Oreste Magnanini was born in 1909 into a large family in Capoliveri on the island of Elba, the island where Napoleon had been exiled. He migrated to Australia in 1928 and settled in Innisfail where a large Italian community was gathered, attracted by the sugar industry. Magnanini found work as a canecutter, and in 1932 his brother, who was the Mayor of Capoliveri, arranged for Quintilia Capocchi - also from the isle of Elba - to come to Australia to marry him. A daughter Teresa was born in 1934, and Magnanini in 1938 became a naturalised British Subject. Before the war, Innisfail had become the home of the largest group of Elbans in Australia, with about 50 families from the island settling there.
The internment of Italians in Innisfail began after Italy’s entry into the war, with 21 being taken on the suspicion of disloyalty in 1940. An anonymous letter about Magnanini early in February 1941 claimed that a Greek who could understand Italian overheard him stating that ‘a Jap invasion could be expected to destroy this cannibal country’. This initiated the police surveillance of Magnanini, which recorded that in May he applied for permission to possess a two-cell torch. The search of his house in June by Military Intelligence Cairns reported that Magnanini had had trouble with several Greeks, and that there was ill-feeling among the Greek and Italian communities.
Following Japan’s entry into the war, the fall of Rabaul and the bombing of Port Moresby and Darwin, an invasion was feared in north Queensland, and Italians living there were regarded as a security threat. Master Warrants containing many names were drawn up for the internment of Italians, all Japanese and others.
In Innisfail, six Italians were interned promptly, and on 14 February 1942 a further 27 were interned, including Mario Sardi. Then on 21 February Magnanini was among the 36 taken. The March number was 105, and 162 in April, before numbers began to decline. All up, 458 Italians were interned from Innisfail. Like the others, Magnanini was taken first to Stuart Creek Jail in Townsville, then by train to Gaythorne in Brisbane, and then to Loveday in South Australia, where Camp 14A had been set up especially for this wave of internees. Magnanini appealed against his internment, and after an Advisory Committee hearing and a brief stay in hospital was released at the end of January 1944.
During his internment his daughter Teresa wrote regularly to him. On one occasion she asked him to write to her in English, and he then requested she send him an English book, which she did. The letters, more than 50 of them, were treasured and kept, and are now in the care of Teresa’s daughter Loretta, who has made them available.
After the war a son Dom was born, and Orazio and Quintilia opened a grocery shop in Edith Street Innisfail. Many of the Elban emigrants left the north and relocated to Melbourne, but the Magnanini family was among the group who remained in Innisfail. Oreste passed away in January 1958. The shop remained in the Magnanini family until son Dom’s recent retirement.
Text by Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien
National Archives of Australia, MP 1103/1, Prisoner of War/Internee Q7676, Oreste Magnanini (mis-spelt Magninini).
National Archives of Australia, MP 1103/2, Prisoner of War/Internee Q7676, Oreste Magnanini (mis-spelt Magninini).
National Archives of Australia, BP242/1, Q7676, Oreste Magnanini, Queensland Investigation Case Files.
Dom Magnanini, ‘Oreste and Quintilia Magnanini’ in Ada De Munari Choat, Alf Martinuzzi and Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien, Eds, Italian Pioneers in the Innisfail District, Minerva E & S, 2003.