72 Zenbakia 2000-03-24 / 2000-03-31


Basques in Australia


Basques in Australia Basques in Australia William A. Douglass Despite their propensity for globetrotting, and particularly in the 1800s, there is little evidence of a Basque presence in nineteenth century Australia. To be sure, the Australian census records of that period list a handful of Spaniards and Frenchmen with Basque surnames, but there is no indication whatsoever of a self aware Basque colony in Australia prior to federation of its several colonies into the present Australian nation state. During the first decade of the twentieth century certain developments in North Queensland created the bases for eventual modest chain migration from the Spanish Basque country of Spain to Australia (French Basques have never viewed the country as a viable destination and may therefore be ignored for present purposes). In 1907 ongoing efforts to secure Italian workers as substitutes for Kanakas in the Queensland sugar industry stalled and labor recruiters broadened their search to other areas of Southern Europe. A sizeable contingent of 104 Catalans were contracted for canecutting, primarily in the Ingham and Innisfail areas, thereby establishing a North Queensland presence of Spanish nationals. Some Basque Australians believe that the first Basque to enter the country were merchant seamen from the Bizkaian coastal village of Lekeitio who, about 1910, abandoned ship in Sydney, heard of the canecutter employment opportunity in North Queensland (possibly from Catalan co nationals) and made their way north to Ingham. The harvesting gangs tended to be organized along ethnic lines, consequently these first settlers sent back to Bizkaia for relatives and friends. The Basque cutters, while always few in number, were in considerable demand since they acquired a reputation for strength, endurance, reliability and honesty. Remuneration was on a piecework basis, so a diligent gang could earn a substantial sum over the harvesting season. Between 1910 and 1930 several Basque cutters usedtheir savings to acquire sugar properties. Most who became farmers married a local Catalan or Italian woman or went (or sent) back to the Basque Country for a bride. These families became the crucial catalyst in the establishment of a Basque colony in North Queensland. While Australia had working agreements with several governments on the European continent (most notably Italy) regarding immigration issues, there were no such formal arrangements with Spain. However, Spanish nationals qualified as unassisted immigrants if sponsored by propertied permanent residents of Australia. Consequently, if a Basque canecutter wanted to bring out his brother or cousin he would contact one of the local established Basque canegrowers who then filed the requisite paperwork and, in some cases, advanced passage and landing money. The Badiola and Mendiolea families of Ingham alone sponsored several hundred Basques in this fashion. Once in Australia the sponsored migrant repaid his benefactor (defaults were unknown). While some of the sponsored immigrants settled permanently in Australia, most were sojourners who eventually returned to Europe with their savings. Between 1930 and 1945 Basque emigration to Australia was all but interdicted by the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. This hiatus created a distinction between the older, established Basque colony, which probably never numbered more than two or three hundred individuals at any one time, and a more recent colony, with perhaps 1,000 2,000 persons at its apogee. Since Basques are not censused as such, but rather are counted as part of Australia’s larger contingent of Spanish nationals, it is impossible to be more precise. However, this second wave of Basque immigration is easier to track since it partly consisted of formal recruitment along official governmental channels. In the aftermath of World War II the Australian sugar industry experienced a labor crisis as few native Australians or established immigrantsrelished the trying and seasonal employment in the canefields. Worried sugar farmers petitioned the Queensland and Commonwealth governments for assistance and dispatched recruiters to Europe. While the effort was concentrated primarily in Italy, one Basque sugar farmer from the Ingham area, Alberto Urberuaga, was sent to his native Bizkaia to recruit his countrymen. At the time the Spanish economy was still feeling the effects of the Spanish Civil War and Spain’s pariah status within the European community of nations. Basque males anxious to improve their lot by herding sheep in the American West regularly oversubscribed the annual available allotment of sheepherder contracts and faced a considerable waiting period. Consequently, when the offer of immediate employment in Queensland’s canefields presented itself there were many takers. Called operations Emu, Eucalyptus and Kangaroo, three contingents of migrants were contracted and dispatched from northern Spain to North Queensland. In all, 712 men (including a few non Basque Spaniards) were recruited and for canecutting. Subsequently, at least one group of single Basque women was likewise dispatched (by air) to Australia, ostensibly to work as domestics but in the hope that they would marry and help settle the single Basque males who might otherwise abandon the country after a sojourn in the canefields. During the 1960s, then, there was an active Basque colony in parts of North Queensland constituted by the older, established families, a few younger married men, and a large contingent of single