The Catalan footprint // MY JOURNEY


One of my first memories is at my Grandparents house, in el Maresme. As a girl born in a small town in the mountains, I was fascinated with every single detail of their crowded home. My grandfather’s neighbour often came to entertain me with his stories. Once, I poked my tongue out at him and before leaving, he said ‘She’s got the world map drawn on her tongue.’ Grandfather did not even blink to the commentary of the crazy neighbour.

My journey to the Antipodes started as one of many moments of procrastination. Sitting at my desk in Barcelona, I didn’t realise I had been staring at the world map hanging on my wall for the last two hours. Time had stopped. My mind was amused by a massive piece of land on the other side of the world. ‘What a mysterious place... a country that has no neighbours’ I thought, ‘It must be an amazing place to discover...’

Years later I realise I was not procrastinating (I never do!). That was the root cause of an amazing project which brought me to the Antipodes and concluded at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne: The Catalan Footprint in Australia.

My endless curiosity forced me to investigate such a country with no borders. I must admit my knowledge of Australia was dreadfully built on old stereotypes: kangaroos, red desert, surfers, long dusty roads, AC/DC and a huge rock in the middle of nowhere. I was soon happy to find out that Australia is not only a place full of blond people with trendy sunnies...

In the last 5.000 years, Australia has seen hundreds of different ethnic groups settling in their lands and passing by. I was astonished to discover some of them were Catalans! I investigated a little further with no hope for more information but, by absolute chance, I came across a ship with an unexpectedly familiar name: the HMS Montserrat.

Being more Catalan than the Virgin of Montserrat (popularly known as ‘la Moreneta’ [the tanned one]), I quickly identified the name of the vessel with a spectacular mountain range that presides central Catalonia. Thanks to a grant by the Spanish Cultural Program from the Australian National University and the Spanish Ministry of Culture, I could follow the route of the HMS Montserrat to Australia.

After driving long hours on the east coast, knocking on many doors and listening to the stories of friendly Spaniards who landed in Australia in the 1960s, I finally came across a passenger who was on board the famous Montserrat. Once in Melbourne, Mr. Miquel Echarte, from Galicia, unveiled what for me was one of the most interesting questions of the century: ‘Montserrat’ was it only a coincidence?

HMS Montserrat left the port of Santurce, in the north coast of Spain, in 1959, full of young strong men who came to Australia to collect fruit in the Murray area in Victoria, Australia. After the ‘Monte Udala’ in 1958, the Montserrat was used in the second round of the ‘Kangaroo Operation’, a migratory program organised by the sugar cane industry and the Catholic church with the aim of filling Australia with young white Catholic workers.

Few hours after leaving Port, a loud scream frightened all the passengers: ‘HOMBRE AL AGUA! Apparently a man from Navarra had changed his mind at the very last minute and preferred to stay in Spain. The Captain Raphael Jaume, a native of Santander, knew this was only the beginning of a long and tumultuous journey to the Antipodes.

After stopping in Vigo, and through the Gibraltar strait, the Montserrat stopped in Athens to get some Greek workers. Along with the Spaniards, they spent many hours playing cards, telling old stories to each other, dancing and admiring exotic landscapes. Only the ones who were seasick could escape the compulsory English lessons (‘what a privilege’ I thought...). The stop at Port Said opened their eyes to new cultures. Most of the young fellows had never smoked those long water pipes or seen a black person in their lives. The fear to the unknown and the strong presence of social stigma kept them away from any kind of interaction, apart from staring at them and running away if they approached.

After a technical stop in Eden, to acquire fresh water for the turbines, the passengers realised the ship barely moved. The water loaded in Eden was too salty and had burned the evaporators.  The turbines were affected as well. Once in Colombo (now Sri Lanka) Captain Jaume asked the Spaniards to help him to clean them for 5.000 Spanish pesetas (this was equal to five months’ salary at the time).

Fortunately, his amazing crew quickly fixed the problem and a week later the Montserrat continued its route to the Australian west coast. Songs were sung and everyone enjoyed the peace in the air again. But Captain Jaume had the feeling it would not last long...

As a wise man once told me, everyone has their own way to learn how to ride a bicycle. Sometimes you see a child struggling to find the balance and start pedalling. Far from gracefully, he manages to avoid that rock and rides directly towards the pond. Your reflex is to stand up and teach him how to hold the bar, how to keep the balance steady, how to ride on the right, how to read the sign that forbids diving in... But the child manages to avoid the pool in their unsteady, ungraceful way and keeps going.  

