Tag Archives: Innisfail

Rebecca Huntley’s Italian Girl

Rebecca Huntley, The Italian Girl (UQP 2012)

It was a comment by Lisa Hill on one of my earlier blog posts that led me to The Italian Girl. Lisa thought I might like it. She was right.

Rebecca Huntley is probably best known as a social researcher and broadcaster. Her 2019 Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (the link is to my blog post), demonstrated among other things that the predictions of social researchers can be wildly inaccurate. When she humbly acknowledged her wrongness with defiant optimism in the following issue, I became a bit of a fan.

As a young adult, Huntley pondered shedding her Anglo-Celtic family name and adopting her mother’s birth name, Ballini. Her mother, fearing that an Italian surname would invite discrimination in her daughter’s chosen field, emphatically discouraged the move. Rebecca abandoned the idea and picked ‘Huntley’ at random from the phone book. In The Italian Girl, written 20 years later, she reverses that emblematic abandonment. The book is the story of her investigating her Italian–Australian family’s history, mainly in Innisfail and surrounding sugarcane country, focusing mainly on her grandmother, her much-loved nonna, Teresa Ballini, and the internment of Italian-heritage men during the second world war.

On a visit to Innisfail after her nonna‘s death, Rebecca tells her uncle Frank that she’s sorry to have disappointed her nonna by not having married while she was still alive:

‘She never got to see me in a wedding dress,’ I tell him. Frank laughs in his gentle way and shakes his head ever so slightly.
‘You didn’t really know your nonna, did you? She was a feminist before we knew what feminism was. When the men were interned during the war, it was your nonna who ran the farms. She kept everything going until they came back. She wasn’t waiting for you to get married. The proudest day of her life was when you graduated university.’
… My nonna, a feminist trail-blazer? It didn’t fit with my image of her who had no greater ambition in life than to cook, clean and care for others.

(Page 23–24)

That was the spark that led to the publication of this book twelve years later. Who doesn’t resonate with that impulse to find out more about the people you saw so one-dimensionally in childhood?

The author makes several more trips to Innisfail – a north Queensland town where she has never lived, but where her great-grandfather Luigi settled when he came out from the Italian island of Elba; where he worked as a cane cutter before acquiring and running a number of sugar farms; where her nonna Teresa was born and married, lived most of her life and eventually died. On her research trips, she interviews elderly relatives, quizzing them about her great-grandparents, nonna and nonno, about the family fortunes, and (most interestingly to this reader) about the wartime internment of Italians in north Queensland as enemy aliens.

She supplements these conversations by enlisting the help of a research assistant, and reading extensively, including Jean Devanney’s novel Sugar Heaven and roughly 50 other works listed at the back of the book. She creates a vivid sense of Innisfail itself – its location, its tropical climate, its history, its difference from the stereotype of an Australian country town. Each time she visits, she gives some detail of the journey – the first time by train, a journey of several days from Canberra, and subsequently simpler plane trips from Sydney. She strolls the streets, visiting the Taoist Temple, the marble canecutter statue, the Good Counsel Church, the preserved art nouveau buildings, the local history museum. This is my childhood home, and I was fascinated to have places familiar from my childhood described by someone who has an emotional investment but who is all the same not a native. (I responded with a kind of benign tolerance rather than my usual copy-editing irritation to tiny errors, such as misnaming East Innisfail as South Innisfail, or referring to Goondi as a small town between Cairns and Innisfail, whereas it’s really an outlying part of Innisfail – or it was when I lived a couple of miles further west, at what is now Shaw’s Corner.)

The history the book uncovers is interesting and important in many ways. For a start, the story of Innisfail puts the lie to the version of Australia as drearily monocultural until the 1970s. The Italians in this story may have been largely intent on assimilating, but they were always distinctly Italian, and they were only one of many non-Anglo groups.

I’m writing this a couple of days after Anzac Day, so I can’t help but reflect on this book in that context. In public discussions of past wars at this time of year, there’s very little mention of the Australian citizens who were interned because of their Italian, German or Japanese origins. Yet these internments are part of this nation’s long history of incarceration. Huntley doesn’t tell the story of the internment of her grandfather and great-grandfather, so much as the story of trying to find out about it from conversations and documents. It does seem that there was an arbitrary quality to it: men (and some women) who had done nothing wrong were detained, in some cases, for more than three years. Sound familiar? Some, including Huntley’s father, Oreste, almost certainly belonged to Fascist organisations; others were detained despite plenty of evidence that they had turned their backs on their Italian heritage and identified as British subjects. It seems that the ethos of least said soonest mended prevailed once the war was over, and none of Huntley’s elderly informants remembered the returning internees carrying a grudge or saying very much about the experience. Unlike people seeking refuge who have been detained by current and recent Australian governments, they seem at least to have been fed well.

