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People, places and spaces: reflections on the immigrant composition of Fremantle's fishing industry

Sally May

May, Sally 2007, 'People, places and spaces: reflections on the immigrant composition of Fremantle's fishing industry', Fremantle Studies, 5: 30-39.

The multicultural composition of Fremantle’s fishing fleet is represented by research and studies of single migrant groups. This reflects efforts to compensate for a general historical and cultural neglect of the contribution of migrants to our maritime history. Collectively these dedicated studies provide the basis for integrated multicultural studies to better understand the contribution made to our maritime industries by a variety of nationalities, in this case, the contribution of Fremantle’s multicultural fishing community. This paper provides an overview of contributions made by a diversity of migrant groups emphasising their ethnic identity rather than their nationality a categorisation which has sometimes been prescribed by others rather than one the immigrant identifies with. This study also examines several broad elements of commonality that bridges ethnicity and nationality, namely their being skilled mariner immigrants, belonging to the same socio-economic class and forming a residential industry enclave by force of shared circumstance.

Charles Gamba’s seminal sociological and economic study of Fremantle’s Italians and the places and spaces important to them also examined their status and social progress through family, home, community, status and demography. 1 Joseph Gentilli follows up on Gamba’s work, listing the names of Fremantle Italians and their origins in the villages (and regions); principally Capo d’Orlando and Molfetta and Lipari Islands that these pre-World War II paper and chain migrants 2 identified with. 3 Appleyard and Yiannakis also highlight the ethnic diversity of Greeks with mention of their contribution to Fremantle’s fishing industry.

While few Greeks were Fremantle residents or fishers, they were influential in Fremantle’s fish trade. Greeks too put regional identity before nationality depending upon their island of origin—Kytheria, Castellorizio or Ithica. 4 Croats in Australia 5 and More Me Zove, 6 a 2001 photographic exhibition, reflected the contribution of Croatians to local maritime industries and provide important resources that highlight how individuals identified strongly with discrete islands and regions, such as Crkvenica and the islands of Brac, Vis, Korcula and Hvar, on the Dalmatian coast. Peters’ Milk and honey—but no gold provides context for post-World War II multicultural mass immigration that was largely distinctive from but also contained a residual stream of the paper and chain migration phenomena that characterised pre–World War II immigration. 7

Literature and resources for Portuguese fishers of Fremantle, who largely originated from the island of Madeira, is not so well researched. Scandinavian migration (Norwegians, Swedes, Icelanders, Danes, Finns) is even sketchier, mentioned peripherally to other subjects such as whaling and shipping. 8 Some Norwegian fishers immigrated as employees of the Norwegian–owned Western Australian Whaling Company Ltd that operated (under various names) at Albany, Shark Bay and Point Cloates. These immigrants originated from the ports of Larvik and Tønsberg, Norway, and entered other maritime industries when the company wound up. 9 British pioneer fishing is also neglected and rarely, when mentioned, identifies ethnic diversity—Irish, Welsh, Scots and English. Indeed, until 1 January 1949 when Australian citizenship was created naturalised migrants and those born in Australia held British passports and official documents and government records identified them as ‘British’.

This paper proposes that fishers, whatever their origin and whatever social distinctions they, as individuals, made regarding their social status within the fishing community, comprised a poor and powerless class regarded as inferior by the wider community because they worked in an economically insignificant industry. This is reflected in the neglect of their history and heritage and stands in stark contrast with the rich history and heritage of the great fishing nations of the Old World that provided the pioneers of Fremantle’s fishing community. Fremantle, as the State’s first and most important fishing port, attracted people from many discrete regional locations, representing a handful of countries. They made a major contribution to Fremantle’s social, political and economic history and heritage. However, like the physical heritage of Fremantle’s fishing industry, their collective voices have been silenced by neglect, ethnic and social discrimination, illiteracy and the passage of time. That is, until the 1960s when the industry’s economic fortunes changed from an owner-operator life-style industry into an investment industry that has made Western Australia’s fishing industry vary between being the fifth and fourth most valuable primary export industry in the state, including rock lobster, prawns, scallops, abalone, snapper and tuna.

