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Ettore Giuseppe Cantamessa (1892–1947)

by Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien

This article was published:

Ettore Giuseppe Cantamessa (1892-1947), cane-farmer and internee, was born on 9 March 1892 at Conzano, Piedmont, Italy, son of Pietro Cantamessa, a travelling sausage-maker, and his wife Giustina, née Garrone. In 1907 Giuseppe joined his father in North Queensland and later took up sugar-farming at Ingham where there was a growing Italian community. He became a naturalized British subject in 1913. At St Monica's Catholic Church, Cairns, on 27 March 1918 he married 16-year-old, Piedmont-born Maria Alda Fiori; they were to have five sons.

Frequently called upon to represent the Italian community, in 1925 Cantamessa gave evidence before the State royal commission which investigated the social and economic effects of increasing numbers of 'Aliens' in North Queensland. When prejudice against Italians intensified, particularly in the northern sugar districts, a 'gentlemen's agreement' between the Australian Workers' Union, the Australian Sugar Producers' Association and the Queensland Cane Growers' Association gave preference to employing British cane-cutters. Cantamessa campaigned against the definition of 'British cutters' which excluded those who were naturalized. An Italian Association of the Sugar Industry (of which he was briefly president) was formed in 1931 to protect the interests of those of Italian origin in the industry. A good organizer and a fluent speaker, he advocated moderation and conciliation, and worked to bring about industrial harmony.

Eventually producing an average cut of 2000 tons on 'the most improved sugar property' in the district, Cantamessa was chairman of the Herbert River District Cane Growers' Association and an executive-member of the Cane Prices Board at Macknade. He represented Ingham from 1929 to 1936 on the Queensland Cane Growers' Council and in 1931 was consulted over the preparation of a new Federal sugar agreement. An active member and an office-holder in most local sporting clubs, he was district vice-president of the North Queensland Life Saving Association. Cantamessa had taken part in relief work for victims of the Herbert River floods in 1927 and was associated with several charitable appeals. Elected to the Hinchinbrook Shire Council in 1936, he served on the district's first Labor administration until his forced resignation four years later.

Italy declared war on France and Britain on 10 June 1940. Next day Cantamessa was interned. In his unsuccessful appeal, heard on 24 August, he denied any interest in 'foreign politics', asserted his loyalty and pointed out that his eldest son had voluntarily enlisted in the Militia in 1938. The authorities lacked concrete evidence that he held fascist sympathies, yet a donation to Italy's Abyssinian campaign in 1936, his brief involvement in the I.A.S.I. and his leadership qualities were the grounds for his detention. Held in internment camps at Gaythorne, Queensland, Hay, New South Wales, and Loveday, South Australia, he was released on 10 November 1943, but restricted to his farm until 20 March 1945.

Survived by his wife and three sons, Cantamessa died of a cerebral tumour on 27 March 1947 in Brisbane Hospital and was buried in Ingham cemetery; his funeral cortège of two hundred cars was the largest seen in that town. The Herbert River Express declared that 'he discharged his duties to his adopted country faithfully and well'.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission into Aliens in North Queensland, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1925, 3, p 25 and PRE/A849 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Townsville Catholic News, 1 Aug 1947
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 28 Apr 1931
  • Herbert River Express, 5 Apr 1947
  • Archbishop Duhig correspondence (Catholic Diocesan Archives, Brisbane)
  • internment file, G. Cantamessa, CA 753, BP242/1, item Q6446 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien, 'Cantamessa, Ettore Giuseppe (1892–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 March, 1892
Conzano, Piedmont, Italy


27 March, 1947 (aged 55)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.