For me (of course) the book feels personal. I’m probably about the same age as Huntley’s mother. I was a 12-year-old spectator at the unveiling of the canecutter statue in 1959. The inscription on the statue reads, ‘To the pioneers of the sugar industry donated by the Italian community of Innisfail district on the first centenary of the State of Queensland 1859–1959.’ What it doesn’t say, and what I remember from the speeches of the day, was that the statue, created by an Italian sculptor in Italian marble, was a grand gesture of reconciliation from the Italian community, and an assertion of the role Italians’ back-breaking work of cutting cane had played in building the industry. The Latin motto, UBI BENI IBI PATRIA, translated for us on the day as WHERE YOUR GOODS ARE, THERE IS YOUR HOMELAND, surely refers indirectly to the internments that happened less than two decades earlier. Certainly, I got the impression that the statue was somehow rectifying a great wrong.

Rebecca Huntley writes about her unsettling discovery that she has Fascists in her family tree. The Italian Girl adds heft to a piece of my own family lore that is at least as unsettling. My mother’s father, Arthur Aitken, served as Police Magistrate in Innisfail in the 1920s. My poem about his role in an earlier episode in Australian–Italian relations is in my book Take Five. My mother told us that, because he had learned the language, he was recalled from Brisbane during the war to oversee the internment of Italians. He isn’t mentioned in The Italian Girl, and we haven’t been able to find any documents to verify Mum’s throwaway line, but I’ve got no reason to doubt her, and I’m grateful for the work Rebecca Huntley has done in unearthing so much of the experience on the other side of that coin.

Diane Menghetti’s Red North

Diane Menghetti, The Red North (Studies in North Queensland History No 3, James Cook University of North Queensland 1981)

The student of North Queensland history frequently encounters evidence of widespread political radicalism which is difficult to reconcile with her personal experience of the district.

(The Red North, the beginning of the Introduction)

Indeed! Mention that the only member of the Communist Party of Australia ever to be elected to a parliament was in Queensland, where Fred Paterson was MLA for the seat of Bowen from 1944 to 1950, and the most common reaction is, ‘What happened?’ Diane Menghetti doesn’t set out to answer that question, but her book is a solid account of the second half of the 1930s when the CPA was more of a force in North Queensland than in any other part of Australia.

The Studies in North Queensland History series ran from 1978 to the mid 1990s.* I must have got hold of The Red North, No 3 in the series, soon after it was published and then been daunted by its non-commercial feel. It makes no pretence of being other than an MA thesis, set in courier with a foreword by a professor, footnotes and 60 pages of appendices.

But it turns out to be a fascinating read – for me, and I expect for many people like me who hail from that part of the world, as well as anyone interested in the history of the labour movement and Communism in Australia. With a wealth of detail, Menghetti describes how the CPA became an integral part of the social life of many North Queensland communities, supporting non-British labourers in the face of the British-preference policies of the Australian Workers Union, raising an extraordinary amount of money for the Spanish Civil War, organising social events, providing regular entertainment in the form of public meetings featuring gifted orators such as Fred Paterson.

We didn’t hear much of the history of the North in my childhood: snippets of family lore in a family that wasn’t much given to story-telling, and nothing at all at school that I can remember. When we were taught that Australia was settled in 1788, it wasn’t just tens of thousands of years of prior habitation that were ignored, but also the reality that settlement/ invasion occurred over decades – reaching north Queensland well into the nineteenth century. Even today, people talk as if Australian was mono-culturally Anglo-Celtic during the 1950s, erasing not just Indigenous peoples but also the large number of ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Maltese, Jugoslavs who I went to school with, many of whom had been around for generations.

So there’s a particular joy for me now to read a whole book about our history, about significant struggles that took place in places from my childhood: not just Innisfail, Cairns and Tully, but Mourilyan, Goondi, South Johnstone, El Arish, Flying Fish Point and Etty Bay. I especially love the moments where this narrative intersects with the little bits of history I had from my parents. I’ll give two examples.