Secondly, from 1829 to 1945, migration was so focused on Britain it was estimated that ninety per cent of the Australian population in 1945 were British. British immigrants assumed and were accorded the status of ‘indigenous’ that denied their immigrant origins and gave them a status superior to fellow immigrant ‘foreigners’. For the British, Fremantle’s fishing industry was one of ‘last resort’, in which they came and went, as and when better employment opportunities offered. For Melbourne University historian, RM Crawford, ‘Australian history was a brief drab epilogue to the history of Great Britain, a procession of governors and explorers making good their imperial heritage’ and facilities for research and publication rudimentary. 10 In 1939 his lament was that ‘The problem with conventional history ... is that it is narrow in its concentration of “the most active and eminent persons”... and naïve in its assumption that their decisions determined the course of events.’ 11 There are substantive and justified claims that Australian literature until more recently has looked to the land for its heroic myths and mateship—drovers, shearers, pioneers and war heroes. However, there is a substantial body of literature that lays claims to maritime equivalents. Maritime history traditionally has been the preserve of heroic adventures, accounts in fact and fiction popularised by eminent international writers like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. 12 Australian fishers have played a significant role in the history of multi-culturalism that reflects a ‘neglect of its own past’. 13

Captain Charles Fremantle, Royal Navy, arrived at the Swan River on 2 May 1829 where he took possession of the west coast of New Holland. The Swan River Colony inherited from British convention law and lore a three–mile zone along its coastline for exclusive use of the Colony’s residents. Governor James Stirling’s vision was tarnished as shipwrecks, infertile sandy soils and isolation impeded development. The colonists, comprising many middle-class, half-pay Army and Navy officers, their families and servants, were better suited to maritime endeavours than to agricultural ones. 14 Those with maritime backgrounds fared better. On the brink of failure, Stirling placed greater expectations of success on the future of fisheries. Fremantle’s graphic account of the marine life indicates something of its commercial potential. ‘The Ship’s Company caught an immense number of fish called Snappers, capital large fellows weighing ten and twelve pounds, I daresay two hundred on board.’ The snapper were so big they broke all their hooks. 15 The fisheries that offered so much potential in the early years waxed and waned in their economic contributions but the belief that, like their home experience, there were more fish in the sea than could ever be caught persisted for 100 years.

Settlers camped in tents waiting for land to be surveyed and allotted provided early fishers with a domestic market. A few migrants, like George Dunnage, brought a fishing seine, thirty fathoms long with a ten-foot draft, a trammel net, 16 a casting net and two hoop nets. 17 Perth became the preferred settlement 18 and soon: ‘Many of the settlers of Perth and Fremantle ... employed themselves in the construction of [40] boats for the conveyance of their goods on the rivers. Some of the settlers employ[ed] themselves profitably in fishing.’ 19 It has been claimed that the local ship building industry grew out of the whaling trade, 20 a supposition made in the absence of understanding the legacy of the Colony’s first industry - fishing. An 1831 visitor, G Powell, wrote: ‘Fish is caught here in great plenty—they use a large net of nearly 100 yards in length, and this they draw across the river, and take a large quantity at a haul; you may purchase a great lot of them for a shilling’. 21

The 1832 census listed eight fishers 22 and George F Moore, the first Advocate General, wrote: ‘Many persons are trying to salt fish, which are very numerous in the river about and below Perth, ... our having taken 10,000 at one draught of the seine; these are the kind called herrings ... ’ 23 William Ruell and Fred Caporn operated a thirty-five foot (10.7m) sailing gig on the river between Fremantle and Perth. 24 Tom Turner and Henry Tanner both brought fishing tackle to prepare them for colonial life. 25 Robert Thomson, a Rottnest Island farmer, gathered salt and cured fish with little success. 26

The domestic market for fish at Fremantle and Perth was limited to rivers and enclosed and protected waters. Fresh fish, a highly perishable commodity, without ice and refrigeration, did not keep long enough for the fishers to distribute. The meagre population was widely dispersed with poor communications. Recreational fishing undermined the domestic market for seafood, fishing being an integral part of daily life for subsistence, variation of diet and to satisfy recreational needs and providing cool relief in a searingly hot climate.

