Exodus – To The Levant And North Africa

Exodus – To The Levant And North Africa

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies – but in battalions!”

(Shakespeare, Hamlet Act IV, Sc. 5).

Between 1818 and the early 1830s people began emigrating from the Maltese islands at a rate of around 1 to 2000  per year, the rate doubling towards the mid 1830s and only abating after about 1842. By this time some 20,000 Maltese had left (approx 15% of the population).  My ancestors joined the exodus. In this article I will describe what drove people to leave and to the destinations they chose.

Economic Decline

In the early 1800s Malta had a successful if somewhat volatile economy. The majority of its industry centred on cotton production which gave employment to pretty much the majority of the population one way or another, but it also prospered from its position as a useful shipping stopover for the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and it did good business in smuggling.

The first blow came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars when new ports opened up for traders resulting in less shipping traffic coming into the Grand Harbour of the capital Valletta. Malta also became less important as a base for smuggling.

Quays of Grand Harbour Valletta wood engraved print 1891

Engraving of Valletta Grand Harbour 1891 c/o ancestryimages.com

The biggest catastrophe to the economy was the impact of the Plague of Malta in 1813. Quarantine restrictions across the island stopped the production of cotton spinning and export in its tracks as the congregation of people and movements between the villages, towns and ports were vetoed. Foreign ports also required shipping from Malta to be quarantined, so trade was all but extinguished for over a year. Some foreign ports insisted on keeping quarantine restrictions on Maltese shipping until as late as 1826 (perhaps not entirely for health reasons)! During this time, importers found new, cheaper producers from places like Syria, Egypt and India. New commercial treaties were negotiated to try and boost trade but only succeeded in further depressing the market and lowering wages for growers, spinners and weavers. Customs duties were also raised to try and generate revenues but just ended up further damaging trade. The Maltese economy started to spiral towards bankruptcy.

Some new enterprises were introduced to try and fill the gap, such as silk farming, which failed, and tobacco, which was the most successful. Cigar making employed 600 hands across the whole island at its height in 1842. Yet in 1813, my ancestor Joseph Callus, had employed 100 hands in a single cotton spinning mill which serves to illustrate the massive decline in employment across the islands (see Rise and Fall of the Callus Fortunes).

Another factor in the economic decline was the change of administration. The primary interest in Malta of its new colonial masters, the British, was its usefulness as a strategic naval base. Sciberras argues that it had less concern therefore, for developing the infrastructure of the interior or looking after the native population. Predictably the British expressed an imperialist attitude towards the native Maltese, treating them as inferiors and ousting them from governmental and administrative posts in favour of British employees. This was quite different to the administration of the Knights of St John who had subsidised the economy with income from their estates abroad and spent more on infrastructure and public works. While the Knights had been very paternalistic towards the Maltese, they had also been more inclusive, perhaps because the island was the principal dominion of their monastic order and where they lived out their lives.

The Battalions of Sorrows

A large population and high levels of unemployment led to a big increase in poverty and crime. Banditry and begging became prevalent. In the mid 1830s, there were an estimated 2500 adult beggars in the villages alone and many more in the towns. Children were of course also recruited by their families to beg as a matter of course.

The evils of rising poverty levels were more homelessness, poorer housing conditions, sanitation and nutrition and inevitably disease.  Infant mortality 1826-36 was around 30% (Cauchi, M, 1990).


“Poverty in short pressed heavily on the under-employed. Deriving sustenance from bean or millet, when obtainable, they frequently found themselves eating prickly pears, thistles and clover. During the day, some refused to leave their houses because of inadequate clothing. During the night, they covered themselves with sacks, rags and manure. Some had no place to sleep, save the streets. Deaths from hunger and exposure apparently did occur and numerous deaths resulted from weakened resistance to fevers, the death rate averaging 29% per 1000”. 

In 1830 an outbreak of smallpox on the island killed 756 of its inhabitants. Then in 1837 there was an outbreak of cholera throughout the Mediterranean. In Malta it killed almost as many people as the 1813 plague, some 4253 people! And in 1840-41 the islands were devastated by a severe drought which further exacerbated the shortage of food. The population level was predictably stagnant until after 1842.

Small wonder so many people wanted to leave!

Pastures New

"Mediterranean Relief". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mediterranean Relief“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Most emigrants left for the North African coast, namely Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt and in particular to the cities of Algiers, Constantine, Sousse and Tripoli. Significant numbers also went to the Levant, (or eastern Mediterranean), to port cities such as Beirut, Smyrna (Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul).  Sizeable Maltese communities became established in these places. Just a few hundred emigrated to the Greek islands, Sicily, southern Italy and France. My ancestor Andrea Callus (1810-98) left Malta for Constantinople in 1829. Other branches of my Maltese family tree (Griscti, Diacono) also left in the early 1830s and went to Smyrna in Turkey.

Considering the long history of Maltese conflict with the Ottoman Empire and their religious and cultural differences, emigration to North Africa and Turkey at first glance seems a strange choice. Why didn’t the migrants go to more culturally similar countries such as Italy? Surely it would have been easier to assimilate in those places?  Historical research into nineteenth century emigration from Malta is still in its infancy, so explanations are still very much up for debate. Two accounts, one by Fr Lawrence Attard and another by Joshua M Hayes provide some interesting and slightly conflicting observations and theories.