First: in my childhood, the sugarcane was burned before it was harvested. We loved the spectacle of the cane-fires, and were told that their purpose was to kill the rats that infested the cane because the rats carried the deadly Weil’s disease. Burning the cane was necessary to save the lives of the canecutters.

That’s accurate. What it leaves out is one of the main episodes of this book, the bitterly-contested Weil’s disease strike by canecutters and mill hands from August to October 1935. Something of the flavour of the times, and of what we are deprived of when this history is erased, can be gleaned from events in Tully on 24 September 1935. The AWU, which generally opposed the strike, had called a meeting of all canecutters and millhands for that day:

During the previous night [the strike committee] had worked to turn the AWU meeting to the strikers’ advantage, and when the hour of the conference arrived, over a thousand strikers and sympathisers formed up at the top end of Tully’s main street. This street slopes fairly steeply down to where the Plaza Theatre is situated, almost at the end of the main town area. Thus the great procession, led by the Tully Pipe Band, marched right through the business area before the start of the conference. The AWU organiser opened the meeting with a call for nominations for the chair. Eric Driscoll, Communist mill representative was duly elected, and the executive of the strike committee took its place on the platform, reflecting its control over the total strike. The expressed purpose of the meeting was the election of delegates to represent the men at a compulsory conference of millers, farmers, strikers and the AWU. Towards the end of the meeting the ‘scabs’ from the mill arrived to cast their vote. They were escorted by police and their entry was considered by the strikers to be an act of provocation. Nevertheless, at [strike committee leader Jack] Henry’s urging, the election was concluded peacefully. The conference was never held.

(page 40)

Second: When I was in my 30s my mother astonished me by saying that the Depression didn’t happen in Innisfail, that out-of-work people from ‘down south’ used to come to our door asking for work or food. I knew there had been a large unemployed camp in the Cairns showground, so I put this down to my mother’s over-protected life at the time as the fiancee and then bride of a cane farmer.

Two short quotes from The Far North are relevant. First, confirming my view:

In the far north the Depression set in early with a slump in world sugar prices. With economic hardship came xenophobia.

(page 53)

But then this, offering some support to my mother’s account:

In the years preceding World War Two unemployment remained very high. The mildness of the northern climate may have reduced some of the distress among the local unemployed, but it also had the effect of attracting large numbers of men from the south, either looking for work or merely travelling to fulfil unemployment relief conditions. For many the journey terminated in Cairns where a large unemployed camp was established.

(page 109)

After I’d written most of this blog post I discovered that a new edition was published by Resistance Books in 2018 (details here). ‘The Red North,’ they write, ‘is a fascinating episode and one deserving of serious study by all those interested in seeing the development of a serious progressive force in Australian politics.’

The Red North is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


* Other titles in the series that I’ve been able to find are:

  • 2 Peter Bell, If anything, too safe: the Mount Mulligan disaster of 1921, 1978
  • 4 Christine Doran, Separatism in Townsville, 1884 to 1894: we should govern ourselves, 1984
  • 5 Dawn May, From bush to station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry, 1861–1897, c1985
  • 6 Cathie R. May, Topsawyers, the Chinese in Cairns, 1870–1920, c1984
  • 7 Dorothy Gibson–Wilde, Gateway to a golden land: Townsville to 1884, 1985
  • 8 Anne Smith, Roberts Leu and North: a centennial history, c1986
  • 9 Dorothy M. Gibson–Wilde and Bruce C. Gibson–Wilde, A pattern of pubs: hotels of Townsville 1864–1914, 1988
  • 10 Helen Brayshaw, Well beaten paths: Aborigines of the Herbert/Burdekin district, north Queensland: an ethnographic and archaeological study, c1990
  • 11 Marjorie Pagani, T.W. Crawford: politics and the Queensland sugar industry, 1989
  • 12 Bianka Vidonya Balanzategui, Gentlemen of the flashing blade, 1990
  • 13 Janice Wegner, The Etheridge, 1990
  • 14 Christine Doran, Partner in progress: a history of electricity supply in North Queensland from 1897 to 1987, 1990
  • 15 Todd Barr, No swank here? The development of the Whitsundays as a tourist destination to the early 1970s, 1990
  • 16 Ferrando (Freddie) Galassi, Sotto la Croce del Sud = Under the Southern Cross: the Jumna immigrants of 1891, 1991
  • 17 Dawn May, Arctic regions in a torrid zone: the history of the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, 1892–1992, 1992
  • 18 Bruce Breslin, Exterminate with pride: Aboriginal–European relations in the Townsville–Bowen region to 1869, 1992.
  • 19 Eileen Hennessey, A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, 1993
  • 20 Anne Smith, This El Dorado of Australia: a centennial history of Aramac Shire, 1994
  • 21 Patricia Mercer, White Australia defied: Pacific Islander settlement in North Queensland, 1995

Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP 2002)

I finished reading this book a while ago but it’s taken me until now to write about because I took it very personally.

