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.
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.
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 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.
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.