Early Migration Chapter 2

Author: Fr Lawrence E.Attard



On August 22nd 1911 a letter appeared in the local press under the name of a certain businessman Romeo Vadala’ in which the writer suggested a scheme by which Maltese could emigrate to Brazil without having to pay their fare. Vadala’s offer created quite a stir because although few Maltese had a clear idea as to where Brazil was, there were many who where prepared to emigrate to anywhere if only they had the money to get there. Vadala’ offered a trip to faraway Brazil with the ticket paid by a wealthy fazendeiro. Brazilian landlords needed farmhands to work on the coffee plantations and they were willing to take whole families as long as no member was over forty-five years of age. Grandfathers and grandmothers were welcome too if they were members of large families and in sufficient health to work on the fazendas.

The Brazilians said that the scheme contemplated only immigrants who had had experience on the land and who were prepared to work as farmers. Romeo Vadala’ insisted on a declaration from the local priest which showed that the intending migrant had worked as a farmer. Once this was proved, the migrant would have his ticket from Marseilles to Sao Paulo paid and he was also entitled to free meals; the migrant still had to pay his trip from Valletta to Marseilles which in 1911 amounted to about £1.4s. Vadala’ claimed that as soon as the Maltese disembarked in Brazil they were to be accommodated in a hostel for immigrants where they would spend six days at the expense of the government of the state of Sao Paulo. During those six days the Maltese were to be contacted by owners of the plantations who would offer them work, accommodation and a plot of land for personal cultivation. Furthermore, if an immigrant died within the first two years of his arrival in Brazil, his widow and children would, if they wished, be repatriated at the expense of their employer.

Romeo Vadala' had claimed that these tempting offers were backed by legislation passed by the state of Sao Paulo on October 22nd 1910. Interest in emigration was already high in Malta at that time even though few had a clear idea as to where they wanted to go. Vadala letter was soon publicised and even those who could not read knew of its contents. Here was an opportunity to go abroad without having to pay one's fare. The whole family could emigrate as a unit. Work and accommodation were guaranteed, the weather in Brazil was not cold, and Catholics were in the majority. Even the AntiReformers were mollified in their opposition to emigration because, after all, Brazilians spoke Portuguese and that was a Latin tongue! More important still, Maltese emigrants could stay together and thus create that colony which, as the Greater Malta, would absorb the surplus population of the islands. In a memorandum signed by G. Pullicino of the Malta Emigration Committee and which appeared in the local papers on February 22nd 1912 it was optimistically prophesied that the Brazilian venture meant "the founding of our little Malta beyond the ocean".

The fact that a simple suggestion mooted by a businessman in a newspaper created

such interest shows how eager many Maltese felt to try their future wherever they had a chance. Although a number of Maltese had emigrated to North America and to Australia, South America was unknown and considered as too far. Moreover the eternal problem of finance made that part of the world beyond the reach of the Maltese migrant. Again, parochial politics, which so very often have stifled the brains of many a Maltese, hindered objective thinking about serious emigration to any Latin American country. Those who were pro-British advocated emigration to lands which were English-speaking. Brazil was no such place. One pro-British paper quoted in 1911 from an article which appeared in the November issue of that year from Blackwood's Magazine wherein reference was made to the "immorality, lawlessness and slavery" which were supposed to prevail in Brazil at that time. The Maltese paper itself dismissed the Brazilians as "almost all half-breeds". That same paper took up on itself the arrogant role of the racist when it concluded: "it is ominously stated that the second generation of European-born parents have not in Brazil either the physical or the moral characters of their race".

As if racial arrogance and prejudice were not enough, exaggerated accounts about health perils in Brazil began to circulate. It was rumoured that Europeans were not capable of withstanding the climate in the state of Sao Paulo and if they did not move out after a couple of years they would degenerate to the level of the natives. Some correspondents compared the weather in Brazil to that of West Africa and the Gold Coast. it is possible that those who wrote such inaccuracies were not even aware of the country's immense area and its climatic variations. Some said Brazil was the white man's grave because of all the horrible diseases imaginable, such as amarelia, malaria, and beriberi.

