Maltese Migration: A Historical Perspective

Author: Rev. Fr Lawrence E. Attard O.P.

In the introduction to his study under the title “The Human Right of Emigration”, John F. Bradley writes: “Since the day that Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden in search of a new home, members of the human race have been forced to wander about the earth in search of new lands or better societies”.

People on the Move

Migration therefore, is as old as mankind. Great tracts of land would now be desolate were it is not for the old instinct to move to new pastures. There is probably not one single country that has not been touched by the migratory urge. Vast migratory movements throughout history were not always positive, especially when great numbers had to move on because of threats to their security from natural or human causes.

It is a fact that we would not be gathered here were it not for migration. Even our own stable population shows through our surnames that many of our ancestors braved the waters between Sicily and Malta, especially after the Norman Conquest. In their turn our fathers crossed to various places within the basin of the Mediterranean Sea and as the centuries rolled on they even ventured to distant regions such as the Americas and Australia.

The history of Maltese migration makes interesting reading, but Maltese migration was only a small part of the vast international movements of the masses. Also, the countries which received immigrants from our islands had already opened their doors to millions of aliens from various parts of the world. One must never study Maltese migration in isolation.

Maltese migration was on the whole a free movement of people urged to find better opportunities in richer countries. Therefore ours was an economic migration with its push factors being mainly over-population and unemployment while the pull factor was the great economic potential of large and sparsely populated countries.

The Right of Migration

Francisco de Vitoria, a sixteenth century jurist who witnessed the Spanish colonisation of vast tracts of Latin America, held that human beings had the right to move from one place to another. In his “Reading on the Indians Recently Discovered” de Vitoria wrote that Spaniards had the right to seek foreign lands while at the same time the Indians had to be respected. “Let my first conclusion be” wrote de Vitoria, “that the Spaniards have a right to travel into the lands in question and to sojourn there, provided they do not harm the natives”.

More than two hundred years after this was written, great changes took place in Europe due to the French Revolution. The revolutionaries made great insistence on the rights of man and this led to a more precise concept of the right of migration. By the proclamation of 1791 the right to free movement was declared which acknowledged the natural right of the individual to freely move and settle either within or outside his country.

This new way of thinking reached our shores towards the end of the eighteenth century. Napoleon and French revolutionary ideas came here uninvited on June 8th, 1798. The troubled French interlude brought to an end 268 years of rule by the Knights and paved the way for the British takeover. In spite of the fact that Malta became an appendage of an Empire, the first significant migrations from these islands were directed to the French part of North Africa.

A Time of Transition

1798 remains a milestone in our history. For close to three hundred years the Maltese had prospered under a paternalistic, if not anachronistic, regime. Malta housed the Knights who were the sons of the best, and sometimes the richest, families of Catholic Europe. Work was abundant with the fleet, which was the terror of the Muslim, on the building of impressive fortifications, palaces and churches. The Maltese State was largely autonomous, stable and prosperous.

The French brought to an abrupt end an intensely Catholic state ruled by a Religious Order with a crusading temper. It was also completely integrated into the European family of nations. When Vaubois surrendered our islands became mere dots in a vast Empire ruled by the Colonial Office in distant London. Malta was to serve the Empire in times of war by maintaining an important naval base which occupied position of a fortress in the middle of the world's most famous sea.

Great Britain ruled over a vast Empire and the British felt no need to interest themselves with what was going on in Europe. Slowly, the Maltese were moved away from the old Continent as they were told that their interests lay in the regions of the Empire. The men of Malta were told that their loyalty meant working in the interests of the Empire and to keep military and naval installations in good shape to keep open the routes of India and beyond. Those Maltese who did not fit into this general pattern were strongly advised to emigrate to English-speaking countries. From the early years of the nineteenth century emigration became part of the Imperial policy for Malta because it was considered as the safety valve of the nation.

The Mediterranean Basin

From 1830 French expansion in North Africa meant that what was formerly a large region closed for centuries to Europeans was now wide open for immigrants who would not only work the land but also consolidate the power of France in that area. Thousands of settlers left the European shores of the Mediterranean for Algeria and Tunisia and at one time the Maltese were the fourth largest group after the French, the Spaniards and the Italians. Algeria was for many years the most important country for emigrants from Malta and Gozo so much so that by the 1850's more than half of those who emigrated had opted for that country. During the first years of the twentieth century there were about 15,000 persons in Algeria who had Maltese ancestry.

