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Algeria and Tunisia

Algeria was for many years the most important country for Maltese migration within the zone of the Mediterranean. Under various aspects it was also the most successful and statistics show that by the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Malta ' s emigrants had chosen Algeria as their country of residence. Although the French conquest had began in 1830, some Maltese had found their way to the area around the city of Constantine before the French connection had began. In 1834 a French governor for North Africa had been appointed, and as the French consolidated their foothold on Algerian territory, Europeans followed the French tricolor. Among the Europeans the Maltese were one of the largest groups, being outnumbered only by Spaniards and Sicilians.

Like all newcomers, the Maltese in Algeria did at first encounter hostility from the French. Continental Europeans looked down on other Europeans who came from the islands such as the Sicilians and the Maltese. It is true to admit that most insular Europeans were poor and illiterate. Some did have a criminal record and were only too ready to carry on with their way of life in other parts of the Mediterranean where their names were not publicly known.

French official policy was dictated by sheer necessity. France was a large and prosperous country. Its population was not enormous and many French peasants were quite happy with their lot. If the French needed colonists to make their presence permanent they had to turn to other sources to obtain their manpower. The French Consul in Malta was in favour of encouraging Maltese emigrants to settle in Algeria. He believed that the Maltese showed a distinct liking for France and the French. Although the Maltese under the British, they were not politically active and the French could accept them without any fear.

Another important man who favoured Maltese emigration to North Africa in general and to Algeria in particular was the prominent French churchman, Cardinal Charles Lavigeric who had dreams of converting the Maghreb back to Christianity. Lavigerie saw North Africa in historical terms as he was professor of Church history. He founded a religious order which was . commonly called "The White Fathers" with scope of spreading Christianity among the .Berbers and the Arabs. Cardinal Lavigerie was archbishop of Carthage and Algiers. In 1882 Cardinal Lavigerie visited Malta. He immediately appreciated the Catholic fervour of the islanders. During his stay he talked of the Maltese as providential instruments meant to augment the Christian population of French North Africa. He saw the Maltese as loyal to France and to the Catholic Church and at the same time as being eminently useful in building some form of communication with the Arab masses.

The Maltese who crossed over to Algeria did establish a good rapport with their French rulers. Although poor and illiterate they were able to improve their lot through sheer hard work. Like their countrymen in Egypt, they realised the importance of a good education and they made sure that their offspring received that kind of education which in Malta they never got. Eventually most of their sons and daughters opted for French nationality and were among the most ardent supporters of the presence of France in that of the Western Mediterranean.

By 1847 the number of Maltese living in Algeria was calculated at 4,610. The Maltese colony in Algeria had been realised as being of some importance by that date, so much so that Maltese church leaders decided to send two priests during Lent to deliver sermons in Maltese.

In a letter written by the Governor General of ,Algeria on June 17, 1903, it was stated that by then there were 15,000 inhabitants who claimed Maltese origin. Most of these were small farmers, fishermen and traders. As in other parts of North Africa, the Maltese ability to speak in three or four languages helped them to get on well with the French, Spaniards, Italians and Arabs.

In 1926 the number of ethnic Maltese living in Algeria and Tunisia was tentatively calculated at about 30,000. The exact number of Maltese in was impossible to arrive at because many Maltese had opted for French nationality. By 1927 the Maltese were considered as excellent settlers who worked very hard and were honest in their dealings with others. This was the judgement given by Monsieur Emile Morinaud, a Deputy for Algiers in Paris. In a speech delivered by Morinaud on November 30, 1927, the French politician declared the Maltese as being "French at heart".

Maltese settlers in Algeria were distributed along that country's Mediterranean coast, but the most populous concentrations were to be found in Algiers, Philippeville and Bone. In 1930 Henry Casolani claimed that he had known some millionaires and wealthy industrialists among the Maltese.

In May 1927 French representatives were still arriving in Malta hoping to recruit emigrants to work on Algerian farms. These representatives were sent by the "Societe' des Fermes Francaises" which owned large estates near Bone and which expressly preferred to have Maltese migrants work for them. They invited six Maltese families, which would comprise about five or six members each, to work on one or on all of their estates.

