An archive of newspaper clippings in the museum’s collection documents a dramatic episode in assisted migration from Spain and Greece to Australia 60 years ago, writes curator Kim Tao. The nightmare 54-day voyage of the Montserrat was marred by engine trouble, fighting between passengers and crew, and even allegations of a mutiny by passengers in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The headlines say it all. ‘Irate migrants storm bridge.’ ‘Migrants fight crew at sea for fear ship might founder.’ ‘Migrants rush ship bridge, shots fired.’ ‘Officers accuse migrants of mutiny.’ And the triumphant, ‘We fought Spaniards’. These newspaper clippings were collected by Australian journalist Keith Woodward, who in the late 1950s was a Commonwealth representative for the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), which helped to resettle the millions of Europeans displaced after World War II. Mr Woodward’s daughter, Barbara Alysen, donated his collection to the museum in 1994. Today it provides a fascinating insight into the drama that unfolded when ICEM chartered the Spanish liner Montserrat to carry more than 800 Spanish and Greek migrants to Australia in 1959.

Article titled 'Migrants riot on liner, storm bridge', Sydney Telegraph, 30 June 1959. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0217[022]
Article titled 'Migrants riot on liner, storm bridge', Sydney Telegraph, 30 June 1959. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0217[022]

Twenty-five-year-old Juan Zabalegui Ororbia was one of the 169 Spanish assisted migrants on board the Compañía Trasatlántica Española liner Montserrat (formerly Wooster Victory and Castel Verde). The Spanish contingent, all single young men, were travelling to Australia under the Spanish migration agreement’s Operation Eucalyptus. They had signed two-year contracts to work as cane-cutters in north Queensland, following the success of the first campaign, Operation Kangaroo, on Toscana, which brought 159 men to Brisbane in August 1958 (see Signals 124, pp 70–73).

The voyage got off to an inauspicious start when just hours out of Bilbao, a Spanish passenger jumped overboard and had to be rescued

Juan Zabalegui was born in 1934 in Artajona, a small town in the autonomous province of Navarra in northern Spain. He was the youngest of five siblings and his parents owned a small farm, on which they grew olives and grapes. In his late teens, Juan went to live with his sister, Gloria, and her husband, Braulio Zazpe, in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra and one of the largest cities in the greater Basque region. He worked for their butchery business and also joined the Spanish Army at the age of 21. It was in Pamplona that Juan saw an advertisement outside the city hall, promoting the recruitment of Navarrese and Basque men to cut sugarcane in Australia. After making initial enquiries, Juan passed the required medical tests and travelled to Madrid to obtain a permit from the army to excuse him from compulsory military service.

Twenty-five-year-old Juan Zabalegui on board the troubled Spanish liner Montserrat, 1959 [reproduced courtesy Melissa Zabalegui]
Twenty-five-year-old Juan Zabalegui on board the troubled Spanish liner Montserrat, 1959 [reproduced courtesy Melissa Zabalegui]

In May 1959, Juan bade farewell to his girlfriend, Goy Galdeano, and boarded the 9,000-ton Montserrat in the port of Bilbao. The voyage got off to an inauspicious start when just hours out of Bilbao, a Spanish passenger jumped overboard and had to be rescued. The ship continued to the Athenian port of Piraeus to embark some 700 Greek migrants, mostly families and single young women.

Montserrat passed through the Suez Canal and began to experience engine trouble after leaving the port city of Aden in Yemen. The vessel stopped mid-ocean for repairs and was then diverted to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), for further mechanical work. While in Colombo, Juan remembers visiting the markets with three friends from the ship, and seeing cows walking down the streets of the city. Due to the extended transit in Colombo, Juan decided to sell some of his winter clothes at the markets to have more spending money. This was supplemented by winnings from shipboard games of bingo.

After a two-week delay, Montserrat finally departed Colombo bound for Fremantle, Western Australia. However, just two days out of Colombo, more engine trouble developed. Once the engine was repaired, the ship’s master, Captain Raphael Jaume, resumed course for Fremantle. According to Juan, Captain Jaume had heard that the Greek migrants wanted the vessel to turn back to Colombo and were going to force the issue. He approached the Spanish migrants early one morning to request that they arm themselves with weapons, in order to help defend him and the crew. Juan laughingly recalls that their ‘weapons’ were chair and table legs that had been broken off the shipboard furniture.

The incidents that ensued were widely reported in the media. The Sydney Telegraph wrote: [1]

Sixty migrants, throwing tins and wood, stormed the bridge of the liner Montserrat in the Indian Ocean. Members of the crew, armed with batons, forced them back. Ship’s officers used loudspeakers to give the migrants a ‘last warning’ to remain orderly. The riot broke out after the ship’s captain reversed his decision to return to Colombo after an engine breakdown. Women among the migrants had feared the ship would be marooned on the way to Fremantle.

