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We may now treasure what Italian migrants gave white Australia, but the relationship was fraught from the get-go.
Over the next few months, we will be confronted with a number of military commemorations. In October there will be the 75th anniversary of Hellfire Pass and the Thai Burma Railway of WWII; a month later, the centenary of the First World War Armistice. 2018 is the year for war remembrances. For some reason though, I haven’t heard the Minister for Defence pay tribute to the Italians who were forcibly deported from Australia in 1918 under orders from the Italian Consul-General and at the point of an Australian gun. Nevertheless, there were hundreds of them, and they served at the front during the last, most dangerous months of the First World War, despite the fact that Australians had just voted against forcing men to fight in the war. But apparently, that didn’t matter for aliens. Let me explain.
Before WWI, most Australians weren’t too fond of Italians. They were called “the Chinese of Europe”, “knife wielding mafia agents”, and especially the unions were very much against their presence. Unions were afraid that employers would take advantage of the (often unorganised) Italians and would give them jobs that were lesser paid, so forcing out white Australians. Nevertheless, in 1911 there were 6,719 Italians in Australia, 5,543 of them young men. They were mainly working in the fishing industries in South and Western Australia, on the cane fields in Queensland and in mining in NSW, Broken Hill in particular. Then, after the Italo-Turkish war of 1911 and 1912, more Italians came, and in 1914 there were over 10,000 of them living in Australia. Although they were European, they were not considered white, so often they had to do the Dictation Test that was part of the White Australia Policy. But until the war broke out there weren’t enough people to work in the industries, so border officials regularly turned a blind eye. That didn’t mean the Italians were welcomed. A 1904 Royal Commission on the employment of foreigners on the goldfields had decried their “unclean habits”. And in 1913 the Sugar Cultivation Act came into effect in Queensland, which said you could only work in the sugar cane industry if you could speak English and were white. Similar Acts were quickly also introduced for the fishing and mining industries in South Australia.
Then the war broke out in 1914 and a few things happened almost at the same time. Especially in Broken Hill, big mining contracts that had been agreed with Germany were cancelled. Some smaller mines closed, others started working with half their workers. People were now squeezed and took it out on their Italian colleagues. From 1916 onwards, the Italians became part of the War Precautions (Alien Registration) Regulations. This meant that they were forced to report at the local police station on a regular basis and had to keep the authorities up to date of their whereabouts. The rules also said that their wives were now also aliens, even if they had been born in Australia. So were their children. But in a way they were lucky. From the start of the war, German-Australians were picked up and interned in prisoner-of-war camps, to be deported at the end of the war. Italy had been neutral at the start of the conflict and that made Australians suspicious. Only when the country chose the side of the allies in 1915 were the Italians in Australia (many of whom had been naturalised) more or less accepted as fellow-travellers – in Broken Hill especially, because here the Italian miners had been active members of the Amalgamated Miners Association. Broken Hill was frontier country. Isolated, insulated, and heavily unionised. That was necessary, too, because conditions in the mines were atrocious, with hundreds of men dying underground. For example, in 1913 alone 29 people were killed.
They were not allowed to see their wives and children before they were deported, to serve at the front. A lot of them disappeared there, never to be heard from again.
So Broken Hill didn’t mind its Italian brothers too much, although even here the unions were quick to make sure Australian workers had preference in filling the few remaining jobs available. In Canberra, the Italians had become a difficult dilemma as well. Their Consul-General, Emilio Eles, had told the Australian Minister for Defence that he didn’t want his countrymen to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He wanted to keep them in his back pocket, so to speak, for when the situation in Italy would turn really bad. Then he could help his country, he thought, by sending the Italian-Australians home to fight. This really annoyed Prime Minister Billy Hughes. He had serious trouble getting Australians to sign up to fight and he had heard that one of the reasons men weren’t enlisting was because they were afraid that the Italians would take their jobs (and their wives) the second they embarked on a ship to the European war theatre. So the Italians were in Hughes’ way. And that became even more of a problem when the Australians voted against conscription in two subsequent referenda.
At the start of 1918, the Italian Consul-General came to Hughes’ aid. He told him that the Italian government wanted to repatriate the Italians who lived in Australia, and asked Hughes if he could help him round up the men. The PM was delighted and offered the use of the AIF to arrest them, guard them at detention camps and deport them to the Italian front. Now something interesting happened. Although the Australians had not been fond of the Italians, especially the labour movement was afraid that forcibly conscripting the Italians would mean that Hughes was getting ready to do the same to Australians – even though they had voted “no” in the two referenda. This was just after the Great Strike, where Australians had proven that they were sick of the war. Sick of the lack of food, sick of the politicians ignoring them, sick of the censorship, sick of the fact that Hughes had a large extra contingent of police and military to spy on protesters and beat them up or arrest them. Particularly for the unions and the Labor Party, the treatment of the Italians felt like the thin edge of the wedge: “Italians deported, Australians next”, one of the newspaper headlines read, and that was the fear of a lot of people.
So in 1918 union members went on strike. There were protest meetings, and flyers and leaflets were printed and handed out in large numbers. The International Workers of the World wrote a letter to the Italian Consul-General, calling what was happening “undemocratic”. There was an Italian female deputation to the PM, and several Labor members of Parliament protested, although their speeches were censored in Hansard. In the mean time, the Italian Consul-General, accompanied by the AIF, was touring the country, rounding up Italians, often at gunpoint. He had been given the names of the men through the Alien Registration Act, and Hughes helped him out some more by censoring any opposition to what was happening. All men born between 1874 and 1899 were called up, but by May 1918 only a handful had stepped forward. Now the Consul-General felt forced to let them know that they would be considered “guilty of desertion” if they didn’t turn up, at risk of six years’ gaol. And he warned them that even men who had been naturalised, and were therefore officially British subjects (there was no Australian citizenship yet), were also required to travel to the front.
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In Broken Hill, many Italians escaped, assisted by the Labor Member for Sturt, Percy Brookfield, who felt they should not be “shanghaied out of Australia and into the trenches”. A colleague, James Mathews, the Labor Member for Melbourne Ports, described the police raids on Italian clubs as “a system of terrorism…a disgrace to us”. And William Finlayson, the Labor Member for Brisbane, angrily told Parliament of seeing Italians “who had travelled all night from Broken Hill in unlighted carriages and under military escort, being lined up on the platform and marched off under armed escort to be deported later on for military service overseas”. He thought only the worst insult was in order here: it was, he said, “a sight that might be expected in Prussia”, and he warned that “if the policy of compulsory seizure and deportation can be applied to Italian citizens, then the same violence may be perpetrated on other citizens”. The local Labor Member for Broken Hill, Michael Considine, who had been a miner and active union member himself, also tried to stop the deportations from happening. But to no avail.
On the night of the 22nd of May, a large contingent of police and military dragged Italian men in Broken Hill out of their houses and from their workplaces. They were not allowed to see their wives and children before they were put on a train to Adelaide, where they were locked up in a camp at Broadmeadows and not long after, deported, to serve at the front. A lot of them disappeared there, never to be heard from again. Their wives and children didn’t know whether they were still alive, and had to be kept from starving by the unions. Not long after, the war was over, and soon the short-lived solidarity was over. In the mid-1920s, sugar produced by Italian farmers in Queensland was called “black sugar”, and the union imposed a boycott on the transportation and crushing of sugarcane grown by Italians. When the Melba Opera Company was rumoured to want to engage a group of Italian singers, the Actors Federation protested and got its way.
For a while there, racism had taken a backseat.
Now, White Australia was back with a vengeance.