How many Maltese are there in Australia? For a long time, the generally accpeted figure was 400,000 which always carried the qualifier: "if descendants are included". Then in 1986, for the first time, the Australian Census asked a question about people's ancestries. Thus, for the first time in Australia's 75 years of national census collecting, it was possible to accurately estimate Maltese ethnic strength.

Prior to the 1986 Census, the only ethnic data available related to birthplaces and languages other than English spoken at home. The latter was a useful guide to ethnic strength but, as the 1986 question on ancestries revealed, there are many more Austra lians who regard themselves as being of Maltese descent than who actually speak the Maltese language.

The 1986 Census found that the figure of 400,000 was way off target, a gross exaggeration. Some people in the community - myself included - had keenly accepted the 400,000 figure. Why was that so? Basically, in my own case, I accepted it because it came f rom what seemed to be reputable sources. The Australian Department of Immigration had established a History Unit in the early 1970s and, in 1974, the History Unit released a series of estimates of numerical strength of several ethnic communities. The esti mate for the Maltese was 400,000. Yet on further - and belated - examination I found that the History Unit was basically just two individuals who rather uncritically accepetd the estimates of enthusiastic advocates within the Maltese communities.

I had personally experienced the fervour of these individuals who were determined to prove that the Maltese community was among the biggest in Australia and, indeed, that there were "more Maltese in Australia than in Malta", a myth that persists to this d ay. (Again, for a while, I mistakenly helped promote this myth)

In 1984, I had the great pleasure of meetinga devoted servant of the Maltese in Australia: Major Edgar Mercieca. The Major, who is sadly now deceased, impressed me with his intelligence, wit and charm. He had all the figures before him, on sheets and shee ts of paper, and demonstrated arithmetically how, if all those in Australia born to a Maltese parent, or to two Maltese parents, or to the descendants of Maltese parents were counted, then, going back to the first Maltese free settlers who had arrived in Australia in 1838, there would be around 400,000 Maltese in Australia.

The problem with the Major's sums was that he included in his estimates even the great-great grandchildren of early Maltese settlers. The final figure was meaningless. Did the descendants identify with the Maltese? If not, why should they be counted as Ma ltese? After all, they were born in Australia, as were (in the case of grandchildren and great grandchildren, etc.) their parents.

And what of those with mixed ancestries, which is quite common among the Maltese in Australia because many marry non-Maltese? The first Maltese immigrant (as against convict or bonded servant) to arrive in Australia was Antonio Azzopardi in 1838. In 1846, he married Margaret Sandeman, a Scottish woman, in Melbourne. There is no evidence at all to suggest that the Azzopardi children regarded themselves as Maltese. But even if one were to adopt a purely objective measure, how can a child born to a Maltese p arent and a Scottish parent be counted as one Maltese descendant? Shouldn't it be counted as half Maltese and half Scottish?

The Major's estimate counted Antonio Azzopardi's children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren as purely Maltese! It is suprising that such an estimate could have been accepted by a History Unit within a Department of Immigration, but the 400,000 figu re was also advocated by the then High Commissioner for Malta in Canberra, Joe Forace, and by community leaders keen to demonstrate that the Maltese were a major force in our multicultural society.

I was equally keen to show that the Maltese were such a large community and thus uncritically accepted the estimates. Also, I am an historian, not a demographer, and did not feel any special expertise when it came to estimated populations. But, then came the 1986 Australian Census and its questions relating to ancestries.

The question on ancestry provided a good indicator of ethnic strength because it revealed the number of Australians who identify with a Maltese heritage. Ethnicity is a slippery concept. It is not just to do with birthplace, language, race or religion but with group identification. So, what did the 1986 Census find? Well, not surprisingly, many people gave more than one ancestry. Had Azzopardi's children been alive, for example, they could have given two answers: Maltese and Scottish. The "first response ancestry" is the strongest measure of ethnic identity. If Azzopardi's children had given "Maltese" as the first answer, and "Scottosh" as the second, it is reasonable to assume that they felt more Maltese than Scottish.

Overall, in 1986, 110,237 persons said they had a Maltese ancestry, as a first response. If "second response" figures are added, the total reaches 136,000. it is likely that today, in 1995, ten years since the 1986 Census, the number of Maltese descendant s has grown more than the number of Malta-born has diminished. The current figure for Maltese ethnic strength (i.e. for Malta-born persons and their descendants who identify with a Maltese heritage) would now be around 180,000, at the most.

In 1986, the largest number of people with Maltese ancestry in Australia, was found in Victoria (50,020), followed by New South Wales (46,169), Queensland (6,714), South Australia (4,171), Western Australia (2,085), the Australian Capital Territory (730), Tasmania (177) and the Northern Territory (171).

The largest single grouping of persons with a Maltese ancestry was born in Australia (i.e. 51,959), followed by those with a Maltese ancestry who were born in Malta (i.e. 51,905). In other words, about 47% of persons in Australia with a Maltese ancestry w ere born in Australia, and about 47% were born in Malta.

A lesson from the quest for a reliable estimate of Maltese population in Australia is that community leaders should feel no need to opt for the biggest figure on offer. Accuracy is not just important but a matter of principle. The Maltese in Australia sta nd proudly as a medium-sized ethnic community whose achievements have consistently been disproportionately greater than their numerical strength.

Dr. Barry York

(Source: WIRT MALTA, April 1995, Vol. 1, Number 10 --- published by Maltese Cultural Association, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

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