Ingeborg van Teeseling

The Maltese boat people of 1916 that set our national tone

It seems that the issue with ‘boat people’ is a contemporary one, however, the way we treated the Maltese in 1916 proves that to be a fallacy.

 

 

Because I know you are a fan of little series and love, love, love Australian history, I am going to treat you in the next few weeks. You know those moments in a country’s past that are weird and wonderful, or just plain weird? And those people you sort-of know about, but not really? Stick with me and I will regale you with stories that will dazzle and surprise. My first offering today is that about a group of Maltese workers who arrived in Fremantle on 21 October, 1916. Malta was a poor island back then, and heavily caught up in WWI. It was “the nurse of the Mediterranean”, taking care of 80,000 wounded soldiers, a lot of them Australian. They were shipped in from Gallipoli and other European fronts, where Maltese men were fighting on the side of the British Empire themselves. For a small place, with only a little over 210,000 inhabitants, Malta went above and beyond, and many Australian returned soldiers were grateful.

But that didn’t help the Maltese in 1916. When the Gange arrived in WA, Australia was in the grip of a referendum on conscription. Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes, whose enthusiasm for the war had earned him the moniker “the little digger”, had become worried when the zeal to enlist had dropped off after alarming news of tens of thousands of deaths had been published. His solution was to try and see if he could force men to join the military, but for that he needed the permission of the Australian people. On the 28th of October 1916, there was to be a referendum that asked if they were okay with that. In the lead-up, the country had been split down the middle. Very much against conscription were the Irish, whose will to fight on the side of the British had been very much undermined by the 1916 Easter Rising and British reprisals. They had a powerful advocate in their corner, Melbourne archbishop Mannix, who was Irish himself. To Hughes, Mannix was more dangerous than the Kaiser. Also scared of conscription were the unions, who feared that with their members away at the front, their jobs would be taken over by women, or even worse, coloured people. And that, in an Australia that was a firm believer in its right to be white, was simply not on.

 

It was clear that this was becoming an issue with distinct racial overtones. But for quite a few people it was also shameful.

 

So when the Maltese arrived a week before the referendum, they were regarded with suspicion. Certainly, there had been Maltese migrants before, and usually there was no problem with them. As members of the British Empire they were British subjects and were therefore accepted without trouble. But with everybody on edge, 214 men, on a French ship as well, that was a little suss. The Australian Workers’ Union said that they knew for certain that thousands of others were sneaking in via Coffs Harbour to steal the jobs of their members. They called the Maltese “a black menace” and asked the government to do something. In the mean time, the Gange had entered Melbourne, and there the men were subjected to the best tool the White Australia Policy had at its disposal: the Dictation Test. This examination allowed the border officials to ask would-be migrants a set of questions in any European language they wanted. Usually that did the trick: ask Chinese of Malays something in Gaelic or Danish and chances were that they wouldn’t be able to answer. This time, for the Maltese, it was Dutch they were confronted with. And surprise, surprise, all of them failed.

That meant that they were now “prohibited immigrants”. If they went on shore they risked six months goal and deportation. Anybody who helped them would be subject to a fine of 100 pounds, which was a lot of money. The master of the ship, who had not foreseen this (seeing that his charges were British subjects coming into a harbour that was part of the British Empire), then set sail to Sydney, where he was, again, not allowed in and the Maltese not allowed off. In the newspapers, people were starting to ask questions, but PM Hughes put the men under a military guard and made sure the populace knew this “batch” would be sent back as soon as possible. The men, in the mean time, were stuck on board, and on the 10th of November a few of them made a run for it. Most of them were caught again, and as a precaution the ship was told to leave Circular Quay and dock at Neutral Bay instead. The men were hauled in front of the Water Police Court and given a slap on the wrist. A few days later the ship was sent to Noumea, the capital of French territory New Caledonia, where the Australian government tried desperately to have them sent back. The problem was that they had done nothing wrong, and by this time the Australian public was getting angry. The referendum had failed anyway, so there was now no danger in letting them in. So on the 25th of November, a member of the RSL wrote a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, telling him that he was appalled at what was happening to the Maltese:

About 250 Maltese are kept on the Gange, not allowed to land in Australia. But why? Are they not British Subjects? Are they not white? … We seem to prefer the Hun and Austrian in our midst, not the mention the Greek, Turk, Bulgar and Syrian. No, clear Australia of those black-hearted individuals first, before we refuse our own brothers the right to live and work in any part of the Empire.

