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France, England and Gibraltar

For many centuries France was considered as the richest and most powerful nation which bordered on the Mediterranean. During the period 1530-1798, when Malta and the Maltese prospered under the rule of the Knights of St. John, most of the Knights were French and France was accepted as a special patroness of the Order and of the Island. Although the French interlude between 1798-1800 left many unhappy memories among the Maltese, when the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte vanished from the horizon of Europe the feelings of most Maltese towards France became more positive.

By the middle of the nineteenth century a number of Maltese had settled in French Mediterranean ports and some of them had ventured as far north as the French capital. Some of the original pioneers who had emigrated from Malta to the Maghreb found their way to metropolitan France. These settled in Marseilles, Bordeaux and Paris. Marseilles always had the largest Maltese community and by 1912 there were about 600 Maltese earning their living in Marseilles as stevedores, artisans and as unskilled labourers. This community kept on growing by other Maltese who had arrived directly from Malta and by those who had first gone to Tunis and Algiers and eventually found their way to Marseilles.

The number of Maltese immigrants in France increased after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. When peace was restored in Europe the French started reconstructing their devastated regions and the French Government was looking for foreign workers to help in the recovery of the country. A Maltese delegation went to Paris and signed an agreement with the French which envisaged a number of Maltese, between 700 and 1,000, who would be sent to France to work in the liberated regions which had been devastated during the war years. Wages and labour conditions were guaranteed to be the same as those offered to local labour in France.

The Maltese who decided to work in France were 624. They signed a contract for six months and when their contract expired 230 of them chose to remain permanently in France. They were offered good jobs by private firms. Eventually these men sent for their families.

The number of Maltese who emigrated to France from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to 1929 was 4,172. Records show that 991 came back, mostly because their contract had expired. However the number of Maltese living in France at that time was much higher because of those who had left North Africa for Continental France. In 1919 Henry Casolani had paid a visit to the South of France and he met there over 1,000 Maltese. Over half of these immigrants said that they worked in the docks at the port of Marseilles.

Prior to 1921 North America was the goal of most Maltese who wished to emigrate. Rut in that year the First Quota Law was enacted which severely hampered the flow of emigrants to that part of the world. That law was the reason why after 1921 Maltese interest in France revived. In 1922 Mr. Henry Casolani obtained an interview with Jean Lebelle of the French Ministry of Labour to discuss the possibility of sending more Maltese emigrants to France. Lebelle agreed to recommend the Maltese because of the good impression made by those who had been given reconstruction work in the cast of the country. Lebelle assured Casolani that France would take in skilled workers from Malta, especially masons, bricklayers, carpenters and those familiar with kindred trades.

The conditions for working in France were: a contract with a French employer and a reliable proof that those who applied for a visa had a solid promise of work.

The migratory flow from Malta to France was never enormous but it stayed steady from 1919 to 1930. The slowdown was due to the international Depression which hit all industrialised nations at the time. Maltese workers in France suffered like everyone else but those living in and around Marseilles found a good friend in a priest from Gozo, Rev. Angelo Camilleri. In his work he had contacted more than 3,000 Maltese.

The work among the Maltese was not easy. Before 1928 some Maltese in Marseilles had gained unwanted notoriety because they had become involved with the underworld of that cosmopolitan city. In less than two years the situation of the Maltese was improved because of the personal interest shown by this priest in the Maltese community. Not only was he a spiritual pastor but he was also an efficient social worker and was recognised by the French and the Maltese authorities as their official link with the Maltese immigrants in Marseilles.

Henry Casolani knew how valuable the inter-vention of Rev. Angelo Camilleri was. This is what Casolani had to say about him: "He has raised the tone of the Maltese who are now a respected, honest and monied element, an asset to Marseilles; he has placed new arrivals in lucrative work. A colony, which was formerly a thorn in the side of Malta, where repatriations and maintenance at Government expenses were of daily occurrence, is now happy and independent".

In 1929 Fr. Camilleri was cooperating with the British consul in Marseilles to make the Maltese in that city a contented community. The priest not only enlisted the help of the British representative in what was France's second largest city, but he also received help from bishop Dubourg. The bishop offered the priest the historic "Chapelle de la Croix de Malte" for the use of the Maltese.

That chapel had been built in 1621 by the Knights of Malta and the bishop thought it a proper gesture to let the Maltese use it for their own religious functions. Fr. Camilleri needed not only a place of worship for his ethnic group but he also needed a place which he could use as a centre for the Maltese. The chapel accommodated some 500 people. Alterations were made by friends of the priest with financial assistance from the Government of Malta.

On November 3, 1929, Rev. Angelo Camilleri had the satisfaction of seeing his "Chapelle de la Croix de Malte" officially inaugurated as a church for the Maltese. The facade was decked with British, Maltese and French flags. At 8.30 am Bishop Dubourg arrived to celebrate mass.

