Twenty five years ago I travelled home to Australia, via the Cape of Good Hope, on the P&O cargo ship, “Resolution Bay”. We sailed at dawn from Tilbury in the Thames, calling at Hamburg, Rotterdam, the Canary Islands, and Cape Town. The journey took three-weeks. Christmas on the high seas was magical.
My father, an Italian migrant, landed in Fremantle in December, 1925. Eighty-years, almost to the day, I too landed at the same spot. We arrived off the West Coast on New Year’s Day morning. The harbour pilot came on board at 6 o’clock. As the sun rose over the beach, and the ship’s crew prepared to dock, I stood alone on the deck looking to the main land. In the distance I could see, clearly, the tall, Norfolk pines lining the Cottesloe beach front where, as a child, my father took me for a seaside holiday. It was the oneandonly holiday ever we shared together. It was an hour of mixed emotions. While our ships travelled different routes he sailed from Livorno and came through the Suez Canal this was the same view, the same pines he would have seen from the “Palermo” when first he caught sight of Australia. It is impossible to imagine what might have gone through his mind. He arrived at a time when Italian migration to this country was not welcome. The new-Australians were considered second-rate citizens; an instantly available work-force to perform those tasks which were considered “too bloody hard, and too bloody dangerous” for the men of the Empire. The chapter of assisted pre and post-War Southern European migration to Australia is bitter-sweet. Thousands of Italians, including my father, left their homeland. From backgrounds of abject poverty they came, with a promise of permanent work, to the land of unlimited opportunity. They had little, if any, idea of where they were headed, or what to expect. Aged seventeen, and with the most basic of education, my father went to Northam in the wheat belt – the Italian Agricultural Settlement in country Western Australia. It was a depot for cheap, indentured field labourers. They were admitted under a Government agreement which forced them to work for a specified period of time. They endured isolation; their passports were confiscated; identities wipedout by Anglicising their names. They were paid meagre wages in return for back-breaking work. After he had served his time, my father went to live in Fremantle. Unemployed during the depression he made his way to Kalgoorlie, in the North-eastern Goldfields. He exchanged the beauty of his Etruscan village, Magliano in Toscana (a settlement which pre-dates the Romans), and a simple village existence, for the harshness of the outback, and the blatant hostility of the “Britishers”. It was a cultural shock from which my father, Nello Giuseppe, never recovered. He died in 1971 from a combination of silicosis, more commonly known as miner’s complaint, and tuberculosis, the long-term dust effects from working in the mines. He lost contact with his family, and never returned to Italy. His is a story common to thousands of Italians migrants. Aliens in a foreign land, their struggle for survival precipitated a cultural change, which altered, for all-time, the existing social structure of the community. The official history of the Italian presence in Western Australia begins on June 8, 1877, when the Governor of the Swan River Colony wrote an official letter to the Superintendent of Police. He had been requested by the Italian Consul General in Melbourne to supply information regarding Italian subjects resident in Western Australia. Two months later it was reported: Thirteen Italians in the colony, two of whom were lay Brothers at the Benedictine Monastery in New Norcia. The remainder comprised one priest, one lay brother, one botanist, three farmers, one sailor, three seamen, and one ship’s carpenter. Apart from the seaman, the others had been in the Colony for between nine and twentyeight-years, proving an Italian presence from the 1840s. Samuele Gioretti (convict number 9161) arrived in Western Australia in 1866. He was one of the last convicts to be transported from England before the practice was abolished in 1867.
In 1881, a group of twenty Sicilians settled at Point Peron, about 30-kilometres South of Fremantle. Isolated, and left to their own resources, they formed a fishing co-operative by pooling their capital, and selling the catch in one-block. Sicilians and Apulians settled in Fremantle and established a similar fishing community. It was the only livelihood they knew. They loved the sea and it reminded them of home. Grateful, they worked and prospered. By the beginning of the 20th century the economic participation of Italians was noticeable. To the chagrin of some Australians, they proved law-abiding citizens. For many years it was impossible to single one instance in either Police or Child Welfare records of any unlawful action performed by members of the Italian community. It disproved the xenophobic theory expounded by the Cambridge History of the British Empire: ‘… the Italian is not civilised in the ordinary sense…. with a knife in one hand and a razor in his pocket’.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.