It was clear that this was becoming an issue with distinct racial overtones. But for quite a few people it was also shameful. On December 30, with the Maltese still in Noumea, there was another letter to the editor of the SMH. George Brown from Gordon wrote:

During this Christmas-tide, I have been feeling keenly that the exclusion and threatened repatriation of the Maltese … is not only opposed to the principles and precepts of the Christian religion … but that it is also inimical to the best interests of the Empire to which we belong.

Brown thought it “a great injustice” that left a “very undesirable impression in the homeland and among the Allies”, especially while “many others who are as dark in colour are admitted.”

In early January 1917, Hobart’s Mercury added fuel to the fire by revealing that 63 of the men had fought “alongside our boys at Gallipoli” and that half of the 241 were married, leaving their families at home, who had been counting on money sent back, in desperate poverty. A few days later, there was another letter by “a Malteao” who was wondering who were the “scientific gentlemen who think that the Maltese are a coloured race”. On the contrary he, somewhat puzzlingly, posed his countrymen were “men of good physique, possessed of great energy, and had everything to recommend them as desirable settlers.”

It would have been smarter of this man to make his case by pointing at the NSW Governor, Sir Gerald Strickland, born and bred in Malta, who was now King George’s highest representative in NSW. He was, by the way, lobbying behind the scenes on behalf of the Maltese on the Gange. In fact, doing that had annoyed the NSW Premier William Holman so much that he made sure Strickland was recalled a few months later. Not deterred, the man then became Prime Minister of Malta. But that was still in the future. In the present, the 214 were still in Noumea, but when the government failed to have them sent back to Malta, they had to let them into Sydney again on February 27, 1917. That did not mean they were allowed off the ship, though. Hughes, who hated losing anything, let alone a battle this public, made sure the Maltese were decanted into a hastily renovated hulk, ironically called the Anglican. There, in squalid conditions, they were visited by a priest, Father William Bonett, who was allowed to bring fresh food, and by Arthur Rickard, a real estate developer and founder of what was called the Millions Club. Rickard was an early believer in “populate or perish” and a big advocate for as much British migration as possible. He wrote to the paper that it was “an outstanding example of man’s inhumanity to man” that the Maltese were treated as “lepers”. It was, he thought, bad for Australia’s reputation, and he called on Billy Hughes to finally do the right thing.

 

Recently, the Times of Malta wrote a large and scathing article about it. Migrants, boats, colour: it seems to be our Achilles heel.

 

In early March, the case had made it to the Federal and State Parliaments, who were getting more and more upset with the Prime Minister. Hughes promised that “earnest consideration” would be given to a proposal, but did nothing. Five days later, four Maltese escaped again, and the SMH had a field day. They had been “diving overboard while fully dressed,” swimming to Ball’s Head, where they dried out their clothes in the scrub. When police arrived, there had been an “exciting chase”, with the men “scampering over the rocks … policemen could not get near them. They dodged backward and forwards, and gave their pursuers an exceedingly lively tune.” Finally, Hughes had enough. The next day, he told Father Bonett that if he could find the men jobs and made sure they would join the unions, “the government would do all possible to help them.”

On the 21st of March, the Adelaide Advertiser finished the whole sorry saga by telling its readers that the Maltese had been “allowed to land and are now at work.” In fact, they had, the paper said, “proved themselves good workmen.” In the next few years, a large portion of the 214 helped construct Burrinjuck Dam near Yass. Others built rail extensions in northern NSW or worked in the Mt Lyell mines in Tasmania. Their five months in limbo rankled a little, though. Among the Maltese community in Australia it is still a symbol of the in-betweenness people feel. And recently, the Times of Malta wrote a large and scathing article about it. Migrants, boats, colour: it seems to be our Achilles heel. British Subjects or not.

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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