The Malta Independent 24 March 2019, Sunday

When the Maltese were turned away from Australia: the children of Billy Hughes

Albert Galea Monday, 29 October 2018, 10:02 Last update: about 6 months ago

With 175,000 people of Maltese descent living in Australia as of 2016, the Antipodes today remain one of the largest centres of Maltese expatriates on the planet.  Indeed the large scale movement of Maltese immigrants into Australia can be traced back to 1949, when the Maltese people were granted the possibility of travelling to Australia as part of the 'assisted passage' scheme. This is not to say, however, that before 1949 there had been no efforts to get from Malta to Australia. On the contrary, in fact, the early history of Maltese migration to Australia has produced some of the most intriguing and fascinating tales of Malta's immigration history as a whole.


Possibly the most legendary event of all occurred in 1916, when 214 Maltese unknowingly and unwittingly sailed into Australian waters and became the central target of a country-wide political campaign. In order to truly understand the dynamics behind this event, however, a certain element of context must first be provided.

Whilst the Australia of the 1940s, 50s and 60s may have been very receptive to the concept of immigration, this was certainly not the case at the turn of the 20th century. There was a far-reaching debate on the subject, with working class unions facing off against the country's elite on the subject.

However, even the staunchest of pro-immigrationists believed that these new settlers had to be 'racially adequate'. Australian immigration policy throughout the early 20th century - and, in fact, up to the aftermath of the Second World War - was based on the principle of race and came from one document: the Immigrant Restriction Act, which is better known as the 'White Australia Policy'.

Implemented in 1901, the Act is widely reputed to have been passed with the intention of upholding a 'whites only' immigration policy. It would do so in the years to come through the administration of a dictation test, for which all new arrivals had to sit and which consisted of 50 words from any European language. Whether or not the test was applied was at the discretion of the Immigration Official; as was the language in which it was administered. Those who failed the test automatically became 'prohibited immigrants' and were thus barred from entering the country. 

Maltese immigration to Australia in this context had been sporadic and minimal at best. The first organised effort to take a group of Maltese to the Antipodes onboard the SS Nuddea in 1883 had ended in utter and complete disaster and by 1911, only 248 out of Australia's population of 4.5 million were Maltese-born. 

Despite their minimal presence, however, archival documents show that there was a certain level of animosity against the Maltese within the working class. Letters exchanged between trade union leaders and state representatives show that the working class considered the Maltese as an inferior people who, due to their readiness to work long hours for a low wage, would only serve to reduce the standard of living. 

One union official, for instance, described the Maltese as "the cheapest semi-white labour known". One Walter Geard, the secretary of the Zeehan Branch of the Amalgamated Miner's Association, was particularly vociferous in his protests against the Maltese, saying that the Maltese were "very undesirable immigrants" and that it was a travesty that they were allowed to compete with "white Australians" in the workplace. Incidentally, Geard underlined the word 'white' in his letter, probably in an effort to add further emphasis on who he considered as 'white' and who he didn't. Geard was adamant: he and his union were determined to keep men such as the Maltese away from Zeehan, despite the Maltese efforts to pass of as "white or something near it" by entering into "a couple of mixed marriages with whites".

Such was the hostility against working class Maltese immigrants, that by 1914 even Gerald Strickland was dissuading Maltese from emigrating to Australia.

World War One made for an even more polarising immigration debate in the Antipodes. Australia, despite being on the other side of the planet, provided soldiers for the Western Front in France, but as the enormity of Australian casualties on the Western Front became known in Australia, and no quick end to the war in sight, it seemed likely that the number of men volunteering would steadily fall.

Universal military training for Australian men aged between 18 and 60 had been compulsory since 1911, but enlistment to serve overseas was voluntary. Amidst pressure from the British government to ensure that Australia's overseas divisions were not depleted, Prime Minister William Hughes, better known as Billy Hughes, decided to call a non-binding referendum on whether or not conscription should be introduced.

