E La Nave Va…

Memories of Italian immigration to South America

My bisnonna left Italy with only 4 years of age, in 1889, in a ship called “Rosario”, which travelled from Genoa all the way to Argentina.  It was a steamship (vapore or piroscafo in Italian), 282 feet long, with a speed of 14 knots, that could carry 48 people in first class, 40 people in second class, and up to 1,065 emigrants in third class. A third-class ticket from Genoa to Buenos Aires costed 350 Lire and the journey took 23 days. In this case, it is known that the ship arrived in Buenos Aires in 11/02/1889, but I don’t know which day it left Genoa. The final destination was probably Rosario, where they would have arrived at a later date: many ships had previous scales in Barcelona, Santos, Rio de Janeiro. Rosario, up the river from Buenos Aires, would be the last stop. You can see the usual itinerary below.

(The old steamship and its long journey reminds me a bit of Fellini’s film “E La Nave Va”, although the story there takes place at a later date, 1914, and the ship is not a migrant ship.)

The list of passengers, which can be consulted here, here or here, indicates also the age of each passenger, their profession, and whether they could read or not. Ida’s mother, 41, was listed as housewife, and could not read. Neither could her father and Ida’s older brothers, also travelling in the same ship.

Yet, in a later record, the Argentine census of 1895, Ida is already 11 years old and can read (her parents still cannot). Her brothers, 12 and 16, can also read and are already working — as “talabarteros”, or saddlers. Ida would marry at 17 and become a housewife. She gave birth to my grandmother, her third child, when she was 25. She never went back to Italy.

Immigration is a complicated issue, then as today. I do not wish to say that all migration movements are the same (and there are reasons to believe that the current massive immigration under globalism is much more harmful than that old-time immigration), but it sure caused many changes in society, then as now. In a relatively short time, Buenos Aires and Rosario became heavily Italian cities. Rosario, which was also my birth town, was a small village until the mid-19th century and it developed exactly because of immigration. In 1832, Charles Darwin, in his famous Beagle journey to South America, passed through the town and calculated the number of inhabitants as around 2,000.

But in 1889, the year my grand-grandmother arrived, the population was already at more than 50,000 people, and at least 20% of those were Italians — that is, people who were born in Italy, not counting their descendants. Another 20% were immigrants from other regions, mostly from Spain. In total, at least 40% of the population, and probably more, was of migrant origin.

The ship? Built in 1887 England by Wigham Richardson & Co in the Neptune Yard in the Tyne river, it was first sold to an Italian company, Fratelli Lavarello, under which my bisnonna and family traveled. After the bankruptcy of that company, it was sold to the more famous Italian company La Veloce, which kept the ship with the same name and roughly the same route. In 1898, the ship was sold to a French company, Companie Mixte de Navegation, and started doing the route from Marseille to Algiers; it was also renamed “Djurjura”. Below we see it in the port of Marseille, around the turn of the century.

In January 1915, during the First World War, it was requisitioned by the French Army to transport French troops, mostly to the failed Dardanelles expedition against the Turks. In a return trip, in December 1915, empty except for the crew, it collided off the coast of Malta with a Canadian ship, Empress of Britain, another passenger ship requisitioned for military uses. Two French stokers died in the collision, the rest of the crew (62 people) were rescued. Almost cut in two by the larger and more powerful ship, Djurjura, the former Rosario, the piroscafo that took my ancestors to Argentina, sank to the bottom of the sea. Sad, perhaps, but I suppose that at least it’s a more romantic ending than a junkyard.