Hayes stated that the British Government preferred emigrants to travel to other British colonies in West Africa or places like Jamaica or India but most Maltese did not want to leave the Mediterranean. They preferred to keep their options open to return, a factor evidenced by the high numbers who did in fact return, even if only on a temporary basis. Attard states that the government did come up with a number of proposals to support emigration to places like Cephalonia and later, Cyprus, but they simply never got off the ground. So there was no formal help and those wanting to emigrate had to do so by their own means.  Places like Tunis, Tripoli and Sousse were only a couple of hundred miles away and were on regular trade routes, so passage was relatively cheap.

Other factors suggested by Hayes, are that the geography and climate of North Africa is similar and also the language. Algerian Arabic in particular, is linguistically quite close to Maltese.

Many Maltese chose Algeria as a preferred destination following the French conquest of Algeria in the early 1830s and the appointment of its first French governor in 1834. According to Attard, to secure the country, France needed colonists who would help develop the infrastructure and administration. France is a big country with a small population with low numbers of people wanting or needing to emigrate. The Maltese were seen as hard working and trust worthy, and even though they were now ruled by the British, the French governor did not think they were particularly loyal to the British or politically active. In fact, on the contrary, many Maltese were quite Francophile, despite Napoleon’s short interruption to relations! In Tunisia, Attard argues that the French welcomed the Maltese as a counter balance to an influx of Italians who were suspected of having their own designs upon the country.

Hayes, however, sets out a slightly different perspective. He argues that what the French wanted were agricultural labourers but emigration was beyond the means of Maltese subsistence farmers. What they probably got instead were dock workers from Valletta who earned a bit more and were familiar with the shipping trade, and displaced officials and professionals such as doctors. Although the French allowed the Maltese in, they regarded them with suspicion preferring Italian and Spanish immigrants. The Maltese were subsequently quite poorly treated and were at the bottom of the social pecking order amongst the ex patriot communities in French North Africa.

Vue de la Ville de Constantine by Theodore Frere, 1841

Vue de la Ville de Constantine by Theodore Frere, 1841

Social networking was another factor. During the rule of the Knights, the Maltese conducted annual assaults on the north Africa coast (known then as the Barbary Coast). During these raids, inevitably some Maltese were taken prisoner. They were then sold into slavery and moved into the interior. A large Maltese slave colony was established in Constantine and there were slaves living at other places. Trade links also meant that there were itinerant Maltese communities in most major ports. Immigrants homed in on these communities for support in getting established in their new countries.

It is not clear to me why more Maltese did not go to Italy and Sicily which would appear to have offered many of the same benefits as North Africa, i.e. close to the motherland, similar climate and geography, shared language of Italian which was widely spoken in Malta and perhaps of even greater significance, a shared religion. Malta has always been a strong and almost fanatical adherent to catholicism which one would have thought made Italy a better prospect than a muslim country. Certainly muslim countries at that time allowed religious freedom and with catholic France in control of North Africa, this may have provided further reassurance. The deciding factor must therefore have been the scope for economic opportunities both in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire extended over 1000 miles from its capital at Constantinople in Turkey. This meant that the Ottoman navy was essential for maintaining control, both militarily and administratively, e.g. for tax collection. The Empire had no merchant navy. Its majority religion, Islam, forbade profiteering from usury and regarded trading as an inferior and undesirable profession for devout muslims. Ottoman subjects were in any case conscripted for 7 years military service, which led to a preference for military and administrative roles. Jews and Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were subject to higher taxes than muslims but as minority groups, this did not make much in the way of revenues for the Ottoman administration.

Traders from Western Europe moved in to fill the vacuum and through a number of contracts drawn up between the Sultan and European powers, obtained a range of rights and privileges in favour of subjects residing and trading in the Ottoman dominions. These became known as the ‘Capitulations’. Subjects were exempted from local taxes, laws, house searches and conscription and were bound instead to the jurisdiction of their home countries.  The capitulations providing a virtual tax haven and the lack of existing port trade amongst the Ottomans, did much to encourage western entrepreneurs to set up new businesses all along the shores of the Ottoman Empire. These traders  became a distinctive sub culture and were known as ‘Levantines’.  They came from many of the major trading places around the Mediterranean; Genoa, Venice, France, Italy, Greece and of course Malta. There were also peoples from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

The link below shows the modern sea route between Malta and Turkey, a distance of 1054 nautical miles.

By sea from Valletta, Malta to Istanbul, Turkey.

The history of the Levantines is an area of socio-economic history that has been little researched to date but is attracting growing interest in academia. I will be returning to this subject in future posts to describe the lives of my Maltese ancestors who became part of this unique and interesting culture in the nineteenth century.


Cauchi, Maurice N.  (1990) – http://maltamigration.com/settlement/mma/chapter1-2.shtml

Hayes, Joshua M., (2010) – M’hemm l-ebda post iehor bhad-dar (There’s no place like home): Maltese Migration to French Algeria in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of Maltese History, Vol 2, No. 1, 2010

Sciberras, Sandro (2009) – http://www.stbenedictcollege.org/stlucija/files/SandroSciberras/Form4 Option Maltese History/3_Economic and social issues during the last two hundred years.pdf

Reasons for the Success of the Levantines: a subjective listing – http://levantineheritage.com/econom2.htm