It’s a meditation on the so-called horror stretch, country north of Rockhampton in central Queensland that has a reputation as the setting for terrible events. Starting with a number of roadside murders in the second half of last century that made headlines all over Australia, Gibson explores the cultural factors, the ‘structure of feeling’, underlying the general fascination with those crimes. A ‘badland’ such as this, he says, is a way of localising and mythologising issues that are unresolved in the society in general. This description may lead you to expect something that reads like a bad translation from the French, with lots of stuff being inscribed on the landscape, and references to impenetrable theory. But no, it’s an engaging read, and becomes positively compelling as it moves back in time to the terrible first contact between Aboriginal people and settlers, forward again to the ordeals of Melanesian indentured workers in the sugar paddocks, and forward yet again to the White Australia Policy’s denial of the extraordinary diversity of the region.

‘Sooner or later,’ Gibson writes, ‘any society that would like to know itself as “post-colonial” must confront an inevitable question: how to live with collective memories of theft and murder. Sooner or later, therefore, acknowledgement and grieving must commence before healing can ensue.’ This must also be true of the individuals who are part of that society, and my sense is that for all the impressive scholarship and historical research that went into it, this project is at heart personal, a way of making personal acknowledgement and beginning the necessary grieving. At least, coming though I do from Innisfail, hundreds of miles north of the horror strip (and yes, I knew of it by that name in my childhood), that’s how I read it.

Things may have changed, but when I was at school, history happened mostly in England (and elsewhere in Europe for Catholic Church history), and what we were taught of Australian history happened in Sydney or Melbourne, or occasionally the other capital cities. The only North Queensland figures I remember being mentioned – and that was at home rather than school – were the explorer Edmund Kennedy, speared by natives in 1848, and his faithful Aboriginal companion Jackey Jackey (whose real name, Galmahra, was never alluded to). The specific history of the arrival of non-Aboriginal settlers in the north was never even hinted at. As in the ‘horror stretch’, I’ve learned, this history involved mass murder by Native Police under white officers. Ross Gibson brings that history home, and a has a good deal to say about our collective silence about it. Even at the time of widespread killing of Aboriginal people in the mid 19th century, he says, the officers

jinked a two-step of violent action and circumspect remembrance. They wrapped their deeds in dissembling verbiage and eventually they became their own twisted idioms, developing a ‘pathological’ disconnection between doing and declaring, a disconnection which gave them no way to see the world clearly.

That ‘circumspect remembrance’ is something that has lived on in the north ever since, as ‘white people simultaneously knew and refused to know the violence behind their everyday lives’.

Now here’s why I took this all personally: in an entry in this blog a few years back I said I didn’t know much about first contact between the Mamu people and the first settlers of the Innisfail region, and I gave a link to Innisfail’s web site. When I clicked on that link I found this:

The first incursion came in 1872. Survivors of the shipwreck “Maria” arrived on the coast near the Johnstone River. Some of the Indigenous people helped; others they opposed. Sub-Inspector Robert Johnstone’s search party came to rescue survivors and punish Aboriginal people who had abused them, and ventured up river from what are now Flying Fish and Coquette Points. Johnstone wrote glowing reports of the area, and with vigilante Native Troopers attacked the Mamu people with rifle fire as he escorted the explorer Dalrymple, charting the watercourse and having it named after himself …

When European cedar cutters and Chinese gold seekers arrived later in the 1870s and early in the 1880s, the Mamu fought them and inflicted serious casualties. Again the Europeans sent in the Native Police. Superior firepower broke up the Indigenous communities and dispersed or integrated the remaining original landowners.

