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Italians have had a distinct influence on Australian society and in their contribution to our multicultural heritage. We will look at an Italian community based in a rural area (the Hinchinbrook Shire of North Queensland) and ones in urban areas (Sydney and Melbourne), as examples of how the community has responded to change and life in Australia. See image 1

Basic demographics of the Australian Italian community

At the official Census count in 2001, there were 218 722 Italian-born Australians, although a total of 298 919 are said to be of Italian ancestry. The second-generation Italians (children born of migrants born in Italy) takes this number over half a million. Italians are mostly Roman Catholics and like other Europeans, place great importance on family life.

The Italian community's response to change in Australia

The Italians have had an illustrious geographical history of settlement in Australia. The 19th century saw the arrival of Italian priests as missionaries, along with the communities associated with gold mining (Western Australia and Victoria) and cane farming (North Queensland). A group of around 300 Italian migrants created a 'New Italy' traditional community in northern NSW. Many Italian migrants also formed small fishing communities around the south coast of Australia. Along with success in cane farming, Italians pursued a tradition of agricultural market gardens. Most migrants came from Sicily, Calabria and Veneto and eventually settled in the cities (mostly Sydney and Melbourne) where they found employment in manufacturing and construction/building. Many Italian families worked hard to produce considerable wealth in farm work, before internally migrating to the cities. Many suburban Italians maintain 'market-style' gardens in their own backyard; it is common to see towering tomato plants, prickly pear trees, olive trees and fig trees billowing plentifully above dividing fences. See image 2

Italian migrants in urban areas of cities and regions have created 'cuisine-based' Italian quarters. Italians have provided us with our love of espresso coffee, pasta and pizza. For example, Carlton (Lygon Street) in Melbourne and Leichardt (Norton Street) in Sydney are internationally known for their Italian style cafes and restaurants. A recent addition to Leichardt has been an Italian-style piazza called the Italian Forum, which has Roman-style steps, 'al fresco' (outdoor) dining and famous Italian fashion labels. In Carlton, the Italian migrants introduced their famous style of coffee and impressive machines to the curious Australian public, who apparently gathered in crowds to watch. Lygon Street's urban organisation features an impressive heritage of double-storey Victorian terrace houses in which the Italians have housed their culinary and cultural delights.

Italians came to Australia largely for the opportunity to work. The successful integration of Italian migrants into Australia can be linked to their strong work ethic and determination to provide for their (often extended) family. Post-war Italy was unlikely to have provided such lucrative opportunities. Many Italian migrants arriving after 1960 felt less of a need to stay in the same shared geographical space as other Italians; this was partly due to the successful integration of Italians settling in Australia previously. Between 1966 and 1975, a wave of better-educated Italians migrated to Australia. These Italians adapted quickly to Australian life and played an important role in helping other Italian migrants in their adaptation to life in Australia. More educated Italian migrants assisted their communities with improving working conditions, and providing legal advice and language assistance (many people had previously migrated to Australia when proficiency in English was not necessary).

Italians in the Hinchinbrook Shire of North Queensland

There is a distinct and large Italian community in the towns and countryside comprising the north Queensland Hinchinbrook Shire. Hinchinbrook's geography and community offers a unique blend of tropical rainforests, waterfalls, beaches, wetlands, a thriving sugar cane industry and cultural diversity. In the 1930s, around a third of all Italian migrants were settled in this region to provide labour for the sugar industry. The shire has a population of 14 529. Italians comprise a 60 per cent proportion of this.

Sugar cane was worked by the Italians as early as the 1890s. Early migrants made small fortunes. This encouraged the migration of many more Italians. Most Italians had been agricultural farmers back in Italy, so this experience and knowledge allowed them to work productively with Australian crops like sugar cane. They blended quickly into the social life of north Queensland and their hard work allowed the Queensland sugar industry to boom. A regular social event for Italians arriving to work in rural communities was dancing. This proved to be an important way for rural Italian communities to stay in touch and relate their experiences of Australian life.

There are many other strong industries in the Hinchinbrook Shire, which show this community's positive and dynamic response to change. Hinchinbrook has strong industries in construction and building, manufacturing, transport, retail and services. In the region's transport industry there is air, sea, road and rail infrastructure which links the industrial and tourist industries.

The Australian Italian Festival in Hinchinbrook

The Australian Italian Festival is a unique annual event in Ingham, celebrating the Hinchinbrook Shire's Italian heritage. It is a symbol of cultural diversity. Ingham is about 110 kilometres north of Townsville and has a population of 25 000. The festival shows off the appeal of Italian food, wine, music and cultural traditions. The town of Ingham also has a number of Italian shops, delicatessens, restaurants and cafes. Common events in the festival include a cooking competition and a spaghetti-eating competition. The festival is a unique aspect of the region's tourism and is a good example of this community's positive response to change. See animation 1

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1. How many Italian migrants lived in the Northern NSW 'New Italy' community?


50 000




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