The gold rushes
A small group of Italians came during the gold rushes of the 1860s, working the Garibaldi Diggings in Central Otago and Italian Gully in Westland. When the gold ran out, some left for Australia or home, and some headed for the cities; others turned to dairy farming at Lyell in Westland, sending for family members in Pirano, Lombardy (now Piran, Slovenia) on the Gulf of Venice.
By 1874, the New Zealand census identified 258 men and 22 women as Italian-born residents.
Early attempts at organised migration were a sorry tale of false hopes and poor judgement.
In 1860, nine Italian friars (including Ottavio Barsanti) were brought out by the Catholic Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier. Their purpose was to revive the Catholic mission to Māori in Hokianga and the Bay of Islands. Māori showed no interest, however, and by 1873 the priests had returned home.
A vision of vineyards
Ironically, not long after the failure of the government’s plan for Italian immigrants to grow grapes in Westland, an Italian visitor identified the ideal locations for successful vineyards.
In 1895 the viticultural adviser Romeo Bragato arrived from Australia. He tasted his first local wine at Arrowtown, and noted that gold miners had planted vines at Cromwell and Clyde. Central Otago, he reported, was the best place on earth for the production of Burgundy grapes. However, little action was taken, and it was decades before others realised the region’s potential.
In the 1870s Premier Julius Vogel extended immigration assistance to southern Europeans. The government hoped to boost the growing nation with settlement, public works and forest clearing. Most of the 230 town workers who responded to the lure of free passage came from Leghorn (Livorno) in Tuscany. They arrived between 1875 and 1876, unprepared and unsuited for the hard labour that awaited them. The first group began work on the Featherston railway, but were dismissed within a month because of disputes. The government promptly stopped assisting Italian immigrants, claiming: ‘they have proved utterly unfit for the work of colonisation’. 1
A second group of 53 were dispatched to grow grapes and mulberries at Jackson Bay in Westland. Thick bush, swampy soil and torrential rain ruined any chance of taming the land; to survive, they had to work on government roads. By 1879 every Italian had left the bay.