Little-known WWI incident reveals tense experience for Maltese immigrants in Australia
Emanuel Attard was one of about 300 others travelling Down Under in search of work

Caroline Curmi

An excerpt from an ABC Lifeline interview dating back to 2003 has recently been posted online and it reveals the difficulties one group of Maltese immigrants faced when attempting to build a new life abroad.

During the World War I years, the Maltese islands were referred to as the Nurse of the Mediterranean for the role they played in nursing the wounded back to health. Many Australian soldiers were treated in Malta, with one member of the Australian Imperial Force, a certain H. Wordly reported as saying: “We will carry back to Australia undying gratitude which time can never erase.”

Having been in service himself during the War, Emanuel Attard could find no work in Malta upon his return to the island and decided to migrate to Australia, a place which he believed would promise better prospects: “People had mentioned Australia was a prosperous country, and I said to myself, I’ll take my chance,” he is quoted as saying in the clip. Naturally, Emanuel’s mother did not take kindly to the news and his determination to see his decision through rendered him an orphan, a word which Emanuel uses to describe himself.

Back then, such long-distance travel was done by boat, and journeys were estimated to last between 30 to 45 days. Emanuel was one of about 300 other legal migrants (most of whom were Gallipoli veterans and deeply in debt for paying the full fare) to make the crossing, but their welcome was nothing like they could have expected. The men were split between two boats, with the first one carrying 97 Maltese immigrants sailing into Sydney harbour on October 28th, 1916.

At the time, Australia was in the middle of its own war, with the opposition bitterly opposing the government’s plans to introduce conscriptions to send even more Australian troops to war. The Maltese on board are quickly branded as ‘cheap labour’ and the Unions enforce the narrative that they would steal jobs from locals who had been forced to go to war.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes did everything he could to delay the boat, the Gauges, carrying the remaining Maltese men, even going so far as to contact the British Colonial office warning that if it were to dock, the referendum would be doomed and the whole affair would be “a national disaster.” Adamant not to let the Maltese disembark, he forced those on board to sit for a language test as dictated by the Immigration (restriction) Act.

The test could be applied in any European language, but it was presented to the Maltese in Dutch. British citizens by birth, everyone failed the test, and the Maltese immigrants were sent on to New Caledonia, a collection of islands in the middle of the South Pacific, which had actually been the Gauge’s final destination. They were kept in a City Hall at the Australian government’s expense for three months, despite the referendum being lost much earlier.

They were eventually transported back to Sydney where they were imprisoned on a ship, but thanks to a Maltese Catholic priest, Fr William Bonnet, the church led a public outcry calling for their liberation. “To exclude such men seems to be a most ungrateful return for the great love and kindness which was shown by the Maltese to our Australian sick and wounded men,” read one Sydney newspaper.

Find out how Emanuel Attard’s story ended by watching the clip below:

What a saga!

14th January 2020

Caroline Curmi
Written by
Caroline Curmi
When she’s not having a quarter-life crisis, Caroline is either drawing in a café, frittering her salary on sushi or swearing at traffic in full-on Gozitan. There is also the occasional daytime drink somewhere in the equation. Or two. A creative must be allowed at least one vice.