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the hidden heritage of Italian settlement in NSW

Stewart-Cristanti, L. The Italian Hidden Heritage

The NSW Heritage Office is working to unveil the Italian hidden heritage items. At the moment in the State Inventory Register of more than 17,600 items there are no Italian items listed and yet Italians played an important role in the history of Australia and in particular in NSW.

Although Australia did not attract large numbers of Italian immigrants until the 1950's, Italian contacts with Australia date back much further. The very process of European discovery and exploration of the 'Fifth Continent', as Italian geographers term Australia, was assisted by Italians. There were many Italian sailors and officers on the decks of the Spanish and Portuguese ships bound for Australia. Italian mariners enjoyed a sufficiently fine reputation to be pressed into service by the navies of other European countries.

The Spanish expedition led by Magellan entered the Pacific Ocean in November 1520, carrying crew which included Italians. One, Antonio Pigafetta, kept a log of that epic journey.

In 1676, well before Captain Cook's exploration of Australia, Father Vittorio Riccio, a Dominican missionary based in Manila, prepared a map of Australia for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, with the suggestion that he take news of his God to the inhabitants, who "are bronzed, sometimes black, as well as courageous and strong". But such missionary work, often by Italians, was not destined to start until the nineteenth century. Antonio Ponto, a Venetian, sailed with Cook on the Endeavor and reached Australia in 1770.

A handful of convicts and the earliest free settlers were also Italians. There were several Sicilian sailors convicted by the British and transported to the penal colonies. Also a thin stream of Italian-speaking settlers arrived in the colonies in the first half of the nineteenth century, but the first Italian who was granted land in Australia still remains an unsolved mystery .

Italian missionaries began arriving in Australia during the early period of British colonization. In 1843 three Italian priests were brought to Sydney by John Polding, the first Catholic bishop in Australia. Throughout the country, dozens of less famous Italians worked as nuns, priests or missionaries before the First World War, contributing to the Catholic cause. One of the most influential was the huge and genial Eleazaro Torreggiani (1830-1904), Bishop of Armidale from 1879 until 1904. Stabbed and shot by a parishioner during the Christmas service in 1884, Torreggiani calmly picked himself up and finished the mass.

At the same time from the Gold Rush period of the 1850s the Italian presence in Australia began to increase. In 1855 a Sardinian vessel, the Goffredo Mameli, skippered by Nino Bixio, sailed to Sydney, bringing 84 emigrants. In 1881, 317 Italian migrants from the Friuli and Veneto regions were accepted by the New South Wales government as refugees after the cruelly fraudulent scheme to colonize New Ireland which was perpetrated by the Marquis de Ray. Eventually they established themselves in what became known in 1882 as New Italy at Woodburn not far from Lismore. This settlement is of historical significance, because "it was the first and most successful attempt to transplant to Australia Italian peasant life, customs, traditions, agricultural practices and technology. New Italy prospered in isolation from mainstream Australia".

Italians in New Italy built houses in traditional Friulan and Venetian style. They also built a church, school and community hall, and organized a number of social activities. They sent their silk artifacts to the Milan Trade Fair, where they won the First Prize in 1906.

In 1891, there were 3912 Italians in Australia (1477 in NSW) of whom 3 399 (almost 87 per cent) were males. In the 1890s Italian migrants came from the Sicily and Puglie regions. Those from Puglie were mainly fishermen from Molfetta, who, through the process of chain migration, established close-knit communities. In the early 1900s, Sicilian fishermen also settled and established a fishing industry on Australia's eastern seaboard in Ulladulla, Batemans Bay, Kiama and Wollongong.

Italian migration increased greatly after Australian Federation in 1901. This was partly due to the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act (commonly known as the White Australia policy), which, while restricting the entry of Chinese and Kanakas, allowed Italian migrants to settle in Australia to replace other lost labour. Thus, at the time of the first Commonwealth Census in 1901, the Italian-born population had increased to 5 678 (1577 in NSW) and by 1911 to 6719 (1723 in NSW).

In Sydney chain migration began in the 1920s (in the case of Stanley Street, for instance, Sands' Directory shows a steady build-up of street-level businesses run by Italians from the early 1900s, including a fruiterer, a macaroni maker, various Italian importers, and even a restaurant, as well as an increasing number of Italian residents) and was revived in the late 1930s. This was reflected in the growth of first-generation Italians (by the 1933 Census) to some 400 in the inner-city settlement of Leichhardt and Glebe and the related group of fishermen in Balmain.

There were almost as many Italians scattered in small groups around the western fringe of Sydney, where ownership of market-gardens of labouring on the small vegetable farms of relatives was the predominant economic activity. These western fringe settlements were mainly comprised of Calabrians with experience in horticulture. Also, in the 1920s and 1930s an Italian community was formed around Griffith by immigrants from Treviso (in the Veneto region) and from Calabria region, who settled along the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

By 1940, Italians numbered 3 000 out of the total population of 10 000 and owned 232 farms of the 1 013 that existed in the area. Kinfolk sponsored in the late 1940s expanded this settlement in Eastwood, in the north-west of Sydney; at Marsfield where Macquarie University now stands; at Mona Vale, in the north-east of Sydney in the Warringah municipality; and near Liverpool, south of the main concentration in Fairfield.

During the war Italians living in Australia were considered 'enemy aliens', including those born in Australia of Italian parentage. The first Italians to become prisoners of war in Australia were the sailors and passengers of Italian ships berthed in Australian ports or sailing territorial waters. A total of 268 Italian seamen were interned.

By 10 August 1940, 1901 Italians living in Australia were interned and, by September 1942, the number had grown to 3631. The main civilian internment camps were at Liverpool, Orange, Hay and Cowra in New South Wales. Between 1947 and 1976, about 360 000 Italians arrived in Australia (some working for the Snowy Mountains Scheme established in 1949 and on the Warragamba Dam), while 90 000 Italian-born departed, with a resultant net intake of 270 000.

Many of the new immigrant arrivals were accommodated in former army camps, some of which had been used for prisoners of war. Their confinement in these camps at the time of the economic recession of 1952 proved to be a combination not conducive to social harmony. Riots erupted at the Bonegilla camp in 1952 in which 2 000 Italians participated.

More recently the number of Italian born migrants has been decreasing. The 1996 Census shows a total number of 238 246 in all Australia of which 66 090 (35 499 males) Italians settled in New South Wales. As the number of Italian born migrants in Australia is on the downturn and, considering the prominent contribution Italians have made to New South Wales, the Heritage Office is working with ethnic groups to unveil the Italian heritage before it is lost. It is important that the water of knowledge flows for future generations to drink.

Reproduced with permission of the NSW Heritage Office.

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