Leaving the poverty behind

A group of Ticinesi hikers recently re-enacted the first stage of the arduous journey of their forefathers migrating abroad, walking over the mountains.

This content was published on January 7, 2009 minutes

swissinfo's Luigi Jorio joined the group for the walk up to the Sassello pass, once a point of transit for those leaving behind the poverty of their native valleys to seek their fortune overseas.

My worst fears are confirmed: the climb up to the pass at 2,234 metres above sea level is exhausting. The trail through coniferous forest and over the steep rocky slopes above Fusio, the last settlement of the Valle Maggia, gives little respite.

"I climbed up to the Sassello 45 years ago, when I was doing my military service, and remember being completely drained. It certainly hasn't got any easier," says Piergiorgio Baroni, a journalist and keen student of the history of Ticino's migrations.

Baroni's face is streaming with sweat. "I think of our forefathers who passed this way 150 years ago: they really must have lived in dreadful conditions if they were prepared to uproot themselves and climb these mountains to begin their long journey to Australia."

The idea of following in the footsteps of the emigrants came from some local alpine clubs, who organised the walk along the trail linking Fusio with Airolo in the Levantina Valley.

It is a nostalgic excursion to commemorate one of the most significant – and in many ways dramatic – episodes in the history of Italian-speaking Switzerland.

After two long hours of hard walking, we finally reach the summit. On the Sassello Pass, a fresh alpine breeze is blowing, and the panoramic view of the Gotthard massif is ample reward for our efforts. But the same view must have been a torment to the migrants of that time since there was as yet no railway tunnel. The Gotthard was a further obstacle to contend with, using only muscle power.

Between March, 1854 and the end of June, 1855 – according to a book by historian Giorgio Cheda, some 2,000 Ticinesi made their way to Australia. For the people of the valleys, in Ticino and in neighbouring Graubünden, the distant continent was seen as a way out of the poverty afflicting peasant farmers such as themselves.

Death instead of 1st class

After crossing the Gotthard pass, the migrants usually continued on foot as far as Flüelen on Lake Lucerne, where they embarked for Lucerne itself. They then went by stagecoach to Basel, before sailing down the Rhine or taking a train to one of the ports of Hamburg, London or Dieppe.

"The voyage lasted at least three months," says Baroni. "I remember seeing a model of one of these ships in a Melbourne museum. It made me shudder when I saw the miserable conditions in which our ancestors travelled. And the shipping agencies had the gall to advertise first-class accommodation and an abundance of food."

Up on the Sassello pass, reading some old accounts of their journey, Baroni's voice is tinged with sadness. "Some were already dead on arrival". And those who did set foot on the new continent were in for a bitter surprise. The gold rush so temptingly publicised by the ship owners was almost over, leaving them only dust and stones.

"Ticino – explains Giorgio Cheda – was the only canton with no legislation regulating the activities of the transport companies, which were free, for 18 months or two years, to do very much as they liked." The letters sent home by the migrants subsequently exposed the lies of the shipping agencies, whose activities were banned by the authorities.

Researching family history

"Did you have ancestors who emigrated?" asks one of the hikers on the way down to Airolo. "My grandfather went to California," replies a sprightly walker, showing the worn passport of Silvio Domenighini, born in 1895. "Anyway," she adds, "there are not many Ticino families without an ancestor who emigrated."

When we arrive at the Garzonera refuge, at an altitude of 1,900 metres, there is a heart-warming encounter to cap a memorable day. Helen McPherson has made the journey in reverse, from Melbourne to Ticino, in search of her roots.

"I would like to find the grave of my grandfather, Carlo Sartori, who migrated to Australia from the Valle Maggia, then returned to his village of Giumaglio. It is a strange feeling... thinking he passed this way".

McPherson knows only a few words of Italian. Her ancestral language has not survived the generations. "It's a pity; there is in fact a large community of the descendants of Italian-speaking Swiss in the state of Victoria".

But in compensation, her husband is a native of Locarno. Fate decreed that they should meet during her first visit to Ticino. I thought I was discovering my past, she confides, but in fact I found my future.

Luigi Jorio, on the Sassello Pass

Emigration 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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The ship-owners' promise

One of the main reasons so many people emigrated to Australia was the "hard sell" of the shipping agencies. A "comfortable" passage cost between SFr450 and 1,200 at a time when a manual labourer earned little more than a franc a day.

Here is a translated extract from a newspaper advertisement: "During the voyage, passengers receive food of excellent quality, in accordance with the legal provisions in force at the port of embarkation, with three meals served each day. The dormitory is perfectly ventilated and healthy; first-class berths are furnished with every convenience, and perfect cleanliness is maintained on board".

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The emigrants' letters tell a different story

"The food was so bad we could not eat it". "In the morning, three ounces of mouldy black ship's biscuit, definitely not made with wheat flour, and a small cup of disgusting, bitter-tasting coffee. At midday, an ounce of salted meat per person, generally so disgusting and full of vermin that it was impossible to eat".

"On October 5, the Rebora Company landed a company of 176 passengers in the port of Sydney, Australia. They were so thin and ravaged by hunger and deprivation that we [...] could not recognise our dear compatriots".

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