A long way from Rome

Media release: Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Proxy brides, Italian cane cutters, prisoners of war and the 'Black Hand' criminal gang were some of the aspects of Italian migration which came to light as Mairi Popplewell delved into the National Archives' collection. She will share her findings in a public talk A long way from Rome at the National Archives in Cannon Hill, Brisbane next week.

'Italians have been part of Australia's history from the beginnings of European involvement,' said Mairi. 'Captain Cook had a Venetian crew member on the Endeavour when it reached Australia in 1770. And the only eye-witness account of the Eureka Stockade has come from an Italian.'

Mairi also found it fascinating to examine the accounts of more recent Italian immigration.

'For example, many Italian women were married to proxy bridegrooms in Italy before they came out to Australia to join their husband,' she said. 'If an Italian woman emigrated only as a fiancée, without the wedding ring on her finger, families felt they ran the risk of being shamed by the independence and possible sexual freedom of their sisters or daughters.'

Italian migrants were initially introduced to Queensland as cane cutters in 1891 to replace the South Sea Islanders known as kanakas who were being sent home. They were looked on as another source of cheap labour.

'But, because they were prepared to work longer and for lower wages than Australian cane cutters, they were soon the target of hostility,' said Mairi. 'The unions began decreasing the number of tickets given to Italians, then a State Sugar Industry Award gave preference to competent union workers, which exploited the Italians' lack of knowledge about joining a union.'

Mairi will also discuss other aspects of Italian immigration, such as their membership of Fascist and Anarchist groups in Australia, the internment of Italian nationals (including royalty) and prisoners of war who worked on local farms, Italians who served in Australian forces during both world wars, and post-war migration and its legacy.

A reference officer will be available at the talks to help people of Italian descent research their family's history. Post-war migrants and their descendants are also invited to add their stories to the National Archives Destination: Australiawebsitedestinationaustralia.gov.au

The talks at the National Archives of Australia, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill will be held at 10am on Wednesday 19 February and repeated at 2pm on Friday 21 February. Bookings can be made on(07)3249 4200.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Mairi Popplewell (Assistant Director, Brisbane Office)
    t (07) 3249 4205
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