An Australian's Swiss inheritance

This snapshot of Kit (left) and her daughter Kathleen in Biasca is titled, "The Innocents Abroad" Barb Mullen

It was a simple series of letters home. Yet 80 years on, they bear witness to life in Swiss alpine villages as well as Australian attitudes towards Swiss immigrants.

This content was published on April 22, 2011 minutes

The letters (see Monighetti Diaries at right) were written when the Great Depression was beginning to strangle Europe and fascism was growing in strength.

The financial crisis in the United States coupled with restrictive immigration policies had largely put a stop to the mass human flows to America from across Europe, including Switzerland’s Italian-speaking mountain villages.

The year was 1930 and the future could not be less certain.

It was against this backdrop that a middle-aged, well-to-do Australian woman boarded a ship and sailed to Europe. Two Swiss-Italian villages would be an important stop on her grand tour. She was coming to claim her inheritance.

“My dear Boys, we have arrived in Biasca quiet [sic] safe and sound…” Catherine “Kit” Monighetti wrote home to her two sons after arriving in the village. Biasca was the birthplace of her deceased husband.

The date was August 5. Accompanied by her daughter Kathleen, she had begun her tour in England and Ireland a few months earlier, and it would culminate in this visit to Switzerland.

Besides Biasca, Kit would also spend time in another village in the region named Cevio, where her father Alessandro Mattei grew up.

Father’s “grand childhood”

 “I believe she had stories from her father of a grand childhood, with grand houses and important people,” says Barb Mullen, a niece of Kit who has taken a fresh look at the 80-year-old notebook where her aunt kept carbon copies of the letters.

Mullen has provided the Swiss section of this diary to for publication. She transcribed the letters as part of a larger effort to reconstruct the history of her Mattei family lineage.

But Mullen believes personal diaries or letters home like these have greater historical importance.

Monighetti provides her sons with an outsider’s view of daily life in the mountain villages in 1930. Her writings also reveal attitudes in Australia at the time towards immigrant groups like the Swiss-Italians. Mullen says this likely tinted the visitor’s view of her ancestral homeland, and its people, which are revealed in passages like this one:

Well it is sad to see the crude way they do things in these little villiages [sic], I often picture a few of your sort in Biasca, Vene [her son]. You would do as much in one week as they do here all the year. It makes me quiet [sic] pippy the way they sit about & put in time when they could do such a lot to help themselves.”

England as home

“Even though she may have had Swiss-Italian origins [Irish on mother’s side] she would have been influenced by the common Australian view that England was home,” explains Mullen.

“I think of how history is written by the victors. We were a colony of England and people of English descent were the decision makers.” She says the Swiss-Italian community, like other immigrant groups, often suffered from bigotry and prejudice.

This may help explain why a woman whose father and husband were both Italian speaking never learned the language herself - an issue that crops up time and again in her letters:

“…not a soul in the place could speak a word of English tho [sic] the place was full so we being Australians were like monkeys at the zoo… We are today going to see Federico Monighette another cousin of mine he has been in America so speak ‘a little the English’.”

Mullen says a “cultural insensitivity” rings throughout the writings of Monighetti, who was apparently proud to have stepped out of the shadow of Australia’s Swiss-Italian community and risen to a respectable position in society.

The Monighetti family had operated a general store and various wine cafes and hotels in mining towns in Victoria before opening hotels in the central and northern parts of the state.

Show of wealth

“I think there were three reasons she travelled – one was an ostentatious show of her wealth; I think she was emulating a cultivated and cultured woman’s lifestyle. I also think she had a romantic ideal of Europe and she was there to claim the inheritance,” says Mullen.

Monighetti writes at length of her efforts to profit from her late husband’s holdings in Biasca, and includes disparaging remarks about the low value of the inheritance from her father in Cevio.

There are also descriptions of how a downpour coloured how she saw Cevio, the “awful table manners” of even educated people and a local woman who carries her provisions on her back during a six-hour walk up a mountain.

The letters leave readers today with the impression of an Australian who hoped to gain financially from her return to her ancestral homeland but was unable to reap the rewards of her cultural inheritance that was also her due.

Swiss-Italian migrations to Australia

The first Ticinesi to set sail for Australia in the spring of 1851 were two stonemasons from the Valle Maggia (source: Giorgio Cheda, L'emigrazione ticinese in Australia, published by Armando Dadò, 1979).

Migration was at its height between March 1854 and June 1855, when the majority of the 2,000 Ticino emigrants left their native valleys (mainly above Locarno) bound for Melbourne and Sydney.

Despite the promises of the recruitment agencies – which guaranteed good earnings in Australia – few of them struck it rich. The gold rush was nearly over and many experienced the same poverty they had left behind.

Emigration to Australia also left its mark on the Val Poschiavo, an Italian-speaking part of canton Graubünden, and several of Switzerland's German-speaking cantons.

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