Saturday, 12 January 2013

Cousin country - New Italy

Pretty much the only evidence remaining
New Italy (mud brick) Museum and cafe
 My family history project continues. This last week took me to Evans Head and the nearby New Italy Museum where I met my namesake and second cousin once removed, Stephen John Capelin. For the first time I understood the "once removed" concept.

We are second cousins but I am a generation ahead of him even though he is almost the same age. We are among a line of Stephens. Stephen John's father was John Stephen, his father a Stephen John and his father a Stephen Antonio. I have a first cousin Stephen Anthony (from the same ancestry though different surname - his mother was a Capelin) and I have a brother Michael Anthony.

With a couple of hundred relatives on my father's Italian side there are also a string of Lawrences and Larrys (one in every generation of my direct line) and the original Lorenzo from whom we are all descended and whom is the subject of my historical fiction - a work in progress.

Free admission - a display of family stories and heirlooms
Stephen was in possession of a wonderful document which fills in a few gaps in our story. You may have read previously that we are Capelin by nickname only, but an enduring nickname which goes back at least two hundred years (correctly spelt Cappellin and meaning 'Little Hat' - my blog name). We are of the Perin family. One, Antonio Perin of Veneto, has undertaken an international search for the world family of Perins. This has taken him to Australia, France, Belgium, North America and Brazil. We are all related and all come from an area in Northern Italy over which you could throw a table cloth. He has published this as "Familie Perin Nel Mondo'. It all looks authentic.

Marginal country on which the Italians eked out an existence
We Capelins (also a John along with my son Nicholas, not a repeated Italian name, and their wives Ellen and Elizabeth) met at the New Italy Museum, a roadside stop on the Pacific Highway and home to the story of the fifty families who travelled to Australia in 1881 on a disastrous voyage to a phantom paradise.

I thought I had almost all the facts in place but, and this is the fascinating thing about history and family history, it is never quite finalised; there is always more.

The land has largely reverted to bushland
In this case we spent three hours (we had met only once before in 2005) on a rollicking ride through family stories and documents and, in a spirit of discovery, unearthed a few new elements for each of us. For my part, I have been writing an historical/fictional account of Lorenzo and his family exploring life in Veneto and the conversations and events which might have lead to the decision to up stumps and choose the unknown rather than struggle to survive in peasant Italy of the times. At this point I have Lorenzo as the dreamer, his wife Catterina as the pragmatist and bitter about her lost childbearing years and eight year old Dominic as the narrator.

A local recipe for (a lot of) salami
I had presumed that, given Catterina had a thirteen year old and an eight year old, there would probably have been other children born in intervening years whom she may have lost. Stephen's document proves this to be true. She is listed as having given birth to three other children in Italy who are not mentioned elsewhere and did not accompany them on the voyage. Is it possible that Lorenzo and Catterina left some behind with relatives to make the voyage less arduous? Unlikely. I can't imagine any parent making that choice. And thus my confidence in my narrative has been reinforced by a day at Evans Head Beach. The surf on the last day of my camping trip was great by the way - big rolling foamers cresting and crashing into deep clear water.

Sadly Catterina did not survive the voyage and lies in an unmarked grave in Noumea. This death (in childbirth) will be the climactic moment in the story.

For Stephen John (second cousin once removed) it raised the possibility that his great-great grandfather Dominic (Lorenzo's son) may have been a twin as there are two births recorded in 1872.  And still no documentary evidence (birth/baptism) of our existence in Italy as Perin or Capelin or Cappellin. I plan a visit in June to do some further digging.

These are the snippets of information and hoped for documents which keep us family historians questing for answers to sometimes unknown questions.

For those who have come this far, well done. For those who find family history a tad tiresome I could swerve towards something racier on my grandmother's Irish side. A potential potboiler featuring a divorce involving two generations of aspirational Italian and Irish peasants and the progeny of one of Australia's high profile industrialists. Another time maybe.


Anonymous said...

I love your updates.

Once I took my children to visit a Catholic cemetry in Macau (oh great day out Mum) seriously they were fascinated ... whole families of infants would die in a week - so we guessed it was during times of tropical diseases and that bought a sharp lesson home to all of us.

sarah toa said...

Fascinating history ...
Dying in childbirth on a strange land, well dying in childbirth anywhere, would have to be one of the most horrific ways to die. It used to be such so common. Imagine.

little hat said...

It's hard to imagine Sarah. Andrea would have died in childbirth with our first if not for modern medicine. She had a caesar after a 30 hour labour and very little progress. Why they let her go that long I don't know - I was there but as I recall I was obsessed with a "natural birth". Perhaps I was partly responsible. It would have been a "natural" death in the old days. Exhaustion, bleeding, and a dying baby trapped in the womb. It doesn't bear thinking about. I'll need to do some research before I write that scene.