The Maltese have taken their food, parishes, band clubs, customs, devotions and confraternities to each and every country they settled in.

At a press conference held by the Emigrants' Commission on the 150th anniversary since the Konfraternità tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu was set up by the Maltese community in Egypt, Fr Lawrence Attard, a historian well-versed in emigrants' history, said many today think migration from Malta only started after World War II.

"This is a mistaken perception as emigration started when Malta became a British colony and therefore goes back to the beginning of the 19th century," he explained.

When Malta became a British naval base, in fact, many Maltese were encouraged, or even "forced", to leave and the most logical thing to do was to settle in another British colony in the Mediterranean basin, a vast stretch of land which European rulers had shared after the fall of the Ottoman empire.

"In June of 1882, about 8,000 Maltese people who had settled in Egypt fled back to Malta when the British besieged Alexandria. This was a clear sign of Maltese settlers in North Africa," Fr Attard said.

More Maltese set sail for Egypt in 1859 when the Suez Canal started being excavated. "The Maltese were among thousands of Europeans and Easterners who sought work in Egypt since the country was offering a lot of work opportunities".

From Alexandria, the Maltese also moved to Cairo, Suez, Rosetta and Port Said. Fr Attard said those who were educated enough used to work at the British embassies. Some Maltese people were known to speak up to five languages.

Maltese skilled labourers and merchants also worked in the shipping business.

"What is remarkable is that the Maltese community kept its own traditions and identity and the majority never became Egyptians as such," Fr Attard said.

Exhibited at the Emigrants Commission are old photographs and documents such as British passports, which gave the Maltese migrants a rather important stature among British rulers at the time.

Other documents include copies of publications of the Maltese community, such as L-Istandard tal-Maltin, and other periodicals including Melita and Il-Qari Malti. In 1937, the Cairo community started issuing the Bulletin of the Maltese Community in Cairo, which was later renamed Il-Habbar Malti fl-Egittu.

Fr Gorg Aquilina, who researched registers and documents found in churches in Egypt, said the Maltese who settled in Egypt in the 1800s, who were Christian in their majority, found themselves in a country where the Franciscan Order had already set up missions. At a time when Islam and Christianity could co-exist, churches had already been built and European traditions had started infiltrating.

The first Maltese names registered at the convent of St Catherine of Alexandria date back to the end of the 18th century. The registers show that a good number of immigrants came from Italy and Malta.

Historical records show that the Maltese were among the main benefactors financing the extension of existing churches and new churches built at the time. At the same time, the Maltese community set up charities, band clubs and confraternities. The most popular confraternities were the Konfraternità tal-Karmnu, set up in 1854, the confraternity of the Holy Rosary and the confraternity of souls.

In 1944, the Maltese community set up the Malta Relief Fund to assist their native country recover from the devastating effects of the war and sent over some £60,000.

In 1926, the Maltese community numbered 20,000. With the rise of Arab nationalism following the gradual downfall of the European empires and great turmoil in the region, the Egyptian government expelled all foreigners from the country in the 1950s.

Most Maltese settlers did not return to Malta but moved to Britain, Australia, America and South Africa.

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