The evidence is that I had read that and could still say I didn’t know what happened, yet its meaning couldn’t be clearer. Words like ‘punish’ and ‘dispersed’ are transparent euphemisms: the high moral ground assumed by one and the almost kindly feel of the other could mislead only the ignorant or, it pains me to say, allow the wilfully obtuse to ward off the obvious. It’s impossible to stay obtuse after reading this book. And a further confession: I must have blithely assumed that if Native Troopers and Native Police were involved things couldn’t have been too bad. Gibson puts that assumption to rest with his account of the way armed young Aboriginal men, uprooted from their own communities and freed of cultural restraints, were directed to kill and maraud. He lays bare the mechanism by which Indigenous people, under tight white control, performed the genocidal work of dispossession, leaving the settlers – good Catholics in the case of the first farmers of the Innisfail Estate – to move in with an illusion of clean hands, deploring the violence of the unruly ones who had made their settlement possible.

Gibson’s discussion of the Melanesians who worked on the sugar farms is also compelling. I recommend the whole book.

Anybody want to buy my childhood home?

The auction is on 13 November.

It’s quite a while now since it left our family. Cyclone Larry wasn’t kind to it, and tragedy struck the man who bought it from my brother and sister-in-law. So here it is again, shorn of cane paddocks and big trees, looking for a new owner.

Bath 2 Bed 4 [having been home to at least two seven-member families] Car 5
7 acres so close to town – red soil
Large queenslander – 2 sheds – High & dry
Fantastic views of river & surrounding area – very private

Bookblog #61: Voice from the north

[Retrieved from ‘Family Life’ 1 April 2009]

tsp003

Last October I wrote a little blog post about Nicolas José’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards, in which he spoke of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, due for publication in August this year. José talked about Taam Sze Pui’s bilingual memoir, My Life and Work, published in Innisfail in 1925, taking it as an exemplar of the process by which:

As a piece of writing becomes literature, it is read and re-read by different people, discussed, digested, dismembered, recovered, until it enters a continuum of creative experience and expression that joins with where we are now. It speaks and we listen; relationships with other texts are revealed; it is valued for itself and contributes to something larger.

On my recent visit to Cairns I laid hands on a photocopy of Taam Sze Pui’s book in the rooms of the Cairns Historical Society (the helpful woman at Cairns Library had tracked down a solitary copy on the Australian Libraries Network, at the Australian National Library, not much good to me), and read the English in less than half an hour. It’s a modest work, elegant and spare, a kind of combination of Bert Facey good fortune, exhortations to Confucian virtue and sound business sense. There are a number of pages towards the end that are not translated into English, each containing a delicate pen drawing, probably from the author’s own hand, and what I take to be a poem. I photocopied one of them, as well as another untranslated page from the front of the book. I wonder if anyone who comes across this might be able to translate.

tsp2004

Added 3 July 2020: Many thanks to Wang Shu-dong, friend of Jim Kable, regular commenter here, for the following translation of the script in that image. Shu-dong comments that something seems to be missing at the beginning of the final sentence, but offers this translation:

店伴姊妹兄弟, 倘有偶尔误会冲突, 忍之为上。
All people in the store are brothers and sisters. If occasionally misunderstandings and conflicts occur, the best response is tolerance

事后开解,使其意悟,和好如初,方为上策。
After the incident,  we had better let them self-examine and then they will be able to reconcile to each other.

(九)戒凡事以和为贵,苟能此道焉, 生意之隆, 可立而待也
Abandon the perception that harmony is the most important thing. If such a principle  is followed, blooming business can be expected.

By any other name

[Retrieved from ‘Family Life’ in June 2020]

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald published Nicolas Jose’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards. It’s an interesting address, worth reading in its entirety. My reason for blogging is that Jose begins with this:

When the landmark Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature appears next year, it will include, among many other things, an extract from an early Chinese Australian memoir, My Life and Work by Taam Sze Pui, first published in a bilingual edition in Innisfail in 1925.

Taam tells how he journeyed from southern China to North Queensland in the 1870s to search for gold. When he failed as a prospector, he opened a store to meet the daily needs of those in the far-flung district. Later a wife came from China to join him and their family grew with a business that was still flourishing in family hands a century later.

He goes on to describe the influence of Taam Sze Pui’s book on later artists, such as William Yang and Tony Ayres.

The work has been revalued retrospectively, given new meaning and life in a way that subtly reconfigures our understanding of Australian literary history. It forms a connective tissue between past and present that also points forward.

Innisfail exerts its powerful influence on the world of letters once again.

Taam Sze Pui’s name was not forgotten when I was a child in Innisfail, and his shop was still a significant landmark. As I remember it, he was known as Tom See Poy (which is how he’s named in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Version), and the shop was See Poy’s, the Grace Brothers of our town. The Macquarie PEN anthology is definitely on my list of books to be acquired.