones piloted in the House of Commons at Westminster, the Malta Reconstruction Bill by which a War Damage Fund was set up to finance the rebuilding of Malta's towns and villages. He also promised self-governance for the Maltese and expressed his Governments's gratitude for Malta's heroic stand during the recent war. This statement was greeted by general applause. The War Damage Fund provided millions of pounds to rebuild the devastated areas. The Fund also helped to create a transition period for Malta's ailing economy and prepare for a future when the Maltese would no longer be totally dependent on the needs of the naval

The Governor and his Council were faced with a situation that needed immediate action. During the war everything and everybody on the Island was geared to winning the war against Britain's enemies. Now it was urgent to look after the civil need of a population which from 295,247 in 1946, was already showing trends towards an accelerated due to the many marriages which had been contracted after the war. Health hazards and unemployment were major headaches, but there, was also the need to control the spread of a black market which had flourished because of the scarcity of basic necessities during and after the war.

The education system needed a complete overhaul in a country where illiteracy was still rampant and where compulsory education was yet to be introduced. The sewage network was restricted to the larger towns, the distribution of electricity was unreliable and there was not enough drinking water. In fact in June 1947 the lack of potable water was so severe that the Admiralty decided to send from Portsmouth some 6,000 tons of drinking water on the naval tanker Brahman. (10)

The post-war economic situation presented a mixture of conflicting features. The war caused full employment for a number of years and for the first time in Maltese history women were given well-paid jobs. There was a lot of cash in hand with few opportunities to invest. Politically the Maltese were still under direct colonial rule from London and were denied any real participation in the running of their own affairs. A very significant part of the population, practically two-thirds of it, depended on three main factors: employment with the British Services, the War Damage Fund and on trade. The employment with the British depended largely on Britain's commitments abroad, the War Damage Fund would not last forever and trade was hampered by the fact that the Maltese were not their own masters. (11) The political and economic position of the Maltese had not changed very much from the 1930's when Mr Henry Casolani, ex-Superintendent of Emigration, had written that Malta's lifeline depended on the Sailor, the Soldier and the Steamer. (12)

According to Government statistics when the war was over on May 8, 1945, the working male population in Malta was 93,000. It was then feared that about 10,000 would soon be sacked from the Services. This would not only mean the loss of these jobs but the effective loss of other jobs related to them. In those days industry and agriculture did not generate enough work, when under normal circumstances these would absorb a considerable section of the work force. In a colony like Malta whose economy was entirely geared to the needs of Imperial strategy it was not thought prudent to encourage schemes that were outside the interests of the Colonial Administration. Rather than develop agriculture, manufacturing industries and tourism, it was convenient to send away those who were not needed to keep the naval and military bases efficient. Instead, those who were classified as superfluous to the needs of the day were urged to go somewhere else at a minimum rate of 12,000 a year. (13)

Source: The Safety Valve (1997), author Fr Lawrence E. Attard, Publishers Enterprises Group (PEG) Ltd, ISBN 99909-0-081-7

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