Friday, April 5, 2013

Maltese in South Australia by Frank L. Scicluna


By Frank L. Scicluna

The first Maltese to arrive in Australia was a convict Felice Pace. He arrive in Sydney in 1810 together with a group of prisoners from England and Ireland. Antonio Azzopardi was the first free settler and he set foot in Australia in 1837.
A Maltese Franciscan priest, Fr Ambrose Cassar, migrated to Australia together with a group of 61 labourers and 9 stowaways in 1881. They attempted to settle in Queensland to work on sugar cane farms but their plan was unsuccessful as the conditions were extreme.

We do not know who was the first Maltese to settle in South Australia. However, Francesco De Cesare, a Maltese scholar who travelled across Australia during the 1880s, recorded a very interesting but sad story of Adelaide’s first Maltese he encountered. His name was C. Fabri and his occupation was a land surveyor. Decesare stated in his work Reports Upon the Unsuitability of the British Colonies in Australia as a Field Maltese Emigration that he met Fabri who at that time was employed by the government as a draughtsman. Unfortunately, he was retrenched due to economic measures taken by the government. To survive he had to sell his professional instruments and books. His health deteriorated so much that he finished up in Adelaide’s Destitute Asylum where he eventually died.

According to the 1911 census there were 248 Maltese in Australia. The number increased considerably in the years to follow. However, in 1912 the Australian Government excluded Maltese immigrants from the assisted passage scheme as a result of trade unions bans on “cheap labour”. In the same year the Government legislated the new policy of White Australia called the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. This unfair exclusion of the Maltese made of mockery of the fact that they were British subjects and held a British passport.

The bans remained in force until 1948. Yet, between 1911 and 1919 over 2000 Maltese migrated to Australia. They encountered some opposition and most of them had to find work in remote areas such as the Mt Lyell copper mines in Tasmania, at Broken Hill mines and on the Pine Creek to Katherine railway in the Northern Territory. In 1914 there were approximately 385 Maltese working on the Pine Creek to Katherine railway line and another 200 working at Mt Lyell mines.

In South Australia significant number of Maltese worked at Port Pirie. Father Fenech, a Maltese Carmelite priest, was assisting new arrivals to settle in other States. He even arranged for them to travel to the Northern Territory.

In December 1913 Joseph Vella from Mellieha, Malta and his friend Paul Abela, decided to emigrate to Australia. They left Malta for Naples, Italy. They continued their journey to Australia aboard the Otway. The two friends were able to find a job as labourers within a week however when they lost their jobs they run out of money and they experienced poverty and hunger. They lived in the bush not very far from Port Adelaide. Every day they walked from the port to the city in search of work. During this period Joe and Paul lived on scraps, grass and tree roots.

Mistaken as German illegal immigrants they were detained by the police. When they were cleared, the police helped them to find work on a small merchant ship. Joe later moved to Broken Hill on the border between South Australia and New South Wales to worked as a miner with Paul’s cousin. Joe then moved to Sydney and found a job working on the railway lines. He later settled in Mackay, Queensland.

Frank Schembri, who worked as a canteen manager on British ship when he was in Malta, arrived in Adelaide in 1915. He commenced his working life in Australia at Port Pirie. Later, he moved to Adelaide where he opened a grocery shop at Glanville. Three years later he was able to pay for the passage for his wife and daughter to be with him. In 1922 Frank built an ice-cream factory behind his shop. For twenty years he managed the factory and his business flourished. Then, in 1942 he switched to producing soft drinks. In the late 80s Frank’s son was still running the family business in Alice Springs.

The darkest period in the history of Maltese migration in South Australia occurred in the 1920s when they were savagely discriminated against. The Australian Government banned them from being employed with the Australian railways. The irony is that a large number of them served in World War I. The majority of the Maltese suffered hunger and despair in spite of many of them were skilled artisans. Mr Gunn, the South Australian Premier, regarded the Maltese as “uninvited immigrants” and refused to assist them to find employment.

So, the Maltese set up tents along the River Torrens near the city and made their living from selling vegetables and fruit. They received help and support from the Maltese Club which was situated in 158 Hindley Street, Adelaide. They formed their own association and called it the Adelaide Unemployed Maltese Organisation and lobbied the Federal and State Governments to lift up the ban. Unfortunately, their efforts were fruitless and the ban stayed. Many of them returned to Malta or went to other States and found work on small farms run by fellow Maltese Australians.

Malta, being a British colony, served as a strategic base for Allied forces during World War II. The Maltese Islands suffered heavy bomb damage to most of its buildings. When the war ended Malta and the Maltese were physically and economically under a heavy stress. Malta and Gozo were overpopulated and the unemployment was very high. Therefore, between 1948 and 1973 a large number of Maltese paid the Australian Government ten pounds, sold up their belongings and took ship for Australia under the Malta-Australia Passage Scheme.

The range of social background of migrants was wide. So where their skills and ages. Some were married with children, but many were single. The lucky ones had relatives already in Australia, but the majority did not. The Maltese left home not because of political or religious oppression; they had one idea in common - to build a better future for their children and for themselves.

Most Maltese have prospered and have no regrets; but there were those who wish they have never left Malta. Some of them went back and many returned to Australia again, unable to settle in either country. Today nearly every family in Malta has an immediate relative living in this continent.


Approximately, 1500 Maltese settled in South Australia between 1947 and 1961 and by 1966 there were 2258 Maltese South Australians. Since then the number of Maltese who settled in South Australia was minimal.

The 1981 Census recorded 2183 Maltese South Australian. The 1986 Census recorded 2145 Maltese South Australian. 4171 South Australians stated they were of Maltese descent. 1991 Census recorded 2 088 Maltese South Australians. 3 913 South Australians stated that their mother was born in Malta and 4 201 persons stated their father was born in Malta.

Maltese Associations active in South Australia

1. Maltese Community Council of SA
2. Maltese Guild of SA Incorporated
3. Maltese Language and Folkdance School
4. Maltese Queen of Victories Band Inc.
5. Returned Soldiers League (Maltese branch)
6. Maltese Chaplaincy Group
7. Maltese Philatelic Club
8. Enfield City Soccer Club
9. Maltese Senior Citizens Association of SA Inc
10. St Catherine’s Association of SA Inc
11. Society of Christian Doctrine M.U.S.E.U.M.
12. Blue Grotto Maltese Program on 5PBAfm (Saturday 10 - 11.30 am)
13. Maltese Community Radio on 5EBIfm ( Friday 7 - 8 pm and Sunday
7.30-8.30 am).

The Maltese Franciscan priests of Lockleys look after the spiritual needs of the Maltese Community of South Australia


Peter Roberts said...

Great read thanks.


Matthew Simiana said...

Thanks for the interesting article. There has always been that special link between Malta and Australia.

Malta Directory


Welcome to BACK to MALTA blog!

There are more Maltese outside the Maltese Islands than there are citizens residing in the country itself. The Maltese outside Malta are either emigrants or descendents of emigrants. The countries which have most traditionally hosted the Maltese diaspora are Australia, Canada, the U.S.A., and Britain. Nevertheless, there are Maltese living in virtually every country around the world and this blog will travel the world in hopes of bringing the Maltese back to Malta.

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