Present Situation in Corf¨

Author: Chev. Spiros P. Gauci

For someone to abandon his country and his family, seeking a better life in a faraway foreign land, is not at all easy or in any way pleasant. But when a country like Malta, which, during the last century was one of the most populated areas in Europe, the economy of which was somewhat weak, especially during the period 1798 ľ 1842, and with such an economic situation that led the labour and commercial classes, including the farmers, into misery, this mass emigration does not seem unjustified at all.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to be here and it is of great importance to us who are trying in Greece, searching through our sources and our archives to make our fellow-men of Maltese origin, remember their roots and their traditions. Without wanting to be tiring, Iĺll refer to some facts which marked the way of one country which for economical and, at many times, political reasons and in difficult and wavering situations tried and succeeded in obtaining better conditions in a foreign, as regards traditions and customs, land.

As to my country, Corf¨, capital of the last centuryĺs, Seven English protected Islands of the Ionian Sea, the Maltese emigration as a phenomenon and with regards to procedure, sealed and contributed determinately in the construction of the social, demographical, economical, political and cultural situation of the 19th century. Great Britain an undoubtedly colonial country, having Corf¨ under its occupation from 1815 to 1864 and having Malta for more than a century and half, desired the transportation to the seven Ionian Islands and mostly to Corf¨ and to the more radical Cefalonia, of individuals and families of Maltese origin not only because of their being more trustworthy than the local labourers but also to mark an important element number as regards population which would make their presence felt.

The emigration was especially encouraged by the former Governor of Malta, Thomas Maitland (1765ľ1824) who was also later High Lord Commisioner in Corf¨ from 1816 till 1823 and who was very well informed as to the Maltese and Corfiots traditions and way of life. In September 1826 when Frederic Adam was High Commissioner in Corf¨ and when the Philhellenic Colonel Charles-James Napier (1782ľ1853) was Lieutenant Governor in Cefalonia, there arrived from Gozo to Argostoli (capital of Cefalonia) about 278 Maltese, all farmers and gardeners, whose purpose was to improve the cultivation of vineyards and vegetables in general. But when Napier decided in 1826 to ask from the Governor of Malta, Hastings, farmers from there to improve the cultivation and the economy of the island, he assured his Maltese opposite that this project would be financed by funds from Cefalonia without any charge to the Imperial Treasury and the Maltese Government accepted this demand with great pleasure. In any case, the Governors of Malta were rather incapable of organising systematically and methodically such a mass movement. The emigrants, in their turn were financially incompetent to pay the taxes and the expenses both for such a trip and for their settlement in a new country. And even when benefactors such as the Marquis Vicenzo Bugeja and the merchant of Greek origin from Thessaloniki, Nicolo Papaffy (1792ľ1886) with many efforts and legacies, boosted this performance, the emigrants in Corf¨ and Cefalonia experienced an enormous cultural shock and were tried under situation of substantial trapping between two different civilizations and especially in the beginning they were easily opted out of society both as individuals and as a community.

The Cefalonians who were trying with rebellions to shake the British Rule reacted and succeeded in preventing Napier from ordering a new shipment of Maltese to their Island. The settlementĺs problems did not seem to end. They all had lost contact with their birthplace and the new country seemed to be very inhospitable. The priest Don Luigi Ricca and doctor F. Camilleri, who followed some time later not only did not succeed in reducing their problems and to be of any service to them, although they were very well-paid from the Maltese Government to do so, but they created even bigger problems. And as if this wasnĺt enough, the fear of epidemics and other illnesses away from Malta, created greater fear and agony to those who despite the difficulties wished to emigrate. The Maltese officials despite these rumours, were optimistic and believed that the services rendered by the Maltese Goverment towards the emigrants seemed to be quite generous, the adjustments for their social and religious needs were satisfactory, although in actual fact this experiment had taken quite a different course from that hoped by Napier and the officials in Valletta. In February of 1829 Frederic Adam (1781ľ1853) demanded written explanations as to why the Maltese emigrants had been reduced to such destitution and were frequently complaining about the hostility and the in hospitality of the Cefalonians. In their turn the Cefalonians, indignant of the continuing rivalry, wrote to the High Commissioner that even though they had been promised competent farmers, the island, with very few exceptions, had been filled with lazy, ignorant, uneducated, dirty, sick and unadjustable individuals, who seemed like a flock which had been dumped from one country into their own community. These problems went on until 1831 when it was decided that the Maltese were to be transported to Corf¨ to the already existing Maltese community.

