Enter Self-Government

Mr Cain from Canberra examines students at Mriehel Technical School

Mr Cain from Canberra examines students at Mriehel Technical School

The suggestion to emigrate was neither novel nor original. Many times before the Maltese had been invited to pack and leave, particularly those who were considered as superfluous to the rulers of the island. From the 1830's thousands had left for the shores of neighbouring Mediterranean lands. The end of hostilities in 1918 caused the departures of thousands more, this time to more distant and more rewarding destinations such as North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. On February 6, 1945, the British Governor, Sir E. C. A. Schreiber, reiterated the old philosophy that it was more convenient to send Maltese away rather than create jobs for them where they belonged, when he delivered this message to the Maltese: "The problem of a country with a very restricted territory and with a growing population can only be solved through emigration. Discussions on receiving Maltese immigrants have already taken place with the Australian Government and with other representatives of the Dominions. We must urge men with families to seek their future in foreign lands and we must educate people to consider emigration as an alternative." (14)

Schreiber's successor, Sir Francis C. R. Douglas, supported the same way of official thinking. He stated on January 26, 1948: "Emigration remains an unpalatable necessity. Plans are being devised to hasten emigration and to put it on an organised basis. Shortage of housing accommodation in the receiving countries is expected to obstruct the continuous exodus of the 20,000 odd persons who have expressed their wish to leave the country". (15) Schreiber called organised emigration an alternative to misery and discontent. To Douglas it was a necessity, even if not a pleasant one. The two governors were soon joined by a choir of consenting Maltese politicians, who happy with the taste of a very limited self-government, would adopt emigration as a pillar of their political programmes and hail the departure of thousands of their countrymen and women from their native shores as "the safety valve of the nation". (16)

The fledgling Maltese Government elected in 1947 had to accept organised emigration of the masses as one of its basic objectives, an objective which was sanctioned by the higher forces in far away London. Sir Harold MacMichael was in Malta on May 4, 1946, and he helped to draw a constitution for Malta which granted political autonomy to an elected Legislative Assembly while it retained a series of specially reserved matters and the power to suspend the same constitution. MacMichael created a cumbersome diarchy with the Governor retaining overriding powers. This was a half-hearted attempt at recognising the fact that the Maltese deserved something better than a humiliating colonial status, a status which after all, although it was imposed by Great Britain, had never been accepted by the people of Malta.

To express the dissatisfaction with their political status the workers at the Dockyard rioted on January 2, 1947. Vehicles were pushed into the sea and policemen injured. The strikers demanded a five day week and wage rises. More significantly they demanded in no uncertain terms the end of discrimination against them by insisting equal treatment with British personnel working in the Dockyard.

Another sign of the changing times was the emergence of the Malta Labour Party as a strong political force. The party had been organised years before but the victory it gained in the elections held in October 1947 made it the strongest political group in Malta. The MLP won twenty-four seats out of a total of forty. The workers had been projected by the war as the mainstay of the economy and the Labour way of thinking was that since the workers produced the wealth then they should be the ones with the strongest political clout. This was a new logic in a community like that of Malta which was steadfastly traditional and where for centuries some groups had been born to govern while others were expected to obey. The MLP was greatly helped in its struggle for the minds and hearts of the Maltese workers by the emergence of the General Workers Union. It was then under the leadership of Mr Miller, a Maltese dockyard employee whose had settled in Malta from Maidenhead England. The collaboration between the MLP and the GWU was to produce a new dynamic force in modern Maltese politics.

Political opposition was mainly presented by the Nationalist Party, (or PN for Partit Nazzjonalista), which was then under the leadership of the veteran Dr Enrico Mizzi and who during the war had been exiled by the British to Uganda. The PN was then the oldest established party in Malta with a tradition of confrontation with the British authorities. Although in 1947 it came in as a very poor second, winning only seven seats, it had strong roots in the Maltese psyche and was bound to recover in the distant future.

