Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
‘Racial hatred is a poor sentiment’
We went to meet Flora’s friend Ailsa in the late afternoon. Her light-brick mansion on a quiet Townsville street overlooking the sunset sea was magnificent. Ailsa seemed the personification of prosperity — well-groomed, smiling, in an elegant dress with an Aboriginal motif. She was an Italian whose parents came to Australia before the war without any capital and started a farm near Ingham. Ailsa remembered Leandro and his family very well. ‘He always defended the Italians. Yes, he used to be nice to Italians’, was one of the first things she said, remembering him. My next, innocent question about Australian attitudes to Italians in those years suddenly provoked such a bitter reaction from Ailsa that I realised what a deep valley of sorrow lay behind this modern-day, outward prosperity.
Ailsa: How did they treat us? They were disgusting!
Flora: Don’t you ask her! The Australians think they were far too good for any foreign people.
Ailsa: They used to call us ‘black dagos’, ‘black bastards’!
Flora: My father could talk English but he was treated the same, they did not like him too, but they couldn’t rubbish him, he was too smart for them.
Ailsa: The Italians worked hard, yet they did not like us, because we were dagos ... Terrible ...
Flora: They had to fight hard to survive. And yet the Italians used to treat the English like gentlemen.
Ailsa: We used to feed them when they came to our place.
Flora: But the British treated the Italians like nobody.
Ailsa: They would not ask you inside, give you a cup of tea like we used to give them ... A selfish mob they were! Well, it’s a bit better now.
Flora: It is changed now, they even changed towards the dark people ...12
Ingham was rapidly developing as a centre of sugar-cane farming by the time the Illins settled nearby. After World War I the surrounding area experienced an influx of immigrants from Southern Europe, especially Italians, Spaniards and Greeks, who worked first as labourers and later as cane-farmers. They tended to live in their own communities, being often rejected by the surrounding English-speaking world, whose language and laws they did not understand. ‘My Father spoke perfect Spanish’, Harry remembers, and Spanish people used to say “You speak better Spanish that we do”.’ After settling near Ingham, Leandro easily mastered Italian, particularly the Sicilian and Calabrian dialects, and even some Greek, and became an indispensable ‘adviser’ and interpreter for many locals of Mediterranean descent. ‘If they wanted help they used to go to him because he could understand the different rules of Australia.’ ‘Grandad was friendly with all those Greeks as well, he used to help them too, he would talk a lot with them’, Leandro’s children and grandchildren tell with one accord.13
But it was more than that. In his passionate letters to the Herbert River Express, published in Ingham, Leandro was one of the few who raised his voice publicly against the racism that was sweeping Australia in the 1930s. The immediate cause was an article ‘Deportation only solution to vendetta problem’ in the Sunday Mail in 1937.14 A special correspondent visited the Ingham area and particularly Stone River, where there had been some unsolved murders of Sicilians, which were labelled as the ‘Stone River vendetta’ and ascribed to the Black Hand gang. The correspondent went far beyond the vendetta itself, declaring ‘The whole of “Little Italy” needs cleaning up’. He believed that the Italian community in this district known for its wealth lived in ‘filth and squalor’ in ‘dirt-floor huts’ and ate, ‘apart from the inevitable macaroni’, the kookaburras, ibises and bandicoots which they shoot with their guns. He further accused Italians of exploiting of their children and keeping them in ignorance, maintained that their women had no rights, and so on, while, according to him, their money was being wasted on flashy touring-cars, on expensive tapestries or sent to their countrymen in Italy. Creating this horrible portrait of the whole community, the correspondent did not hesitate to propose ‘Here in Queensland we have only one remedy ... — deportation. Every suspect and lawless character among Italians should be given the hint: “Go straight or get out!”’ As for the ‘legal difficulties’ which prevented such arbitrariness on the basis of pure suspicion or in relation to naturalised subjects, he did not hesitate to call for the amendment of immigration laws.
Leandro took the injustice to heart.
‘The Sicilians are in that article practically as the whole community, treated as undesirables. ... I am taking the pen to defend them. ... My residence has been in Ingham district in and out since 1923. I have met Italians and Sicilians daily in my work and dealings in town, on the road and on their farms. ... I have found both Italians and Sicilians very hospitable and courteous, good payers, proud of their homes, good gardeners and orchardists. ... Any reference to Sicilians not being clean is out of place as one only wants to peep in at their homes to see snowy white bedding, tables scrubbed, houses cemented, sinks and every comfort where they make a permanent home and can afford it.’