In Corf¨, the results of those emigrations were many and the Maltese remained the class of people with the most difficult labours and the worst social conditions. Maltese technical workers were summoned to work beside the famous Architect and Mechanical Engineer Sir George Whitmore (1775ľ1862) as specialized craftsmen and stone masons for the building of the Residence of the British Commissioner, the Palace of St George and Michael, and the supervision and construction of many more public buildings and military fortifications of Corf¨. On the other hand, the Maltese farmers who worked on the island, were accused of threatening the employment of the local labourers although they gained only 1/3 of the daily salary of a Carfiot farmer or even sometimes received their pay in everyday necessities and not in money. The official British administration was not at all sensitive to these needs and did not take any drastic measure for the protection of these emigrants who, among other things, were the first cultivators of sweet potato and prickly pear and set the bases for the organised rabbit breeding in the Ionian Islands.

The problem of the objective and reliable counting of the Maltese emigrants, has preoccupied me in my recent researches. In 1802 I come upon, for the very first time, in Corf¨ a merchant with a Maltese name, while in 1824, 25 men and women, probably in the Service of the British Administration are living in Corf¨. In 1828, only two years after the first serious effort for the Maltese emigrants to settle down in the Seven Islands, we find 508 Maltese who are occupied with every known profession and trade at that time, while in 1832 this number reached 804. Simultaneously, on August 16th, 1824 Lorenzo Tabone is the first Maltese who appealed to the Senate and was naturalised as citizen of the United States of the Ionian Islands, being favoured with all the graces and privileges attached to this certificate. In 1891 the Maltese emigrants in Greece numbered 1673 persons, 928 of whom are living permanently in Corf¨. The communities which were created were never supported neither by the locals nor by the domestic Orthodox Church. Strangely enough, they were never even favoured by the Roman-Catholic Archbishopric of the Ionian Islands. Being poor they were easily effected in approving the influence of different foreign national and religious propagandas and the British government, who was very suspicious, had to take drastic measures. The Catholic Archbishop who was solely interested in the numerous and prosperous Italian Community of Corf¨, left only some visiting priest from Malta to preach the Gospel during the Holy Lent and to guide the spiritual life of the emigrants. Among those who travelled to the Ionian Islands were F. Francesco Saverio Schembri, F. Lorenzo Attard and the Capucchins F. Calcedonio da Malta, F. Lorenzo da Malta, F. Pelagio Saverio da Malta (1837ľ1857) and F. Ignazio Galea da Malta (1840ľ1880).

A better interest in the spiritual and religious awakening of the emigrants was nurtured when the Corf¨ born Padre Domenico Darmanin (1843ľ1919) was transferred from the Bishopric of Syros, where there was also an existing Maltese community, to the Archbishopric of Corf¨. Towards the end of the 19th century, about 50,000 Maltese emigrants have settled on the North-African coastlines, in Gibraltar, in the Ionian Islands, in Volos, in Patras, in Sicily, in Cyprus and at the most important cities of Asia Minor.

In 1907 the Maltese Archbishop Mons. Pietro Pace, founded in Corf¨, what is still known today as the Convent of the Maltese Nuns of St Francis, for the needs of the Maltese Community and others. Nevertheless, in the school which is to function later on, only the Greek and the English languages will be taught. Today the six Nuns who live and work on the island maintain a Home for the Elderly and provide services to the Capucchinĺs Parish. In 1923 the Italian Fleet occupied the unfortified city of Corf¨ and propagandised with full force its Italian ways and influences. As for the 1,200 Maltese living on the island, they did not hesitate to write that: "The Maltese element in Corf¨ could be used as an instrument to further Italian claims on that island". Finally, the Italian propaganda was a failure as to its purpose, as the Maltese who travelled to Corf¨, without the intention of returning, honoured the hospitality given to them in this foreign land and kept the inheritated characteristics of their race, even if they were assimilating with the locals, they remained faithful to their religion and to their British nationality. Not even in 1940 with the reoccupation of Corf¨ by the Italian Army, could the latter use for their propaganda the 2,500 Maltese. Three years later, the Germans although cautious because of the English nationality of the emigrants, characterised them as people of low to not existant national conscience, not producing any threats to their plans towards the Greek land.

