Nathan Mifsud

Bajtar Paradise

The prickly history of Maltese migration in Australia

A thicket of prickly pear on an ocean cliffside.

Prickly pear (bajtar tax-xewk) in Żurrieq, Malta

Both my nannus, after they migrated to Australia from Malta, purchased farmland. Paul had a 102-acre property not far from Goul­burn. My most vivid memories there are tied to the land, a rolling mass made dense with association, individual synapses linked to each bump and curve of the hard dirt roads. I can instantly recall the spot where a red-bellied snake bit me, the rabbit warren visited at dusk, the grassy slope where we shot clay pigeons, their graceful arcs and violent bursts superimposed on a quintessential pastoral backdrop. I remember waking my nanna, Doris, to wander the frosty paddocks together, picking up thin sheets of ice formed from puddles over­night. And if I close my eyes, I can imagine the snap of gum branches falling and the whispering olive grove, cultivated on a fertile hillside—a distinctly Mediter­ranean labour of love.

Andrew had a different, smaller farm, more typical of the homeland. It was not a place of zoological diversity, like Paul’s. It had a modest chicken coop, but no roaming cattle, no bird aviary, ferrets or guinea pigs. The land was not for grazing, but for food, especially rows and rows of enormous, coarse-skinned zucchini. In the centre of the farm: Nannu’s shed. Every bolt drilled by him, every steel beam. My memories here blur into one: bright, sweaty days, cold cans of Kinnie, hands red and black with rust and dirt, washing them with soap like sandpaper. Outside the shed, we roamed a labyrinthine graveyard of machinery, its tangles of spider webs and artificial topography. Rising above it all, his hand-built windmill, guillotine blades creaking in the wind. A no-nonsense place, but one whose rough edges were loam for the imagination.

Tall walls of overgrown prickly pear lined the tractor path around the perimeter of Andrew’s dam—the same dam where he taught his daughters to swim by throwing them into its murky waters. Those looming, thorny structures crowded the edge of the farm with their rotting pads and sickly sweet scent, and standing beneath them as a child, far from the safety of Nannu’s presence, turned real life to fantasy. To creep through that spooky tunnel replete with crows and hidden snakes, alone or in the company of my brothers, was a quest with no reward but the sunlight at its end, the open vegetable fields beyond the dominion of the prickly terror. Freely facing those zombie cacti was the surest test of courage.

Introduced to Australia by colonists in 1788 to establish a natural dye industry, prickly pear (genus Opuntia) was at first unremarkable. However, when the species now known as common pest pear (Opuntia stricta) entered in the 1800s as hardy stock fodder for use in drought years, it proceeded to invade the continent with a ferocity like few other weeds since. O. stricta encountered favourable clime and no serious enemies, and its plentiful coloured fruits attracted birds who were instrumental in its relentless, wide sweep over the land.

Despite increasingly desperate control attempts such as poison, excavation and burning, crushing with livestock-drawn rollers, and even destroying tens of thousands of emus, crows and magpies who had helped disperse the seeds, by 1920 the common pest pear had managed to infest 58 million acres across New South Wales and Queensland. A trail of destruction was left in its wake—in part, man-made: Judith Wright notes, in Cry for the Dead, that poison drums emptied in the ecological fight against the pest soon leached into waterholes and creeks across the country, leading to the death of colonists’ livestock. This was a cruel irony, since those cattle and sheep had prepped the land for Opuntia’s conquest in the first place, by degrading native grasslands previously managed by traditional Aboriginal burning practices.

The prickly saga reached its zenith in 1926, when, following six years of evaluation by the Queensland Prickly Pear Land Com­mis­sion, over three billion eggs of the Argen­tinian cacto­blastis moth (Cacto­blastis cac­torum) were bred and distributed. In their larvae stage, the grubs work together to chew a tunnel through the tough surface of the plant, and then devour the soft interior. Under a decade later, the O. stricta infestation that had haunted rural settlers was mostly eradicated. The effectiveness of Cacto­blastis as a biological agent was as stunning as the spread of the noxious weed it had neutralised, a success later mimicked in other countries.