The next development engaged local and remote fishing ventures for export. Many fishing export ventures were entered into. In 1833, a Mr Willey supplied ships at Fremantle. 27 William Nairne Clark, a Scots lawyer, and Clarkes Spyers, caught and dried fish at Rottnest for export using the Rottnest salt deposits to cure their fish. 28 In 1831 they advertised ‘Dried Fish: Any quantity of dried fish either for exportation or home consumption may be had on application to Mr Clark at Rottnest, at 6d pound.’ 29 Clark’s experience is perhaps symptomatic of many settlers, who dabbled in various endeavours to eke out a living. Clark and Spyers exported salted fish to the Ile de France (Mauritius), but the high overheads led them into insolvency. 30

In 1844, the Bateman Brothers established a fishing station again at Garden Island. The Perth Gazette reported that ‘Fremantle has been converted to a regular fishing station and the roofs of many of the houses are covered with fish, for the purpose of drying them sufficiently for export.’ 31 Then in 1868 the Francisco brothers began preserving fish at Fremantle 32 and in 1844, 33 merchant mariner Anthony Curtis procured from the Abrolhos Islands seal-skins and salted fish for export to Mauritius and Asia. In 1847, merchant mariners Helpman, Davey and George Shenton established the joint stock fishery, Pelsaert fishing Company, at the Abrolhos Islands. They advertised salted fish, trepang and isinglass. 34 Similarly, in 1850 Captain Daniel Scott, Harbour Master at Fremantle, took leave of absence to go north to mine guano. On his return he resigned to pursue private enterprise interests, primarily in fisheries and mining. 35 Both domestic and export fisheries were seasonal and intermittent.

After 1868 pearling became a leading export industry worth in the 1880s on average each year between fifty thousand and one-hundred thousand pounds. 36 In the 1860s and 1870s, Fremantle was the hub of the seasonal pearling fleet that was also strongly linked to the Pilbara and later Kimberley pastoral industry. In this period, merchant- pearlers and pastoralist-pearlers built some majestic homes in Fremantle. In contrast to the elite mariners, the 1870s and 1880s timber trade brought foreign ships to ports south of Fremantle where their working class European crews found a familiar Mediterranean environment in a New World. This attracted men from the fishing villages of Capo d’Orlando in Sicily (Italy), Molfetta (south east coast of Italy) the Dalmatian coast and its island Crkvenica and (after 1930) Brac, Vis, Korcula and Hvar (under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later part of Yugoslavia and today Croatia) 37 and the Greek island of Castellorizo (variously under the control of the Greeks, Turks, British and Italians). Like the maritime elite before them they were experienced mariners, navigators and fishers.

Many fishers were t’othersiders, like Pensabene (Sicilian), De Ceglie, and Leonardo Porcelli (Molfettese) 38 who left the east coast of Australia for the west. 39 Croatian fishers, Joseph (Josip) Katnic, Joseph Marian (Josip Marijan) and Jerolim Lusich left Melbourne in the 1897. 40 Like other Croatian fishers Joseph Maria left the industry after four years of fishing to develop a vineyard. 41 Similarly for some Greeks and Italians fishing provided transient employment before taking up more pro table work as fishmongers, merchants, café or restaurant owners. Wherever the immigrants worked, the dominant Anglo-Celts resented their presence, competition and frequently made them scapegoats for blame and derision.

