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“Everyone is going to Australia nowadays”

Emigranti from Poschiavo in Australia in the early 20th century Privat archive Rocco Rampa

Between 1856 and 1860 "Australia fever" struck Val Poschiavo, in the Italian-speaking part of Canton Graubünden.

Following in the footsteps of their compatriots from Ticino, almost two hundred young men left the valley for the “fifth continent”. An exodus which contemporaries watched with anxiety.

“Yesterday morning in the town square [of Poschiavo], you could have witnessed a moving spectacle: another party of 31 men and lads in the prime of life had gathered to set out on the journey to Australia […]. Their relatives and friends had accompanied them thus far to make their sad farewells”.

This episode, reported in the local newspaper, Il Grigione Italiano, on 19 October 1859, was by no means exceptional in Val Poschiavo at that time. Emigrants from the Graubünden valley had been leaving for Australia since 1854, joining their compatriots from Ticino in the gold rush.

Emigration from Val Poschiavo reached its peak a few years later, when the flow of migrants from Ticino had begun to dry up. Between 1856 and 1860 almost 200 people, more than five per cent of the local population, left for Australia.

Migration continued to a lesser extent in the years that followed, apart from a “high” of 40 departures in 1870. Those leaving Poschiavo were often accompanied by groups of emigrants from the neighbouring Valtellina (part of Italy today), with whom they shared a common language, customs and sometimes ties of kinship.

Reasons for emigrating

Most likely, the first poschiavini to leave were enticed by stories they had heard from acquaintances in Ticino. “Rumour had it that Australia was a country rich in gold, where you could make money quickly,” wrote Giovanni Vasella, the canon of Poschiavo, in 1920, drawing on accounts he had heard in earlier years.

But news soon began to reach Europe of the difficulties faced by Ticino emigrants in Australia. Many had been bitterly disappointed in their hopes of finding gold. And yet, at the very moment when illusions about Australia were being shattered, the inhabitants of Val Poschiavo began to emigrate en masse.

The main reason was population growth, aggravated by a crisis in agriculture and the absence of alternative ways of making a living.

In 1851, a disease affecting grape vines had brought wine-growing in the Valtellina to its knees, which also deprived Val Poschiavo of income deriving from trade and transportation, pointed out Australian historian Jacqueline Templeton in a study published in 2000.

But above all, as emigration from Ticino declined around 1855, the emigration agencies switched their attention to Graubunden, publishing eye-catching advertisements in the local press.

Concerns of contemporaries

The areas most affected were the rural settlements around Poschiavo and Brusio, where many of the emigrants were peasant farmers of Catholic background. From Prada alone, a village of a hundred of so inhabitants to the south of Poschiavo, at least 50 men emigrated before 1860.

“The three young men who stayed had 50 girls from among whom to choose a bride”, noted Georg Leonhardi, the Protestant minister at Poschiavo, with a mixture of irony and anxiety. And he was not the only one to express concern at the time. There were many who deplored the devastating effects of emigration on local society.

“What will happen to isolated women with no family, without the strong arm of a man to support them? Who will plough the field, who will cut and transport firewood, who will do essential repairs, who will cut hay in the Alpine pastures?” lamented one “peasant woman from Prada” in the columns of the Grigione italiano in 1859.

And, as well as practical concerns, there were fears of a moral kind: “And will those individuals who return to their native valley have retained the simplicity and moral virtue with which they left to seek their fortunes?” wondered one writer in the same newspaper.

Work and wealth

These and other reactions may not have been representative of public opinion at the time, but they undoubtedly reflected the position of the liberal bourgeoisie, who used the Grigione Italiano as their mouthpiece.

One of their leaders, Gaudenzio Olgiati, a lawyer and federal judge, wrote in 1865 with reference to emigration to Australia: “Until now, only a few have managed to earn enough in a short time to be able to live comfortably back home. The majority continue to struggle in the colonies to make a fortune they originally thought would be easy to come by”.

It was true that, on arrival in Australia, the poschiavini soon had to give up the idea of getting rich quickly in the goldmines. Most of them ended up working in forestry or agriculture.

Some emigrants nevertheless managed to scrape together enough capital to live fairly comfortably on their return to Switzerland, or to establish a family in their adoptive country.

In later years, Canon Vasella was therefore able to see emigration in a more positive light: “In my opinion, emigration to Australia can be regarded as a great blessing for the Val Poschiavo,” he wrote in 1920. “From time to time, persons favoured by fortune returned home, not with excessive wealth, but with enough to lay the foundation for one of those well-off farming families which form the backbone of our community.”

His words betray satisfaction that the Catholic farmers of the countryside around Poschiavo had done as well as the Protestant bourgeoisie of the town itself, some of whom have made fortunes running cafes and confectionary businesses in various parts of Europe:

“While the confectioners and cafe-owners who have returned look down on agricultural work and prefer to waste their time in ease and self-indulgence, those who emigrated to Australia generally enjoy rude health, are willing to work and even increase their existing savings.”

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina

As in many other Alpine regions, seasonal emigration was an important factor in supplementing agricultural incomes as far back as the Middle Ages.

In winter, the poschiavini went mainly to northern Italy, where many of them found work as cobblers. But some are also known to have emigrated to Germany and other European countries.

For the offspring of wealthy families, a military career in the service of a foreign power could also open the way to social advancement and help establish networks that would later be useful in trade and commerce.

In modern times, many emigrants from Val Poschiavo and Graubünden went to Venice, which was allied by treaty with the State of the Three Leagues (now Canton Graubünden). Emigrants were active there as porters, traders and shopkeepers.

When the alliance was broken and the grigionesi expelled from Venice in 1766, capital and entrepreneurial skills were released for a new wave of activity:

Following the example of their compatriots from the Engadine and Bregaglia valleys, in the 19th century the Protestants of Poschiavo specialised in opening cafes and confectionary businesses in many European countries, from Spain to England, Italy to Poland.

Where Catholics were concerned, this commercial form of emigration was focused more on central Italy and England. The mid-nineteenth century saw a new wave of emigration to more distant lands, in particular Australia.

In the early decades of the 20th century, people emigrated increasingly towards the cities of German-speaking Switzerland, as foreign destinations became less attractive. The pattern continues to this day.

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