WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.
This special Forum of Altreitalie explores some of the complex issues surrounding Italian migrants’ relationships with First Nations people in Australia and their complicity in settler colonialism. It developed out of two main considerations: the first is that over the past 150 years many Italians migrated to settler colonial countries, such as the usa, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Australia, yet the complicity of Italians in settler colonialism is seldom studied by scholars, or even acknowledged in public memory and public discourse. This is a major historical, epistemological and political issue. It means that we have a limited understanding of Italian migration history, having largely ignored one of its most prominent facets. And it also means that we underestimate and too easily absolve the complicity of Italian migrants in the violence, injustice and structural racism of settler colonialism. Transnational mass migration is a phenomenon that is strongly linked to imperialism and colonialism, and their evolution into contemporary capitalism and neocolonialism. As such, it cannot be rigidly separated from genocide, slavery and indentured labour, as too much of the historiography of Italian migration to date has done. Such overlooking has also compromised the quality of the work being done in other areas of national and transnational history, in which the link between mass migration and settler colonialism has been largely ignored. For instance, over the past thirty years there has been a strong insistence in the Italian historiography, as well as in public discourse, on the need to challenge the supposed amnesia about Italian colonialism; yet this has been rarely linked to the settler colonial presence and role of millions of Italian migrants in the colonies and former colonies of the British, French, Portuguese and Spanish empires. While this special Forum focuses on the Australian context, we hope it will constitute an important step towards collaborative, comparative and interdisciplinary studies of Italian migration to settler colonies and settler colonial nations around the world.
The second consideration that guided and framed this Forum is the need to develop a decolonial historiography. This is not just about acknowledging imperialism and colonialism, and their deep connections to mass migration, but also about developing a series of decolonial scholarly practices, including the following:
Recognising that settler colonialism is not an event concluded in the past, but a process continuing in the present time (Wolfe, 2006, 2016; Kauanui, 2016);
Considering the relevance of past events for the present and the future - for instance by acknowledging the intergenerational transmission of trauma (see for instance Walters 2014; Tracey 2015), and the multidirectional memories through which different historical traumas can be named and told within transcultural and postcolonial societies (Rothberg, 2009);
Developing a respectful and honest engagement with First Nations peoples, not just about the past, but also about epistemologies, ontologies and ways of being in the world today (see for instance Denzin, Lincoln and Smith, 2008; Moreton-Robinson, 2016).
In other words, a decolonial historiography must challenge the established boundaries of western historiography and be able to work beyond what is usually expected of scholars in western universities. This is not just because the colonial archives have left little and often biased tracks of the relationship between Italians and First Nations people, but also because the centrality and exclusivity of the archives as the only acceptable source of knowledge about the past must itself be challenged. Some more traditional or disciplined historians may, for instance, criticise the strong presence in this Forum of personal accounts and the importance of scholars’ statements of personal relationships with Indigenous people. This, however, is part of a decolonial approach that privileges deep and respectful personal connections to Indigenous people, over any claim to objectivity, distance and a rigidly chronographic approach to history. The latter are all important pillars of the historical discipline, but too often have become insurmountable bastions of exclusionary and hegemonic scholarly practices. For the same reason, we have been happy and honoured by the decision by Paola Balla, a Wemba-Wemba artist and academic who also claims Italian and Chinese ancestry, to participate in the project. Her participation is a structural and fundamental component of the dialogue that we have developed, first during the organisation and delivery of plenary panels at the Diaspore Italiane conferences in Melbourne and New York, and then when collaborating on this publication.
When I have had the opportunity to present my work on Italian migrants’ complicity in settler colonialism and discuss the complexity of their relationships with First Nations people around the world, three usual objections have been made to me. The first is that, in most instances, Italians migrated in large numbers after the end of the frontier wars, and thus cannot be considered complicit with the genocide of First Nations people and the violent and illegal dispossession of their land. The second is that most Italian migrants have had little or no contact with Indigenous people. And the third is that Italian migrants, especially the southerners, were themselves subaltern, exploited and victims of racism and thus cannot be constructed as complicit to colonialism (i.e. as colonisers).
