Friday, September 18, 2020

The Curious Tale of Signor Bernacchi and Tasmania's Maria Island

The following story is taken from the pages of PARADE Magazine (#186 May 1966), a popular Australian 'pulp' magazine published from 1946 to 1981 featuring a mix of historical, sensational and 'unbelievable' stories.

Dept. of Paradise 

Signor Bernacchi on Maria Island

by Margaret 'Maggie' Weidenhofer

ABOUT 80 years ago a politician entreated the Tasmanian Parliament not to lease Maria Island to an Italian investor. It would inevitably lead to war between Italy and Great Britain, he declared. 

The wealthy migrant who caused such suspicion and partisan feeling in Tasmania was 29-year-old Signor Diego Bernacchi. He arrived in Tasmania in 884, looking for a place to cultivate grapes and mulberries. Maria Island is on the East Coast, near Swansea. 

Arriving in Tasmania, Diego Bernacchi inspected various properties. In England, he had grown rich in the silk trade. 

He decided to look at land near Swansea and left Hobart by light chaise with a Survey Department official. Near their destination the horse became lame, so the two men arranged to stop a few days at Swansea. To kill time they took a boat to the 24,000-acre, hourglass-shaped island, where the shooting was said to be excellent. 

The wealthy merchant had no idea that this pleasure trip would start a chain of events destined to lead to a new phase in the island's up-and-down history, and a "love affair" between him and the alluring Maria that was to last more than 40 years. 

By the time Bernacchi stepped ashore, his companion had told him of Maria Island's colourful past. It was discovered in 1642 by Abel Tasman and named by him after the wife of Anthony van Diemen, Governor of Batavia Sealing and whaling ships operated in the area from 1803, and these activities attracted the attention of the penal authorities.

In 1825 Lt. Peter Murdoch established Darlington (named after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales) and before long hundreds of convicts lived in tiny, squalid cells, producing rough cloth (about 100 yards a week) and boots (about 5/-a pair). 

The penal settlement was abandoned in 1832, reopened in 1842 and finally closed in 1851. From 1852 Maria Island slept quietly while lessee after lessee tried unsuccessfully to pasture sheep and grow wheat or hops. 

Bernacchi was intensely interested in all he heard and enchanted with the island's similarity to wine-growing districts of Italy and France. He hurried hack to Hobart and leased the island. In the following two years, he spent more than £5000 in improving it. 

Later that year the island came to life when Signor Bernacchi moved there with his wife Barbara, who was willing to follow him to the world's end.

With them went their three children, cook, housekeeper and secretary, and a boatload of dogs, pigs, horses, bullocks, cows, sheep fowls, ducks, geese and turkey.

It is easy to picture the elegant Barbara Bernacchi, a lady of Belgian-Dutch extraction, picking up her long skirts and shepherding the children away from the beach, towards the former penal settlement. The children were Louis Charles, 7, Roderick Caesar, 5, and Helena, 3. Three more, Blanche, Vegan and Diego Maria Tasman, were born in Tasmania.

The Bernacchi family on the verandah of their house on Maria Island, c 1890 (ALMFA, SLT)

The Bernacchis had grandiose plans, plans that were far removed from the grim days of transportation. The present and the future were the Italian's concern. Nevertheless, the past gave him a good start, for many of the convict buildings were suitable for renovation. Temporarily, the family slept on gum-leaf beds. 

Soon nearly 30 acres of vines, mostly bought at the de Castella vineyards in Victoria, were planted. Bernacchi obtained a further 30,000 plants in 1887. After a search through the colonies 400 silk plants were selected.

At this stage 100 people were dependent on the island's activities. By 1888 the population had doubled. A 520-foot jetty was built to enable steamers to call weekly, and "a small and handy screw steamer" was purchased to ply be. tween the island and the East Coast.

The Tasmanian Mail (August 10, 1884) predicted that Maria Island would become the Ceylon of Australasia," and visitors were already arriving on excursions. 

At Darlington (renamed San Diego by Bernacchi) a butcher, baker, storekeeper and shoemaker flourished, and a State school, club, reading room and coffee palace were opened. Up to 40 people could be accommodated in the Swiss-chalet-style hotel building that contained drawing, dining, billiards and other rooms furnished regardless of expense. 

