Economic crisis and fools gold: Interview with historian Giorgio Cheda
"We shall not stay long"
Dale Bechtel - SwissInfo.ch - December 1, 2009
Migrations interview: Part one
Historian Giorgio Cheda, the pre-eminent expert on Ticino emigration, provides answers in this five-part interview to many questions about the mass movements abroad.
Cheda, whose own father lived in the United States for a few years, is the author of comprehensive volumes on the migrations to California and the Australian state of Victoria.
In the books, the stories of the 19th and early 20th century "emigranti" come alive through the countless letters they wrote to the loved ones they left behind.
Cheda also based much of his work on research he conducted in archives in the two countries during visits in the 1970s.
swissinfo: What were the economic conditions like in 19th century Ticino, which led to the first wave of migrations overseas?
Giorgio Cheda: There was a period of economic crisis in the mid-19th century, also in Ticino. In particular, there was the potato blight. There was a drop in production from the alpine pastures because there was a very serious disease that decimated the livestock. And, above all, there was an economic embargo.
Since Liberals in Ticino were helping the men of the Italian "Risorgimento" to achieve Italian unity, the Austrian authorities decreed an economic embargo between Ticino and Italy. This led to the immediate return of some 5,000 workers who were employed in Lombardy. It also meant it was impossible to buy grain (because Ticino depended on Lombardy for its bread), and it was impossible to sell timber, cheese, livestock and so on to Lombardy.
So it was a very hard time.
swissinfo: So where did these first "Ticinesi" migrants go, and what influenced their decision to go there?
Giorgio Cheda: The first place to have a real impact was Australia. Why? Because the emigration agencies insisted especially on recruiting immigrants for Australia. The reasons are complex, but I can sum it up as follows: the Hamburg ship owners had invested a lot of money in order to carry emigrants to the goldfields. But the German authorities realised that this form of emigration was also a matter of speculation, and that the clauses in the contracts were not being respected. Since the agencies could no longer recruit further emigrants in Germany, they looked for new sources and so came to Switzerland.
However, strict laws were in force in the cantons regulating the activities of the emigration agencies. Ticino was the only one that had not passed a law of this kind. So for 18 months or a couple of years, the agencies had a free hand.
Through newspaper adverts, personal contacts and other means, they were able to recruit roughly 2,000 Ticinesi, especially from the valleys above Locarno. Almost half of these 2,000 came from the Valle Maggia, and many others from the Val Verzasca. And with these groups of emigrants they stipulated very tough contracts: the voyage was expensive, so almost all of these emigrants had to borrow money, take out a mortgage loan, to be able to buy their tickets for Australia.
Meanwhile, in those years only a few hundred went to California. So there was a difference from the very beginning: speculation on the part of the agencies, which deprived Ticino not only of 2,000 emigrants but also of some SFr2 million to pay for the voyage, while on the other hand those who went to California found fertile ground. Not only were they able to work in the goldfields and save a few dollars; they were also able to invest their savings straight away in land. Unlike in Australia, where land ownership was still the privilege of the British, in America land was available for anybody who wanted to cultivate it.
So these peasant farmers from the valleys of Ticino found fertile ground in California and were able to develop their working skills, like raising livestock, and making good quality butter and cheese, and selling it in centres such as San Francisco, and later Salinas and many other places - Sacramento, Los Angeles and so on.
They were able to perform very productive activities which enabled some of them to progress in time from being ranchers to being traders, or send their children to university and get involved in new professions which, here in Ticino would have been unthinkable for mere peasants. And so they were able to make their fortunes.
Migrations interview: Part two
In this section, historian Giorgio Cheda describes why, in general, the migrations to Australia were a failure and those to California a success.
swissinfo: Can you explain in more detail how and where they got their money from to travel abroad and start new lives, since they were very poor?
Giorgio Cheda: Yes, this is a very significant issue. And it explains the difference between emigration to Australia, which occurred over a period of only two years, and emigration to California, which involved many more people but was spread over a century.