When the French visitors contacted the Labour Office in Malta about their suggestion, the Maltese reaction was positive. The Labour Office felt that wages and conditions offered by the Society were reasonable. The French appointed a Maltese immigrant, Joseph Damato, to interview interested farmers from Malta and Gozo who wished to work on their estates. Damato said that all he looked for was work experience. No special skills were required and certainly no capital.

The most famous Maltese-Algerian was Laurent Ropa. He was born in Gozo on Christmas Day 1891. His parents, Guzeppi and Karmela left their home for Algeria when their baby was only two. Although in constant touch with his country of origin, Laurent was never to set foot on his native soil again.

The Gozitan family settled in a small village called Allelik which was not far from Bone. Life at Allelik was hard and things got worse when Guzeppi hurt himself and had to be out of work for some time. A friend who knew the family tried to help as now there were two other boys to support. Wenzu, the pet name for young Laurent, preferred his books to the farm tools and Guzeppi decided that his son Wenzu should go to school, first in Bone and then in Constantine. Disaster struck again when mother Karmela died.

During the First World War Laurent Ropa joined the Zouaves. He himself was wounded but the greatest scar was the loss on the battlefields of some of his school-mates. When the Armistice was signed in 1918, Laurent decided to stay in metropolitan France and earn his living as a teacher. It was at this time that he developed his flair for writing. He composed a number of poems and also wrote some novels. His most loved novels were: "Le chant de la noria" which was published in 1932; "Kaline" published in 1936; "Bou Ras" published 1945.

The first novel was largely autobiographical. It was an authentic description of daily life on a farm run by a Maltese immigrant family in Algeria. The novel pointed to a deep sense of Maltese identity sustained by a fervent Christian faith. The author also staunchly supported the cause of the Maltese Language and the right of that language to be considered as the official tongue of the Maltese. Between 1937 and 1938 Ropa wrote a series of articles in support of Malta's language, history and culture. On August 20, 1937, Laurent Ropa wrote: "The Maltese who want to preserve their identity want also to safeguard their links with their mother country. They want to remain Maltese".

In another article he warned that it was impossible for one to be true to France unless one acknowledged his Maltese roots. According to Laurent Ropa the very soul of the Maltese communities in North African consisted in the loyalty to one's past.

One reat unfulfilled dream of Laurent Ropa was his suggestion to create a "Federation Maltaise Universelle". In a letter to the editor of "Il-Qari Malti" of Port Said, Laurent Ropa suggested the creation of a federation which would have included representatives from all the Maltese communities spread throughout the world. Ropa wished to call a convention to be held in Valletta so that Maltese leaders would meet and study how to ensure the survival of the Maltese language among emigrants.

Laurent Ropa dearly loved his country and its language. To him the Maltese language was the most distinctive characteristic of the Maltese people. He also felt that the Maltese language was a good vehicle for producing good literary works and for composing poetry. According to Laurent Ropa "Malta is a name among the most beautiful in history".

When Napoleon Bonaparte captured Malta from the Knights of St. John in 1798 he ordered the Bay of Tunis to free all the Maltese slaves who languished in jail. At least fifty such slaves returned to Malta. For centuries the Maltese who found themselves in Tunis probably did so against their will. With the advent of the Napoleonic Era and the re-structuring of political power in Europe and along the shores of the Mediterranean, the pirates of Tunis lost their trade. The foothold gained by the French in North Africa changed the political framework of the Maghreb and some Europeans thought, somewhat prematurely, that the Mediterranean was to enter into another Roman Epoch. with peace reigning all along its coasts.

The Maltese were among the first to venture in their speronaras into Tunisian waters. They traded with coastal towns and with the island of Jerba. Eventually they established settlements not only in Tunis and on jerba but also in Susa, Monastir, Mehdia and Sfax. By 1842 there were about 3,000 Maltese in the Regency. In less than twenty years their numbers increased to 7,000.

