From the Aeolian Islands to the Antipodes


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If you ever meet someone called Bartholomew in Australia, odds are that he has Italian ancestry. To be more precise, his parents, grandparents or great-grandparents probably hailed from the Aeolian Islands, that paradisiacal archipelago off Sicily’s north coast. San Bartolomeo (St Bartholomew) is the patron saint of the islands and a great many Aeolian boys take his name. 

Today, around 15,000 Aeolian Islanders live in Australia. If one includes second and third generation immigrants, the number rises to around 30,000, more than double the population of the islands themselves. How did this come about? What impelled so many natives of Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Panarea, Stromboli, Alicudi and Filicudi to travel 16,000km in search of a new life? 

In the 1870s and early 1880s, the economy of the Aeolian Islands was in good shape. A flourishing merchant fleet sailing out of Lipari carried merchandise between Sicily and Naples, and the pumice quarries were booming. Even more important to the economy was was wine-making, an activity that had been a constant for some 3,000 years, ever since Mycenaean settlers arrived and planted the first Malvasia vines there (the Malvasia grape is believed to originate in Monemvasia, an island town off the east coast of the Peloponnese that was part of Mycenaean Greece for 300 years). Malvasia and other wine was exported throughout Italy and Europe and its production provided employment and income for a great many families.

From the mid-1880s, however, these three economic pillars began to crumble. A railway line was built between Reggio Calabria and Naples, significantly reducing the need for maritime trade links between Sicily and Naples and rendering the islands' merchant fleet virtually redundant. Then, the company charged with the excavation and exportation of pumice went bankrupt. Finally, disaster struck in the wine industry, and a nail was driven deep into the coffin.

In 1878, the dreaded phylloxera blight had arrived in Sicily, decimating vineyards across the island. Wine producers on the Aeolian Islands were understandably worried, and prayed to San Bartolomeo that the epidemic, which had all but wiped out Europe's historic vineyards, would fail to make it across the Tyrrhenian Sea. Miraculously, their prayers were answered for 10 years, but then, in 1890, the biblical pestilence of parasites arrived and the islands' economy crashed completely. 

Most islanders were left with nothing and had little choice but to emigrate in search of work. In 1891, over 200 inhabitants left their homes on Salina (the main wine-producing island). Others would soon follow, and by 1914 it is estimated that nearly 10,000 Aeolian Islanders, about one third of the overall population, had emigrated. Most went to the United States, but over 700 chose Australia and there were already enough Aeolian Islanders living in Sydney in 1903 for them to found a social club there, the Circolo Isole Eolie.

The cultivation and sale of fruit and vegetables seems to have been an area of expertise for Aeolian Islanders and it wasn't long before they (and other Sicilians) owned many of the market gardens and farms.

Usually it was men (and teenage boys) who emigrated first, leaving behind wives, children and parents. Once established in their new homeland, they would bring out their families, or go back to home, marry, and return to Australia with a bride. Here are two typical stories that highlight the phenomenon of this chain migration:

  • The first involves Bartolo (short for Bartolomeo - remember that name?) Virgona, who emigrated from Salina to Australia in 1890, the year the phylloxera parasite arrived. He set up as a fruit seller in Melbourne and two years later, his wife, Bartolina, and son, Vincenzo, joined him. Bartolo and Bartolina went on to have three more children, including Lena, who  married another immigrant from Salina, Antonio Santospirito. In a parallel story, Antonio had arrived in Australia with his mother in 1897, aged five. His father, like Bartolo, had arrived alone several years earlier and opened a flower shop in Melbourne.
  • Our second story, from a slightly later period, is documented on the website of the National Archives of Australia. Aged 19, Rosina Natoli left Lipari with her mother, sister and a cousin in 1931.  Her brother, Bartolo (that name again), met them off the ship at Melbourne harbour and introduced them to a friend of his, Marino Casamento, originally from Vulcano. Soon, Rosina and Marino were married. They opened a fruit shop in Melbourne and spent the rest of their lives in Australia. On the incoming passenger list of the ship that brought Marino to Sydney on 25th September 1925 (The Palermo), one can make out the names of seven others who embarked with him at Messina:  Gaetano Barbuto, a farm labourer; Giovanni China, a shoemaker; Salvatore Campisi and Santo Caratozzolo, both fishermen; Angelo di Marco, a hairdresser; and Emanuele Santospirito, a trader. Their stories remain untold, but we know that Marino would become a pillar of the Aeolian community in Melbourne and president of the city's Aeolian Islands Society, originally founded in 1925.

Emigration was frowned upon by Mussolini, and the numbers of Aeolian Islanders who left in the 1930s dramatically reduced.  After the 2nd World War, however, the flow resumed in greater numbers than ever before. At the end of the 1940s, the Australian Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell introduced an assisted immigration programme, effectively a massive labour recruitment drive to find workers for the country's enormous infrastructure projects and burgeoning agricultural sector. Calwell signed an agreement with the Italian government (as well as other nations) by which the Australian government would subsidise the cost of the sea passage for those prepared to make the arduous journey to the Antipodes. The Aeolian Islanders jumped at the chance and in 1951 alone, 7,000 of them arrived in Australia.

Calwell’s agreement remained in place until 1971, by which time, the first generation, Italian-born immigrant population of Australia had risen massively from around 33,000 in 1949 to nearly 290,000 (according to the 1971 census). A significant proportion was of Aeolian origin.

So what did all these Aeolian Islanders do in Australia? In the early part of the 20th century, some put their fishing skills to good use and joined the fleets of the Illawarra area, just south of Sydney. Perhaps the majority headed to the agricultural hub of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, due west of Sydney. The cultivation and sale of fruit and vegetables seems to have been an area of expertise for Aeolian Islanders and it wasn't long before they (and other Sicilians) owned many of the market gardens and farms of Riverina, a vast agricultural area that spans the border between New South Wales and Victoria. Today, some 60% of the population of Riverina is of Italian origin,  and many of these are of Aeolian extraction.

Similarly, many market gardens and greengrocers’ in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne had a distinctly Italian feel (remember Bartolo and Bartolina, and Rosina and Marino?), and it wasn’t long until many of the wholesale distributors were of Aeolian origin too. One prominent example of this is Frank Aloysius Costa. Born in Geelong, near Melbourne, Costa's great uncle, George Virgona, had arrived in Australia from Salina in the 1880s. In 1888, he opened a greengrocer's in Geelong, called the Covent Garden Food Store. The shop was passed on to Costa’s father in 1920s, before Costa himself  took over the business in the 1950s, building it up into the largest  grower, wholesaler and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Australia.

Not all first and second generation Aeolian immigrants worked in the fruit and vegetable business, of course, and there is a long list of success stories in other fields too, from Supreme Court Judges, newspaper editors, government ministers, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and stars of show business, such as Natalie Imbruglia, whose father hailed from Lipari.

An introduction to Sicilian emigration >>
Sicilian emigration to America >>
The Marettimari of Monterey >>

Villas in Sicily and the Aeolian Islands >>

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