Italian Migration To Australia

Italian migration to Australia in the late 19th century and much of the 20th century was fueled by the same factors that drove Italians to the Americas - political upheaval and poor economic conditions at home. But changes in the US immigration policy had a direct effect on the flow to Australian shores.

Perhaps the simplest way to document the story of Italian migration to Australia is in the form of a timeline, starting with a historic voyage that marks the beginning of Australia's colonial history:

1770: Captain James Cook sailed his ship, the Endeavor, into Botany Bay on Australia's east coast, claiming the land in the name of the British crown. One of his crew was an Italian seaman named Antonio Ponto, so the first Italian to set foot on Australian soil did so at the very beginning of the colony's 'official' history.

But he was not the first Italian to actually see Australia. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan's voyage to the Pacific Ocean included a number of Italian crewmen. One, Antonio Pigafetta, recorded the epic journey in his log. Later, in 1789, Alessandro Malaspina led a scientific voyage to the South Pacific on behalf of the Spanish crown. He dropped anchor in 1793 at the British colony at Port Jackson, where two of the Italian artists on board captured the harsh Australian landscape.

Early 1800s: There was a small number of Italian convicts who had been unfortunate enough to be arrested by the British and transported to the penal colony in New South Wales. But the majority of prisoners were from the British Isles.

1840s: Italian missionaries escaping negative conditions in Italy sailed to Australia to help 'convert' the aborigines to Christianity. Many returned home in defeat, but some stayed and enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the indigenous people, much to the chagrin of the British overseers.

1850s: The first Italian community was established in the Victorian goldfields. In 1854, Rafaello Carboni, a participant in the miners' rebellion at Ballarat, recorded the only eyewitness account of the infamous Eureka Stockade.

1871: The 1871 census recorded 960 Italians resident in the state of Victoria.

1881: The 1881 census was the first to record the number of Italian migrants in all states of Australia. One source reported 1,359 Italians resident in the state of Victoria, while another puts the figure at 947. There were 521 Italians in New South Wales, 250 in Queensland, 11 in Tasmania and 10 in Western Australia.

1883: A commercial treaty between the King of Italy and the United Kingdom (the governors of Australia) granted Italian residents of Australia the following long-overdue rights: (1) the right to freedom of entry, travel and residence, (2) the right to acquire and own property, and (3) the right to carry on business activities.

After the treaty came into effect, a thin flow of Italian migration to Australia continued until 1921.

1891: The 1891 census recorded 3,899 Italians resident in the state of Victoria.

In the same year, several hundred immigrants from Piedmont, Veneto and Sicily arrived in North Queensland to work in the sugar cane industry. 

1920s: The majority of sugar cane growers in North Queensland were Italians who employed other Italians. Older established growers tried (and failed) to drive them from the industry.

In the same period, Italians began growing fruit in Stanthorpe in South East Queensland.

1921: The US government imposed stringent quotas on immigration from Italy, forcing many young Italians who had planned to immigrate to the USA to choose Australia instead.

1921-1933: The number of Italians in Australia trebled. Most were poor and illiterate, from rural areas. Their rural backgrounds allowed many to excel in farming and viticulture (wine growing), but others were forced to find work in factories, mining and retail (particularly in food related businesses such as fruit shops, delicatessens and bakeries).

1925: The first Italian-Australian association was formed in Brisbane, Queensland. Similar organizations had been formed in all the major cities.

1930s-1950s: Italians farmers revived the Australian tobacco industry, and controlled 75% of tobacco production by the 1950s.

1939: Approximately 38,000 Italians were now living in Australia.

1939-1945: Italian immigration to Australia had slowed, but World War II was a time of poor treatment of Italians at the hands of Australians. Italy's alliance with Germany against the Allies added more pressure to an already negative situation. 4,721 Italian males were arrested and interned in camps as 'enemy aliens'. Many of the prisoners' wives were unable to hold onto their homes in the absence of the family breadwinner, and were forced to take their children and seek shelter with friends and relatives.

In addition, 8,000 prisoners of war, many of them Italian, were shipped from the United Kingdom and other Allied bases to Australia for internment. Due to food shortages caused by the imprisonment of Italian-Australian farmers, many of the prisoners were commandeered to work on the land, and many chose to immigrate to Australia after the war ended.

1946: Large-scale immigration of Europeans displaced after World War II created a major shift in the ethnic composition of the Australian population. Established migrants sponsored their families and relatives, leading to a peak in immigration levels.

1955: As the economy grew, the Italian migration to Australia continued, with many gravitating to North Queensland where they worked in the sugar cane industry. The sugar industry's rapid growth continued for the next 15 years.

1961: The 1961 census recorded 228,296 Italian-born residents.

1971: The 1971 census recorded 660,000 Italian-born residents.

1970-1980: The economy slowed and unemployment became a growing problem. Many businesses began to go offshore. In Italy, economic conditions had greatly improved so there was no further incentive for her citizens to emigrate. Italian migration to Australia virtually stopped.


By the mid-1970s, many Italians who had arrived in Australia after World War 11 ran successful businesses and owned their own homes and at least one rental property. Their children were studying at University or had well-paying jobs. They had seized their “second chance” and run with it, often incurring resentment from their Australian peers, who weren't driven by the same work ethic.

The older Italians who had arrived in earlier decades were now retiring, spending winters in their units on the Gold Coast and traveling overseas to visit Italy and Europe. 

The term 'multiculturalism' began to crop up in political debates and in the media. And in this changing climate, the Italian contributions to Australian society were finally acknowledged.

The 2006 Census counted 199,124 persons who were born in Italy. However, 852,417 persons identified themselves as having Italian ancestry, either alone or in combination with another ancestry.

Italian is the fifth most identified ancestry in Australia behind Australian, English, Irish and Scottish.

  ...Italian Immigration to New Zealand