The referendum was scheduled for 28 October 1916 and it gave rise to a hot and polarised debate. To begin with, Hughes did not even have the support of his own political party - the Australian Labour Party - with prominent figures such as the ex-Prime Minister and party leader Andrew Fisher being amongst those in disagreement. Trade unionists, however, were incensed. They thought that the referendum was a mere ploy to replace good, hard-working Australians with cheap, foreign labour: a scenario that meant that those who were shipped off to the trenches would not only return to their homeland jobless, but also that they would find a coloured Australia as opposed to the white Australia they all desired.

It was against this backdrop that the SS Arabia landed in Sydney with 97 Maltese immigrants on board. This was the largest single group of Maltese immigrants to have travelled to Australia up until then. Of these 97, all but 10 were of military age and only half of them could speak English. As a result, their arrival was seized upon by anti-conscription campaigners as definitive evidence that the Australian government had already started importing cheap labour in order to replace would-be Australian conscripts.

All across the country, the Maltese became more undesirable than ever. The Argus reported a 'Maltese invasion', whilst the Brisbane Worker reported the Australian Workers' Union view that the Maltese were nothing more than "coloured job-jumpers" who had to be "isolated" and "black banned". 

Ironworkers in Lithgow went on strike when they learnt of the arrival of a group of Maltese at their workplace, whilst the unionist newspaper The Worker warned of the Maltese "black menace" and told its readers: "if you want to preserve your womenfolk from the contamination of the black man, be careful to vote 'No'".

The arrival of such a large group raised several questions even in political circles. Many began to question Hughes's commitment to the White Australia policy - a commitment he himself had renewed some months earlier, while others suspected that the 97 had arrived in the country already under contract - which would have been illegal and, in fact, could not be proven. Despite the fact that the Maltese had travelled legally, the damage to the pro-conscription campaign had been done. In fact, it was so damaging that one politician - the Premier of South Australia, Crawford Vaughan no less - even told Parliament of his 'grave suspicions' that the Germans had organised the immigration of the Maltese in order to hurt the campaign and hence the war effort.

As a result of the hassle caused by the arrival of these 97 Maltese, and with the referendum now less than a month away, Hughes declared that everything would be done to make sure that no 'cheap labour' entered Australia. He requested that the British authorities stop issuing passports to Maltese of military age for entry into Australia, whilst it was advised that the Education Test, as per the Immigration Restriction Act, would be applied to any Maltese trying to enter the country. Furthermore, British shipping lines were contacted to make sure that no Maltese were heading to Australia and, in fact, it was established that there were none on the way. Hughes and his supporters must have breathed a sigh of relief as they learnt of this, thinking that the so-called Maltese problem had finally passed.

Little did they know, however, that another, much larger, group of Maltese immigrants was on its way to Australia on board the French steamer Gang. Having left Malta on 12 September, before passports had stopped being issued, this group of 214 Maltese - of whom 165 were of military age - were, unfortunately for Hughes, scheduled to arrive in Sydney on 28 October: the eve of the referendum.

The government response to hearing of the impending arrival of these Maltese was one of sheer panic. Hughes instructed the Commonwealth censor to declare that reports about the arrival of the Gange and its passengers were prohibited and pleaded with the Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson to tell the British Colonial Office that if the Gange was to arrive on schedule, it would kill the referendum and cause a 'great national disaster'. Hughes wanted the ship stopped, diverted, or delayed: anything to avoid it arriving before voting day.

The choice to censor any news related to the Gange backfired in spectacular fashion. The censorship notice was leaked and, as a result, more and more people subscribed to the idea that cheap labour was entering the country in droves. Suddenly rumour had it that 2,500 Maltese were working on the Transcontinental Railway, and one speaker at an anti-conscription mass meeting informed that crowd that 4,000 Maltese had just made landfall in the Northern Territory. Senator Edward Millen later summed it up best, saying of the censorship notice that "a more stupid or more suicidal instruction could not be imagined" and that it had caused so much hysteria that "in the popular imagination, it was not 200 Maltese that were arriving", but rather it was at least 200,000, all at the behest of the Prime Minister himself.