In the case of Australia, as I said before, the issue is very complex because, since the vast majority of these emigrants did not have the money to pay their fares, they had to contract debts. This meant that, in a village, when ten, 15 or 20 young people decided to go to Australia, they would form a partnership and go to a notary. The notary would make them sign a personal contract, but with joint and collective liability. This meant that if, for example, someone died on board ship or during the early days in Australia, without having earned anything, the partners who had signed the contract were obliged to repay the debt of their late companion, as well as their own.
This meant that a great deal of the property of the families in these villages, where 100 or a 150 young people (and not so young people) were going to Australia, became burdened with debt – their houses, cowsheds, and their land. In many cases, I have discovered that part of these debts were repaid, ten or 15 or 20 years later, but with the savings accumulated by their relatives who had emigrated to California.
Therefore in general, albeit with some exceptions for which we have documentation, emigration to Australia was a failure from a financial point of view and also on the human level. Because, of the 2,000 who emigrated to Australia, only ten or so were women. This meant that in Australia they were not able to rebuild their families, as happened in California, where, because emigration was spread over so many years, it could be self-financing. Apart from the first emigrants, who had to contract a debt, those of the second, third and fourth waves were generally funded by their relatives already working in California. So it was self-financing.
Then, many of those who emigrated to California were able to rebuild the kind of family life they had known in Ticino, on the ranches of the Salinas Valley, in Sonoma county, West Marin and so on, where full-scale "colonies" were formed by groups of Ticinesi. The women were Ticinesi. The young men were Ticinesi, and if a young man could not return to Ticino to find a wife, he would write a letter inviting his mother or father to find him a promising young woman, then he would send her the money to join him in California and get married. As a result, many weddings were celebrated in San Francisco, or in Salinas or elsewhere, but still within the village community. So nuclei of Ticinesi peasants were reconstituted, but operating on a different geographical and economic basis from that of the Val Verzasca or the Valle Maggia, because obviously the conditions in California were very different from those of their native valleys.
Migrations interview: Part three
The voyage overseas could only begin once families had given their consent to the emigranti and the necessary funds had been scraped together. In this section, Cheda describes the journey.
swissinfo: Let's take a step back and talk about how they actually travelled abroad. Did the first emigranti in the 1850s begin their journey on foot, or did they take diligences (stagecoaches) to the ports?
Giorgio Cheda: They travelled partly on foot, partly by diligence and partly by train. There were already sections of railway - because in the 1850s they were beginning to build railways very quickly - in both France and Germany. So it was possible to get to the ports of embarkation using fairly good means of transport.
Some parts of the journey did have to be covered on foot, for example the St. Gotthard. They could go as far as Airolo with the diligence, but then they had to cross the pass on foot.
I'm thinking of a letter from someone writing from Hamburg to say they had had to leave one of their companions in a hospital somewhere because, climbing hurriedly over the Gotthard pass in cold weather and snow, he had caught pneumonia.
So this chap had to be taken to hospital, stay there until he was better, then join the following convoy so he could reach Hamburg and take the next ship, which was leaving the following month, and so arrive in Melbourne later than the group with which he had begun the journey. But generally the journey to the port of embarkation was fairly easy, because it could be done by public transport.
swissinfo: Was Hamburg the only port they embarked from?
Giorgio Cheda: Almost all of the 2,000 emigrating to Australia took the ship from Hamburg, for the reason I explained before: the Hamburg recruitment agencies exerted pressure so they could fill their ships with passengers for Australia. Some went to London, some to Dieppe or other northern European ports but almost all left from Hamburg.
But for California the assembly point was Le Havre. In 1850, 1880, 1890, almost all emigrants bound for California embarked at Le Havre for New York.
For Australia, the voyage was by sailing ship. Of course, sailing ships were dependent on the winds and might take up to six months, as I have been able to discover by comparing the dates of embarkation in Hamburg, where I have been to research the ships' passenger lists, with the disembarkation lists in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, the journey to California was fairly long until 1869, because they had to go round South America, round Cape Horn, then sail up the Pacific coast. After 1869, when the construction of the first transcontinental railroad was completed, the train journey from New York to San Francisco took no more than ten days, maybe only a week. So getting to California in 1870 or 1880 was relatively easy. It took about a month: three weeks to cross the Atlantic and then, from New York to San Francisco, a further week by train – and there you were.