In 1910 Brazil was passing through an intense period of immigration from Europe and Japan. Thousands of Germans, Italians, Poles and many others were pouring into that vastly wealthy country and making it their permanent home in spite of all the impossible difficulties aired by a narrow-minded Maltese press. Those other emigrants from Europe and Japan probably had more mature politicians at home and perhaps they were not being used for reasons other than their common good as Maltese migrants were. Professor Lawrence Manche' complained about the confusion generated by politicians when on September 24th 1911 he wrote about "a purely economical question intended to relieve the numerous unemployed country people from misery, has been converted into a political one". The professor wrote to the Commissary General of the state of Sao Paulo in order to ascertain the true situation in that Brazilian state. The Commissary General, Herman de Silva Pereira answered Manche' by a letter of September 15th 1911 and he definitely discounted the fear of infectious epidemics which were supposed to ravage his state. He also spelled out the conditions under which immigrants were to be admitted on the fazendas.

Herman de Silva Pereira believed that a man could cultivate 3,000 coffee plants and that women and children could do the same work because that type of work was not very tiring. According to the Commissary General, harvesting usually lasted for four to five months and he felt that a family of four to five persons could put aside anything between two to three thousand francs every year. He assured Professor Manche' that boys and girls under twelve years of age were not expected to work and that life on the fazendas was the same everywhere, both in the interior and in locations near the cities.

The information furnished straight from Sao Paulo helped to calm the fears of those who had originally opposed emigration to Brazil. Those who had been against the scheme suggested by Romeo Vadala' because they thought that Brazil was not civilize enough were summarily dealt with by a communication which appeared in The Mall Herald of February ]8th 1911 under the signature of D.R. O'Sullivan Beare who was the British Consul in Sao Paulo at the time. The consul said he was in favour of emigration Brazil for many reasons. He said that the climate of Sao Paulo was healthy and especial] agreeable to immigrants from the lands of Southern Europe. Italians formed some 80% of the rural population and they were doing very well. O'Sullivan Beare guessed that the Maltese would get on very well with the Italians. Also, Maltese would be emigrating to a Catholic country with a culture that was similar to theirs. The demand for labour was great and workers, skilled and unskilled, received good wages. The Consul concluded that he was of the opinion that immigrants from Malta would do a good thing decided to go to Sao Paulo, buy plots of land in that state and establish various Maltese colonies. As for the fear that Brazil's weather might prove detrimental to body or so influential Catholic review Civilta Cattolica of April 4th 1912 reproduced relevant tics: "from 1889 to 1910 1,855,000 emigrants of various nationalities entered Brazil; in 1911 there were two million Italians living in that country".

The interventions of Herman de Silva Pereira and of D.R. O'Sullivan Beare move Emigration Committee to action. Dr Charles Mattei had been originally against suggestion put forward by Romeo Vadala' but his colleague in the same Commil Professor Lawrence Manche' persuaded him to support the idea. The Emigration Committee decided to send thirty families made up of field labourers, of good conduct a sound health. This group was to be led by Mr G. Borg Falzon, an architect and surveyor, who was entrusted with the job of looking for suitable land, not far from a t and served by a railway service to settle the thirty families which would serve as a nucleus

of a bigger Maltese colony in the not too distant future.

On March 28th 1912 a party of seventy-three emigrants made of thirteen families Grand Harbour, Valletta, on board the French steamer SS.Carthage for the port of Santos in Brazil, via Marseilles. The party had a priest as escort. The priest was Rev. Pietro Paolo Charbon of Birkirkara. Mr G. Borg Faizon had already left for Brazil some days before. The priest carried with him a letter of recommendation from the Governor to the British Consul in Sao Paulo, asking the consul to give assistance to the group from Malta. The escort also carried a letter from the bishop of Malta to the bishop of Sao Paulo asking for that prelate's cooperation. The colonial administration did not interfere; it simply stated that the administration would not be held responsible for any claims made by the emigrants towards any costs involved through repatriation.

