We have been driving north to Queensland as the weather cools down in the Illawarra for as long as we can remember. The first night is often spent around Woolgoolga on the NSW north coast and then on the second day, we are usually passing New Italy just about morning coffee time. The first time we stopped here I wandered around the museum reading the story of the early settlers in the area. I came out with tears prickling my eyes as the enormity of their struggle sunk in. The wickedness of those who seek to profit from the gullibility of the poor and desperate is no more evident than in the story of the founders of “New Italy”.
It all began in 1880. A Frenchman of noble rank, Charles Marie Bonaventure du Breil, Marquis de Rays was living in genteel poverty after the revolution had deprived him of the family riches. He decided to regain his fortune by establishing a colony northeast of Australia to be called La Nouvelle France. A number of impoverished families in northern Italy were attracted by the appealing advertising. Each settler was to be given twenty acres of land with a four-room house of wood, stone or brick, free transport to the colony and six months of provisions if they paid the required 1800 francs of gold. For those unable to afford the total amount they could pay 250 francs and achieve ownership of their land after five years.
The French government was suspicious of de Ray’s scheme almost at once. The Italian government also tried to deter would-be settlers by refusing passports. Fifty families persevered and made their way to Marseilles where they were transported to Barcelona by sea. So determined were they to leave that the Italian government issued passports and washed its hands of the whole affair. On the 8th July 1880, 317 people left Barcelona on the India bound for a colony called New Breton. On the 14th October, the ship arrived at the new settlement, situated on the shores of New Ireland (near New Guinea). There was nothing there. Dense tropical forest grew down to the sea with no sign of houses or arable land.
The new settlers decided to stay on board the ship, going ashore each day to clear the land and plant seeds. The HMS Beagle called in from Australia to check on their welfare and also a Wesleyan minister from nearby Duke of York Island expressed serious doubts about the future of the settlement.
The lack of food and tropical climate began to take its toll as the very young and very old began to die. Once the monsoons set in the position became intolerable and it was decided to sail for Sydney, Australia. The captain of the ship preferred to sail to Noumea, a French colony, although the settlers protested violently with deaths occurring every day.
In Noumea, the passengers were given food but they refused to leave the ship, demanding that they go to Australia. A request was sent to Sir Henry Parkes, Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. He replied that they were welcome to come to Australia as “Shipwrecked mariners”. Fifteen of the former settlers stayed in Noumea because of ill health or bereavement but 217 arrived in Sydney on the 7th April 1881. Funds, food and clothing were collected and the group was housed in the Agricultural Hall of the Exhibition Building in the Domain.
Parkes was keen for them to assimilate and so had no qualms about breaking up friendship and family groups. With little understanding of their need to stay together after such a traumatic experience, it looked as though the group would be dispersed across the state. The desire to regroup remained strong and luck came their way when an Italian named Rocco Caminotti noticed that land was available in Northern NSW. He had met some of the New Breton settlers and knew they wanted to be together. He and Antonio Pezutti chose a selection of gently undulating land, covered with stringybarks, ironbarks and she-oak trees on Bungawalbyn Creek, a tributary of the much larger Richmond River.
First seven and then another thirteen of the Italian settlers arrived at “La Cella Venezia”. More kept coming while on the other side of the world, de Rays was sentenced to prison. The group became self-sufficient, growing all the food they need to survive. The men went out to work in the timber industry to bring in much needed cash. For three decades timber remained the main industry in New Italy. Sugar cane harvesting was another income producer. A silk industry began in the 1880s but Depression and fire put an end to that enterprise. Dairying became lucrative in the 1890s and the settlement provided cream to the local butter factory.
The once thriving settlement gradually declined as children grew up and moved elsewhere. In 1933 the school closed and the only remaining residents were the elderly. The settlement remained inhabited until 1955 but its disintegration can be attributed to the assimilation of the descendants of the original settlers with other Australians, a result of which Sir Henry Parkes would have heartily approved.