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Francesco Carmagnola (1900 - 1986)

On 27 February 1986, Frank Carmagnola died in Sydney aged 86. He had suffered badly for months from cancer. Born in the province of Vicenza, North Italy, he became active in the anarchist movement at an early age. He then did his military service in Bologna where he was involved in the very active local movement at the time of the occupations of the factories and general revolutionary upsurge. For this and his agitating inside the barracks, the army placed him in a special unit for the politically suspect.

After his discharge, he was again very active in industrial struggles in his home district and in agitating against the rising fascist violence which finally forced him to migrate to Australia in 1922. He worked as a canecutter in North Queensland, as a factory worker in Sydney and Melbourne.

From the early 1920's, Frank became increasingly involved in organising anti-fascist activity within the Italian communities. With a group of courageous and audacious comrades, many of whom were anarchist, he also continually physically confronted local representatives of fascism. This attracted harassment by local police and continual demands for harsher action by the Italian political police.

Carmagnola also tried to link the developing anti-fascist presence to supportive elements of the local Australian left. Although successful, he nevertheless retained his clear anarchist orientation. He continually presented his anarchist positions in speeches and the papers he published, Il Risveglio (The Re-awakening) and more particularly La Ricossa (The Revolt), 1929-33. He rejected attempts by the Communist Party to take control of the various initiatives. He was very hostile to the Soviet Union as he refarded it as a new tyranny, a "red fascism" and stressed that anti-fascist and industrial struggles had to unite all working people irrespective of party politics.

His major anti-fascist initiative was the foundation of the Mateotti Club in Melbourne in 1927 of which he became secretary. It proved a major social, political and cultural success due largely to his initiative and energy. On the demise of the club because of the deepening depression, he returned to North Queensland. It was here that he made perhaps his most notable contribution to industrial struggle in Australia, leading the 1934 canecutters' strike at Ingham.

Forced south again by a bosses' boycott, from 1936 he was again extremely active in anti-fascist agitation. For example, in Melbourne in 1938, he organised the distribution of anti-fascist propaganda aboard Italian ships. The sailors of the "montecuccoli", a military vessel, savagely attacked an Italian Taxi driver thinking him to be Carmognola. The attack incensed anti-fascist feeling and two days later a demonstration of more than 12,000 people gathered before the cruiser. Frank addressed the crowd.

With the outbreak of war and Italy's alliance with Hitler, much of his energy went into convincing jongoistic Australians that not all Italians were fascists. Many Italians were arrested and interned as enemy aliens. The government placed fascists and anti-fascists in the same camps and in 1942, Francesco Fantin, anarchist and friend of Frank, was brutally beaten to death by fascists in one of these camps.

After the war, Frank gradually withdrew from active politics and lost contact with, if not interest in, movements for radical change. To the end, he remained proud to be anarchist and was outraged at the inhumanity and oppression in this world.

In his final years, he was delighted to meet young people interested in him, his past, and in politics in general. Independent and energetic, he retained a remarkably open yet critical mind. Although saddened that much of the work of militants of his generation had seemingly led to very little, he was not resigned to the situation. A year before his death, he told visitors to his house at Camden (near Sydney) that his political struggles had been a wonderful time of his life. It was now up to us, his "grandchildren".

We buried Frank as he wished, without priests nor prayers, but with the black flags of freedom and the Italian anarchist song "Addio Lugano Bella". He leaves us an example to follow.

Peter Sheldon
Published in Rebel Worker, Sydney, Vol 5 No 2 (26) April-May 1986.
Divider: anarchist regional flag colours

Queensland Canecutters' Strike 1934

Like many other anti fascists, Carmagnola was forced to emigrate from Italy because of fascist violence. From his arrival in 1922, he was increasingly active and prominent in organising anti fascist activities in North Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne. When the depression undermined these activities in Melbourne, he returned to North Queensland followed by some of his staunchest and most experienced anti fascist comrades.