males. The latter quickly extended the Basque presence beyond its traditional base of the Ingham, Innisfail and Ayr regions. Some resettled in the Atherton tablelands where they secured small leaseholdings and began to grow tobacco. More significantly, the seasonal nature of sugar harvesting meant that for about five months of the year the men were unemployed. Some remained in the sugar districts, lodging rent free in the sugarbarracks and seeking odd jobs until the next season. However, most formed into small groups of three or four men and migrated south in search of employment. Initially, these groups followed the fruit and vegetable harvest through the rural districts of New South Wales and Victoria, moving on as the work gave out in a particular district. Some settled permanently in places like Griffith, but most returned north again each year upon commencement of the sugar harvest. In this fashion the men had virtual year round employment. At the same time a number of the itinerants found steady work as loggers in Victoria and South Australia or construction laborers on the Snowy River Project and other major undertakings. Finally, as Basques in both North Queensland and other rural districts of Australia became more familiar with Australian ways many resettled in the major metropolitan areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth where they found employment in the construction and service industries. By the mid 1960s the Basque colony of Australia might have numbered as many as two thousand individuals. However, about this time the harvesting of sugar was mechanized, thereby displacing the existing gangs and reducing considerably the overall demand for labor within the industry. At the same time, the economy of the Basque country of Spain recovered dramatically, giving the region the highest annual per capita income on the Iberian Peninsula. This diminished the attractiveness to potential emigrants of menial employment in either Australia or the American West. The effect was to slow the rate of Basque emigration to a trickle, which was insufficient to offset the return migration of Basques from Australia to Spain. While the Basques of Australia were always relatively few in numbers they founded three significant organizations worthy of mention. In 1964 the Basques of Melbourne formed a social club called the "Basque Society Gure Txoko". By 1966 it acquired a building site and renteda soccer field. The club celebrated Old World Basque festivities, founded a folk dance group, organized Basque language instruction, handball competitions, mus tournaments, and established a library of Basque books. A txistulari performed at many of its events. In 1966 the Basques of Sydney formed a similar organization with the same "Gure Txoko" name. They acquired a clubhouse in Darlinghurst and built a Basque fronton or handball court on the site. Both the Melbourne and Sydney clubs took pro Basque nationalist stands, organized lectures and protests, and pamphleteered against the Franco regime and its oppression of the Basque homeland. This created rivalry that at times bordered on antagonism with the Spanish Club of Geelong (Victoria) and the Club Español of Sydney (although some Basques became members of both the local Spanish and Basque clubs). Finally, there was the less politicized Spanish Society of North Queensland, founded in 1970 and based in Townsville but with membership drawn from throughout North Queensland. The society represented a coalition of the established descendants of the earlier Basque and Catalan settlers of the region and the new wave of post war immigrants (including a few Spaniards who were neither Basque nor Catalan). Prior to creation of the society, the Catalans of Ayr were celebrating the Festival of the Sardana and that of the Virgin of Montserrat, while the Basques of the Ingham area were organizing a Basque festival on the 31st of July (Feast of their patron Saint Ignatius of Loyola). A Basque handball court had been erected at Trebonne which also served as the site for traditional Basque weight lifting contests. Also a Basque priest who arrived in 1958 with the first formally recruited contingent of Basque canecutters had become an ambulatory chaplain to the Spanish community of North Queensland. These several threads provided the basis for creation of the Spanish Society of North Queensland, which continued to sponsor social eventswith both a Catalan and Basque flair. In conclusion, at present the Basque colony in Australia is atrophied. The descendants of the earlier settlers retain a certain ethnic pride, but few are conversant in Basque and all are thoroughly assimilated. The large majority of canecutters who entered Australia in the post war period have returned to Europe. Current immigration of Basques is negligible. The original Basque Society of Melbourne is defunct, although a smaller version was founded recently and functions at present. The membership and activities of the Sydney Gure Txoko have declined and the Spanish Society of North Queensland is increasingly less active. In short, unless conditions in Europe and/or Australia determining immigration change radically, one might predict the demise of the Basque Australian community in the near future. William A. Douglass, antropólogo y profesor de Estudios Vascos en la Universidad de Reno Euskonews & Media 72.zbk (2000 / 3 / 24 31) gratuita | Abonnement gratuit | Free subscription Eusko Ikaskuntzaren Web Orria webmaster@euskonews.com http://ikaskuntza.org/cgiBanner/banner.cgi?datos=ejgvordena&link=www.euskadi.net http://ikaskuntza.org/