On April 4th 1912 the Maltese party was already at Valencia and they left for Malaga on the same day. Rev. P.P. Charbon wrote from Valencia; he praised the treatment they received on board the SS. Carthage and in Marseilles where they were given free board and meals for two days until they were transferred to the transatlantic steamer "Provence".

Meanwhile another batch of emigrants for Brazil had left Valletta on April 18th, 1912. This was a larger group made up of 106 persons. These arrived at the harbour of Santos on May 19th 1912, complaining about their luggage which was damaged by the sea spray because it had been left on deck. One baby was born during the crossing to a woman by the name of Galea. This addition was neutralised by the death of a little girl from measles. Her family name was Hammet. On disembarking, the Brazilian authorities noted that few of the Maltese were really farmers and complained that they were only prepared to pay money for those who accepted work on the coffee plantations.

Salvu Spiteri was a child of six years when in 1912 his father Giuseppe decided to take his family to Brazil. Seventy years later Salvu recalls the vicissitudes he and his family went through. Giuseppe was then twenty six and his wife Annunziata was two years younger. Salvu was their oldest child followed by Toni who was four and their baby boy who was only a few months old. Two uncles joined the SpitOris in the hope of starting a new life in South America.

Giuseppe had seen service with the Royal Malta Artillery but in 1912 he had been put on the reserve list. A young man with a wife and three very young boys, Giuseppe thought that the call to Brazil was his salvation especially since there was practically no expense involved and work seemed to be assured. The family left Malta with the second group on April 18th 1912 stopping at Tunis first and then Marseilles. Salvu remembers the ship which was to take them to Brazil; it was small and very crowded and had sails to help the coal-fired engines. The nights were spent in the hold which was regularly fumigated when the emigrants went up on deck as soon as day broke. Most people smelt horribly because of the lack of space and because during the four-week journey it was impossible to wash.

The Maltese on board behaved very well. Not only were there no dissensions among them but they also befriended other migrants who were mostly of Italian and Spanish ethnic origin. Salvu and his brother played with other children, though he can't tell what language they used. What he does remember is that the Maltese were so ill-prepared for the venture that they did not even know the right name of the country they were to settle in; he distinctly remembers the Maltese saying that they were going to "Berzin".

On the fazenda of San lose de Fortaieza, the Spiteris and the others were met by a Maltese gentleman whom the Maltese referred to as "is-Sinjur". This man - probably Mr Borg Falzon - informed them that for the first two days they all had to sleep in one large shed which was surrounded by a high fence and had one opening through a gate which was securely locked. There was a communal furnace on which meals were cooked and these usually consisted of rice, beans and dried fish. Coffee was naturally plentiful. Meals were served on the bare ground. No bread was available.

Life on the fazenda was not comfortable but Salvu insists that there was no violence, and even if the food was not to their liking certainly no one went hungry as long as he worked hard enough to justify his being kept on the coffee plantation. Relations between the Maltese, Neapolitans and Spaniards were cordial in spite of the language handicap Salvo states that other immigrants used to bring extra food to his young mother who was caring for his younger brothers.

Complications began for the Spiteri family when the father became rheumatic weeks was unable to work. The owner of San Jose' de Fortaieza, J.M. d'Almeida refused to provide food for a family that was giving him nothing in return. Other rants tried to help but when his brother left the plantation, Giuseppe felt that the held no future for him and his family. He left for Sao Paulo with absolutely taking his wife, children, and meagre belongings. For the first three days they s road until someone directed them to the British consul. The consul tried to Spiteri that the Colonial administration in Malta was not responsible for Spiteri was in no mood to listen and he hit the consul right in the face. As other Maltese began to protest and clamour to be shipped home, the police intervened and put the Spiteri family in custody for three days. Within two weeks Giuseppe and his family with other Maltese were put on a ship bound for distant Malta.

