More than mug shots

Patrick Ferry, Nicholas Hams and Kathryn Graham
Monday, 4 April 2022

Maltese migration records from 1948 to 1955 bring to light amazing photographs which are much more than passport mugshots. They convey the spirit and character of the Maltese migrants themselves. National Archives' Victoria Office is making these records accessible to all.

A 'win-win' agreement

One of Australia's first assisted migration agreements after the Second World War was with Malta. Signed in May 1948, this was a 'win-win' for both countries. Concerned that it had to 'populate or perish', Australia was seeking to rapidly increase its population. As prospective migrants, the Maltese had the advantage of already being British subjects. And importantly, they were European, which was still the key consideration under the White Australia Policy. Meanwhile, Malta was looking for migration opportunities for its people as it was seriously overpopulated and still devastated from sustained German and Italian attacks during the War.

Maltese spirit and character

The Maltese migration records being catalogued in Victoria generally consist of application forms, police clearances and health checks. Many also have photographs attached. These show the spirit and character of the Maltese migrants themselves.  

There are young labourers, mechanics, farmers and clerks in their best suits, hoping to 'get ahead' in Australia through hard work. Older men – husbands and fathers – display pride at being able to give their families a better start in life. Young women are 'dressed to the nines', with fashionable hairstyles. Since their wonderful dresses were often sewn at home, these photographs not only highlight their beauty, but also their resourcefulness. Mothers and their children are immaculately dressed in their 'Sunday best', without a single hair out of place. Such images powerfully attest to the central role women played in Maltese family life. The large size of many families also points to the important role the Catholic faith played in Maltese society.

Good impressions but lingering prejudices

Most Maltese probably hoped their photographs would maximise their chances of being accepted for migration. The Maltese Government was also very conscious of the importance of migrants making a good impression. This was because Australia had not always welcomed them.  

Maltese migration to Australia had been heavily restricted before the War. In the notorious 'Gange' incident of 1916, the Australian Government even used the infamous 'Dictation Test' (usually applied to exclude non-Europeans) to prevent a group of Maltese migrants from landing. To ensure that they would fail the test, it was administered in Dutch!

Pre-war hostility to Maltese migration was partially fueled by perceptions that the Maltese were 'cheap labour', thereby threatening Australian wages and living standards. Racial prejudices were also strong. Although Maltese were British subjects, they were not regarded as being of 'good British stock'. Instead, like other Southern European migrants, they were widely disparaged as 'dagoes', with nasty racialised connotations of being lazy, dirty, hot tempered, superstitious and generally inferior to migrants from the British Isles and northern Europe.

Although Australia's official attitude towards Maltese migration after the War quickly changed from restriction to assistance, racial prejudices and stereotypes were more difficult to shift. These unfortunately were part of the migration experience of many post-war Maltese migrants.

Developing the next generation of archivists

So far, the Victoria Office has added nearly 8,000 Maltese migration records from series MP80/2 and MP210/3 to RecordSearch, meaning they can now be searched for by name. There are many more still to be added.

As well as making these records more discoverable, this work is providing 'hands on' archival training to information management students undertaking placements with the National Archives as part of their university studies.