An influential French politician, Paul Cambon, was well-disposed towards the Maltese and he spoke of his preference for Maltese immigration into Tunisia. In 1882 Paul Cambon was administering Tunisia for France. In April of that same year Paul Cambon received a Maltese politician, M. Decesare. In the course of an interview Pau' Cambon told Decesare that the French approved of admitting the Maltese into Tunisia because the French considered the Maltese as sober, industrious and thrifty. Cambon knew of the good name the Maltese enjoyed in Algeria and he said he was happy to have the Maltese in Tunisia as well.

The French had one serious preoccupation in Tunisia. Italian immigrants had settled there in their thousands and Italy had coveted Tunisia for a very long time. The French occupation of Tunisia had gone down very badly with the Italians. The French wanted the Maltese to act as a counter-balance to the Italians. British consular statistics show that by the beginning of the twentieth century there were 15,326 Maltese living in Tunisia.

The Maltese in Tunisia worked on farms, on the railways, in the ports and in small industries. They introduced different types of fruit trees which they had brought with them from Malta. Moreover contact between Malta and Tunisia was constant because the small boats owned by the Maltese, popularly known as speronaras, constantly plied the narrow waters between Tunisia and the Maltese Islands.

Paul Cambon referred to the Maltese living in Tunisia as the "Anglo-Maltese Element". He was grateful that such an element proved to be either loyal to France or at least was politically neutral. In spite of rampant anti-clericalism in France, the

French allowed the Maltese complete freedom of their religion. Cardinal Lavigerie was respected. The fiery leader of French anti-clericalism, Leon Gambetta, did not hesitate to state that when French priests spread not only religion but French culture, then they were to be allowed to carry on with their work without any restraint.

After 1900 it became legally possible for foreigners to buy land in Tunisia. After that year there was a number of Maltese landowners in that country. In 1912 trade between Tunisia and Malta had risen to more than two million francs. Cultural ties were kept alive by the frequent visits brass bands from Malta which were often invited to cross the water to help create a festive -mood when the Maltese in Tunisia celebrated the feast of their parish. On April 10, 1926, a Maltese newspaper commented on a visit made by the French President to Tunisia. The newspaper claimed that the President, Emile Loubet, had eulogised the Maltese as "a model colony".

There was however one serious point of disagreement between the French and the Maltese. This concerned the problem of citizenship. The Maltese had insisted on keeping their British citizenship. The French contended that Maltese born in Tunisia were to be considered as citizens of the French Republic. In 1923 the French took their case before the International Court of Justice where Monsieur Lapradelle claimed that his Government was entitled to conscript residents in North Africa for military service even if they had foreign citizenship.

On February 7, 1923, the International Court of Justice at the Hague decided against the French who had held that conscription was a purely domestic matter. Lapradelle took the French case before the League of Nations. The British Government contended that the French had no right to impose French nationality on British subjects horn in Tunisia and Morocco as these countries were merely Protectorates. In fact it became known that British subjects of Maltese origin had been handcuffed and compelled to join the French Army.

The problem concerning the status of Maltese holding British passports but living in French territories remained an open one. Such a legal and political anomaly was to reduce a number of settlers of foreign origin to the position of stateless persons.

In 1927 Joseph Damato from Sfax wanted to offer employment to discharged Dockyard workers on schemes in Tunisia as he had already offered to find work for Maltese farmers in Algeria. Damato travelled to Malta regularly and he interviewed a number of applicants. Damato preferred married men with families. If selected, these men sailed to Tunis and on disembarking they found a representative sent by Damato who introduced them to a local employer. These workers were usually put on mechanical jobs either in factories or on the railways where they were able to apply their expertise. Wages were not high but it was better than staying idle at home.

Joseph Damato and his representatives worked in collaboration with the French and the Maltese authorities. In 1929 the French and the Maltese Governments signed a Labour Contract by which an officer of the "Office Gratuit du Placement des Francais en Tunisie" was enabled to interview Maltese who were seeking work in Tunisia.

The scheme was successful and good employment was guaranteed to Maltese emigrating to Tunisia. The French also promised that Maltese workers would be given the same wages and work under the same conditions as French nationals. This kind of atmosphere prevailed until the French withdrew, Tunisia achieved its independence, and the Maltese, together with other foreign nationals, had to seek a permanent home else-where.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.


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