The voyage out


On his 20th birthday, Andrea (Andy) Andrighetto left his homeland of Italy. He travelled on the ship Oceania, alone and in search of a better life. Andy came from a large family: his parents, four boys and three girls. His family owned little land and their one cow could not provide for the family of nine. As Andy recalls, ‘there wasn’t enough to feed all of us’. Prospects of employment in postwar Italy were poor and Andy decided to emigrate from war-ravaged Europe. There was, he recollects, a choice of three destinations—America, South Africa and Australia. Leaving his family, Andy sailed to Australia in February 1952.

Andy was one of the guests at a reunion day on 5 October 2003, organised by the Immigration Museum in Melbourne. The reunion focused on migrants who travelled on one of four ships: Neptunia, Oceania, Australia and Fairsea.

These vessels, operating over two decades, carried more than 200,000 postwar European emigrants to our shores—changing the lives of many, and helping to build a multicultural Australia.

In encouraging former emigrants and their families to share memories and rekindle shipboard acquaintances, the reunion days celebrate the spirit of a life-changing journey. Maria Tence, Manager of Public Programs, reflects on the role of the reunions: ‘Through these gatherings, we are able to collect personal stories, and fill in important gaps in our knowledge of Australia’s immigration history—which, after all, is the history of many thousands of individuals.’

At the reunion day, I had the opportunity to speak with passengers like Andy, postwar emigrants on board the four vessels. Their narratives are filled with hope and anecdotes, personal yet representative.

Andy Andrighetto left for Australia with the tantalising promise of jobs that paid ‘four times the wage in Italy’, only knowing of Australia as ‘a big country’. He brought no luggage, just youthful optimism, hope and ‘a lot of dreams’. His abiding memories of the voyage are of the food. As a boy he had a rapacious appetite and shipboard life offered a boundless supply of ‘biscuits, butter and jam’.

Food played a less significant role in the memories of Akos Kerekes, only a young boy when his family fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The Kerekes family carried ‘one little suitcase, and the clothes on our back’. Akos was a passenger on the motor vessel Fairsea, which, according to Keith Stodden, a guest speaker at the reunion day, revolutionised ship travel. It had the unusual distinction of being the first migrant ship to be air conditioned. After its postwar conversion to passenger traffic, Fairsea made 80 voyages to Australia, bringing 125,000 immigrants to new lives in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia. Akos remembers the journey as a ‘mixed bag’. He recalls vividly the monotony of the voyage, the daily regimen and claustrophobia of shipboard life: ‘day on day, very often it was just the same all day.’ Landing in South Africa was memorable:

having never been out of Hungary, the black faces, hustle and bustle and smells of Cape Town were both strange and electrifying.

The Neptunia, Oceania and Australia, a trio of 13,000 tonne ships, were commissioned by the European passenger line, Lloyd Triestino, to carry the large number of displaced people emigrating to Australia after World War II.

Giuseppina Cucinelli, born in 1916, was a passenger on the Neptunia, arriving in Port Melbourne on 16 August 1957. When I asked Giuseppina why she had chosen to emigrate, she answered laconically, ‘four children—not enough to eat.’ What does one take to a new land? Giuseppina packed linen that she had embroidered, towels, a cutlery set, breakfast cups and a big spaghetti pot—with homemade spaghetti inside.

Giuseppina was miserable and lonely on the voyage; she travelled alone with four small children. Her first impression of Australia was of ‘a very strange land’. This strange land became home, however, as Giuseppina was reunited with her husband.

Giuseppina and her family were fee-paying passengers. Her husband emigrated to Australia a few years earlier and sent money home for the fare. Giuseppina’s daughter accompanied her mother to the reunion day and spoke of meeting her father for the first time. He had left for Australia before she was born and she remembers not knowing her father, and being frightened of him, when they met at Station Pier. It was a long time before she was able to accept ‘this strange man’ as her father.

Ginetta Bianchin made the journey as a child of ten with her mother, brother and sister; like Giuseppina, to reunite the family. Her family left the province of Treviso, 50 kilometres north of Venice, for a better life. ‘Conditions where I was brought up were pretty woeful.’ On reflection, she notes, ‘we have had a great life in Australia.’

Her family brought to Australia the ‘few meagre possessions’ they could carry. Freighting costs were exorbitant and, like most, they could not afford to bring more. Clothing, household paraphernalia, a few photographs, were packed in two trunks; a small space, Ginetta recalls, for four people. She remembers the journey to Australia as a ‘new and wonderful experience’, especially ‘all the food on board’. It was Aladdin’s Cave to a hungry migrant child.

It is in Ginetta’s story that I am reminded of the power of the family. Ginetta was not once homesick for Italy, and believes she has her mother’s ‘immediate’ love of Australia to thank for this. She remembers the day they arrived at Station Pier. Her mother looked around at Port Melbourne and said ‘I am going to love it here’. It is with this passion and conviction that Ginetta, the next generation, also speaks of Australia.

Luggage rather than food colours the memories of Ian Shield and his brother, passengers of the Fairsea, 1958. Ian was nine years old, and remembers the issue of luggage being solved by a washing machine. A passenger was given a choice of ‘weight’ or ‘size’ when shipping their belongings. Ian’s father chose size and dismantled a washing machine, repacking the family’s belongings inside. Ian recalls that the washing machine was impossible to lift when his father had finished.

Ian and his brother confess to making mischief on the voyage. They were responsible for their younger brother in the evening, and would exhaust him by running up and down the decks all day. If he went to bed early, they could attend the pictures played after dinner on board. They admit this tomfoolery rarely worked.

As a child, the deaths of five children on the voyage made a deep impression on Ian. Still now, many years past, he remembers watching a burial at sea, and shudders at the recollection. To many families, the voyage brought more pain than the experience of leaving home.

In the minds of all these Australians, the pain, boredom, discomfort and even the food are overshadowed by the life offered in a new land. They brought with them imagination and expectation, hope and inspiration. Above all, the dream of a better life. 

Kate Pollard is a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne.



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Existing comments

requesting information about passengers on the neptunia. trying to gather information about our family prior to arriving in australia. names and dates in documents at hand dont match up - can u help? need to verify presence on neptunia arriving at port of melb in 1952. surnames of both granparents are backer and demko. kind regards, melanie
melanie backer | 19 January 2009

My father travelled on the Oceania from Genoa to Melbourne in February 1952 as a Spanish refugee.He died long ago so I hardly know anything about the trip ,other passengers on board,their arrival in Australia.I would appreciate it greatly.
Carlos Esteve | 17 May 2014


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