The convict burial ground next to the site of the hotel was moved to another area, and the Bernacchi children sometimes played in and around the empty graves. One night Signora Bernacchi believed she saw the ghost of a convict on the village green, and soon afterwards it was discovered that all but one of the convicts had been moved from the graveyard. He too was moved, and his ghost did not walk again.

The Bernacchis had a pleasant house on a hill over looking the bay. The convict-built reservoir was repaired, and rows of neat cottages sprang up in no time at all. The long rows of convict cells were partly demolished, and the materials were used for road-making. Each resi dent contributed 6d. a week to a medical fund, and about 50 men volunteered to form a rifle corps to assist the Tasmanian defence force.

In 1886, the year the Bernacchis were naturalised (prob ably one of the earliest colonial naturalisations), some 13 nationalities were represented at San Diego. A journalist wrote:

Here is a hint for General Booth: why not send a few shiploads of his reformed colonists to Maria Island to tend the vineyards and shepherd the silkworms He (Bernacchi) already possesses a goodly company of Parthians, Medes, Persians, dwellers from Mesopo tamia, with a fair sprinkling of Calabrian brigands, Italian Mafias, Greek pirates and pretty French grisettes. A few shiploads from darkest London would just make a delightful "blend." 

A visitor to the township remarked: 

"This is one of the dolce far niente spots, distributed by nature at favored portions of the earth, where it is always afternoon."

Orchards of cherry, peach, apricot, nectarine, lemon, fig, almond and pear trees were laid out. Pretty gardens, a willow lined creek, a village green, windmill and pigeon loft, not to mention a marvellous climate, blue seas, sandy beaches, craggy mountains and fine fishing and hunting, combined to make Maria Island an Isle of Eden. 

The Launceston Daily Telegraph reported: "A beautiful reserve, set apart for recreation, and planted with shade trees, will be the favorite resort of the residents in the long summer evenings, when the band, already beginning to organise concerts, will complete the resemblance to an Italian open air resort. 

In 1886 (and again in 1888). Bernacchi invited parties of parliamentarians and other dignitaries to inspect improvements. These invitations provoked various reports in the Press, including the following:

King Diego, it appears, has issued invitations to the Ministry... to join a monster picnic, which he intends giving for the ostensible purpose of enabling honorable members to view for themselves the enormous im improvements made by His Majesty in his newly acquired Dominion The Ministry would, of course, sign anything to effect their own escape... but King Diego is too deep a diplomat for that and will probably retain the Attorney-General and the honorable member for Sorell as hostages for the due fulfilment of arrangements made. Failing compliance, there will probably be an exceedingly large funeral.... 

Nevertheless, the visitors all left safely. The Launceston Daily Telegraph (October 19, 1886) reported that Dr.W. Crowther, a prominent identity, had described the island as "the future sanatorium of the Pacific." 

The Tasmanian News (October 18, 1886) said: "In the evening Signor and Signora Bernacchi entertained the guests to a sumptuous banquet. The veranda was brilliantly lighted with Venetian and Chinese lanterns, and sweet music was discoursed by the Brothers Croccia.

Having done so much so soon as a guarantee of good faith, Bernacchi asked Parliament to grant him a freehold right.

In November 1886 the House of Assembly almost unanimously passed the Maria Island Bill. Bernacchi was promised State bonuses of £2000 if his plans were success ful, and he was to pay a nominal rent of 1/. a year for 10 years. Later a further lease of 40 years at £300 a year would be granted, subject to certain conditions.

In 1887 Bernacchi and Mr. M. H. Davies, the Speaker of the Victorian House of Assembly, floated the Maria Island Company Limited. They enlisted the support of a number of prominent Victorians and Tasmanians. The com pany's main objects were wine-making, orchards, timber, and limestone exporting, sheep and cattle farming, real estate, and the establishment of a health chalet.

Many colonists still suspected that the polished Italian gentleman of the magnetic personality was hatching a scandalous plot. The Melbourne Argus (May 5, 1888) re ported: "One Member of Parliament, in an impassioned harangue, entreated his fellow members not to pass an act ..must inevitably lead to war between Great which.. Britain and the Kingdom of Italy. To him, Maria assumed the shape of an invading army, which was to descend upon, ravage, and overrun the fair domain of sunny Tasmania." 

