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Angelo Giulio Diego Bernacchi (1853–1925)

by Margaret Weidenhofer

This article was published:

Angelo Giulio Diego Bernacchi (1853-1925), entrepreneur, was born on 1 July 1853 at Lozza, Como, Italy, son of Luigi Bernacchi, landowner and lawyer, and his wife Teresa, née Cortellezzi. Educated at a technical school at Varese and for four years at Barmen, Prussia, on 20 September 1876 he married Barbe Straetmans in Brussels. They settled in England where Bernacchi represented the silk-spinning firms, Societa per la Filatura dei Cascami de Seta of Milan and Arles Dufour & Co. of Basle and Lyons. He and his wife and three small children arrived in Melbourne, on 13 January 1884 in the Orient, and went on to Tasmania next day.

Bernacchi wished to introduce sericulture to the colony and chose Maria Island, which enchanted him. In April the family moved to the former convict settlement of Darlington at the north of the island. Although many colonists were suspicious of the charming, persuasive Italian, the Maria Island Leasing Act was passed on 24 November 1884 granting Bernacchi a lease from 1 January 1885 for ten years at one shilling a year. The conditions included outlaying £10,000 and establishing sericulture and viticulture within twelve months. At the end of the first five years, if the lessee had expended £5000 he would be entitled to select 500 acres (202 ha) on the island as freehold at £1 per acre. If either industry were established by 1895, Bernacchi would be entitled to a forty-year lease at £300 per annum. He soon spent £1000 on improvements to Darlington, planting orchards and 50,000 vines from the de Castella vineyards in Victoria.

In 1886 Bernacchi was naturalized and invited parliamentarians to inspect the island. They were welcomed with fireworks, brilliant Chinese and Venetian lanterns, and champagne banquets. The first grapes were picked in May. (Sir) Matthew Davies visited the island and was so impressed that he became Bernacchi's partner. The Maria Island Co. was floated in 1887 with a capital of £250,000 and Bernacchi as resident managing director. The company planned to establish a township and its intended interests included sericulture, wine-making, fruit-growing, farming, cement, limestone and marble, fisheries, and sheep and cattle fattening. Darlington, renamed San Diego, by 1888 was a boom town of about 250 people of a dozen nationalities. Buildings had been repaired and others erected, including a hotel and coffee palace. The island was dubbed 'the Ceylon of Australasia, and a Tasmanian Eden'. In 1888 Bernacchi was appointed a justice of the peace; next year he was to represent Tasmania at the Paris Exhibition but did not attend; and in 1889-92 he was a municipal councillor at Spring Bay, where the family now lived at Louisville.

In 1892 the Maria Island Co. was voluntarily liquidated and Bernacchi went to England where he floated the Land Development and Cement Co. of Tasmania Ltd to produce cement on the island. But a financial crisis, the depression, over-optimism and grandiose ideas contributed to his failure. San Diego again became a ghost-town, its name reverting to Darlington. The Bernacchis and their daughters returned to England about 1897, their son Roderick remaining in Melbourne in charge of his business and his father's interests.

In 1918 Bernacchi returned to Australia as a director of National Portland Cement Ltd, which had an authorized capital of £600,000. (Sir) Robert Knox, a director, went to Denmark to buy the best equipment available and supervise its shipping to the island. Production began shortly before Bernacchi became ill and left the island; he died in Melbourne of cerebro-vascular disease on 12 March 1925. Predeceased by his wife, he was buried in Brighton cemetery, survived by three daughters and two of his three sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £481.

The company ceased business in 1930. Prosperous when he had arrived in the colony, Bernacchi had the temperament of a gambler and lived on his wits promoting companies, but he never enjoyed much prosperity. From the 1890s onwards he was stout, with a moustache. He spoke several languages, and was popular, charming and a benevolent employer. The most colourful story about him alleges that he tied bunches of grapes on the vines to impress visiting dignitaries. He built up the island's reputation in Australia and overseas, and frequent newspaper coverage in the 1880s and 1890s used terms such as 'King Diego' and 'His Most Amiable Majesty'. His eldest son, Louis Charles, became a distinguished Antarctic scientist.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Dio’ (C. Morton), Maria Island (Hob, 1888)
  • M. Weidenhofer, Maria Island (Melb, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1884 (40), 1886 (17, 103, 134, 172)
  • Age (Melbourne), 14, 15 Jan 1884, 18 Oct 1886
  • Mercury (Hobart), 28 Jan, 12 Mar 1884, 25 Apr, 5 May, 13 Oct 1888
  • Tasmanian Mail, 23 Aug 1884, 8 May 1886
  • Examiner (Launceston), 18 Jan 1896
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Weidenhofer, 'Bernacchi, Angelo Giulio Diego (1853–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1853
Lozza, Como, Italy


12 March, 1925 (aged 71)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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