Laura Mecca and Mara Moustafine.
Historian Laura Mecca describes Italian experiences of the strikes of the 1920s on the Australian waterfront and the conflict they experienced. She also describes Italian fascism and anti-Fascism.
27 March 2009
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Many of them didnít even know about a strike, I mean already in those days there was quite a strong opposition to Italian migration because there was an economic crisis in Australia. And in fact, I think they came on the Re dí Italia this is a ship which was sent back, I think it got to Sydney and was kicked out again and sent back with all the migrants. So there was a bit of opposition against the Italians and donít forget that up in the sugar cane [ in Northern Queensland], there was a lot of opposition against the Italians. So when they arrived in Melbourne, I think Ė or even in Sydney Ė it was regular for them to be bashed as they came down the planks, they were you know, they were bashed up by Australians. But this happened in Melbourne, you know, during the strike.
Now, they wanted work. They didnít know what was going on, they just wanted work. And they were offered work and of course, for less money. They didnít know about the political implication or the unionism so they took genuinely, they wanted Ė they had a family to feed in Italy. We must not forget that these people borrowed money to come out. In the 1920s there were very few sponsored migration. So they had to repay that money, so they had to start working.
First of all we must remember that the Italians did not live just for economic reasons. People migrate for all sorts of reasons. And depending again, on the political situation in your country. So there was a quite small but very interesting group of people that came here in the '20s. Because of their opposition to fascism. And thatís why we had one of the very early clubs in Melbourne, the Matteotti Club in 1928.
The problem is that with this particular club, there were factions, so you had the anarchists together, you know, with those who believed in socialism and those who were communist, so you couldnít put them together, thatís why the Matteotti Club survived [for a very short time]. Carmagnola went off to Ingham, thatís where he started, continued with La Riscossa magazine and Bertazzon who was an anarchist published a few issues LíAvanguardia Libertaria and then soon after he died in a car accident in Griffith.
So, the whole club dissolved, then it took quite a while for the Casa díItalia to be established. Another group of people opened the Casa díItalia. The anti-fascist Professor Schiassi was behind all that. It was a group of people, sort of educated, which were not very much liked by the rest of the community who had established here early. Many of them were from the Aeolian Islands. They had a good name, you know, they had good businesses, they were rich. Of course they were pro Ė not pro-fascism, it was pro Italian Government. To be patriotic, and to be you know, allied with your own government and show love for your homeland or the land of your parents, they just embraced it. And it happened to be a fascist government.
They didnít know what fascism was in reality Ė what form of politics it was. No, for them it was just Italian, the consul was fascist and there were the real fascists. One Fascio was based at the Cavour Club which was the Ė letís say pro-Italian Government club. And than there were the anti Fascists - the Italians against fascism, who left Italy because of personal problem with fascism, they had to leave their homeland, they were persecuted in Italy, they arrived here.
Amongst them there were a few Jewish Italians who arrived here. So they [the anti-Fascists] became Ė they became heroes in one way for a number of people, though for many of other Italians, they were just a nuisance and something to be ashamed of. But they were very active and very vocal. The network was very good. They had a network of keeping in touch with the the various branches, in France where they were very active, in the United States and so on and they exchanged newspapers and information.
And they were very much supported by the Australian Labor Party. The church in Italy was pro fascist. You had Father Modotti, who arrived in 1938, who was sent here by the Mussolini Government to replace Father De Francesco who had been here from 1924 and had left. And Father Modotti was sent material from the Consulate and from the Italian Government: films, propaganda film to show at film nights. So, definitely they were pro-fascist. But it must have been a very interesting period, very vibrant, very vibrant.
There are some beautiful photographs in the [Italian Historical] Society about when the Montecuccoli ship came in 1936. The Montecuccoli came also for the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. It was the same ship that came in 1936. There were violent protests at the docks, you know [in 1936]. From fascists and anti-fascists.