Hughes was forced to hold a press conference, and in that conference he admitted that a group of 200 or so Maltese was on its way to Australia onboard the Gange. He stated that - in view of the fact that he had promised no 'coloured labour' was to be allowed into the country, the Maltese were not going to be allowed to disembark. 

Indeed, Hughes kept his word. The Gange was in Fremantle on 21 October to stock up on supplies, with the ship's captain being under express instructions not to allow the Maltese to disembark. When it reached Melbourne, the ship was given an armed guard and the Maltese onboard were administered the dictation test in Dutch. Naturally, that meant that all of them failed, and hence became 'prohibited immigrants'.

The process began to try and arrange the deportation of the Maltese back to Malta, but there was a problem. There was a war on, and that meant that there were no ships available to take the Maltese back to their country. The Gange itself could not return the exiled passengers, as it would be filled with French reinforcements from the front, and there were no British ships with space for 214 immigrants either.

With the Gange now in Sydney harbour, some Maltese tried to make a break for it and escape. Seventeen-year-old Emmanuel Attard was one of them. "I was thinking of my mother", he said later, "She needed the money.", The Argus reported on 13 November that, in all, 15 escapees had been rounded up and put back onto the Gange. It was good timing for the authorities one could say: the next day, the Gange left Sydney for New Caledonia - where it would drop the Maltese off and replace them with the French reinforcements it had been sent to carry.

The Maltese arrived in Noumea, where they were housed in a disused warehouse. They were fed and taken care of by the Australian government, whilst the same government tried to arrange for their deportation. 

Meanwhile, the conscription referendum had been defeated and as the news spread of the treatment to which the Maltese - who were, one must not forget, British subjects - had been subjected, a certain segment of people began to spring to the defence of the Maltese. 

That segment was the ANZAC veterans who had fought at Gallipoli and found medical refuge in the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean' - Malta. One returned soldier, for instance, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald questioning why the Maltese were being rejected from the country: "Are they not British subjects? Are they not white? Maybe they are whiter than some who at the present moment call themselves Australians," he said. 

The most stirring account, however, came from an anonymous wounded officer, who wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald about the "goodness, hospitality, cordiality and warm heartedness" of the Maltese and that "if the doing of good deeds means the storing up of eternal treasure then indeed Malta is a community of spiritual millionaires." He ended his letter by saying: "From an Australian heart I say, God bless thee little island - thee and thine."

These accounts contributed to the Maltese gaining a sense of credibility. After 10 weeks in New Caledonia, Prime Minister Hughes had no option but to arrange to move the detained Maltese to Australia. Before that, however, they were detained on a decrepit old hulk of a vessel called The Anglian. This was in January 1917, and there was a tangible reaction against it. The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, published no fewer than eight pro-Maltese letters in the first 11 days of January, in which citizens explained that they were donating money to the Maltese cause.

It is important to note that the Maltese also gathered support from the Australian political class as well. When the Maltese were put on The Anglian, for instance, one MP - Bruce Smith - quizzed Hughes about the legal implications of holding the Maltese onboard the hulk, whilst also pointing out that, at the time, one of Australia's states was even being governed by a Maltese - that Maltese being Gerald Strickland who was Governor of New South Wales. 

It was only after renewed pressure in Parliament, and from notable Maltese figures in Australia such as Father William Bonett, that Hughes relented. He said that the Maltese would be allowed entry into Australia on condition that all of them would be found employment. By the end of April 1917, in fact, all the Maltese had been found work and had made it into the country.

The Gange episode remains one of the most legendary in the history of Maltese migration and it had a positive conclusion for the 214 Maltese involved.  That group remained affectionately known as the Children of Billy Hughes.

By July, however, the Australian government had advised the Colonial Office that they did not want any Maltese immigrants at all for the remainder of the war, thus meaning that the admission of any Maltese into the Antipodes was totally and absolutely barred. It was not until 1921 that the ban was lifted, only to be replaced by a yearly quota of 240 immigrants. Such was the effect of the incident on Maltese prospects in Australia that Henry Casolani - who would later become an important figure in official migration spheres - wrote that even in 1930: "Malta still painfully gathers the crop of that baneful seed."

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