The new Labour Government had Dr Paul Boffa as Prime Minister. Dr Boffa led a solid team intent introducing sorely needed social legislation, including old age pensions. Also on the team was a young architect, Mr D. Mintoff, who was given the task to oversee public works and speed up construction. Mintoff's ministry was responsible for providing houses for those who had lost theirs during the war. His dynamism attracted the loyalty of most workers and it was through their support that he eventually challenged the leadership of Dr Boffa and made himself Malta's foremost politician for many years.

Another name worthy of notice in the Labour was that of Mr John J. Cole who was made Minister responsible for Labour, Social Services and Emigration. It is not common for most countries to have a minister for emigration, but Cole's appointment showed the mentality of the time and how largely the need of emigration loomed over the minds of politicians. Dr Boffa expressed his mind clearly when he spoke in the third sitting of the first session of the Legislative Assembly on November 11, 1947. He said: "I do not consider that secondary importance should be paid to important questions such as emigration and social services. The Department responsible for Social Services is that department from which the Labour Party is expecting something. It is for this reason that I have created a Ministry for Social Services. The same importance we attach to emigration. Although this is not the sole or ideal remedy but a palliative, it is nevertheless an essential and necessary palliative for the times that lie ahead when we are going to be faced with unemployment". (17)

Five years later, on November 30, 1952, the official line on emigration had not changed. Mr Cole then said: "I can imagine some of you asking - Yes! but why should it be necessary for me to leave my homeland in order to make a decent livelihood? Admittedly this is a difficult question to answer. It is however no more difficult than so many other questions involving the various differences in nature. For example, why are there the tall and the short? Why is there the red colour as well as the blue and yellow? Only God knows the real reason of these differences in nature." (18)

The Nationalist Opposition did not accept such reasoning. Dr Mizzi declared himself against forced emigration which he equated with deportation. He was also against subsidised emigration because he feared that even those who were employed would be induced to go. Dr Mizzi stated that he was not against the emigration of the unemployed, nor was he opposed to those who because they so wished, decided to leave the country. Dr Mizzi felt that Labour's emigration programme was not in the interest of Malta but in the interest of the British Government and Empire. He said: "We accept the necessity of a certain limited emigration which represents the natural outlet of our demographic situation. We should not send skilled labourers who are in employment and therefore necessary for the reconstruction of the country. Australia is paying its contribution towards Maltese emigration because it is in its interest to pay, because it requires those people we are sending without realising the gravity of our loss".

The Government's retort to Dr Mizzi's accusations was very direct. Mr Cole said that the Labour Government did not look at ideals when many were suffering hardship because of losses of jobs. Mr Cole referred to workers who worked overtime during the war and were used to a good standard of living but were now jobless through no fault of their own. He declared that not only he saw nothing wrong in subsidising emigration but his ministry was considering a scheme by which prospective emigrants would not be thwarted of their plans to emigrate because of the non-availability of funds.

According to Mr Cole emigration was meant to help those under financial stress. When the Government was aiding these people to better themselves by emigrating, the Government was performing an act of Christian charity. Moreover, according to the Minister responsible for Emigration, by reducing the surplus population, the Government was also reducing the chances of a Communist takeover because Communism thrived on poverty and unemployment. Widespread discontent would strengthen the hands of those who had planned for so long to end British rule over Malta. Indeed helping emigrants to emigrate was also a very patriotic thing to do.

The Cole speech, delivered on February 3, 1948, some four months after the MacMichael constitution was being tried out, reflected the peculiar logic of the time when people were told that in order not to perish they had to go somewhere else. Mr Cole continued: "Emigration until now has been used as a palliative when in a country such as ours it could be applied as a remedy. Malta, owing to its geographical position, was an ideal fortress and could not help in being drawn in other people's wars. It was because of it strategic position that Malta's population increased by leaps and bounds. Emigration is for the worker. The rich man goes abroad as a tourist. The policy of the Government is to encourage the emigration of families of the unemployed. We are in duty bound to give them all the assistance necessary".