Maria Island's exhibits attracted considerable attention during the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition (1888-89). The display included ornamental woodwork (indigenous woods), wine, silk, skins, fossils and gold. In 1889 Signor Bernacchi was appointed an honorary commissioner to the Paris Exhibition and took with him to Europe a cask of the island's claret, which he placed in the Colonial Institute in England.

While in Europe he brought Tasmanian affairs to the notice of many influential friends and took samples of Maria Island stone to be analysed at the cement factories of Germany, France and England.

Despite rosy predictions for its future, the Maria Island Company was not a success and it was wound up at a meeting of shareholders in 1892. The 20 kilns for cement making were not fired. The financial crisis and depression of the 1890s, when the banks failed, sent the Bernacchi family back to England. They left their second house furnished as it was at Louisville, near Triabunna, and took only their luggage.

The eldest son, Louis, became a prominent scientist, and in 1898-99 was the first Australian to work and winter on the Antarctic continent. Roderick went into the importing business in Melbourne and later turned to art dealing. Signora Bernacchi died in 1914. Only one Bernacchi, Mrs. Vega McRae, now lives in Australia. Her brothers are dead, but her two sisters, Blanche and Helena, are married and living in England.

Today there is an appealing story that Signor Bernacchi, determined to impress his parliamentary visitors, imported bunches of grapes and tied them to the vines to make the industry look prosperous. But a family friend, Miss Isabella Macdonald, who inherited Mr. and Mrs. Roderick Bernacchi's old home at Kew, Melbourne, disputes this story. 

In 1919 Bernacchi returned to Maria Island to exploit its vast limestone deposits. A company was formed which later became the National Portland Cement Co. The population shot up to more than 500. Prosperity seemed sure. Excursions went to see the boom town. But this was not to last, for Bernacchi was plagued by technical and financial problems. He fell ill, departed for Melbourne in 1923 and was buried in Brighton Cemetery two years later,

Recently Miss Macdonald had a headstone of red granite erected at his grave. She had the slab shipped from Tas. mania's Coles Bay because it was not possible to bring it from Maria Island. However, during a sentimental journey to the island, she gathered sand and shells to sprinkle over the grave.

The year 1929 saw the completion of the most recent phase of Maria Island's history. The company was sold and the Australian Cement Co. of Geelong took over, San Diego was known again as Darlington.

Restored Darlington village on Maria Island (R Eime 2013)

By the early 1930s Darlington was a ghost town. It still is. Four people live there permanently. A farmer and his two sisters (one of whom did domestic work for Bernacchi) own and lease between 2000 and 3000 acres, including the township, cement works, jetty, and most of the convict ruins. An elderly widow who once rented a house for 11/6 a week from Bernacchi, now lives in a small cottage on a lonely, exposed hill. 

On South Maria a 78-year-old farmer runs a 7000-acre property alone. All these people knew San Diego in its heyday.

Maria Island sleeps once more, disturbed only by occasional campers and the sheep that tenant the tumbledown buildings and are shorn in the 136-year-old penitentiary. 

On a hill overlooking the distant blue Schouten Island and the Pacific Ocean is the neglected graveyard where the Bernacchi infant son, Diego Maria Tasman, was buried. Some of the graves date to 1825. 

On a day similar to the one that Diego Bernacchi had for his hunting expedition 82 years ago, a mesmeric quietness enfolds tranquil Maria Island, which is, perhaps, wait. ing for someone else with foresight, determination and wealth and a little bit of luck. 

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Margaret ('Maggie') Weidenhofer was born in Queensland in 1941 and in 1946 at the age of five moved with her parents, Joan and Reay, to Madang in Papua New Guinea. From 1952 to 1958 she lived in Port Moresby, before returning to Australia to complete her education in Brisbane. An author, journalist and publisher's editor, she began her career as a reporter with the Hobart 'Mercury.' After moving to Melbourne she became a sub-editor and feature writer on 'New Idea' magazine. Maggie is the author of several books on Australian history including "Maria Island: a Tasmanian Eden " (1977) and "Port Arthur: a place of misery" (1981).

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