The tension between the Greeks and the Spaniards raised its ugly head again. I heard a rumour the women were the trigger; I like to believe they spent too many hours on a boat, in the middle of nowhere, anxious to see what will come...

A few hours later, a group of Greek men forced the captain to go back to Europe, as they believed the vessel was not prepared to get them to Australia safe. The Spaniards wanted to get there as soon as possible as they had contract jobs arranged...

Legend says Captain Jaume agreed to return to Greece, but that same day, in the middle of a stormy night,   gazing at the bright stars in the middle of nowhere, he found the will to secretly swing around again. On the 29th of June 1959, with rusty turbines, many emergency stops and a treacherous route, the HMS Montserrat arrived in Fremantle. The crew was greeted by the Australian police who deemed the vessel navigationally capabilities incompetent and the company Aznar Española was fined one hundred thousand British pounds. The chaotic journey did not dissuade the young Spaniards to take a train to Melbourne, start working in the cane fields in Queensland and end up calling Australia home.  

‘Then, Montserrat only responds to a story of a brave captain who had more determination than imagination to name his vessel’, I thought. The story of the HMS Montserrat was incredible but I thought I had lost the Catalan connection to Australia.

What was my role to be in Australia?  I was so uncertain until a chatty and vibrant lady with an ancient Catalan accent appeared as if she had fallen from heaven. ‘I don’t know anything about the HMS Montserrat’, she said, ‘but I can tell you a whole lot of stories about the Catalan pioneers in Australia’. Little did I know I had just met a lady who later became my-best-friend-in-Australia, my companion in this Australian-Catalan journey.

She unwrapped all her documentation about the Catalans in Victoria she and her dear friend had been collecting for years. I was amused to see the Catalan community was not huge in numbers but very influential in the development of the city of Melbourne. Later on that day I realised that names like Damien Parer, Stephen Morell and Tommy the Magician were part of the cultural background of most of my Australian friends. 

From that day, I met more than 30 people from Catalan descent in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They kindly opened their doors and unveiled their family secrets. I am enormously grateful to every single one of them for sharing such treasures with the rest of the world.

I still remember a 94 year old lady in Alice Springs who, while opening her door, told me she had been praying to God for the last two weeks to receive a visit. Although my first instinct was to run away as fast as I could, I was delighted with her family stories.

Many people ask me how I found all my interviewees. I must agree that ‘once you hit one, you hit the rest’. But in certain occasions, it was a mix of luck, persistence and probably fate... I will always remember the day I was sitting in the backyard of a pesky guesthouse in Townsville. I had gone there to retrieve the Collection of Salvador Torrents at the James Cook University. To the amusement of my fellow backpackers, I opened the telephone book and started looking for any surname that sounded Catalan to me (for instance: Jaume, the Captain’s surname...). After several failed attempts, I came across a lady with real passion for history and Catalan culture, who dances la sardana much better than me.

Over 15 months I retrieved more than 350 photographs, articles and objects. I interviewed more than 30 people who remembered hundreds of stories from their ancestors with joy and love. My-best-friend-in-Australia always makes me laugh when she says ‘Darling, I don’t have a clue of what you will do with all this, but it is good someone is bringing it back to life’.

The magic recipe starts with a good idea and lots of motivated and talented people… So easy to say…

All the graphic material was rigorously edited and documented. Each photograph was classified, edited and described in three different languages. The interviews were edited, sound engineered, transcribed and translated (which involves at least 20 hours of work for each hour of interview). Exactly the same process with the videos. The interpretation of the website and text writing was done in English and translated into Catalan and Spanish. The web design is the face of this project, but behind what you see there is a very powerful database that allows us to update the content very quickly and interrelates all the entries. Such a fascinating piece of art!

Proofreaders, translators, programmers, transcribers, researchers, designers, documentalists, event organisers, fundraisers, external advisors, interviewees, archivists, copyrighters and many beautiful souls from Spain, Australia, France and the UK. They all have been working till the very last minute (literally!) to make this happen. Working long hours after their daily jobs. We played and won the battle of time difference, so the team worked 24hours non stop (even though all the warnings from the other side of the world… ‘lady, it is time to go to bed. Must be very late in your end…’).

I have ridden the bike across every single corner of the country with no neighbours. I have struggled to avoid muddy land. I managed to avoid the cold and the warmth in my unstable riding style. I got a couple of scars from my falls. But as Captain Jaume, with the help of an amazing crew and the force of the stars, this vessel named The Catalan Footprint in Australia still has lots of miles to ride.

Lluisa Vilalta, Project Director