The first party which had left Malta on March 29th arrived at Santos on Friday, April 26th and soon left for Sao Paulo where they were kept for four days in a hostel immigrants, free of charge. Charbon wrote to Romeo Vadala' and informed him that group had been given work for one year on the fazenda of Santa Eulalia which was property of Cyro M. Rezende. Santa Eulalia, he said, was about an hour and a half or two hours distant from the town of Brotas, assuming one travelled on horseback. Brotas was some seven hours distant from Sao Paulo, if one travelled by train. According to Charbon, Brotas was a flourishing town of about 12,000 people.

Charbon only stayed four days on the fazenda of Santa Euialia, during which time the proprietor took him around his holdings which spread out for some 1,500 hectares. On the fazenda there were fifty-two houses which provided accommodation for the workers. The houses were built of bricks, had a wooden roof and contained three bedrooms with a kitchen and a small garden and a pen for domestic animals. Besides these houses, there were large stores for storing coffee. There was also a small chapel where mass was said every fortnight. Charbon was impressed by the fazenda which he described as efficiently run on very hygienic lines.

Each family was given, rent free, two hectares of land to be cultivated for the family's private use. They were also provided with fuel and pasture for their flocks. The landowner ran a general store from which the tenants were able to buy goods and foodstuffs if they so wished. Prices there were high and many preferred to travel to Brotas where supplies were cheaper.

The second group of Maltese immigrants were employed on another site. This was the fazenda of San Jose' de Fortaieza and was owned by colonel J. M. d'Almeida Barboza.

The conditions under which the Maltese were expected to work were left very vague. The immigrants lived on the land of the proprietor and depended almost completely on him for the duration of the contract. They were not paid a fixed wage but were given 100,000 reis, or about £7, for every 1,000 coffee plants which they successfully cultivated. This money was paid to them on a yearly basis. In addition, every member of a family could earn an extra 500 reis (8d) for every 50 litres (alquiere) of coffee beans which he managed to collect. Each family would be employed in unspecified agricultural work for about fifty days and this would bring in about 4s per day. This work was only done by male immigrants who were over eighteen years of age. Charbon calculated that if a family of four with two young sons under eighteen managed to cultivate over 5,000 coffee plants and gathered 600 alquieres of coffee beans plus some other extra work, these could (though not save) about £65 in one year. This calculation depended on two important conditions: good crops and good health all the year round.

Several groups of Spanish and Italian immigrants had worked before the Maltese under such a system. On the fazenda of Santa Euialia Charbon met many foreign permitted to speak to them freely. Charbon did notice that those workers c job on the fazenda as temporary and that they intended to stay there, contract, to save enough money to buy some land of their own. When are on many enquiries about the possibility of the Maltese buying their own land and settle on it, reaction he got from the Brazilians was a negative one. Charbon noted that the climate Sao Paulo was similar to that of Malta and that the state was free from epidemic disease. He also noticed that Catholics were completely free to practice their religion and that besides the chapel on the fazenda of Santa Euialia, the town of Brotas was well ser with priests and churches. This insistence on freedom of worship was aimed at the critics of Brazil who spread the rumour among the Maltese that that country was ruled by Freemasons.

The plan for a sustained effort to promote emigration to Brazil was proceeding o There certainly was no lack of applicants who were asking for information at the office Mr R. Vadala' in Valletta with the hope of having their names accepted and obtain free ticket to Brazil. Some of those who had already settled on Santa Euialia were sent letters which gave a favourable impression of life on that fazenda. A certain Gius( Bonello wrote about the wonderful variety of wild life which abounded in that are Bonello spoke very well of his employer Cyro M. Rezende. Domenico Micallef was employed on the other fazenda, that of S. Jose' de Fortaieza; he wrote of the conditions there and noted how agreeable the weather was.

