Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Piemontese Italians in South Africa.

From 1870 onwards from Piedmont Region in Italy saw many Italians arriving in South Africa, having immigrated due the still unstable economic situation in their home country, even though since 1861 they were once again united, after a bloody war of liberation, lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi.The first to arrive from this Italian  region, were the Waldesian Missionary Society, led by Jacques Weitzecke and his wife Luisa Malan, both natives of Torre Pelice(La Tour), which bordered directly onto to-day's country of France.Here at Kimberley in the 1880's men were hard at work after the well known ''Diamond Rush'' had taken place, on their arrival, having been sent to establish the living and working conditions by the ''Royal Geographic Society'', of their 160 mine workers who were employed there.The Missionaries were later to meet the the ruling government authority representatives during this time, and by 1891 were able to have a trade agreement in place between the Orange Free State Republic and Italy, which lasted until the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899. They were as missionaries able to assist the French Missionary Society in Lesotho, and to learn much about their excellent work.Later we find other Waldesian Missionaries arriving, and operating on both sides of the Zambezi Valley , like Louis Jalla and his wife, and family relative Adolfo Jalla.they were to write many books in Italian as well as French regarding their missionary work, like ''Viaggio Missionario fra le foreste del Batotela nella regione Zambesiana'' published in Florence,Italy in 1923, and ''Du Cap de Bonne Esperance au Victoria Nyanza'' and ''Sur les Rives du Zambese''. In 1906 many items, such as African artifacts,maps,clothing, canoes and tools were displayed at a ''International Trade Fair'' in Milan, including a handwritten letter by the Chief of the Barotse African People of Zambia. These itms are to be found in the Waldesian Museum in Torre Pelice to-day.
During this period with the Boer Republic of Transvaal being established, the President elect at the time Paul Kruger, needed a friendly neighbouring country with excellent port facilities in order to export as well as import goods.This he found in Lourenco Marques, in the then Portugese Colony of Mozambique. The city known as Maputo to-day. There was however no connecting road or railwayline from the Boer Republic, but fortunately the port itself lay directly eastwards from Pretoria, the new established capital city.The Dutch Company the ''Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikansche Spoorwegen Maatschappy'', suggested to the President that the Italians who had already obtained a reputation in Europe and the Island of Reunion as excellent railwayline constructors, builders of bridges on routes, and tunnels,and were presently engaged building the Siberian line, be awarded the contract.
A team of 300 Italians from Brusnengo, Piedmont was finally put together arriving at Delagoa Bay, at Lourenco Marques, comprising of foreman,technicians and skilled labourers, who slowly started progressing day by day, and metre by metre, sleeper by sleeper entering the beautiful enviroment of that area. Unknown to them was the ever present possibility of contracting the deadly malaria disease, being constantly pestered by mosquitoes, as result some thirty of these workers were eventually to succumb and died on route, long before completion of the railwayline .A small Italian community at Machadadorp established itself during this period meeting at the established hotel there owned by Mario Dalla Riva. Finally when the railwayline was completed, the Italians were then appointed as trackmen, here and on other lines which were still to be constructed.The local natives of the area were also to be employed and trained to keep the lines in good order, since elephants often knocked down telegraph poles, and termites who were devouring everything made of wood. The Italians even at one stage through their friendly connection with these African workers attempted at one stage to record their music.
Among the trackmen, were two brothers, Agostino and Giacomo Tonetti from Brusnengo , who had arrived in the Transvaal Republic in 1893, and who hsad been employed by the N.Z.A.S.M. as procurement food suppliers for the employed workers as well as gravel and concrete.After having obtained various contracts, including the expansion works of the harbour at Lourenco Marques, in 1902 they bought together a large estate of more than 2,000 acres  in the lower Kaap Valley, between Kaapmuiden and Louw's Creek in the district of Barberton, which is near the northern border of the now independent state of Swaziland.Although also infested with malaria,snakes and wild beasts, they were both
 determined and hardworking, to create a future for themselves despite all the challenges and hostile enviroment, clearing trees and shrubs, and making the soil fertile with the planting of a assortment of vegetables and fruitrees, building their own irrigation system. By 1904 they had created wonders, with a now larger agricultural estate, which was producing a variety of fruit and vegetables, both of the tropical kind and otherwise, the produce being sent off to the markets of Pretoria and Johannesburg during the slack winter season. This was to play such an important role, that the Deapartment of Railways decided to build a station for the loading of fresh produce, at their estate, which was named ''Tonetti''. The large estate that they owned had already been baptised with the name of ''Brusnengo Farm'', after the city in Piedmont from where the brothers had originated.Soon they bought other tracts of land near the estate, naming one of them ''Caracetto'', a suburb of Brusnengo. The entire estate in total was 3000 hectares, more than half the area being used for farming purposes. Later the town of ''Tonetti'' was to recieve it's own post office.In 1984 a Vittorio Tonetti was recorded as still inhabitating the farm.
