08 October 2010

A Better Life

The steamship Oroya had only been in service for a couple of years when a young man by the name of Domenico embarked on a journey to the other side of the world in 1889.

Sometime in the intervening months or years, Domenico had travelled from his native village of Viggiano, in Basilicata, to Naples, where the Orient Line vessel was awaiting its additional passengers.

Born in 1868, Domenico was 21 years old in 1889, illiterate and probably only spoke the local dialect of his home region. Why was he travelling all the way to Australia? Did he have companions? How did he pay for the journey? What were his hopes and dreams for the future?

Having never been to school, Domenico's prospects did not seem particularly bright. He had spent his childhood as a shepherd boy in the mountains near his village. The summers were warm. The winters were very cold. There were few opportunities for advancement.

Yet here is a picture of an elegant young man looking very successful. I wonder how old he is as he looks out at us across the years. Was the portrait a statement of some kind?

I have a feeling this picture was painted around the time of Domenico's marriage to Carolina, who was also born in Viggiano but had arrived in Australia in 1886 as a young child. Domenico was about 29 on their wedding day and Carolina was a girl of about 16. They married in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne.

The newlyweds had a series of small businesses over their long years of married life, with two children, many friends, and plenty of hard work. They were pioneers of Australia's Italian community, were naturalized in 1910, and never returned to their homeland.

If your ancestor's arrived by ship in Australia, perhaps you can find a postcard of the vessel that brought them to these shores. You might like to try the Simplon Postcards passenger ship website, like I did. There are many other historic shipping websites, too. Even if your ancestors travelled between different ports than Domenico did, and even to and from different continents, you may discover something of their journeys.

Meet Domenico's father in law

Meet Domenico's daughter

I have discovered that the Oroya probably sailed from London, stopping off at Gibraltar before reaching Naples. It then went through the Suez Canal and to Aden before continuing to Australia. It was one of the fastest steamships of the time, though I am sure Domenico would be amazed at the speed at which we can fly between continents nowadays.

My husband and I visited Viggiano last year for the first time. It was certain a fascinating experience. You may like to visit my Continual Journeys blog post about it:

Sacred Mountains

I wish I had more pictures and documents of my husband's Italian ancestors. Perhaps some photographic treasures were discarded over the years by relatives who could not see the value in keeping such fragmentary reminders of the past.

It would be easier if I could communicate with Italian archives more easily, but I do my best. And at least I am not illiterate.

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I especially appreciate historical insights.