‘Paradiso’ – refugees from Veneto

Here vigour failed the towering fantasy:
But yet the will rolled onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the love impelled,
That moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

– Dante in The Vision of Dante or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise

Paradiso by Steve Capelin (means small hat).

The late 19th century
It was a time when European colonies were being set up in the new world. In 1893 Australian socialists, led by William Lane, travelled on the tall ship, the Royal Tar, to the landlocked Paraguay to set up a colony called New Australia. I wanted to find out how a French nobelman, the Marquis De Rays, intended to set up a colony called La Nouvelle France in the seas to Australia’s north near PNG. Unlike the Utopians of New Australia in Latin America, New France was a sham. So I attended an excellent talk by the author at the Dante Alighieri in New Farm last night. The talk took the form of an interview with Steve Capelin by Claire Kennedy, the President of the Società Dante Alighieri Brisbane.

Steve describes in his book how illiterate peasants from a village in the Veneto region of Italy came initially to the remote island of New Ireland (later part of PNG) but eventually found their way to the Richmond River Valley in Northern New South Wales, to a place called New Italy. One story that struck me was that in the 19th century people from Veneto suffered from pellagra which is a vitamin b3 deficiency caused by their staple diet of pollenta. It affected women the most. Pellagra produces the four D’s: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and even death. It is little wonder that these 300 peasants were keen to leave their village after the promise of paradise.

The talk was accompanied by musicians who told stories of migration from Italy. Here is Salvatore and David telling once such story:

Salvatore chose a song accompanied by David De Santi (from Zumpa) that was a sad ballad about migration that went bad and many people died at sea. This was particularly poignant given that we live in an era of refugees fleeing war and famine and dying at sea, whether it be in the Mediterranean or in the seas to the north of Australia.

The book is available from the Avid Reader bookshop which describes it thus:

In 1880 three hundred Italian peasants abandon the fields of Veneto to follow a dream. They join an expedition to establish a utopian colony in the islands of the Pacific. Wealth, independence and liberty await them.

Steve Capelin

The venture is a disaster. The expedition leaders abandon them, the dream disintegrates. Struggling to survive in the jungles of New Guinea, the Italians are desperate to escape. Australia beckons but unseen events threaten to frustrate their quest for liberty.

The story is told through the eyes of two children in the context of the poverty of 1880s Italy, and the final days of the Great War in 1918. It is a tale of emigrant hope, betrayal and resilience, and Australia’s response to a group of 19th Century refugees.

The Divine Comedy – Paradise
Steve Capelin is a big fan of Clive James and read out a passage from his translation of The Divine Comedy:

“Why me? Who says that I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
Not I nor anyone I know would dare
To put me in that company at all.
Therefore, if I persuade myself to go,
I trust I’ll not be punished as a fool.
Wise man, what I have not said, you must know.”
Just so, obeying the unwritten rule
That one who would unwish that which he wished, Having thought twice about
what first he sought,
Must put fish back into the pool he fished, So they, set free, may once again be
caught, Just so did I in that now shadowy fold— Because, by thinking, I’d
consumed the thought I started with, that I had thought so bold.”

Having read this passage, Steve then said I wish I could write like that.

Writer or historian?
I asked Steve what research he had done to follow the lives of the peasants who left their small village near Veneto for paradise. I said that it would have been the responsibility of the parish priest to record those baptised in his parish and I asked him if he had gone to the parish to inspect the records of his forebears baptised at that time. He said that he had not personally witnessed the baptismal records but had seen some later after he visited their villages (Brugnera. Orsago, Albina, Codogna, Ghirano, Cimetta and Fontanelle). He then made a telling comment that it was his job as a writer was to do what research he could, finding out what he could and leaving out what he could not find out. As an alternative he said he could have simply made the missing parts up (but did not suggest he had done this). His was not the task of historian to get down every historical detail.

Steve had a difficult time tracing his forebears. Part of the problem was that they changed their name from Perin to Capelin. Eventually he found places in Veneto where some people called Perin resided. Our friend, Maureen, then told Steve at the book launch there was an abundance of Capelin’s in Albina where her mother and father were married. Six degrees.

To finish off, local Lawyer, Giovanni Porta, a long time supporter of Dante Alighieri , sang this song, Hannibal, about how his father met up with friends from the old country.

Coming up is another migration story this time via film:

See https://zumpafolk.com/dall-italia-all-australia-film-and-live-music-by-zumpa for more information.

Ian Curr
7 May 2022

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