Malta, my ancestors’ homeland, is a tiny cluster of islands a stone’s throw south of Sicily—the entire nation is 78,000 acres, a blip in the Antipodean arm of the O. stricta empire at its peak. However, in contrast to Aus­tralia, Maltese people love prickly pear, where it is known as bajtar tax-xewk (‘spiny figs’). As testament, in 1975, soon after Malta became a republic, an unceremonious emblem that featured prickly pear on a coastline replaced the fussy heraldic coat of arms, and endured until 1988. One reason for this difference in endearment might be that O. stricta is absent. Instead, the slightly less troublesome O. ficus-indica species is found in every open space across the Maltese islands, used as impenetrable farm dividers and protection from strong prevailing winds, and celebrated for its summer fruit and saccharine liqueur.

The red and yellow fruit of a prickly pear plant.

To tell the plants apart, you need only face them: the notorious O. stricta is unlikely to reach your shoulder, ruining arable land by covering vast swaths in low, dense scrub. Meanwhile, O. ficus-indica, at a height of up to five metres, can dwarf any human, and must have been the menacing but non-invasive species that enclosed Nannu’s dam. How did O. ficus-indica come to inhabit Andrew’s farm? When I asked Jane—his wife, my nanna—she revealed that before setting out on her six-week voyage to Aus­tralia in 1951, she sent her husband a prickly stem, wrapped in a shirt within a discreet package. This cracked me up: the knowing rebellion against biosecurity, yes, but more so the expression of fondness for a plant better known, in their new country, as a scourge.

It also niggled at me. They were not pretty plants, after all. I wondered if there was something deeper to the botanical attachment that explains the cactus in every second Maltese yard, something left unsaid by Nanna. Searching YouTube, I came across a perspective that hints at the cultural memory bound in prickly cladodes, even those sprung from different soil. In one video, a farmer from south-western Sydney, standing singlet-clad, sketches the history of the resplendent O. ficus-indica plants behind him to the accompaniment of Aus­tralian birdsong: ‘During the wartime, back in Europe in Malta where I come from, they ate a lot of [prickly pear fruit] because, uh’—here, he pauses and looks at the ground—‘we were nearly starved. So uh, I recommend that you try it one day, but be careful when you peel it.’

He refers to the Siege of Malta between 1940 and 1942, in which the Axis determined to bomb the country into submission due to its strategic importance in the Mediter­ranean, straddling vital supply and reinforcement routes. For over two years, starting from the day after Mussolini aligned Italy with the German forces, Malta became the target of several thousand enemy air raids, severely choking food supplies to its beleaguered population. In particular, a terrible stretch of 154 consecutive days and nights, which brought them to the brink of surrender and starvation, proved the most sustained bombing attack of World War II.

To recognise the resilience of the Maltese, the George Cross—the highest possible British military decoration for civilians—was awarded for the first and only time to an entire people, and is now woven into Malta’s national flag. Little wonder, then, that sweet fruit borne by widespread local cacti became a subject of adulation. That across an ocean, the sight of them, populous, gnarled and dominant in an otherwise foreign environment, provides comfort.

Following the war, with their country ravaged and unemployment high, thousands of Maltese left for l-art fejn hemm futur (‘the land of the future’) with the aid of Australia’s first assisted passage agreement since the Ten Pound Poms. According to historian Barry York, 55,000 people—one-sixth of Malta’s population at the time—had settled in Aus­tralia by 1966.

Beyond the cultural and spatial differences to become accustomed to, these dislocated islanders contended with that common, alienating barrier: their limited command of English. Their highly distinctive Semitic language, which had survived over a thousand years of economic and military incursions to the Maltese archipelago, was only useful within their post-war communities. Indeed, even within these linguistic havens, their new surroundings defied description; Manwel Nicholas-Borg, a prolific Maltese-Australian poet, said that to adequately capture their experiences, writers had to appropriate English words such as ‘bush’ (buxx).

My paternal grandfather, Paul, helped fuel Australia’s post-war industrial development, gaining employment at a steel pipe manufacturer shortly after migrating and staying there for the rest of his working life. Similar narratives played out for scores of young Maltese men. A bona fide immigration success story, right? In fact, this was a case of third time lucky. As Stephanie Affeldt documents in Consuming Whiteness, Maltese workers were discriminated against in two earlier periods of workforce replacement: following the departure of Pacific Islanders from Queensland sugar cane fields in the 1880s; and following World War I, when Maltese immigration was, for a time, halted altogether, even as migration schemes were arranged for their Spanish and Italian neighbours.