Besides Rev. Angelo Camilleri and many Maltese, there were also present Mr. Spencer Stuart Dickson, British Consul General in Marseilles and Mr. Primrose of the British Legion.

Although Great Britain was, in a political sense, the Mother Country of the Maltese, few of them had ever expressed a wish to emigrate to such a distant and cold country. Up to the First World War very few Maltese had settled in the United Kingdom. Except for the Maltese colony in Cardiff, there were no considerable concentrations of Maltese anywhere in Great Britain. There were some businessmen and a few students who lived in the United Kingdom only till they finished their business and study.

The four years of warfare between 1914 and 1918 had brought the Maltese and the British a little bit closer. A number of mixed marriages had taken place, usually between servicemen serving in Malta and local women. Some steady friend-ships had been struck by which the British were ,able to gain some insight into the Maltese way of life and the Maltese were able to distinguish between a soldier or a sailor and an ordinary Englishman.

Between 1919 and 1929, 3,354 Maltese were officially listed as having sailed to the United Kingdom, though 1,445 of these had come back in later years. However even those 1,909 who had been considered as having stayed in the United Kingdom, not all of them were to be classified as genuine emigrants. Those included wives who had left to join their husbands. Some young men had come to England to enlist in the Royal Navy or take come job with the Merchant Navy. More important still, there were those who travelled to the United Kingdom in order to be able to go on to the U.S.A. or to Canada. Indeed a number of these indirect emigrants ended up in Australia.

The Report on emigration for 1918-1920 had this to say about this particular aspect of Maltese migration: "It may seem strange that in the present unsettled state of the labour market in England, 225 Maltese emigrants should have gone to the U.K. between Armistice Day and March 3 1, 1920. On a small scale a certain number of Maltese have always filtered to the Mother Country. They are attracted by friends, or go to join relatives who are there, and they belong, as a rule, either to the Dockyard or Domestic classes".

By 1932 a Maltese Colony had been formed in a street adjoining the Commercial Road in London. A visitor to this area described the colony as numerous and the street in question was largely occupied by the Maltese. The visitor noted that the Maltese in that section of London organised their own social functions and lived in racial harmony with their neighbours. These included English, Jewish, German, Russian and Indian residents. The Maltese worked in the docks. Similar work was done by the Maltese living in Chatham and in Portsmouth.

A positive development meant to enhance bilateral relations between Malta and Great Britain was the appointment of Sir James D. Connolly as honorary representative of Malta in London. Connolly had been interested in Maltese emigration since 1913. In that year he visited Malta and after his return to Western Australia he had encouraged emigration to the State. When Lord Strickland was Governor of Western Australia, Connolly was his Colonial Secretary. In 1928 Sir James was the Agent General for Western Australia and he informed Strickland that he was willing to represent Malta in London. The Government of Malta was only expected to pay for Connolly's flat and staff. Sir James Connolly held his post in London between 1928 and 1932 Gibraltar was the solitary foothold Great Britain maintained on the European mainland. It was conquered in 1713, and although Spain never gave up her claims to the promontory, the Rock remained in British hands at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus were the three stepping stones by which Great Britain controlled the Mediterranean and the vital route to the Suez Canal and thence to India. When the British conquered Gibraltar the inhabitants fled and sought refuge in the town of San Roque. Their place was taken by immigrants, mostly from Morocco, Malta and the Italian islands. Later some Spaniards filtered through again and this gave the promontory a very mixed population. The Maltese and the Italians mingled with their Spanish brethren and this fusion preserved the Latin and Catholic character of the colony in spite of centuries of British occupation.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century trade with Africa and the presence of the British Fleet made Gibraltar prosperous. This prosperity attracted immigrants from neighbouring Mediterranean lands and in 1885 there were about 1,000 Maltese living on the rock. Early in the twentieth century the British undertook vast naval works to make the colony practically impregnable. The base in Gibraltar was to prove its strategic value in the two world wars. It was only to be expected that, given the common colonial bond between Malta and Gibraltar, some Maltese would he lured by the prospect of lucrative employment on the Rock.

By 1912 the total number of Maltese living in Gibraltar was not above 700. Many worked in the Dockyard and others operated businesses which were usually ancillary to the Dockyard. Some sold tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Others were porters, carters and boatmen.

However the economy of Gibraltar was not capable of absorbing a large number of immigrants from Malta. By 19 1 2 the Maltese colony was already in decline. Eventually those who stayed on the Rock became very much involved in the economic and social life of the colony. Most of them were staunch supporters of the colony's link with Great Britain. Unlike Maltese settlements in Moslem lands, the Maltese colony in Gibraltar continued, if not to flourish, at least to survive.

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


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