All three conjectures include an element of truth but are, to a large extent, false. First, while it may be true that the frontier wars had concluded by the time most Italians migrated, a significant number of Italians did migrate earlier; many of those who migrated after the supposed conclusion of the frontier wars settled as colonists in large areas from which Indigenous people had been ousted and were opened for deforestation and agricultural development. In this instance many Indigenous people remained at the outskirts of these areas, and therefore clashes and confrontations between Italian migrants and the Indigenous population were a common occurrence. This is for instance demonstrated by Brunello (1994) in his still fundamental book on Italians in Brazil.
Furthermore, the dispossession of Indigenous lands and waters has continued up to the present day, together with racist and violent policies and practices against Indigenous communities, activists and individuals. From this perspective, as argued by Indigenous scholars and by theorists of settler colonialism in Australia, settler colonialism should be considered as a long and structural process continuing into the present day, rather than an event concluded in the past (Wolfe, 2006, 2016; Veracini, 2010).
On the second and third objections, one should note that they clearly contradict each other. It is difficult to imagine that migrants who were considered racially ambiguous and occupied a subaltern position, both in the racial hierarchy and in socio-economic terms, would not have contact with people who occupied an even inferior position, including Indigenous people, former slaves, and indentured labourers, and more recent and darker migrants. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that Italians, and especially southerners, came to occupy an intermediate position between the black and the white, and between the colonisers and the colonised; a position that has been instrumental to settler colonialism and has inevitably resulted in frequent contacts between Italians and Indigenous people (Ricatti, 2013, 2018). It is self-evident that many Italian migrants benefitted directly or indirectly from settler colonialism (for instance, in Australia, buying and cultivating land that had been usurped from Aboriginal people or exploiting Aboriginal workers). But we must also consider that they played an important role in the maintenance of settler colonial structures of power, even from their subaltern position in society.
For instance, Italian migrants working at the asbestos Wittenoom mines in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in the 1950s and 1960s suffered terrible health consequences from their work (Ricatti, 2018, pp. 42-43). Due to the way in which they were recruited and kept on the job, many of them considered working at Wittenoom a form of dangerous forced labour. Their mortality rate reached close to 40%. This was higher than that of Anglo-Australian workers but lower than the local Aboriginal workers (Banyjima people). As often happens in these instances, mortality rates were inversely proportional to salary rates and consistent with the position occupied in the racial hierarchy of black and white. This is a tragic example of the way class exploitation is deeply linked to racism.
One could argue that in this instance Italians were victims of the settler colonial logic that exploited them and condemned many of them to an almost certain death by lung cancer or mesothelioma. While this is true, one must also recognise that these Italian workers certainly came into frequent contact with Aboriginal workers and other Aboriginal people. And they lived and worked within a settler colonial nation in which the arrival and exploitation of migrants was functional to the genocide of Aboriginal people, the expropriation and exploitation of their lands and the development of a capitalist economy relying heavily on mining resources and cheap labour. In other words, the majority of Italian migrants were functional to and complicit with settler colonialism not despite their subaltern position, but because of it. Thus, Italian migrants’ complicity in settler colonialism cannot be discounted just because they were, for the most part, subalterns to the colonisers and their descendants. On the contrary, it is precisely their intermediate position between the colonisers and the colonised that helps explain on the one hand why many of them developed close relationships with Indigenous people, and on the other hand why many others attempted to whiten and pursue socio-economic mobility to the detriment of Indigenous people and other non-hegemonic groups.
In developing a safe and fruitful space for a scholarly debate on these issues, we did not want to discard or underestimate the love, friendship, comradeship and solidarity between Italian migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people. These relationships have in fact provided positive models of active decolonisation and transculturation. At the same time, we were also aware that these more positive takes on such a complex issue could potentially be interpreted as a way to legitimate the Italian presence in Australia, without properly recognising and addressing its complicity in settler colonialism. This is a difficult balance to strike. We are firmly opposed to those who claim it is time to «move on» and forget the tragedy of colonialism and its profound ramifications into the present. But we are also highly critical of those who want to interpret the Italian presence in Australia as purely subaltern, forgetting the racial and cultural complexity already present within the Italian community in Australia. Within what is, in broad terms, a tragic history of involvement in settler colonialism, we also did not want to undervalue or reject those examples of subaltern resistance that brought Italian migrants and First Nations people together in friendship and solidarity.