The letter posted by Domenico Micallef was important because less than three mc after the letter was written, a certain Vincenzo Calleja made his way back to Malta went straight to the offices of a local newspaper to denounce the whole scheme emigration to Brazil. Calleja had been working on the same fazenda as Micallef. He started work there after May 19th and he was back in Malta in September. He had away from the fazenda and worked for some time with a British firm. Allowing Calleja least a month for his return to Malta, and deducting his time he spent with the British, he probably stayed on the fazenda for something like a month. Calleja spread his tall woe and that tale received all the publicity it needed from those who had opposed Vadala' from the start.

Calleja's main grievance seemed to have been lack of available cash in his hands, claimed that in sixteen days a gang of young, men earned only 13s 3d and that who’s week accounts were made up they found out that they owed Colonel J.M. d'Almeida Barboza £1. Then Calleja complained of homesickness and of the vast distances of to travel in Brazil and of the location of the fazenda of S. Jose' de Fortaieza which, found out, was in the heart of open country.

On October 25, 1912, the Italianate paper "Malta" published a letter which was by three men, in which the signatories complained about the conditions of work fazendas and the treatment meted out to them by the landlords. The letter bore the of Giuseppe Sultana, Pacifico Schembri, and Carmel Faizon. Political commentators once joined forces; the pro-Italy party wanted emigration to stop because the something which the British wanted in order to reduce Malta to the status of a garrison town, and the Imperialist clique, which opposed emigration to Brazil, be( that was a "foreign" country outside the pale of the Empire.

The Colonial Administration stayed out of it all; they had previously warned the emigrants that the local exchequer would not be held responsible for their repatriation. On the other hand the Emigration Committee, which had involved itself in the Brazilian experiment, had no effective power to intervene as it was a merely consultative body. As usual, the strident Maltese press called for "an official enquiry about the poor Maltese whose wails reach us from the other side of the Atlantic".

Vincenzo Calleja, a failed emigrant, had made sure that the whole scheme of emigration to Brazil, would end up in a mess. He had escaped from S. Jose' de Fortaleza, but the others on Santa Euialia were managing well; however when their contract with Cyro M. Rezende expired they all began their long journey back home because, since there had been no fresh arrivals from Malta, they felt left alone. When he proposed the Draft Supplementary Estimate of Expenditure for the financial year 1912 - 1913, the lieutenant governor of the time, Sir John Clauson, indirectly admitted the failure of the Brazilian project; he also hinted at the inadequate selection of those who presented themselves to emigrate. This was the basic reason for the fiasco. Sir John criticised those who passed unsuitable colonists who were obviously unsuitable to work on coffee plantations and who had been largely motivated by the offer of going to Brazil at no cost to themselves.

The project which had started with such high hopes of founding another Malta beyond the seas had foundered. Again the Maltese emigrant did not cut a particularly good figure. The Brazilians were not to blame because their conditions had been put down very clearly and when the second batch of Maltese had arrived in Santos, the Brazilians themselves complained that the Maltese were not the type of immigrants they had been expecting. When Vincenzo Calleja made known his complaints he also made known his unsuitability for the kind of life he had chosen. To complain about homesickness, interminable distances and inaccessibility to the ocean, had shown how ignorant some of the migrants were of conditions in Brazil.

Calleja and others had complained about the low wages they earned. This was a justified complaint. The whole project was hurriedly put together and Charbon and the gentlemen on the Emigration Committee could have obtained unequivocal information on what basic wages the Maltese were to earn. The whole venture was a product of private enterprise and it was embarked upon by a businessman who had had contacts with the Brazilian landowners and the only feature that appealed to the emigrants was that they could travel from Marseilles to Brazil at no cost to themselves. While the offer was tempting enough few cared to examine what the Brazilians expected in return for their money. The Brazilians expected men and women to work and live on the plantations and to be bound to their employer in an almost feudal manner. The fazendiero might be a kindly gentleman, but he controlled his workers in an autocratic way. Moreover the fazendas were usually vast and very often, far from the cities and the coast.

