Giuseppe Cantamessa of Ingham, who came to Australian from Piedmont in 1907, was naturalised in 1913 and had lived continuously in Australia for 33 years by 1940, when he was interned the day after Italy entered the war, on 12 June 1940. His dossier concluded: ‘In the event of hostilities with Italy, his prominence and influence in public affairs would make him a dangerous man.’[i] He was serving his fifth year as an elected Labor Party member of the local government of the district when he was interned, and had been active in other public affairs. He had represented the farmers of Ingham for six years from 1929 to 1936 on the Queensland Cane Growers' Council, and at the time of his internment, he was chairman of the Herbert River District Cane Growers' Executive. He had been on the Sugar Cane Pests Board, the Ingham Show Committee, he was a Justice of the Peace, and an office-bearer in many of the local sporting associations over the years, including Patron and President of the Bowling Club, District Vice-President of the North Queensland Life Saving Association and the tennis, cricket, and football clubs. In his private as well as his public life he was highly assimilated into Australian ways and values. Yet on the day after Italy entered WW II, without warning Cantamessa was taken away, and he remained locked up for three years and three months. At one stroke, his life was transformed from leading citizen to public enemy and prisoner.
Opposition to the Italian presence in north Queensland had grown with the increase in numbers of Italians in the sugar growing areas, and in 1924-5 the Queensland government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate ‘The Social and Economic Effect of Aliens in North Queensland’, known as the Ferry Royal Commission. Cantamessa was one of the eight Italian-origin cane farmers invited to appear before the Commission.[ii] Seven of the eight had remained in the north and were interned 16 years later when Italy entered WWII. Not long after the Ferry Royal Commission, British Preference was introduced in the northern sugar industry in 1930, and in 1931 Cantamessa had called a private meeting for Italian farmers, gangers and canecutters ‘interested in the question of the employment of Italian labour’ to discuss ‘Italian rights in Queensland’, at the time when British Preference in the sugar industry reserved 75 percent of cane-cutting jobs for Britishers. Two men believed later to be members of the Babinda Fascio received written invitations to this meeting in Cantamessa’s name but signed by Salvatore Pagano of Innisfail. The Deputy Director of Security for Queensland, McFarlane, presented this invitation as ‘documentary proof of Cantamessa's pro-Fascist sentiments and associations’ when he recommended against re-opening Cantamessa’s case for release.[iii]
Cantamessa was imprisoned at Gaythorne Camp in Brisbane for four months, followed by seven months at the Hay Internment Camp, and finally he was part of the first group of internees in Loveday, being marched in to the new camp on 16 June 1941. His son recorded that in Loveday the commander gave him some men and they built a Tennis court in the camp, and Cantamessa, with his doubles partner Claudio Alcorso, who had been in the Italian tennis team, always won their matches.[iv]
Cantamessa appealed against his internment to the Advisory Committee in August 1940 but the committee recommended his continued internment. Cantamessa was then obliged to resign from his elected position on the Hinchinbrook Shire Council. He tried unsuccessfully to appeal again in 1942 Cantamessa's file reveals that there was no evidence that he was or ever had been a member of the Fascist party, and the intelligence services were fully aware that Ingham did not have a branch of the Fascist party. Among some of the outlandish accusations against him, one, by a named Italian communist, informed TR54 that Cantamessa had induced four leading Ingham citizens, J.C. Kelly, J.V enables, A.G. Johnson and F. Fraser to join the Fascist organisation. Cantamessa, who took a moderate and conciliatory position during the industrial troubles in the sugar industry, was aware that he had political enemies. He explained to the Advisory Committee that ‘you can’t help treading on someone’s corn when you contest an election’. In rejecting the request for a second hearing in September 1942 (after two years’ internment) the Director of Security for Queensland wrote: ‘Cantamessa is just another Naturalised British Subject who was pro-Italian in his sentiments, sympathies and activities, although outwardly expressing pro-British sentiments’. After his release from internment in November 1943 Cantamessa was confined to his farm until March 1945 under the terms of a Restriction Order.
His health had been compromised during his years in internment and he had been hospitalised on first arrival at Loveday. He died on 27 March 1947 in Brisbane Hospital of a cerebral tumour aged 55. His funeral cortege of 200 cars was the largest seen in Ingham. His obituary in the Herbert River Express noted his ‘honourable service to those he represented’ and recorded the ‘he discharged his duties to his adopted country faithfully and well’.[v]
Text by Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien
[i] NAA: BP242/1, Item Q6446, Cantamessa, Giuseppe
[ii] Royal Commission appointed to Inquire into and Report on the Social and Economic Effect of Increase of Number of Aliens in North Queensland, Report PP( QLD) and QSA, PRE/A949.
[iii] NAA, BP242/1, Item Q6446, Cantamessa, Giuseppe
[iv] Interview Visio Cantamessa, Ingham, 1987.
[v] Herbert River Express, 5 April, 1947.