Although the Depression was not as deep in Queensland, conditions were extremely difficult. Canecutting was extremely arduous work especially in the tropical heat. There were also specific health hazards.

The most important was Weil's disease which had horrible symptoms and at times proved fatal. Canefield rats, present in plague proportions during the wet summers of the early 1930's, spread the disease through their urine. Two doctors believed that burning the cane before cutting it would greatly lessen the danger. The cutters, increasingly worried by the growing sickness rate and its terrible effects, took this up as a demand in 1934.

Most of the cutters were migrants, especially Italians. "their" union, the all-powerful Australian Workers' Union (AWU), had a long history of racism and sell-outs. In June 1930, for example, it made a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with the various bosses' organisations that at least 75% of all cutters were to be British or Australian subjects. The union thus effectively black-banned a large part of its non-British migrant membership.

A local anarchist group, spearheaded by the Danesi brothers, led a successful struggle against the Agreement. This strengthened the influence of the anarchists amoung the large Italian communities in North Queensland and also helped develop confidence in forms of struggle which stressed class solidarity and downplayed political allegiencies. The arrival of Carmagnola and his friends the following year strengthened this tendency. For the next four years, they operated widely in the North Queensland canefield areas, harassing fascist representatives, propagandising against fascism and organising strikes to improve working conditions.

By 1934, with the growing incidence of Weil's disease, the major demand was for the burning of the cane. Under the local commercial and industrial awards, burnt cane attracted lower prices than green cane but these losses could be deducted from the cutters' piece rate wages. Rates were already low. Nevertheless, powerful sugar refineries led by the giant Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), and the growers' organisations stood out against burning under any circumstances.

The workers had against them powerful employers, a hostile and racist union and the police. Nevertheless, they confronted the problem with great unity and imaginative and courageous direct action. About 200 of the most active strikers toured the Ingham District in motor lorries, turning over cane trucks and lorries taking cane to the mills. At times it meant violent confrontation with the police but, whever they moved, the strikers constantly agitated amoung other groups of cutters.

This proved most effective. The fear of Weil's disease and the spirited organisation of the strikers as well as Carmagnola's renowned oratorical powers encouraged the spread of the strike north towards Cairns. At Nourilyan, 420 Italian cutters came out; at Hambledon 218 and hundreds more elsewhere.

The strike, a clear example of class solidarity, was gaining momentum and the AWU was finaly forced to lodge an application to the industrial courts for the burning of the cane. The court granted this in September 1934, in the face of the overwhelming success of the strike.

It was a major victory and yet the strike had lasted barely one month. Workers had relied on their own resources, strength and initiative in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition. This too at a time when most of the Australian labour movement had sunk into despondency and / or apathy as a result of the Depression and previous defeats. A short strike where workers took the initiative and attacked any threat of scab production had a better chance than the long drawn out struggles which had usually crippled workers' abilities to resist. Italian workers had shown that it was possible to breach the entrenched racism and to break through the artificial barriers which bosses used to divide and weaken workers. They had also demonstrated that their lives and health could not be bartered, were not the playthings of lawyers and union bureaucrats. There must be no attempt to value safety in terms of danger money and sickness only in terms of compensation.

The fight began again the following year as the AWU again sold out to the bosses. However, the victory of 1934 set an example to the cutters and the success was repeated on an even wider scale. Carmagnola, boycotted by the local employers, returned to Sydney to continue his anti fascist work.


Diane Menghetti, The Weil's Disease Strike, 1935, in DJ Murphy, The Big Strikes, 1983.
Gianfranco Cresciani, The proletarian migrants: fascism and Italian Anarchists in Australia, Australian Quarterly, March 1979.
Interviews with Frank Carmagnola and other strikers of 1934.

Peter Sheldon
Published in Rebel Worker, Sydney, Vol 5 No 2 (26) April-May 1986.
Divider: anarchist regional flag colours

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