Family bonds transcend disaster

On her journey to Australia with her family four-year-old Maltese migrant Carmen Calleya-Capp was at the centre of a high-seas drama the effects of which have resounded down the decades.



On March 31 1958 – just nine days after her fourth birthday - the passenger ship bringing new migrant Carmen Calleya-Capp from her home in Malta to Australia caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean.

Carmen, her family and all but one of the 1,288 souls aboard the Norwegian-flagged liner MS Skaubryn were rescued and taken ashore.

But the incident, the first major shipping disaster since the end of WWII, had an enduring impact on Carmen and her family and left with them an indelible sense of the migrant experience.

“We lost everything when the ship went down. Emily, my mother lost her jewellery, including her wedding ring and her treasured sewing machine. Tony, my father lost his tool set,” Carmen said.

“Photographs and family mementos went down with the ship, we were left with only the clothes we were wearing," she said.

“And it was poignant and sad to know that for one passenger – a German man who suffered a heart attack in a lifeboat – his dream of starting a new life ended when he died in that lifeboat,” she said.

“For us, it was a traumatic voyage but in a way it strengthened us and as a family we always stayed together,” Carmen said.

And that theme of a family bond - forged in the desperate circumstances of a calamity at sea - has remained constant for Carmen over six decades.

“We came to Australia in 1958; we left Malta on my birthday on the 22nd of March. We boarded the MS Skaubryn on an assisted passage,” Carmen said.

Unlike many other migrant families at the time, the Calleyas came as a complete unit; Carmen, her mother, father, elder brother as well as her maternal grandmother and two of her mother’s sisters.

But like many migrants at the time, they already had extended family members in Australia.

“A lot of people at the time came to Australia to find work. It was different for my Dad Tony. He had a good job with the RAF in Malta and wasn’t really keen to come to Australia,” Carmen said.

“But mum had her brothers here and my dad really loved my mother and so he would do anything for her, that’s why we came,” she said.

Although just four, Carmen remembers vividly the emergency on the ship and the desperate hours in a lifeboat.

“March 31 was a sunny and calm day and in the afternoon, the captain called a lifeboat drill. Some people were grumpy because it interrupted what they were doing,” she said.

“But at about 11.30 pm the lights of the ship started coming on and off and my father put his hand on the wall of the cabin and could feel the heat. Then the crew started to advise people that the ship was on fire and that we should go to the top deck,” Carmen said.

“We were on an assisted passage so we were on a lower deck. Me, mum, dad and my brother were in a cabin on one side and my nana and aunties were on the other side. It was scary and I can remember hearing a crackling sound which I think must have been the structure of the ship starting to disintegrate,” she said.

“I have a vivid memory of being in the lifeboat. Everyone got into the lifeboats and my dad told me that as the lifeboats were being lowered he touched the plates on the ship and they were red hot.

“Even though I had a life jacket on, I remember Dad undid his belt and strapped me to him.  My parents told me that they were praying and could hear people praying while the men rowed away from the burning ship.

“They told me that our lifeboat began to take on water and so the men used the manual pumps to keep the water out,” Carmen said.

In the drama, Carmen lost her most cherished possession – a baby doll - given as a birthday present from her uncle and auntie, who remained in Malta.

The Skaubryn’s Captain Alf Haakon Feste radioed an SOS and two ships responded. On the morning of the  April 1, the British Merchant Ship City of Sydney arrived and all the survivors were taken on board.

“To my parents' horror, the children were loaded by cargo net onto the deck. The adults reached the deck by climbing ropes - once on board the parents were united with their children,” Carmen said. 

The City of Sydney could not provide accommodation so later that day, the passenger liner SS Roma arrived and all passengers were transferred to her.

“From there, the Roma took us to Aden. We were on the Roma for three days and while on board the crew arranged for telegrams to be sent to our families telling them we were safe,” she said.

“At Aden, we stayed in the newly built British hospital. I was out playing with the other kids in the sunshine most of the day.

“I remember my aunt joked that Australia wouldn’t let me in if got any darker – at the time we still had the ‘White Australia Policy’.

“The British and Maltese governments arranged for people to continue their journeys and we eventually arrived at Station Pier on the P&O liner the Orsova and we were welcomed by relived relatives,” Carmen said.

“We all lived with my uncle for a time after we arrived and soon after my parents bought a house in Niddrie. We moved in with my aunts, my nanna and two uncles. That was how life was,” she said.

On her first Christmas in Australia, Carmen was given a replica of the treasured doll she had lost aboard the Skaubryn.

Carmen said her father got his first job in Australia was with the Kodak plant in Coburg. A cabinetmaker, he then went on to work for VIA, a building company, until he was retrenched in 1984 at the age of 62.

Her mother Emily worked for many years at Willow kitchenware during the day and pursued her passion for dressmaking in the evenings and weekends.

“Mum was also a very good seamstress and both of my parents worked hard to provide the family with a good income and a loving and comfortable home,” Carmen said.

Like many migrant children, Carmen was kept home from school until she was six – the standard school age in Europe.

“School was daunting. I went to a Catholic primary school in Essendon and I didn’t speak much English. I always wanted to come home at lunchtime and so I did. My nanna would pick me up and often I didn’t want to go back,” she said.

When Carmen was in Grade 3, her younger brother was born.

Carmen did well at secondary school but was subject to racist attitudes prevalent at the time.

“We were called wogs and regularly your bag would get thrown off the tram and you would have to get off at the next stop and go back and collect it,” she said.

“I just learned to not let this get to me. My dad always said I was ‘a sturdy little soul’ so I worked hard at school. I was on a scholarship so maintaining that was critical for me.

“As a migrant, I certainly stood out a bit. I remember once at a social, an Australian boy asked me to dance and some of the girls said ‘look at him, he’s dancing with the wog’.

“There was also one boy in our street who never stopped calling us names. He was relentless.

“But then there was a family of Australians who lived across from us – the Faheys – they were welcoming and kind and we formed a friendship that lasted for over 50 years until they passed away.

“My parents had this philosophy that this racism reflected badly not on us but on the people perpetrating it,” Carmen said.

Carmen took a gap year after school – unusually for the times – and then embarked on a career in education; first as a primary teacher and a multicultural education consultant. Carmen went on to hold senior positions in the public and community sector.

She is also very active in the Maltese community and worked for the Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, the forerunner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

“I know my experiences as a migrant helped me understand the needs and challenges faced by migrant families and to better support refugees.

“In the 1990s I worked with people who had come to Australia from the Balkans conflict and also from Iraq,” she said

“The decision to leave your home is never easy, even when you opting for a chance at a better life. It’s a risk. It’s an economic risk but also an emotional risk that families take when they set out to make a new life,” Carmen said.

“I can only imagine how my parents felt in that lifeboat. The decision to come to Australia and to protect their family must have weighed heavily on their minds.

“That experience deepened the bond I felt with my parents – a bond which continued to grow over the years with the pride I took in their achievements.

“When my Dad retired, he, Mum and I helped to establish an aged care home for elderly Maltese. Later, they worked as volunteers for 25 years at the nursing home. My parents would make things for people but never charge them for the work.  

“I know what I learnt from my parents was all of the love they had and that cycle of giving – it’s always inspired me.

“My parents never had an interest in material things. They always cherished life, family and contributing to the wider community – that was always important.

“And dad – who died eight years ago - never went back to Malta. After his father and brother died, that was it, everything that he loved was here,” Carmen said.

“My parents felt they never needed to return to Malta, but Malta was always in their hearts,” Carmen said. 

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