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Tony De Bolfo

Tony De Bolfo's grandfather sailed from Genoa to Melbourne with his two brothers and 105 other passengers on the Re D'Italia in 1927. Their story inspired Tony, a Melbourne sports journalist, to spend eight years tracking down any surviving passengers from the Re D'Italia, and their families, to see what became of them after they arrived in Australia. The result is Tony's book, In Search of Kings (Harper Collins).

READERSVOICE.COM: Have people approached you with more stories about Italian immigrants since they read In Search of Kings, or saw you on Australian Story talking about your project, and if so what sort of things did they tell you?

TONY DE BOLFO: Immediately after the ABC’s Australian Story program went to air in July 1999, I was invited to partake in an online chat with viewers. In a ten-minute period, I received almost 200 flattering emails and not all from those of Italian descent either. People boasting Irish, English, Swedish and Croatian backgrounds all made contact because they could relate to the story of the migrant. It seemed to strike a chord with them.
For example, a lady named Cheryle Williams wrote to say: “I watched your story and could relate to it so well. I was adopted when I was three weeks old, and I have spent most of my adult life searching for family. You have reignited my desire to continue with my search”. And then there was this from Michael O’Brien.
“Although my family background is Irish, I regret to this day not recording in some way the history of my grandfather, Emerald O’Brien . . . congratulations on the great work you have done so far in uncovering some of Australia’s recent history.”
And finally this, from a man named Craige Proctor. ” . . . I was extremely moved by the eipsode on your research and commend you on your perseverence and resourcefulness . . . I empathise with your desire to unravel the lives of the men and women who clearly have touched you in a profound way, just as the ‘ghosts’ of the past have touched me . . . You should feel very proud, but more importantly satisfied that you have done something so very worthwhile not just for the families concerned, but for Australian immigrant history as well.”

RV: Was your book modelled on or influenced by other works of oral history, like Studs Turkel, and if so which ones did you enjoy?

TD: No, I wasn’t motivated by any other publication. In fact, my motivation never was to write a book. All I felt compelled to do was to get my great uncle’s story down on record in 1994 for my own family’s benefit. You see, Igino was the last surviving member of the three brothers (the others being Francesco and my grandfather, Silvio) to have completed the arduous 46-day voyage aboard the Re d’Italia in 1927. My grandfather died in 1981 and Francesco died six years later, and it had never dawned on me to ask either of them about why they left Italy, what they were leaving behind, what they were coming to and whether it had all been worth it.
Not until 1994 did the penny finally drop that I simply had to broach the subject with Igino and thank God my dear great uncle lived long enough to allow that to happen.

RV: In addition to learning a lot about Italian history I thought the book gave a sense of how finite life is, and the sorts of things that can happen. I was wondering what new perspectives on life you gained, or changes you underwent from your experience of researching and writing the book.

TD: I’m so happy the book gave off that impression, for as I furthered my research I too came to appreciate the utter fragility of life and the way in which fate or circumstance can deal either a kind or cruel hand. To that end I truly admire the bravery of these predominantly uneducated men, women and children to tempt fate and begin again in a land devoid of the old cultures, languages and lifestyles they knew.
I believe they paved the way for future generations to prosper and as the descendant of one of the passengers said to me during the writing of this book: “One must have courage to show life in its positive and negative aspects, so that present generations do not forget that the better living conditions they are enjoying are due to the sacrifices of previous generations”.

RV: In the same situation as your grandfather and two great-uncles do you think you would have done the same thing and made the jump to Australia?

TD: This is a question I have constantly asked myself through the course of my research, based on the realisation that many of the passengers of the Re d’Italia lived through the most tumultuous times of the 20th century, incorporating Two World Wars and The Great Depression. In many respects, circumstances meant my grandfather and two great uncles had little choice other than to leave. After all, they were three members of a family of eight children, whose beloved parents were confronted with the brutally harsh economic and political realities of Italy between the wars and to that end I understand why they made the move.

What I have never been able to understand, however, is why none of the brothers, even in later years when they had established themselves in Australia, never saw fit to revisit the homeland. In 1988 and 1999 I made the pilgrimage to their hometown of San Nicolo, nestled beneath the majestic Dolomites in the Veneto region not far from the Austrian border and discovered that it was quite simply, God’s country. But as one of the brothers said to me not long before he died, the San Nicolo I saw is a very different place to the one he left forever in 1927 . . . too many bad memories.

RV: I liked the story of Maria Carbonetto. What stories struck you the most?

TD: The story of Maria Carbonetto, Domenico Caffaro and Toni Koller’s stepbrother Giovanni Costella was also a favourite of Nino Randazzo, the managing editor of Il Globo and launcher of the book.
For me, the tragic story of Antonio Gnata probably carried the greatest emotional impact.
To briefly explain, Antonio was working as a powder monkey in a bluestone quarry in the Victorian town of Stawell when, in his little tin hut on the morning of May 30, 1938, he penned a suicide note to his parents in Italy. He later made for the quarry armed with three sticks of gellignite, which he later placed in his mouth and detonated.
The suicide note, addressed to his Papa and Mamma, basically said, “Goodbye Papa and Mamma, See you in the next world, Ardent Kisses, Your loving son,A. Gnata. Nothing can stop me, destiny calls me.”
Antonio’s letter did not carry an address and never made it back to his parents in Italy. It was instead retained as evidence for the subsequent coronial inquest and was later filed away in an archive where it remained for the next 60 years.
The letter was retrieved from the archive after I became aware of Antonio’s fate about a fortnight before the 60th anniversary of his death.
Antonio’s final resting place was also located as he had been buried in an unmarked grave, and in a lovely postscript, his relatives gathered at the grave for a small service conducted by the local parish priest, Father Tudor, on May 30, 1998 – sixty years to the day since Antonio took his life.
Antonio’s story is a brutal reminder that not all of the passengers of the Re d’Italia found their Shangri-La in Australia. Antonio’s story still gives me chills, but I am pleased to think that in some small way I helped bring closure to the mystery of his terrible fate for his family’s benefit. May he rest in peace.

RV: Do you have plans for a similar style book in the future?

TD: It’s a funny thing. A descendant of the passenger Annunziata Faralla (nee Picone) only said the other day that I should consider penning a sequel to In Search of Kings, dealing with what has since become of the descendants of the passengers of the Re d’Italia.
It’s an interesting notion, but I doubt that part two would be as fascinating or as emotionally-charged for me as In Search of Kings.

RV: What are some of your favorite books of all time and why, including sports books?

TD: I sadly have to admit that as my full-time role of journalist requires me to scour a number of national daily newspapers I rarely find the time or inclination to get my teeth into a novel.
I’m not blessed with a very fertile imagination either and when I do read it is invariably always non-fiction. Right now I’m ploughing through David Day’s biography, John Curtin – a life.
Curiously, a book which sticks in my mind relates to the Royal Commission’s report of the Mr Asia Syndicate. The report basically chronicles the operations of the worldwide drug syndicate over which Terence Clark – the embodiment of sheer evil – presided. I found the report to be totally absorbing, frightening reading.
On the sports front, I’ve recently acquired a copy of Sydney sportswriter Jeff Wells’ book, Boxing Day – The Fight That Changed The World.
The book deals with the world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns by Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day 1908.