Now home to a museum and cafe, the historic New Italy site in Northern NSW was settled following a long and trying voyage from Italy, through Papua New Guinea, Noumea, and Sydney.
Marquis de Rays was a French “nobleman” who attempted to start a colony on an island in the Bismarck Archipelago of present-day Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific.
In 1879, de Rays distributed “cleverly worded advertisements” speaking of sunshine, lush vegetation and beaches, and the promise of freedom, in a proposed colony which de Rays called “La Nouvelle France”.
The advertisements spoke of a bustling new colony with majestic public buildings, wide roads and arable land.
Both the Italian and French governments were suspicious of these reports, believing the scheme to be fraudulent.
The Royal Investigation Bureau in Milan went so far as to order a directive that no Italian involved in the expedition would be issued with a passport for travel.
To avoid confrontation with the Italian and French authorities, de Rays organised the expedition to depart from Barcelona.
Fifty families (or 340 Venetian colonists) departed on the ship the India for “La Nouvelle France” in July, 1880.
Each Italian had paid the marquis 1,800 francs in gold, or had offered their services in labour for five years.
Disease, poor nutrition and tension were rife on the ship, and many people died in transit.
The trip took three hellish months, and the India arrived at the so-called “La Nouvelle France”, in Port Breton, in October 1880.
Upon arrival, it was discovered that there was no town, settlement or housing as promised.
Instead, the landscape consisted of dense, tropical rainforest which was impossible to farm.
The local Indigenous people and new “settlers” clashed, and the Venetians met with never-before-seen diseases, such as malaria.
They spent four months at Port Breton, suffering the constant rain and impenetrable vegetation, struggling to find food and create shelter.
About 100 settlers died there, from disease and malnutrition.
In desperation, those who were left convinced the captain of the India to take them to Sydney on February 15, 1881.
On the way to Sydney, mechanical breakdowns forced the India to stop at Noumea, which was at that time a penal colony.
Unfortunately, the ship was declared unseaworthy.
The Italians did not wish to reside in Noumea, but were stranded.
Hearing of their misadventure, the Italian Consul in Australia requested assistance from Sir Henry Parkes, who was the then premier of NSW.
As a gesture of goodwill, Sir Henry Parkes arranged for their rescue and chartered the James Paterson to collect the survivors.
217 of the original 340 emigrants arrived in Sydney on April 7, 1881, destitute and in poor health.
The colonists were housed in temporary accommodation for a while, and were hired out to English-speaking families, in an attempt to force them to assimilate into Australian culture.
But they wished to settle their own area.
Upon hearing of land coming available in Northern NSW, near Woodburn, Rocco Camminitti and Antonio Pezzutti travelled north.
They took up a conditional purchase farm of 40 acres near Woodburn, at what was initially called La Cella Venezia and later renamed New Italy.
The site is on the traditional lands of the Bundjalung people.
By 1885, 40 families had settled in the area.
Despite the land being fairly poor for European agriculture, the settlers strove to succeed and through hard work and perseverance created a flourishing farming community.
They grew fruit trees such as lemons, apples, loquats and peaches, cultivated maize, oats, barley, sugarcane and tobacco, grew grapes and made wine, and produced vegetable crops such as sweet potato, onions, cabbages, lettuce and peas.
In those early years, the men were often away for six or more months of the year, sourcing income elsewhere.
Thus the primary horticultural work was initially achieved by the women at New Italy.
Development and stagnation
Among the first families in the colony were the Caminottis, Pezzutis, Nardis, Spinazes, Gavas, Roders and the French Palis brothers.
They built mud brick houses, a church, school and community hall in the traditional style of northern Italy.
The majority of houses had partial or full cellars to store wine, cheese and salami.
Some houses were also two-storey and in at least two of them, the top floor was used for dancing and accommodation.
By the early 20th century, a small silk industry had been established at New Italy, which won awards at trade fairs in Chicago and Milan.
The Italian settlers had built a vibrant community in an unfamiliar and challenging landscape.
However, the settlement was remote, and the land was difficult to manage.
As the families earned sufficient money they moved on, many to buy richer farming land in the region, letting the New Italy settlement dwindle to a handful of aged settlers.
The school ceased operation in 1933 due to decreasing enrolments.
In the 1930s, a Park of Peace was established to remember the early struggles.
The Bicentennial Museum was opened in 1989.
In 1992, the Gurrigai Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centre was opened, which exhibits and sells local Indigenous art work, clothing and jewellery.
Local Aboriginal people continue to conserve a rich culture in the area, and offer cultural tours on their property nearby.
The museum complex is now a continuing celebration of multicultural Australia and the important links forged between the Italian and wider Australian community.
The area now enjoys State Heritage status.
In 2002, Italian Consul General Stefano Queirolo Palmas visited the site, declaring that “the New Italy complex…was an inspiring example of how Italians had made their mark on the history not only of the North Coast but the entire country”.
Information on the historic New Italy site can be found on the New Italy website, including detailed family trees and personal stories.