Paul Cambon encouraged Maltese emigrants to settle in Tunisia where by 1862 the number of Maltese settlers rose to 7,000. In 1882 Cambon was made the French administrator in that country. He wrote to the French Consul in Malta for more immigrants because he saw the Maltese as hard working people whose loyalty to France was never in doubt.

The Italians occupied the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1911. Many settlers from Sicily left for these provinces which later on became what is now known as Libya. Some Maltese did settle in the area, particularly in Tripoli and Benghazi. The Colonial Authorities played for some time with the idea of establishing a Maltese settlement in Cyrenaica but the project never materialised. The population of the Maltese in these provinces was probably never more than 3,000.

The British joined in the scramble for North Africa when they spread their influence over Egypt. This situation facilitated the migratory flow from Malta to the east of the Mediterranean and when the Suez Canal was opened there were about 20,000 people in Egypt who were either born in Malta or born of Maltese parents. They were to be found all over the country, especially in cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Rosetta and Port Said. The Maltese community in Egypt was very successful. Maltese were to be found in all walks of life. They had their own associations and they also had some of the earliest known publications issued by Maltese overseas.

Other minor settlements of Maltese emigrants within the basin of the Mediterranean were Corfù, Constantinople, Smyrna, Gibraltar and Marseilles. Maltese who emigrated to Christian lands eventually integrated with the rest of the community though some did cling to their ethnic identity up to our time. However those who lived in Muslim areas eventually had to leave because of the rise of local nationalism coupled with xenophobia against those of a different culture. Marseilles is an interesting chapter in the history of Maltese migration to Christian lands. The original community was strengthened after the Armistice in 1918 when more than 4,000 workers were directly recruited from Malta to help in the reconstruction of devastated areas. Another significant influx took place after 1962 when Maltese from Algeria and Tunisia sought refuge in the south of France. This shows that the French dimension in the history of Maltese emigration must not be overlooked.

Distant Destinations

South America does not feature in our study for many reasons, even if that continent was one of the major receiving areas of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In 1912 a somewhat pathetic experiment was launched when 179 men, women and children left for the port of Santos in Brazil to work on coffee plantations. The whole thing ended in dismal failure. In 1924 contacts were made with Argentina to send agricultural workers. This initiative came to nothing but in 1948 another attempt was made to send Maltese emigrants to Argentina and Brazil. At that time more than 1,000 applicants expressed their willingness to settle in Argentina. Others had began attending classes to learn Spanish. However the authorities in those countries were lukewarm to the idea.

North America had attracted millions of immigrants and even in the nineteenth century some pioneering Maltese had made their way to the U.S.A. and Canada. Millions entered these countries after 1918 and we know that as soon as the war came to an end more than 3,000 Maltese had applied for a visa to enter the U.S.A. By then, there were small groups of Maltese in New York, Michigan, California and Louisiana. Detroit had the largest Maltese community which in the 1920's numbered over 5,000. Between 1947-1948 a little more than a thousand left for the U.S.A. In 1950 the American Consulate was reopened and many others would have left were it not for the restrictions imposed two years later by the McCannan - Walter Act.

In Canada some Maltese had settled in Toronto, Winnepeg and British Columbia even before 1914. Two years before that Dr Charles Mattei of the Emigration Committee had visited Canada to see what prospects were there for emigrants from Malta. He gathered a group of 500 to go with him, though not all were admitted. Between 1918-1920 more than 600 left for Canada, but in 1923 a Privy Council Order specifically excluded the Maltese from entering the country. The Maltese had to wait till 1948 when an initial batch of 500 workers were taken. By the end of April of that year more than 15,000 had put down their names as prospective emigrants to Canada.

It was only in 1962 that Canada abandoned all restrictions for entry based on race. This meant that by 1974 about 17,000 Maltese had chosen that country to live in since the end of the Second World War. Canada became the third most popular destination after Australia and the United Kingdom.