At the time he delivered this speech Mr Cole claimed that he had 13,000 applications from people who wished to emigrate to Australia. He also stated that if the difficulties concerning financial assistance and accommodation were overcome many more would apply to emigrate and that would create the added problem of not providing enough berths on ships going to the major receiving countries. Cole's idea was to prepare prospective emigrants for life overseas by showing films in mobile cinemas and distribute books and leaflets in both Maltese and English. The teaching of English was necessary if the migrants were to be successfully integrated in their new environment. Prospective migrants should also be given technical education and taught good manners.

Reference to the teaching of the English language was intended as an aside to Dr Mizzi who had opposed emigration to the English-speaking world because his opponents had used the argument for emigration as an excuse to ignore the teaching of Italian which Mizzi's opponents claimed was not useful for emigrants. Politics had helped to confuse the minds of people by presenting the love of Italian culture as a threat to the loyalty of the Maltese to the British Empire. Mr Cole himself had warned: "The only problem which confronts us is which is the best way to help our emigrants. If we leave them in Malta, that slight movement against the English will continue to exist. We want to discourage that ferment against the English because if we send emigrants out of Malta that ferment will end and the Nationalist Party will no longer exist." (20)

Perhaps the most memorable of all interventions in favour of emigration was made in Malta's Legislative Assembly by Dr J. Pace on December 18, 1947. Dr Pace said: "I believe in emigration. Emigration is the safety valve to avoid unemployment, theft, hardship, which are the consequence of over-population. As in mechanics there is the safety valve to allow the escape of surplus gas, it is natural in this case we should have recourse to emigration. Who are the people who should emigrate? Those people who are here in Malta and who cannot stay because we have not the means to create work for them". (21)

The technical metaphor adopted by Dr Pace was accepted by many, even if not everybody knew what it meant exactly. Politicians, journalists, civil servants, clerics, soon dedicated themselves to the utility of the safety valve in order to avoid some catastrophic explosion unless most Maltese decided to go somewhere else. The safety valve of mass emigration was declared as the providential cure for all real and imaginary ills such as over-crowding, violence, disease, immorality, Communism and Protestantism.

The Prime Minister of the time, Dr Paul Boffa, addressed the Legislative Assembly in no uncertain terms. He showed that his belief in the safety valve theory was total. According to Dr Boffa mass emigration controlled by the State was the only solution to the economic and social problems of the day. He declared: "Were it possible for my Government to send 50,000 registered prospective emigrants in one day, I would do so in spite of what Dr E. Mizzi has to say about emigrating to Protestant countries... Let them keep their religion but they should strive to become Australian and after two generations or three their children will be able to say that their grandfather was Maltese but they were Australian". The Honourable members of the House greeted this outburst by loyal shouts of "Hear! Hear!" (22)

True to his word Dr Boffa gave all his support to Mr Cole who was greatly helped by his colleague Mr John Axisa as Director of Emigration. Both Cole and Axisa had been previously involved with organisations which even before 1947 had been working towards an organised migratory movement on a large scale.

Prominent among such organisations were The Malta Prospective Emigrants Association, The Malta Council and the Association of Ex-Servicemen. Official recognition to these bodies was given by the Government soon after it took office in 1947. A Standing Committee was created which eventually developed into a decisive force which helped the authorities to formulate a definite policy concerning organised emigration. The three bodies were invited to select their own representatives on the Standing Committee to advise and assist both Mr Cole and Mr Axisa. The General Workers Union and the Archbishop also had their respective observers on the Standing Committee. (23)

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

top-of-pageprevioustopic-indexnext Email-A-Page



We need your support to continue working on this site. Help us.
Text and pictures (c) 2001-2017 Malta Emigration Museum and/or its contributors.

Consultancy, hosting, programming and technical assistance provided by A6iT.