It wasnĺt long before the Maltese emigrants started to become distinguished for their performance in the cultivation of land and in 1888, during the International Exhibition in Athens, a lot of Corfiot-Maltese farmers sent their products and won prizes for distinction. The classical decorator Vicenzo Dimech (1768ľ1831) worked beside Sir George Whitmore and created in the Palace of the British Commissioner sculptures and representations carved in relief, of great artistic importance. Angelo Farrugia and Dionisio Laferla gained the reputation of being pioneers in photography, while Farrugia was appointed bookbinder of the Greek Royal Court. Spiros Gauci worked passionately for the rights of the poor labourers and left some very significant legacies. Other legacies came from Thomas Power who till today the Municipality of Corf¨ exploits his donations for the poor. Other prominent Maltese were the brothers Lorenzo, Peter and Francis Camilleri, actors and composers. Francis Caruana, composer and director, Alexander Grech and Alexander Buttigieg, famous musicians and composers. Furthermore Peter Caruana and Francis Schembri, band leaders, Emilio Camilleri, later on Member of the Maltese Parliament, the great art-critic and writer Toni Spiteri and so many more that till today distinguish in the artistic, academic, political and social field.

Unfortunately, nowadays, we experience the lack of interest, even the rejection of the descendants of 4th, 5th and 6th generation of Maltese emigrants and especially of the receiving country to recognise the great importance of conservation of the basic principles, or even of some principles, of the national and cultural identity of our first emigrant ancestors. The Maltese emigrants of the 19th century being more able to adapt themselves on account of the social and cultural uniformity of the two colonies, Corf¨ and Malta, adjusted rapidly to the conditions layed out to them by the Corfiots. Very soon, their habits, their customs and their way of life in general, was assimilated by the equivalent Corfiot and Greek. Their language was very quickly forgotten since their children were obliged to study in Greek Schools and Universities, if ever. Their national identity was wavered and the bonds with the birth-place especially after the death of the elderly slackened a great deal. Today almost 3,000 people of Maltese origin live and work in Corf¨. I estimate that 1,000 more people with their names modified into Greek and with different religious beliefs live in other Greek cities. These people do not regard themselves as Maltese emigrants or settlers any more. They do not even try to establish a national or cultural Association and they are totally assimilated to the local population. And as if this wasnĺt enough, the mixed marriages especially with Greek-Orthodox prevent further development and flourishing of our community. And that because of the religious conflicts and the social and political conditions of the previous decades which imposed to the Maltese and to other foreigners to be "purified" of every foreign influence and to reveal themselves completely absorbed to the Greek way of life.

The only guardians of some of our traditions in Corf¨ without the possibility to carry the torch of this civilization any further as a result of their holy order, are the six Maltese Nuns who work with passion, eagerness and patience. Nowadays the younger generation of Maltese in Corf¨, even if the majority of them retain the Catholic belief, having obtained the Greek nationality at birth only occasionally through the narratives of the elder, discover some relation with their land or origin, Malta. And even if some excursions and low-priced trips from Greece to Malta which are being organised more and more often lately, revive this interest, or when some of us in Greece who, last time with some lectures, publications and genealogic researches are trying to awake their interest for probing deeply into their cultural heritage, it still requires much more time, a lot of effort, struggle and an unquenchable passion. Maybe as it happens with the Governments of other European Countries, some Cultural Associations of descendants of Maltese emigrants or some Honorary Consulate, with your moral support and assistance, revive in Corf¨ the memory and the fights of those for whom the French Consul General in Corf¨, Ramir Vadala, wrote eighty-five years ago: "The Maltese emigrant does not rely on neither the government nor the generous benefactors. Being simple in his ways and hard-working he does not trust anything else but his own hands and with a lot of courage, energy and hard work follows whichever track leads him to friends and relatives. Everywhere he goes, he will succeed in living with dignity and modesty and most of the times he will attain the success and the honors that come with it."

Thank You.

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.