U.K. and Australia

Although the Treaty of Paris of 1814 formally recognised the sovereignty of the British monarch over the Maltese, British and Maltese kept apart for a very long time. The situation changed after 1945 when the United Kingdom became the second most popular choice with those who wanted to emigrate. By 1974 more than 30,000 Maltese had gone to Great Britain. They sought jobs in London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Lancashire and Cardiff. Emigration to the United Kingdom was characterised by the ease with which immigrants from the Empire and Commonwealth were able to enter the country and also by the fact that a large section of the immigrants from Malta were single young men. Many of these returned home after some years and those who stayed eventually married non-Maltese women. A situation like this was responsible for the gradual erosion of Maltese presence in the United Kingdom.

Not so in Australia, even though in geographical terms “the unknown land of the south” should have been the last place on earth to attract migrants from Malta. Attract it certainly did. In 1991 it was estimated that more than 57,000 people living in that country had been born in Malta. The number of Maltese-Australians is certainly much larger than that.

Sir George Bowen, the first governor of Queensland and Richard Arthur, president of the Immigration League, both wanted to encourage workers from Malta. They did not wish to see Maltese flock to the cities but to the more remote regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory. Another influential politician who wanted to encourage Maltese migration to Australia was Sir Gerald Strickland. He was born in Malta and became governor of Tasmania, Western Australia and N.S.W. In 1927 he became Prime Minister of Malta, and as a loyal servant of the Empire, Strickland worked hard to strengthen Malta's ties with the Empire. One practical way of achieving this was to send as many Maltese as possible to Australia.

Not all Australians were ecstatic about the entry of Southern Europeans like the Maltese, whether they described themselves as British or not. The first attempts were difficult as was shown by the “Gange” affair on 1916 and the hostile attitude of some trade unions. The printed outburst of “Truth” in 1922 and that of “The Anglican” of 1958 do show how thick prejudice was against our people.

However even by 1921 Australia was already taking the highest intake of our emigrants so much so that by 1927 some 3,000 Maltese had already settled in that country. The choice of Capt. Henry Curmi in 1929 as Malta's first representative was a wise one. In 1936 Capt. Curmi thought that there were about 4,000 Maltese in Australia, most of them in Queensland. Capt. Curmi was very happy when in 1938 immigrants from Malta were officially recognised as British. Curmi worked very hard to obtain the Passage Assistance Agreement in 1948 and that really helped to increase the flow of Maltese migration to Australia. In 1954 alone 8,470 left for Australia. That was the highest total ever achieved.

The flow of migrants to Australia continued till 1974 when 2,595 entered that country. Decline set in 1975 when for the first time since 1949 the number of migrants going to Australia fell under the one thousand mark. Moreover the low figures for those who left Malta contrasted vividly with the rate of returnees. By 1990 emigration ceased to be a relevant feature in the life of the Maltese.

The Maltese Element

This does not mean that our emigrants and their descendants are of no interest to us. Between the years 1946-1974 more than 137,000 left our country. Those who stayed permanently, with the ensuing generations, form what Laurent Ropa called “The Greater Malta Overseas”. That is a concept which must be taken more seriously both from this end and from the Maltese communities abroad. The question of roots is a challenging one and I firmly believe that in the coming years a different kind of interest will arise from quarters here in Malta and abroad. The term emigrant will be dropped and future generations in the former countries of immigration will be integrated with the rest of the local population. Nobody is against this process. What we are after is the preservation of cultural links with those who are proud of their Maltese origin. We know that Malta has so much to offer in this respect.

Today multiculturalism is accepted by many. I hope that we in Malta, in conjunction with our brothers and sisters overseas, can offer a framework of cooperation so that whoever is interested in the land of his ancestors will not only be welcome here but will find the sources which will satisfy his pride and curiosity.

Would there be another Convention like this in the future? The answer lies in the challenge we have before us. What is Maltese identity? Can it be kept alive even beyond our shores? Will future generations born and bred thousand of miles away from us feel the need to preserve the links that still bind us?

Finally, was emigration right or wrong? A clear answer cannot be given, but we do agree that emigration has been a historical reality which touched the lives of thousands with Maltese blood in their veins. Emigration is not to be praised, con-demned or ignored. We must present the phenomenon of emigration as it was, so that an objective evaluation will be reached. There are thousands of men and women throughout the world with a common link with us. They are a tremendous potential for making the name of Malta known and respected. Malta, of course, is very proud of them.


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