In 1897, Fisheries Inspector Abjornsson (Scandinavian) noted:

Amongst our fishermen, it is exclusively the Greeks and Italians who use ‘seine’ nets with such small mesh, and, ... wilfully destroy large quantities of immature fish as one means of driving away other fishermen [Britishers and] their plea of ignorance, and ‘no savi Engleas'. 42

In 1899 the Colonial Secretary said

... in this colony the fisheries are carried on very much by Greeks, Italians and other foreigners, who have not much interest in this colony ... and when the rivers and harbours and the coast line are denuded of fish, they will probably go elsewhere. 43

Unlike the vast, prolific and ancient European fisheries, the Colony’s fisheries were small and readily depleted. The Britishers (as they called themselves) made ‘foreigners’ scapegoats for circumstances often of their own making. Success of fisheries waxed and waned and the social and political turbulence of the South West fisheries was disproportionate to its modest economic contribution.

In the 1890s, George Phalangas, a Greek oyster–opener from Sydney, opened the Sydney Oyster Saloon in Barrack Street, Perth. Like other oyster dealers he leased and laid down oyster beds, enclosures known as punts to store imported oysters, submerged in the shallows of the Swan River at Bicton. His business flourished. 44

Around 1895 James C Brown of Queenscliffe, Victoria, brought his thirty four foot well-boat, Silvery Wave, and introduced the Queenscliffe pot (a semi-cylindrical wire netting trap with a conical entry introduced to Victoria by Cornish fishers in the early 1800s) to Fremantle for the commercial trapping of crayfish (rock lobster). The enormous number of crayfish caught in spawn resulted in a minimum legal weight of eight ounces and a closed season during January, February and March each year. 45 fishing Inspector Abjornsson disputed weight as a guide recommending length where he reasoned ‘An 8oz cray measures 6in from the eyes to the tip of the tail, an 11oz cray measures 7 1/2 in, and a 16oz cray 10in. I suggest 8ins to be the regulation size.’ 46

In 1901, 253 148 fishers lived in the Fremantle-Rockingham area. 47 In the same year the Fisheries Department recorded licences for 218 boats and 400 fishers: 190 Italian; 90 British; 64 German or Scandinavian (later records indicate there were few German fishers); 22 Greek; 22 Asians; and 12 Austrian (Croatian-Dalmatian). 48

This report takes into account fisheries at Fremantle, Perth, Bunbury, Albany and Mandurah, where the Tuckey family brought in Japanese fishers from Broome to fish for their cannery. In 1905, the Fisheries Department Annual Report for Fremantle states that: ‘The number of licenses issued has been:- Men, 287; boats, 147; about fifteen (15) of the latter being engaged in cray fishing.’ 49 Reflecting Federation and Commonwealth Immigration Restriction, the State Fisheries Act 1905 required fishers to specify their nationality.

may 1

First homes owned by Fremantle fishers in Arundel Street, close to South Jetty and the Fish Market. Many fishers rented these home before 1945 and after this time purchased them. Photo: Sally May, 2006

may 2

Left: Anita Parentich making craypots in the backyard of her family home. Photo: Parentich family. Right: The Santaromita family making pots in their backyard in 2000. Photo: Soula Vouyoucalos.

The opening of the Fremantle Inner Harbour in 1897 left South Jetty, originally built in 1839 in South Bay to service Fremantle’s coastal and international shipping, available for use by the fishing industry. The 1908-built Fish Market, wherein it was compulsory for fishers to auction their catches, ensured that the jetty and market became the hub of fishing life in Fremantle. Extending the hub, on water, a fishing boat harbour gradually grew up around the jetty and market. Extending the hub, on land, a residential fishing community grew up within close reach in an era without cars or public transport. 50 Dangerous weather conditions forced the fishers to stay close to the fishing boat harbour to keep a check on their fishing craft and for early morning departures to their fishing grounds. Long after demolition of the Fish Market (1950s) and Fisherman’s Jetty (1980s), the significance of this area to the fishing community and the heritage of Fremantle was recognised in 2004 with the dedication of the Fremantle’s Fisherman’s Monument by the Premier Geoff Gallop. 51

A study of the Fisheries Department’s fishing registers provides evidence of how close to fishing Boat Harbour all nationality of fishers lived. This reflects an industry enclave as much as ethnic enclaves even though kindred groups often lived together in boarding houses, warehouses and rented cottages—later purchased and lived in by fishers and their families. Like the Fishermen’s Jetty and Market, many of these residences and buildings have been destroyed but a diminishing number remain providing important streetscapes and physical evidence of the fishers’ heritage. Western Australian Heritage Council listings currently reflect little of this important heritage. There is now little evidence of fishers residences in Collie Street (See appendix 1).

