These Italian Immigrants Went To The Pacific Islands For A Perfect Life - But They Got Hell On Earth

On the northern coast of New South Wales in Australia, there are signs along the highway for a place called "New Italy." Today, it isn't much more than a pleasant roadside distraction—but a visit to the community's cafe and museum will reveal a tragic story of immigrants forced to deal with an almost unbearable struggle.

New Italy was founded in the 1880s by a group of Italian immigrants who did not expect to end up in Australia. They had been promised a new start in a tropical paradise, but were instead swindled out of their hard-earned money and left to die in the jungles of what is now Papua New Guinea. 

Like other famously doomed colonies, the immigrants lost dozens of their fellow travelers to disease, starvation, and clashes with indigenous tribes before taking matters into their own hands. The Italians eventually managed to create the beautiful, peaceful paradise they had been promised.

  • Struggling Italians Were Sold The Dream Of An Idyllic Life In The South Pacific

    During the 1880s, there were waves of "immigration schemes" being sold in Europe. People living in rural poverty were often the targets of these expeditions, which promised a better life in a new land rich with potential. The Marquis de Ray, a Frenchman, put together several such expeditions to a place called "New France" on the island of New Ireland, which was part of New Guinea. He pitched the destination to Italians as a tropical paradise. At the time, southern Italy was dealing with earthquakes, soil erosion, and high taxes, leading to a significant interest in emigration.

  • The Trip To 'New France' Was Expensive, But Families Believed It Was Worth It

    In 1880, the Marquis de Ray was pitching the Italians his third migration scheme; he had already sent two ships of migrants to Port Breton in Papua New Guinea. He lured unsuspecting farmers to the colony of "New France" with intriguing advertisements that promised a lush home with peaceful beaches and freedom from the Italian dictatorship.

    Desperate for a better life, many families sacrificed everything to get on board the ship. They paid large sums of money (1,800 gold francs per family) for transport, rations, land, and a home once they arrived. Many even signed away five years of their lives to serve as indentured workers.

  • The Journey To Their New Home Was Hellish, And Some Didn't Survive

    The Italian government saw through the mirage of the Marquis de Ray's claims and realized how dangerous the journey was going to be. The government forbade all Italian citizens from joining the expedition and issued an edict refusing to issue passports to interested families. To avoid the wrath of the French and Italian governments, the Marquis routed the expedition through Barcelona, Spain. With Italy unable to intercede, the Marquis left with 340 Italian passengers in July of 1880.

    The 97-day trip to the South Pacific was a nightmare. The ship had poor ventilation and there was very little fresh food; some passengers never made it to their destination. And the people who did survive the trip were horrified by what they found.

  • They Had Been Lied To—There Was No Established Colony

    The India, carrying more than 300 hopeful Italian immigrants, arrived in Port Breton, New Guinea, in October of 1880. Excitement soon turned to horror. They discovered that the two previous expeditions to "New France" had failed, and there were none of the wide roads, public buildings, and nice houses that they had been promised. The "bustling port city" that they had heard tales of was nothing but a lie.

  • The Dense Jungle Hid Dangers For The Settlers, Including Malaria And Unfriendly Indigenous Tribes

    The Italian colonists were expecting a land that had already been cleared and houses that had been built—that was what they had paid 1,800 francs for. What they got instead was a dense jungle, and they faced the daunting task of both clearing it and surviving in it. Many of the immigrants didn't; between the inadequate food supply, the malaria-bearing mosquitos, and the hostile indigenous tribes, dozens died within the first few months of their arrival in New Guinea.

  • As Starvation Set In, The Settlers Decided It Was Time For A New Plan

    By December 1880, the Italians knew that something had to be done to save the remaining members of the expedition. Starvation and disease had claimed many lives, so finding a new source of food was a high priority. On December 16, the colonists sent the Genil (a ship from one of the previous expeditions) out to collect new supplies from Sydney, which was then a growing Australian colony.

    The remaining settlers waited 67 days, but when the scout ship didn't come back, they decided they couldn't keep waiting. On February 20, 1881, they forced the captain of the India to sail them to Sydney. The Genil returned to the colony with supplies the very same day that the India left. The two ships had passed one another without even realizing.