The labour movement responsible for the political pressure that lead to these exclusions had concerns that were racially motivated: notwith­standing their British citizenship, the Maltese were feared as ‘a primitive, dark race’; as late as 1916, Work­er, a union newspaper, implicated them in a ‘deep-laid scheme […] to bleed out Aus­tralia of its white manhood by conscription [and] infuse the colored and cheap into the land’. That same year, a 214-strong boatload of Maltese agricultural labourers was refused permission to disembark in Aus­tralia, ostensibly because they failed the dictation test—which had been administered in Dutch. This was no isolated event. Before their change of fortune in 1946, the Maltese were the second-largest group of persons, after the Chinese, to be prohibited from immigration due to the caprices of the White Australia Policy.

The public debate over Maltese ‘whiteness’ can be read into a cover cartoon of Work­er from 1916, in which a piebald Trojan horse, newly arrived on an Aus­tralian shore as a ship bearing conscripts departs, secretly hosts the ‘coloured’ workers whom the labour movement protested. The Maltese were the piebald horse—the immigrant group whose complexion and honourability was whitewashed by their well-inten­tioned supporters; harbingers of a ‘coloured’ invasion that would be difficult to dispel. Extending the ugly metaphor, the cartoonist invoked a then-national obsession with eradicating an agricultural invasion: right next to a sign labelled ‘White Aus­tralia’—as if the loathsome seed had fallen from the cloth of the migrants and newly germinated in the sand—is the subtle sketch of a fledging prickly pear plant.

Miskina dik it-tajra li titrabba f’art hażina. ‘Pity the bird reared in a barren land’ goes the Maltese saying, speaking to the isolation felt by those early migrants. Even so, Aus­tralia ended up a blessing for most who arrived in the waves of the 1950s and ’60s, as policies took on a multicultural tint in the ’70s. Meanwhile, quality of life on the home islands began to recover, and Aus­tralian industry began to wind down. The number of Aus­tralians born in Malta peaked in 1981. Maltese entries have dwindled ever since. The balance of immigration now tips northward, as some migrants return home, and new generations seek the eternal Mediter­ranean sun.

A road flanked by tall prickly pear and rubble walls.

I visited Malta in 2015, a privilege of leisure only made possible by my grandparents having endured the reverse trip some 60-odd years earlier. I didn’t intend it to be a cultural pilgrimage, but how could it have been anything else? I met open-armed relatives who had known me only as a child, or not at all, and was taken to the cemetery where half my forebears are buried. I visited the Rotunda of Mosta, whose impressive dome was pierced by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1942. The bomb fell—with luck, unexploded—among 300 locals celebrating Mass, one of whom was my great-grand­mother Teresa, then a little girl.

I was particularly interested in assaying the outskirts of the towns, getting lost in the maze of farms that still constitute most of the land area. It was easy enough to cycle from coast to coast, moving rapidly between urban and rural zones, when the longest dimension of the main island is only 27 kilometres. The rocky hillsides were oddly reminiscent of the Southern Table­lands, a topographic antipode of the Parkes­bourne farm my dad’s parents had used to retreat from Sydney suburbia. The difference, of course, was that these hillsides included a hearty dose of Opuntia. Each spiny copse I passed reinforced the notion that the biota around us shape our experiences and, over time, sneak into our identities.

While visiting Mum’s relatives, the true place of the prickly pear was cemented in my mind. We went to our ancestral home in Mellieħa, where the house has sat unoccupied for years. My great-aunt (who lives up the same street) sprayed the lock, pried the door open. I entered cautiously. Dust carpeted the patterned tiles beneath my feet, and apart from a religious icon, striking in its dim, spare surrounds, most contents were long removed. I walked down the narrow hallway, towards a band of sunlight. In the backyard, I was greeted by none other than a healthy specimen of you-know-what. It became clear that I could no longer consign the humble bajtar to childhood nightmares—it is part of the family.