Not too far away in the same area now known as Mpumalanga Province in South Africa , in 1873 gold was discovered, and people from all over the world flocked there in large numbers. Within two years hundreds of tents lined the banks of the creek in the narrow winding valley around Pilgrims Rest. By 1892 it was a thriving community with a secure future for all. During this time again from Brusnengo, the first Beretta family member, namely Giovanni was to arrive here(also the first known Italian to inhabit the area)In 1903 his first son Rodolfo died, and his grave is still to be seen at the local cementry at Pilgrims Rest.The second known Piedmontese Italian to arrive and make his mark in the area was Giovan Giletti, a businessman, and hunchback from Carino, who was also the first contractor from Italy to arrive in the area .Giletti immediately set about constructing roads, bridges and railway lines from Pilgrim's Rest to Sabie, a town bordering on to-day's Kruger National Game Park, the largest in the world.He also constructed the bridge of the famous Blyde River Canyon, in May, of 1897, named after J.S.Joubert the Mining Commissioner of Pilgrim's Rest.
In January of 1909 an abutment and one of the five arches was swept away during a flood, which were later repairede by two of the Beretta brothers, Albino and Gentile. In 1968 the bridge was declared a National Monument.
Arriving in 1898 was the second Beretta brother Giuseppe, who worked as a Blacksmith on the mine for a few years, than acquired a shop at Desire, a small mine, a few kilometers distant from Pilgrim's Rest, near Graskop .In 1910 his wife Marietta Miglioretto arrived. Later two children Stella and Aldo were born.
Gentile Beretta arrived in 1920, first working as a stonemason and bricklayer. Later he left the town to live at the railway siding at Rolle. He was followed by Albino Beretta, who was to help Giuseppe with his shop at Desire. After Albino left in 1921 to marry Adalgisa Miglioretti, on his return he and Giuseppe established shops at Pilgrim's Rest, where they were to spend the rest of their lives.The second generation of Berettas played a vital and important role in Pilgrim's Rest. In the 1950's Benny Beretta, Giovanni's son was chairman of the finance committee, and Mayor of the town. Aldo Beretta, Giuseppe's son in turn was chairman of the works committee, and ex-officio, Deputy Mayor. Giuseppe Beretta was to live up to his 100th birthday.
In 1911 the ''Transvaal Gold Mining Estates'', appointed Stefano Carlo Bianco Aimetti as mine manager, having been a scholar and trained at both the universities of Pavia,Bologna and Turin in Italy.Stefano was one of the engineers who had constructed the Simplon Tunnel between Italy and Switzerland.In 1897 he arrived in South Africa, and in 1903 married Ellie Louise Currie of Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province. In the same year he was appointed manager of the ''New Heriot Gold Mining Company'', situated near Johannesburg. For ''TGME'' the period 1911-1915 under Ametti were their golden years. ''TGME'' also worked smaller mining companies as well in the Pilgrim's Rest area as well as at Sabie, employing 250 White males , and some 3,000 Africans. Aimetti produced record profits for the company, but later personal problems started to plaque his own life.Being a Italian Patriot during the outbreak of World War 1, with Italy entering the conflict on Allied side, brought him into some disagreement with supporters of the German and Austrian side, and as a result in July 1915 he resigned, and retired to Cape Town, suffering as well from a weak heart. Later he returned to Italy, and died in San remo in 1922.
