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Sceusa, Francesco (1851–1919)

by Gianfranco Cresciani

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Francesco Sceusa (1851-1919), socialist, was born on 21 November 1851 at Trapani, Sicily, son of Giuseppe Sceusa, grocer, and his wife Concetta, née Cavasino. As a boy he witnessed the events of the Risorgimento and later recalled the church bells being taken down in Sicily in 1861 to make cannons for Garibaldi's army. He studied at the local technical institute, marine engineering at the Nautical College, Palermo, and architecture and civil engineering at the University of Naples, where he was involved with the republican and anarchist movements and joined Karl Marx's International Working Men's Association (the Internationale). Sceusa's participation in the 1874 riots ruined his professional career. Returning to Trapani next year, he published a socialist journal, Lo Scarafaggio (the Scarab). In September 1876 he was 'admonished' by the police magistrate as an 'agitator' and next March was discredited when accused in parliament of belonging to the Mafia.

Forced to leave Sicily, Sceusa sailed for Batavia (Djakarta). He travelled in India, Singapore, South China, North Queensland and eventually reached Sydney on 5 December 1877, where on 15 June 1878 he married Louisa Swan; they were childless. He became a Freemason and in May 1879 joined the survey branch of the Department of Lands, working in Sydney, Orange and Bathurst as a draughtsman. In 1883 he was a foundation member of the (Royal) Geographical Society of Australasia and in 1892 was naturalized.

Sceusa directed his political activities towards assisting Italian immigrants. He promoted an Italian benevolent society in 1881 and later the Italian Working Men's Benefit Society of which he was president. He aided the Italian victims of the Marquis de Rays' expedition, who eventually settled on the Richmond River. On 17 June 1882 he organized a commemoration of Garibaldi's death, attended by over 10,000 people. He waged campaigns to prevent the exploitation of Italians' labour on the cane-fields of North Queensland and of their children as beggars and organ-grinders in Sydney and Melbourne, and fought the conservatism of the local Italian establishment. In January 1885 he founded the first Italian newspaper in Australia, the Italo-Australiano, but it ceased publication when he was transferred to Orange in July. He was also Australian correspondent for several newspapers in Italy. He had 'a dapper, spare figure, with moustache, upstanding black hair … Although mild-mannered, he was touchy and excitable'.

A founder of the Australian Socialist League in 1890, Sceusa as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation represented Australian socialists at the Socialist International's congress at Zurich, Switzerland, in April 1893. He refused to be classified as part of the English delegation and secured an independent vote for Australia. On the way home, many thousands welcomed him and his wife at Trapani; sixty mandolin players serenaded them. His involvement with the Australian labour movement was ambivalent. While recognizing (and admiring) the social and political achievements of trade unions through the ballot box, he bitterly resented the hostility of Labor leaders towards foreign migrants and to immigration in general. He also criticized their parochial views on international solidarity and the class struggle, complaining in 1890 that 'Australia is too free and satisfied to need the services of a reformer'.

After repeated suicide attempts, his wife was admitted to a mental asylum in 1903. In poor health, Sceusa retired from the Lands Department next year. Tom Mann visited 'the grand old battler' at his Annandale home before Sceusa left for Sicily in January 1908. At Trapani Sceusa continued his political struggle; in 1912 he joined the Reformist Socialist Party, abandoning his radical beliefs, but was defeated at the elections of June 1913. His strenuous campaigns in Australia in defence of Italian immigrants and 'the good name and national prestige' of Italy undoubtedly contributed to his peculiar strand of socialism: he advocated a strong national government and an aggressive colonial policy, and in June 1915 appealed to Italian workers to support Italy's entry into World War I.

Sceusa died at Casasanta, Trapani, on 21 June 1919, leaving a vast quantity of letters, pamphlets, essays and articles.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cerrito, Radicalismo e Socialismo in Sicilia (1860-1882) (Messina, 1958)
  • F. Andreucci and T. Detti, Il Movimento Operaio Italiano. Dizionario Biografico (Rome, 1978)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • International Socialist Review (Sydney), 1907
  • Quadrant, Oct 1983
  • J. Normington Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Gianfranco Cresciani, 'Sceusa, Francesco (1851–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sceusa-francesco-8351/text14655, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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