We have decided that, following this introduction, Paola Balla’s contribution should be the first, as to signal not only its theoretical and epistemological relevance, but also the need to develop decolonial scholarship in which personal, academic, and artistic contributions and collaborations operate in close collaboration with Indigenous scholars, academics and community leaders. Balla’s contribution to this Forum is fundamental, in so far as it establishes a strong framework for scholars who want to embrace a decolonising historiography of Italian migration to Australia (and potentially to other settler colonial nations). She does so by emphasising three key epistemological strategies. The first is that we need to learn to unknow all we have learned about settler colonial countries, and we need to do so from the voices and perspectives of First Nations people, and women in particular. The second is that we cannot develop such work without listening to Indigenous scholars, artists and activists, and without entering into an honest and deep conversation with them, around their ways of knowing and their creative practices. The third is that we also need to listen to the stories and experiences of Italian-Indigenous individuals and families, not as a way to legitimise the Italian presence in Australia, but as a fundamental point of entrance into the complex and often contradictory realities of transcultural interactions within a settler colonial country.
Many of the other contributors to this Forum touch on some of these key strategies, and I hope that a clear thread will emerge from contributions that are inevitably preliminary and somehow scattered across an enormous and still unexplored field of studies. One of our aims was also to include different disciplinary perspectives. Federica Verdina and John Kinder explore from a linguistic point of view the importance of understanding the terms that were attached to Aboriginal people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century missionary and anthropological discourse in the Italian language. Their contribution reminds us of the importance of understanding from different disciplinary perspectives the way in which anthropological and religious views may have spread into the broader society, and influenced Italian migrants as well.
Matteo Dutto explores instead the visual and cinematic representations of the encounters between Indigenous people and Italian migrants in Australia. Briefly sketching four specific case-studies, Dutto explores the role that screen media productions have played in either representing these encounters or in enacting them through transcultural collaborations, and artistic and political solidarity. To what extent can such cinematic encounters strengthen or, conversely, unsettle the way in which Italian migrants have framed, imagined, and interacted with First Nations people?
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli provides a pivotal methodological reflection on the complex implications of exploring the rich relationships between Italian migrants and Indigenous people in contemporary Australia. Fundamental to her approach is the recognition that decolonial and intersectional frames are key to a respectful, multilayered, honest and fruitful approach to these stories.
Joseph Pugliese’s personal account of his scholarly and activist involvement in decolonial practices closes this Forum. It is my conviction that any work on the Italian presence in settler colonial nations like Australia cannot prescind from Pugliese’s path-breaking scholarship. In the past twenty years his scholarly and activist work has played a fundamental role in emphasising two aspects of the Italian migration to Australia that had hitherto been largely overlooked and that are deeply interconnected: the first is the racialization of Southern Italians as central to the migratory experience of both Southern and Northern Italian migrants; and the second is the amnesia about Italian migrants’ complicity in settler colonialism and the strategies we can employ to challenge such amnesia (see Pugliese, 2002a, 2002b, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). Both his individual article in this issue of Altreitalie, and his contribution to this Forum, highlight the importance of rethinking Italian historiography of migration from an activist and decolonising perspective.
Linguistic, disciplinary and geographical distance have hitherto limited the opportunities for open and comparative dialogues around the need for decolonising the study of Italian migration to settler colonial countries. We hope this Forum will contribute to bringing such dialogue to the core of Italian migration history and hope to be able to engage in the near future with scholars who have been working on similar themes in other continents.
I acknowledge that I live and work on the unceded land of the Kulin nations, and I pay my respect to their past, present, and emerging elders.
I am grateful to the organisers of the Diaspore Italiane conferences in Melbourne and New York for their support and for understanding the vital importance of decolonising the historiography of Italian migration. These conferences provided the opportunity for new and vital encounters and dialogues across the world. The original presentations from which this publication originated are available at https://www.diasporeitaliane.com/melbourne-4-8-april-2018/videos-of-presentations/24-italian-indigenous-relationships-towards-a-decolonial-approach-round-table.
I am also grateful to Maddalena Tirabassi and the other members of the editorial committee for their decision to publish this Forum in Altreitalie.
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