In the post World War Two period, as private transport became more accessible, pioneer fishers seeking second and third homes and post-War migrant fishers purchasing first residences moved to suburbs surrounding Fremantle, such as, Hamilton Hill, Hilton Park, Spearwood and Melville. As the industry and fishermen’s fortunes improved (as did real estate) in the 1950s and 1960s, fishers chose Bicton, Cottesloe, Claremont and further outlying areas, reflecting a stronger pattern of socio-economic integration as the status of the fishing industry also improved.

In conclusion, this study highlights the importance of built heritage to the understanding of the history of Fremantle’s fishing industry, reflecting as it does the socio-economic development of individuals, families, community and the industry. The study also illustrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of the early fishing industry. Much of this heritage unfortunately has been lost. It is an area of history and heritage deserving of far greater research.

may 3

Fremantle Studies Day, The Royal Western Australian Historical Society (Inc.), State History Conference of Affiliated Societies, September 2005

Appendix 1

18 Collie Street

Rotondella

Molfettese

1950s

Collie Street

Amato

Molfettese

1940s

10 Collie Street

Anderson

Norwegian

1940s

10 Collie Street

Akerblom

Swedish

1940s

10 Collie Street

Nilson

British (Nordic?)

1940s

16 Collie Street

Reinhold

Latvian

1940s

16 Collie Street

Strom

Swedish

1940s

22 Collie Street

Tombolini

Italian

1940s

18 Collie Street

Sciancalepore

Molfettese

1940s

18 Collie Street

Tatulli

Molfettese

1940s

16 Collie Street

Barsich

German

1940s

18 Collie Street

Pappagello

Molfettese

1940s

18 Collie Street

De Ceglie

Molfettese

1940s

16 Collie Street

Hanson

Norwegian

1940s

12 Collie Street

Sarich

Croatian

1940s

Appendix 2

24 Nairn Street

Lehto

Finnish

1925

24 Nairn Street

Flare

Italian

1930

12 Nairn Street

La Rosa

Sicilian

1941

Nairn Street

Vinci

Sicilian

1941

11 Nairn Street

Mezzina

Molfettese

1941

5 Nairn Street

Del Rosso

Molfettese

1941

11 Nairn Street

De Ceglie

Molfettese

1941

8 Nairn Street

Svirac

Croatian

1941

7 Nairn Street

Duzevich

Yugoslav

1942

7 Nairn Street

Lukach

Croatian

1942

16 Nairn Street

Minervini

Molfettese

1943

Endnotes

1 C Gamba, The Italian fishermen of Fremantle, University of WA Text Books Board, 1952.

2 Paper and chain migration is defined as being a link between the emigrant and their home village or region that, over time, encourages (male) relatives and compatriots to join the emigrant in the new land of opportunity or not, where the emigrant may provide sponsorship to assist those emigrating, most often to one of the New Worlds.

3 J Gentilli, et al, Italian roots in Australian soil, Italo-Australian Welfare Centre, Villa Terenzio, Marangaroo WA; and ‘Italian Migration to Western Australia 1829-1946’, Geowest, 1982, n19.

4 R Appleyard and J Yiannakis, Greek Pioneers in Western Australia, University of WA Press, 2002.

5 Ilija Sutalo, Croats in Australia, Victoria College Press, Melbourne, 2004.

6 Croatian for ‘Call of the Sea’

7 Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey—but no gold, University of WA Press, Nedlands, 2001.