In 1912 a small stone Anglican Church was built in Sabie built by Germignani, working together with other Italians,  having being designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the same architect who designed the South African Government Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Pierro Marucchi was born in the Piedmontese village of Rongio Masserano, where he studied to become a priest. Before he was about to be ordained, he decided that this was not his vocation, and travelled to South Africa, leaving the priesthood completly. He soon obtained work in Mpumalanga Province, and was one one of the contractors, building the railwayline from Sabie to Graskop in 1914.
Domenico Martinaglia brother of Guglielmo Martinaglia who had discovered the Sterkfontein Caves west of Johannesburg in 1896, now a ''World Heritage Site'' recognized by ''UNESCO'', arrived in Mpumalanga Province in 1905, and found employment at Sheba Gold Mine, near the town of Barberton. Unfortunately shortly thereafter he contracted the deadly malaria disease and died. Like many others who died as a result of contracting the disease , many of whom were from Italy, they were all buried at the mine's cementry in unmarked graves.
In 1887 the ''Zuid Afrikaansche Maatskappy van Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperk'', owned by the ''Societe Generale pour la Fabrication de la Dynamite'',which in turn was part of the Nobel Organization in France, in agreement and authority from the then ''Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek'' the German Eduard Lippert the sole right to manufacture and sell ammunition and explosives.With the first testing of dynamite in the mining industry at ''Sheba Gold Mine'' having taken place, President Paul Kruger became involved with overseas companies to  purchase the necessary explosives, which was rather costly.Fortunately arriving from Avigliana.,Piedmont, Italy was Modesto Gallo, a carpenter by trade and Ferdinando de Matteis a bricklayer. who brought with them five boxes of dynamite. The Avigliana Dynamite Factory, also Nobel owned was well known in Europe at the time. They had to transport the dynamite first by sea, and then on a rather rough journey from the coast by wagon to Pretoria. A very risky operation.Their main concern now was to build the first Dynamite Factory in South Africa, successfully, putting into workable operation, taking into consideration the safety of all workers to be employed there.They were sooned joined by Agostino Marra of Busto Arsizio near Milan, and together they started erecting the first buildings of the first dynamite factory at Leeuwfontein Farm, about 15 kilometers east of Pretoria. During the construction they were visited by President Paul Kruger. Ferdinando de Matteis eventually convinced him that the need of experienced dynamite workers from the factory in Avigliana, was necessary.
In 1890 the first five young Piedmontese women from the Avigliana Dynamite Factory arrived, and were employed as cartridge makers at the factory. Their task was to wrap the explosive sticks in wax paper.They were Antonia Panicco,Teresa Carnino, Maddalena Castagno, with the two sisters Angela and Giuseppina Audagnotti. Their journey to South Africa was far from being easy. Their journey to Le Havre from Italy was by train, then they had to cross the English Channel to Southampton, where they embarked by ship to Cape Town. From there they took a train journey to Kimberley. The final journey to Pretoria was by horsedrawn coach. In order to be identified by their employers and fellow workers, as not one of them spoke Dutch, English or any of the local native languages, they had to wear disks around their necks, on which all their personal particulars were written. Maddalena Castagno, was later to attract the attention of one of the Directors Henry Bullier a Frenchman and later they were married in 1890, becoming the first of the group to be married in South Africa in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Pretoria.
Some of these workers were very young like Angela and Giuseppina Audagnotti aged 15 and 17 years old respectively. Their brother Giorgio was also employed there, arriving after his marriage to Agostina Allais, while another sister Giovanna Audagnotti arrived in June of 1894. Of the three sisters Angela was the first to marry in 1893, to Emilio Tommasone. Soon thereafter the other two sisters married young men from their home town of Avigliana. From these marriages spanning over a period from 1890-1897, 19 women gave birth to 13 children.In 1891 another 25 young Aviglianese women arrived, some due to financial need, while for others it was pure adventure.
In the meantime , the Leeuwfontein Dynamite Factory continued to import and transform dynamite from Europe, nothwithstanding the permit which allowed for manufacture ''in loco''. This caused local competitors to lodge complaints which led to Pretoria revoking the monopoly. that had been granted.
Finally it was decided that a new dynamite factory should be built, with nearer access to productive mines.A new dynamite plant, the ''Zuid Afrikaansche Fabriecken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperk'' was to built at Modderfontein, north of Johannesburg, for this purpose. In June of 1894 the company was officially registered, with construction begining in 1895. In July of 1894, a group of 6 female workers arrived, labelled the ''cartuccere''(cartridge makers) which followed in 1895 some Spanish and Basque women from Bilbao- two of them were Eufrosia Garcia and Bernardina Echarri, who later married two of the Aviglianese men in 1897 and 1898.