There had been absolutely no selection of prospective emigrants before the Maltese were shipped to Brazil; none of them had had any preparation for the different way of life which awaited them thousands of miles away from their natural environment. Moreover, the cultivation of coffee was absolutely unknown to the Maltese and many of them had never done any farming at all. The Maltese migrant never took kindly to tilling the land because farming itself on a very small island was not really a full-time occupation. Major Albert Levy who was the British Consul at Sao Paulo and who had relatives living in Malta and who was himself fluent in Maltese, complained that the Emigration Committee had sent to Brazil a crowd of "mixed pickles". He mentioned the fact that the Brazilians themselves were disappointed with the Maltese. Levy said that some of the Maltese had hardly spent one night on the fazendas when they started packing their belongings and left for Sao Paulo to beg him find work for them in the city. This was probably the case ofVincenzo Calera who had started on the pathetic exodus from the plantations and ultimately from Brazil.

The language problem had not been given the serious consideration it deserved. None of the Maltese could speak any language but their own; at least they should have been provided with an escort who spoke Portuguese and who was prepared to stay with them and act as liaison between them and their employers. The complaint about food did not mean that the Maltese were left starving. The fazendas were highly successful enterprises where food was abundant. The Maltese naturally complained about local food which was unfamiliar to them; they must have missed their Maltese bread very much. The Maltese colonists were thrown thousands of miles away from their native island into distant Brazil when they had no knowledge of the outside world and were completely unfamiliar with the country in which they were expected to live and work.

Peter Paul Charbon could have done much more for the Maltese colony. In his report Charbon wrote that he had been entertained for four days at the fazenda Santa Euialia by the proprietor. Four days were not a very long period for Charbon to familiarise himself with the conditions prevailing on the fazenda; moreover Charbon was the guest of the proprietor and it could have been possibly the case that what Charbon saw and noted did not always completely tally with what his immigrants had to experience. In fact, what Charbon did was act as a leader and spokesman during the journey from Malta to Brazil. Once on Brazilian territory the Maltese were left on their own.

The other disturbing feature of the Brazilian venture was that no previous agreement had been reached between the Emigration Committee and the Brazilian employers on the exact wages which the immigrants hoped to receive for their toil. They had no fixed wage because the money they were given depended on the amount of work they did. This was probably a just system at the time but it did put the Maltese at the mercy of their employer. It also meant that when the worker was incapacitated or when the harvest was poor, the money stopped coming in.

It has already been stated that the Maltese had not been prepared for the work to which they had been sent. The very location of the fazendas worked against the Maltese temperament. The immigrants from Malta had never been more than five miles away from the sea; nor had they ever experienced a solitary life lost in the vast expanses of a large country miles away from the shore or from a sizeable town . Even when successful emigration was to be organised later on in the century to Australia, Canada and U.S.A. the Maltese always tended to congregate in large coastal towns. When the author met a returned immigrant from Brazil who had gone to that country in the sixties, the immigrant said that he came back because where he was all he could see was miles and miles of interminable land.

Yet, in spite of such obvious drawbacks the Maltese could have settled successfully in Brazil if only the colonial government had intervened to organise emigration on a sound footing. Millions of emigrants from the coastal parts of Mediterranean Europe had settled in the Brazilian interior and made a success of it. There was no reason why the Maltese could not have done the same. The government never gave the necessary lead and would never employ professional people to run efficiently an Emigration Office which would have seriously prepared and selected those prospective migrants who would have succeeded in establishing themselves permanently in a foreign land. Unfortunately the project of emigration to Brazil was allowed to go into private hands and it collapsed miserably. Emigration to Brazil under the scheme of Vadala' had been terminated before August 7th 1913.

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