 The Daily Express cited the following passenger account: [2]

The women became hysterical. They feared the ship would sink. They rushed the bridge and pelted the officers with tins and chunks of wood. Then they demanded that Captain Jaume head back to Ceylon. The passenger said that seamen beat the women off the bridge with batons and lengths of rubber hose. Another passenger said an officer fired shots in the air.

According to the newspapers, the ship’s officers regarded the disturbance as mutiny, while experienced seamen described the Montserrat voyage as the worst they had ever known. Officers claimed that the fighting had broken out between the Greek and Spanish men (the latter were all bachelors) over the Greek women.

On 29 June 1959, Montserrat finally docked in Fremantle, three weeks overdue. The vessel was met by police and officials from the Department of Immigration, as well as Mr A W Clabon, Australia’s ICEM representative. Mr Valeriano Gonzales, a naval architect, attended on behalf of Montserrat’s Spanish owners to investigate the causes of the ship’s delay. A survey by the Commonwealth Marine Branch later declared 12 of the ship’s 22 lifeboats to be unseaworthy. Some were badly holed and it was alleged that a shipwright’s foot went through the bottom of one lifeboat during the examination.

Article titled 'Migrants rush ship bridge, shots fired', Melbourne Sun, 30 June 1959. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0217[021]
Article titled 'Migrants rush ship bridge, shots fired', Melbourne Sun, 30 June 1959. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0217[021]

Captain Jaume was fined £500 for failing to maintain lifesaving appliances fit and ready for use at all times. He agreed to the termination of the Montserrat voyage in Fremantle and the Compañía Trasatlántica Española was forced to pay about £15,000 to cover the onward travel of its passengers. The Greek migrants were transported to the eastern states by either chartered flight or transcontinental train, while the Spanish contingent were sent to Victoria on a separate train. Juan remembers that the Spanish men spent three weeks at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre near Wodonga, before being transferred by truck to board a train to Ingham in north Queensland.

In Ingham, the Spanish migrants from Operation Eucalyptus were immediately put to work cutting sugarcane by hand. They started at 4 o’clock in the morning and were expected to cut 12,000 to 15,000 kilograms of cane per day. At night the cane-cutters slept in a shed, their white mosquito nets turning black from the swarm of mosquitoes. Juan, who had been a butcher in Spain, was not accustomed to such hard agricultural labour in the tropical heat. After three months, he contracted a finger infection and was taken to hospital.

Once he had recovered, Juan decided to head to Sydney with a friend, even though both men had not yet completed their two-year labour contracts. Following a dispute with the owner of the cane farm, the two departed Ingham without their final pay and boarded a train to Sydney. After taking a look around, they resolved to try their luck in Melbourne instead, as Juan’s friend had relatives living there. The two men arrived in Melbourne at about 10 o’clock on a rainy Saturday night. Juan’s friend took a taxi to visit his family and Juan was left on his own, in the pouring rain, with just £6 in his pocket.

Juan walked around the deserted city and eventually found a café staffed by an Italian man, who directed him to a nearby Spanish club. Coincidentally, one of the men at the club came from the town of Larraga, about 10 kilometres from Juan’s hometown of Artajona, while others had arrived on the Toscana in 1958. Juan explained his situation and was offered a bed for the night.

Apart from a brief period living in Spain in the mid-1970s, Juan and Goy have called Melbourne home for the past 60 years

In time, Juan obtained a room in a boarding house in Victoria Parade, and took a job washing dishes in the kitchen of the Oxford Hotel on Swanston Street. Within six months, he was promoted to a cook after the hotel chef noticed his fine knife skills, developed during his time as a butcher in Pamplona. Juan went on to work in various wholesale butcheries and also started making jamón (ham) and chorizo (sausage), which he sold door to door around the inner-city suburb of Fitzroy, the traditional centre of Melbourne’s Spanish community.

In July 1960, Juan was reunited with his girlfriend Goy Galdeano, who arrived in Melbourne with the first planeload of female Spanish assisted migrants to Australia. Before leaving Spain, the women received a short course in religious education, cooking and sewing from the Spanish Catholic Commission of Emigration. Goy lived with family friends until she and Juan were married at St Patrick’s Cathedral in August 1961. Goy, who had trained as a seamstress in Pamplona, made her own wedding dress. She found work as a designer, dressmaker and occasional model at Arnel Fashions on Flinders Lane, the heart of Melbourne’s fashion industry. Juan and Goy had two children, Xavier and Melissa, and apart from a brief period living in Spain in the mid-1970s, they have called Melbourne home for the past 60 years. 

References:

[1] ‘Migrants riot on liner, storm bridge’, Sydney Telegraph, 30 June 1959.
[2] ‘Liner riot over women’, Daily Express, 30 June 1959.

This article originally appeared in Signals magazine (Issue 127).

 
kimanmm

Kim Tao

Kim is the curator of post-Federation immigration at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Posted in: Migration