Fr. William Bonett (1884-1928)
Born in Gibraltar of Maltese migrant parents who, however, returned to Malta in 1905 when William was 21 years old. He entered the seminary and was ordained priest in September 1913. A couple of years later he applied for a passport to travel to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on the Osterley, on 2 January, 1916. By September of the same year he found himself involved in the Gange debacle, when 214 Maltese (mostly Gozitans) were forbidden to land because of the current unrest relating to the referendum about conscription.
Fr Bonnet took it on himself to try to convince the authorities that the Maltese migrants on board were legal migrants, carrying British passports and who had every right to land in Australia. He wrote letters to the Minister concerned (Mr Mahon) and the Prime Minister himself (Mr Billy Hughes) and to the Governor General of Australia (Rt Hon Ronald Crawford Munro-Ferguson). He wrote to the papers both in Australia and in Malta to highlight the plight of the migrants who were languishing in Noumea waiting for a final decision.
In Malta, capital was made by those who were against migration in the first place (e.g Dr Enrico Mizzi) but no formal action was taken by the Government.
Eventually, they were allowed to land, - a few at a time not to attract undue attention from the labour unions and the press! Fr Bonett has rightly earned the reputation of being the person most responsible for highlighting the state of these migrants.
He also tried his best to improve the lot of those migrants whom he saw as ill-prepared for their life in Australia. He also tried to convince the ecclesiastical authorities in Malta to send more priests who were deemed necessary both for the spiritual needs but also to influence the behaviour of unruly members of the congregation. Mgr G. DePiro was one of the few who heeded his words. He wrote back saying : "You know the Maltese as well as we do and you know how limited the missionary spirit is among us."
Fr Bonett died at the young age of 44 years.
[For further information see: Profiles in Maltese Migration by Fr Lawrence E. Attard, 2003, PEG, Malta]
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