In those days accidents in explosive factories were occurred frequently. In November of 1895 there was a real terrible explosion, luckily without the loss of human life at Leeuwfontein, causing damage to the amount of 4,000 English Pounds. In 1896 the dry grass around the factory caught fire blowing up 4 paraffin and tar tanks.While attempting to save the plant, two of the Italian men, were seriosly injured, and died soon thereafter, having sustained serious burns and wounds.
Modderfontein Dynamite Factoty was in the meantime progressing rapidly. Four seperate factories were constructed at safe distances from each other, and in addition, laboratories, workshops, warehouses and hostels with 500 White and 1500 Black men being housed. In 1896 the first locally produced dynamite rolled out of the factory on the 29th of June. By the end of that year most of the workers too were transfered over from Leeuwfontein to Modderfontein. Among the last to leave were Giuseppe Corna and his wife Giuseppina Cardagnotti, which was in March of 1897. There were about a hundred Italian workers at the time with a engineer in charge of them.
Leeuwfontein which cost 200,000 pounds, gradually fell into disuse. To-day the area is called ''Eerste Fabriek'' in rememberance of the old establishment, the place becoming totally overgrown by long highveld grass.
The Modderfontein factory, the largest manufacturing plant at the time, gave rise to the Italian settlement in the suburb of Orange Grove, which was the closest to the factory. Many Italians decided in later years to settle there because, true to its name, it was filled with citrus trees, which had been introduced by Michele Angelo Zoccola. The suburb is still known to many South Africans as ''Little Italy''.
Michele Angelo Zoccola was an exceptional person with a keen business sense. Born in Alessandria,Piedmont in 1859, he arrived in Johannesburg in 1888, finding a shanty town made of mostly wooden cabins. Zoccola had moved to England, when he was young, eventually managing hotels in London, Newcastle and Manchester. Due to the English climate he developed a persistent cough, and on medical advice recieved from his doctor decided to immigrate to the warmer climate of South Africa. Soon after his arrival he became manager of the Hight's Hotel in Johannesburg, and by the following year owner of the ''Grand National Hotel'', which became in a very short space of time, the finest hotel in the whole region.The Grand National soon became the meeting place for the cosmopolitan community of financers,mining engineers, adventurers and tourists who had moved in with the gold rush.
Zoccola becoming wealthy in a short space of time bought a farm called ''Bergvlei''in the north-eastern suburb of Johannesburg, now known as ''Lombardy East'', calling it ''Lombardy Estate'', after the northern region of Italy.The Jukskei River well known in Johannesburg flows through that immediate area and was part of the farm.The estate 4,000 acres of undulating,uncultivated land was through hard work made fertile with Eucalyptus,Pine and Acacia trees planted acting as windbreakers and ornaments.Later planted fields of potato, grain and vegetables emerged. Soon vines for the first time in the ''Transvaal Republiek'' appeared, flourishing along with the many fruit trees that were planted. Eventually the estate was able to produce more than it's needs of Zoccola's hotel, and soon wines and liqueurs for the first time became available in the town itself.
Zoccola while developing his own business, soon was appointed councillor of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society. He erected a castle shaped cellar, installing the latest and most expensive equipment, imported from Europe,  for the manufacture and preservation of wine. Here he was to recieve many important guests, like the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1897, Lord Milner and even President Paul Kruger himself.The  farm was continually experimenting, introducing Olive Trees and Beehives for the first time. Then Zoccola managed to transform fossilized carbon into coke opening up new oppurtunities for mines, struggling with elevated costs of foundry coal at the time, afterwhich he turned in 1896 to importing Carrara marble, supplying the flooring for the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory. After the Anglo-Boer War he became Johannesburg City Councillor in 1936. He passed away in 1938. He was much loved and respected by the Italian Community. Descendents of the Zoccola family are to be found in Cape Towm to-day.
The progress of the Italians in South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War was to continue, after the economic collapse. The country was again to build and florish, thanks once again to the Italians who immigrated, and to-day generations later are still playing a vital role in the South Africa of to-day.