Though the Maltese and Australians may share a special bond formed from generations of migration, recent footage of a 2003 ABC documentary sheds light on how many Maltese were mistreated, abused and imprisoned for trying to enter Australia back in the day.
‘The Maltese of New Caledonia’ aired on ABC TV’s ‘Lateline’ program back in 2003 but was recently digitised and the story it tells is truly remarkable…
In 1916, during the height of World War I, many Maltese men (who also happened to be Gallipoli veterans) boarded two ships and sailed to Sydney with high hopes of starting a new life in the pacific.
However, what they were met with was a blockade of restrictive immigration policies imposed by Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes and implemented with racist and nationalist undertones.
The Maltese men were portrayed as an ‘invasion’ and ‘cheap labour’ who would steal jobs whilst Australians were being pressured into going to war as Prime Minister Hughes pushed for a Military Service Referendum Act.
Thus 300 Maltese men, upon arriving in Sydney harbour, were forced to take a ‘dictation test’ of the Immigration (Restriction) Act…
Bound to fail, the Maltese men were denied entry into Australia and were thus sent to the pacific islands of New Caledonia where they are kept in a city hall for three months. Despite Billy Hughes losing the referendum, the issue quickly became a matter of race as the Maltese weren’t quite seen as ‘white’.
They were brought back to Sydney where they were subsequently imprisoned in Sydney Harbour by the Prime Minister.
However, the shoddy treatment of the Maltese sparked a public outcry among churches led by a Maltese Catholic priest Father William Bonett.
“To exclude such men seems to be a most ungrateful return for the great love and kindness that was shown by the Maltese to our Australian sick and wounded men,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
In March 1917, Prime Minister Hughes finally let the Maltese go. Whilst many eventually went back to Malta, some stayed, married and had families that still live in Australia today.
Malta and Australia may be best mates now but this VHS documentary shows that it wasn’t always that way.