MALTA DIARY: Early LEGAL Maltese migrants to Australia treated with brutality
1916 Group exiled in New Caledonia hell-hole; made to take European language literacy test – in Dutch!
Maltese and other “humane treatment” merchants who tut-tut at their perceived ill-treatment of the waves of hundreds of thousands of illegal and trafficked immigrants into Europe would do well to delve into their history books and check how LEGAL Maltese migrants were treated in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.
All of these had legal identification; all of them were British citizens with British passports coming from a country that was in the realms of the then British Empire. All of them were poverty-stricken men, women and their families seeking to make a new beginning across the other side of the world.
Early shipments were not allowed to land on Australian shores and were left exiled at sea for many days after a gruelling ocean voyage that in those days used to take anything between four and six weeks under mainly horrific and unhygienic conditions – and they had to pay their own passages, not to mention violent storms at sea.
It took time for their British citizenship to be recognised and was only achieved with the intervention of the British Government from London. In the meanwhile they were racially treated as ‘Africans’ and fell under the Australian ban on all Africans and Asians – racism at its best.
In early 1915 Malta played a massive part in looking after and nursing Anzac troops involved in the horrendous Gallipoli landings of World War I which claimed thousands of lives and maimed thousands of others. Many of the injured were conveyed to Malta and were looked after by the Maltese who even opened their homes to them.
Nevertheless, this served to be if little stock for the horrors vested on a group of Maltese and Gozitan migrants in 1916. Writing in “The Times of Malta” edition of Monday 22nd February this year, historian Joe Morana recounted how on 12th September 1916 the French mail steamer ‘Ganges’ departed from Valletta on a voyage to Australia with a group of 214 Maltese and Gozitan migrants on board looking for a new life on faraway shores.
On its way to Fremantle, the ship encountered a terrific storm en route from Colombo (then Ceylon and now Sri Lanka). Eventually, on 21st October the ‘Ganges’ docked at Fremantle and another terrific storm was unleashed. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time – their misfortune.
Unknown to them, the Australian mainland was in the midst of a raging debate on military conscription which the trade unions opposed vehemently, accusing the government of Prime Minister Billie Hughes with wanting conscription to deplete the country of young men and with having plans to replace these with cheap foreign “blackleg” labour. In fact a referendum was scheduled for 28th October, seven days later.
The unions seized the arrival of this consignment of migrants as “proof” that cheap foreign labour was already at hand and a momentous debate exploded. Hughes had been unaware of this sudden and unforeseen arrival and took immediate action to save his reputation. In his article, Morana described the reaction thus:
“The Maltese were therefore refused admission under the provisions of Australia’s Immigration Act, which had proved highly effective in deterring Asian and other unwelcome immigrants. A penalty of 100 pounds for each prohibited immigrant was imposed on the masters, agents, charterers and owners of ships that brought such persons to Australia.”
The Australian newspapers immediately took up the battle, slating Hughes and the unions and describing their actions as “shameful”, vividly pointing out that the Maltese and Gozitans were British citizens with British passports and one even went as far as describing them as “being more British than Hughes himself”!
To really make a mockery of the situation, the migrants had the Immigration Act inflicted of them and this involved a dictation test in a “known European language”. The tests were carried out by a professor from Melbourne University who failed everybody – the test was purposely carried out in Dutch! Having failed, the Maltese were prohibited entry to Australia.
Resultantly, unwilling to risk such enormous fines, the ‘Ganges’ immediately set sail and conveyed its passengers to Noumea in French New Caledonia and landed the Maltese and Gozitans there, except for six who could prove they had been to Australia previously. This area was known as a hell-hole and the migrants were left to languish there for ten whole weeks as the debate continued to rage on the mainland.
Finally, after much lobbying by the newspapers and a number of Maltese clerics in Australia, the migrants were returned to Sydney in a derelict ship and detained under armed guard.
On 21st March 1917 the group was finally allowed to land on Australian soil – a full five months after having first arrived in Australia and over six months after having left Valletta, and on condition they would become trade union members and gainful employment would be found for them.
Thus ended a shameful and disgraceful saga of racism and discrimination by the Australian authorities. If it were to be exercised today on illegal and trafficked immigrants it would cause a never-ending international storm of protest and heated condemnation by the United Nations.
Since then many, many thousands of Maltese and Gozitan migrants settled in Australia and made a new and prosperous life there and now of course there are many third and fourth generation offsprings as a result of successful integration over the decades and many are proud to class themselves as “Australians” – which many of them are, by birth.
Yet the arrival of their forefathers at the turn of the 20th Century was shameful, discriminatory and totally inhumane, despite their having been citizens of the British Empire and despite the total legality of their immigration.
NOTE: With acknowledgement to “The Times of Malta” and to Marlon George Grech for some of the pictures.