This explains why return journeys to California in the late 19th/early 20th century were, I would say, fairly common, especially for those families who, having a ranch in California but still having relatives and friends in the villages here, wanted to return fairly often to visit their places of origin. So many very positive contacts were maintained between the valleys of Ticino and the "colonies" the Ticinesi had founded in California.
Migrations interview: Part four
There were two sides to the migration coin with both winners and losers.
But as Giorgio Cheda argues in this part of the interview, the mass movements abroad, especially those to California, must be seen as benefiting both the emigranti and those who remained in Ticino.
swissinfo: So over many decades, people continued to migrate to California – but not only to California, to Argentina as well between 1880 and 1914 and to London. What impact did the loss of all of these people have on Ticino and the people left behind?
Giorgio Cheda: As always, there were both positive and negative aspects. In my opinion the net result was positive. I know that not everyone agrees with my view, but let me explain. There were negative aspects, of course, which were borne mainly by the women, because emigration created an imbalance of the sexes. It was mainly men who left, especially in the case of Australia and the first waves of people going to California, and the women were left behind. So these women could not get married and it fell to them to perform all sorts of heavy tasks, which also affected them physically.
I've seen some doctors' reports in which they say that women had difficulty in giving birth because they were obliged from childhood to carry heavy burdens up and down the mountainsides carrying, for example, cheese, ricotta and butter from the alpine pastures at 2,000 metres above sea level to the market in Locarno. All this work fell on the women's shoulders. Or think how they had to make hay in the woods to be able to feed a cow or two during the long winters. This was very hard work for a woman, and very dangerous.
These hardships have been illustrated very well by the painter Vanoni, who has left a whole series of ex voto images in our churches graphically portraying the sufferings of the women who were forced to perform these tasks.
So, on the one hand, there was this imbalance of the sexes, which weighed most heavily on the women. But, on the other hand, you have to remember that the departure of many people, mainly to California, also meant fewer mouths to feed with the limited supplies of food that could be produced in our mountains, because the arable land there could produce only a limited amount.
Then senseless deforestation caused partly by politicians out to make a quick profit led to the loss of quite a few hectares of arable land. Then there was the damage caused by the flood of 1868, the year in which emigration from Ticino peaked. The people were demoralised. They no longer saw how they could survive in a valley as poor as the Val Verzasca or the Valle Maggia, so they preferred to go to California. Therefore there is also this very positive aspect: emigration as a safety valve, an outlet for a population that was increasing in numbers and could not make a decent living from its native soil.
swissinfo: Were there other positive aspects?
Giorgio Cheda: A good proportion of those who emigrated to California may have lived a hard life as cowhands, ranching, working all hours of the day, but they were also able to acquire land at an affordable price, especially between 1860 and 1910 –something that would have been unthinkable here in Ticino.
So clearly this explains how a thousand or so of these 27,000 Ticinesi who went to California were able to purchase, in total, an area almost as large as the Sopraceneri (upper part of Ticino): 1,800 square kilometres of land. This is putting together all the small, medium and large-size ranches that the Ticinesi purchased between the border of Oregon, up in Humboldt County, and San Diego and the Mexican frontier, and especially of course in certain counties such as Marin, Sonoma, Napa, the Salinas Valley, San Luis Obispo, the Santa Maria Valley, or on the Sierra, in Plumas County and so on, where the largest and most important "colonies" of Ticinesi became established.
Not forgetting San Francisco, where already in the 19th century - before the San Francisco earthquake - there were more than 500 Ticinesi living. Obviously they were not working on ranches but in the various trades and professions, because the children of the first ranchers had been able to attend college or university, and so they had settled in the major cities – cultural capitals, we might say – of the American West.