8 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, a Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, Murdoch University Perth, 1999; Paul Weaver, ‘Maritime resource exploitation in southwest Australia prior to 1901’, a Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia March 1997.

9 J N TØnnessen and A O Johnsen, The history of modern whaling, ANUP, Canberra, 1982, p 222.

10 Stuart Macintyre, ‘The Making of a School’ in R M Crawford, M Clark and G Blainey, Making history, McPhee Gribble Publishers Pty Ltd, 1985, p 6, 11, 17 and 19.

11 Stuart Macintyre, p 6, 11, 13, 17 and 30.

12 Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

13 Stuart Macintyre, p 6.

14 R T Appleyard and Toby Manford, Greek Pioneers, p 37.

15 C H Fremantle, Diary and letters of Admiral Sir C H Fremantle, G C B, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1829 (facsimile edition 1985), p 35.

16 A trammel net comprises a triple wall of nets to entangle fish. It takes a wide size-range of fish but is hard to clear because of the entanglements.

17 State Records Office of WA CSR 4/9, 71.

18 J S Battye, The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, 1912 p 96.

19 James Stirling, State of the Colony of Swan River, a report read at the Geographical Society of London, 1830, p 141–146.

20 Patricia Brown, The “Tight Little Merchant Group of Fremantle” 1870-1900: the rise and decline of a nineteenth century colonial elite, 1989, 56-57

21 Howard Grey, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 45.

22 I A Berryman, Colony Detailed, Government Printer, Perth, 1832 (facsimile edition 1979).

23 G F Moore, Diary of ten years eventful life of an early settler in Western Australia, M Walbrook facsimile edition University of Western Australia Press, 1884 (facsimile edition 1978), p 136.

24 Paul Weaver, ‘An Ethnohistorical study of the Swan-Canning fishery in Western Australia: 1697–1837’, Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours, Edith Cowan University, 1991, p 22.

25 Paul Weaver, ‘An Ethnohistorical study’, 1991 p 71.

26 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 46.

27 The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 15 June 1833.

28 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 46.

29 The West Australian 28 October 1831.

30 B K De Garis, 1981, p 311.

31 Frank Broeze and G J Henderson, Western Australians and The Sea, WA Museum, Perth, 1987, p 28.

32 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 57.

33 V G Fall, The Sea and the Forest, University of Western Australia Press, 1972.

34 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 53.

35 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, pp 58–59

36 William Saville–Kent, 1893–1894.

37 Nada Zuvela, More Me Zove.

38 Porcelli started out as a fisher and later opened an importing business in Pakenham Street. His son, Pietro Porcelli, was an accomplished sculptor, who created the C Y O’Connor bronze statue.

39 Vince Pensabene 1992, Oral history interview with, Fremantle City Library Local History Section (FCLLHS), 1992; Oral history interview with, G De Ceglie, 1989, FCLLHS; Keane, 1981, p 9-10.

40 Nada Zuvela, More Me Zove.

41 Ilija Sutalo, Croats in Australia, pp 154–155.

42 C F Gale, ‘Report on the fishing Industry’, Votes and Proceedings, Government Printer, Perth, 1899.

43 Howard Gray, ‘Skinnin’ the pots’, p 79.

44 Reginald Appleyard and John N Yiannakis, Greek Pioneers, pp 23-24

45 Tasmania had introduced size limits and season closures in 1882.

46 Howard Gray, The western rock lobster, Westralian Books, Geraldton, 1999, p 11.

47 Western Australian Census 1901, Government Printer, Perth.

48 Joseph Gentilli, Italian roots, p 34.

49 C F Gale, Fisheries department annual report 1905, Votes and proceedings, Government Printer, Perth.

50 Sally May, ‘The Italian Fishermen of Fremantle’ in Fremantle Studies, vol. 6 1999, Journal of the Fremantle History Society, pp 47–65

51 Western Australian fishing Industry Council website: http://www.wafic.org.au


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