Leandro argued that Italians hunted just for fun and ridiculed the correspondent’s statement that they starved and lived on macaroni and kookaburras:
‘No, Mr Editor, they do not live on Jackasses, but on good wholesome food and plenty of it. My boys worked on several farms and tucker is plentiful and of good quality. Their fare differs from the Australian fare, and consists of much imported stuff such as expensive pastes and seasoning, Anchovy, olives, Salami, Olive oil. ... Meat is not used in quantity but quality.’
He dismissed all the allegations about the exploitation of their women and children, writing in particular:
‘Regarding children being considered as a sort of cheap labour does not fit anywhere, as Sicilians are very proud people and love their children like anyone else. Yet the children themselves are fond of helping their parents even on holidays when the father works, but it is not a matter of compulsion. ... Strong, sturdy men, lovely, graceful children and women, who have lovely liquid full of fire eyes like those of a gazelle. ... Their women are their queens dressed expensively and often covered with jewellery.’
In his usual way he supported his general statements with facts from his own experience.
‘I owe many favours done for me by Italians and Sicilians, such as coming with a tractor to pull out an Ambulance called to take one of my sick children. They have risen on a stormy night to pull me out of a bog where our lorry slid in to a gutter and brought us to safety and refused payment. ... Another party brought us blankets and dry clothes for five, some food and a bottle of good wine.
‘A Sicilian with whom I had no end of rows on account of his trespassing and shooting on a property in my charge, when he found my son working on a job on a road and the horses were giving him trouble ... , lent stables and gave chop-chop and his cane cutters’ quarters to my son to live in during the job. When offered payment he was insulted and now there is no need to say he is my friend.’
He concluded with a strong appeal for justice for all immigrants.
‘Racial hatred is a poor sentiment. Take a man at his value. If people are not wanted in the country they should be told before they come. ... Once in they are members of society like the rest and racial hatred only creates clannishness and isolates the people from the community. ... People can like or dislike one nationality or another but deportation is not fair until the man is a culprit and convicted to be so.15
He wrote this even though his own contacts with local Italians, as with any people, were at times far from ideal. Ernie tells one story.
‘Once grandad went in to an Italian barber to get a haircut. The barber was a flash sort of bloke. He started talking in Italian to his mates there, making fun of grandad. He said something like “He’s a big fat pig” and about his humble dress. Then grandad got up and took off the sheet around him and told him in Italian all that he thought of him. You should have seen this barber — he nearly fainted.’16
In 1938 Leandro raised his voice in defence of Italians once again after a new anti-Italian campaign. He argued that Italians belonged to a great civilisation with an ancient culture, from which the English have learnt a lot (in essence, Leandro wrote a little treatise on Latin culture, which he had studied in Patagonia as a teenager). Acknowledging that Italians had bought many farms around Ingham, he wrote:
‘This was not done by political parties or legislation but by evolution. ... [Italians] were not men who went to Sydney after the cane cutting season (and in some cases only reached the first pub and handed their cheque over the counter for the publican to look after until it was cut out), but were those who saved and saved for an end, to which the proverb “the end justifies the means” is applicable.’
He demonstrated the overwhelming nature of the ‘hospitality and kindness’ of Italians and passionately concluded: ‘The sooner sectarianism and racial hatred is abolished the sooner will the world come to universal peace and understanding. How interesting would the detractors find some of the men they despise if they could understand them.’17
A lonely Utopian fighter — as if by some irony of fate his articles were signed ‘L. Illin, Utopia, Stoneleigh’! Who cared in those hard years about ‘universal understanding’, let alone about ‘understanding’ ‘dagos’ and Aborigines, Russians and Asians! Little would he have thought that with his simple, impassioned articles he once more, as it were, saved the honour of the Australian nation ... He just believed that Australians were strong enough to overcome these outbursts of racism. It might seem to us now that he conducted his struggle easily and fearlessly but only he himself knew how hard it was each time to speak up against the dominant public opinion, to stand alone against the crowd. In 1942 he would say in connection with another issue:
‘Many years ago I wanted to write that heaps of tins in the back yard and bread and butter and jams do not build a nation, economically nor physically. ... But I abstained as I would be abused as an alien. Most people would not understand my motives. They would say go back to Russia as some people’s minds are too small to embrace the world as a brotherhood as it should be and is my ideal and some day it will be when we cease to be selfish and begin to understand that racial hate and self-conceits to our superiority provides means for the old Roman device “divide et impera” i.e. divide and rule. While we have the spirit that the other man is inferior to us we forget in our self-conceit to improve ourselves and so get behind the times. ... Now that I have spent 31 1/2 years of my life here and reared a ‘whole’ Australian family with two sons in the Army I think I have right to be heard.’18
As for the Italians, they acknowledged Leandro’s role in the most graceful manner. The Ingham Italian community awarded him a medal with a simple inscription19:
Years later copies of this medal and of Leandro’s article were provided by Ernie to an Italian exhibition in Townsville.