We could put it another way: if today we visit the Ticino valleys of Sopraceneri, we find many fine houses built between 1880 and 1910-15, which were paid for with the dollars earned in California. The finest houses in the Valle Maggia and the Val Verzasca, and indeed in other areas such as the Leventina or the Riviera, were built during that period thanks to the savings made by the ranchers in California, or rather by the emigrants, since not all of them were ranchers, of course.
They managed to save a certain amount of money, returned to Ticino and built their houses. Unfortunately, there is a negative side to this, which is often passed over: the failure of the banks. Let us not forget that in 1914 practically all the banks in Ticino collapsed. This represented a loss of a cool SFr40 million, as valued at that time. And almost all of these 40 million, in my humble opinion, were savings remitted by emigrants, largely saved in California - also in Argentina and other places, but most of it had been saved in California.
Years ago, I tried to research this matter in greater depth, but unfortunately I had to give up because all the documentation regarding the 1914 bankruptcies had been destroyed.
But I hold this view because I have read many of the emigrants' letters and have some knowledge of what happened in those years. In particular, we must consider the importance of the Banca Svizzera-Americana, established by the Ticinesi in San Francisco with branches in other towns in California and a centre in Locarno. From Locarno, the Banca Svizzera-Americana reached out into the valleys of Ticino, and played an important role in handling the savings that were regularly remitted from California.
So when the banks crashed, many families lost enormous sums of money, and this must be counted as one of the negative aspects of the (emigration) phenomenon.
Migrations interview: Part five
In the final chapter of the swissinfo interview with Giorgio Cheda, the historian talks about the longing of all migrants – at one time or another – to return to their homeland.
swissinfo: Your own father migrated to California. But he came back...
Giorgio Cheda: My father worked for nine years in California but he returned, as did many, many others. As I told you, 27,000 people emigrated to California but, of these 27,000, only 1,000 established ranches. We need to double that figure, because there were the wives of these ranchers, though not all of them were Ticinesi. And some became involved in other business activities and spent the rest of their lives in California. But others returned, after five, ten, 15, 20 years or more. This is normal because, where emigration is concerned, there is always a longing to return home.
Many emigrants want to come home, sooner or later, and spend the rest of their lives in their native village. This, too, is interesting and positive, especially in my own case (and in the case of many others) because it meant I had a different relationship with California. In other words, for me California was not just any old place. Not only was it a place to which 27,000 Ticinesi had gone, but also close relations, members of my own family. And so I was interested to know what kind of life, what kind of society this relative had experienced when working for a number of years in California. It was the trigger, if you like, that initiated my research into these letters and motivated me to reconstruct this important episode in the history of Ticino.
swissinfo: How strong are the ties today between the descendants of the emigranti and their relatives in Ticino?
Giorgio Cheda: Relations with Ticino emigrants have become reduced to the purely private level today, largely because there is no longer the financial dimension I referred to earlier. Today, there are certainly many families which still have ties with relatives in California. But these are becoming less and less important year on year, because the old people are dying off and the young people are not interested in forming new relationships.
In some cases, there are fairly intense relationships between family members who still have common interests, because there are still some families living in Ticino which have property in California, or economic interests in California, but obviously these are private matters.
I think there must be money coming into Ticino because there are still families which receive income from property acquired by their relatives in California. But they have little impact on modern-day Ticino.
swissinfo: Are people in Ticino today aware of the importance of the overseas migrations of the past?
Giorgio Cheda: Yes, there are quite a few Ticinesi who are aware of their importance, but this is more a matter of nostalgia for the older generation. I would say that the younger generation is not at all interested in this subject. They are much more affected by the phenomenon of immigration.
You only need to consider the success of certain far-right parties, certain xenophobic parties, which make it their business to point the finger at immigrants and blame the most recently arrived for all our social problems and so on. Immigration is viewed negatively, partly because it is exploited by political movements of the right, which would have us curl up hedgehog-like, creating a very closed, limited society such as ours, rather than thinking of the importance of being open, both economically and culturally, which could be a positive benefit of immigration.