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The “True Story” of Artini the Woodsman and Tess

The Swan Reach Mission …

The United Aborigines Mission, using the shelter of a gum tree initially as their church, began the mission at Swan Reach in 1925. A crude hut, built from kerosene tins and a floor of reeds, rapidly replaced this. The location of the mission on low lying land adjacent to the town was prone to flooding and was considered unsuitable from the beginning. Small houses eventually replaced the temporary wurlies. Eventually, problems over fishing licences and then sanitation with insufficient toilets led to the replacement of the Swan Reach Mission with Gerard Mission near Loxton.

The “true story” of Artini the Woodsman and Tess, the Aboriginal girl.

This is a story untold, indeed not even recorded or admitted in the war records of the Italian internees sent to camps in the mallee to cut wood for the charcoal pits during the second world war. You can still see the pits and camps both in the Brookfields Conservation Park and at a secluded location I know of over the other side of the Sturt Highway.

There were three large charcoal burning camps in the mallee there near Blanchetown. The one you see in Brookfields Conservation Park was run by a bloke named “Rex” … that was inhabited by mostly Italians … some even had their family there. The other two were over the Sturt Highway, deep in the mallee … one owned by an Adelaide man named “Fox” and overseen by my godfather and namesake; “Joe Carli” … this too was mainly Italians. The third was managed by a Yugoslavic man named “Jack”, and was a mix of many nationalities … a bit of a rough show I would suspect. Between them, they transported around a semitrailer load of charcoal out a week to Adelaide.

The pits were about 3m x 3m and about 1800mm deep, lined on four sides by stonework. The ones on the southern side of the Sturt Highway are in much better condition because, I believe, they were constructed and the stonework done by my godfather, who was a stonemason by trade.

I had heard bits and pieces of Artini and Tess from both my grandfather who lived with his family in a makeshift hut and worked as a blacksmith in one of those charcoal/woodcutting camps in the mallee, and my mother who worked at a station (Punyelroo) at nearby Swan Reach, and then also at “Portee Station” near Blanchtown, during the war years and it was there (at Portee) that my mother met my father … an Italian internee at one of those wood-cutting camps nearby.

The young woman Tess – of Aboriginal descent – worked on some days alongside my mother at the station. She lived at the mission along the river. Many times, my mother told me, some men and women from the mission would cross the river using a secret ford only the Aborigines knew of and would return back at night across the river … no-one ever saw the ford they took, they being too clever to let themselves be seen.

Artini was the name of the young man (in his early twenties) who fell in with the girl and together they plotted his escape from the internment camp. I first heard his name when my sister, who visited last summer, translated some letters between my father and his relatives back in the Dolomites where both he and the young man came from. He told of the tragedy of how they believe Artini drowned in the Murray River whilst crossing the ford on instruction of Tess, who whilst on curfew and not permitted to be across that side of the river after dusk, sent a message that she would sing a song for Artini to follow and to use as a direction to cross the river and escape the internment camp.

He would be hidden in one of the many caves along the cliffs of the Murray River … a secret cave again known only to the Indigenous people there … my mother told of these caves and today some are open to the public to view. My father wrote that they tried to dissuade Artini from following through with his reckless plan and pointed out the difficulty he would meet joining in this conspiracy with a native woman … But the more they tried, the angrier he got and finally he said angrily to them;

“So what if she is of another people … am not I, are not we despised only for our blood? And if she is “native” of this land, am I not also “native”of my land? I am a son of the Dolomites … I am a man of the mountains of Italy and I … Artini, while I am yet a man, will decide who I will join with to escape this hell-hole, not the prisoners of this camp nor anyone else.” And that was the last he would hear of it … he was decided …

During the second world war, all Italians and other “enemy alien” males over a certain age – some as young as seventeen – were rounded up by the military and put in internment camps … there were several camps in South Australia along the Murray River … some of these men were sent in working parties to other camps amongst the mallee in the vicinity of the Murray River to cut the trees to be made into charcoal as an alternative fuel source for cars and trucks. There is not much detail about those men’s lives in the war years … but it couldn’t have been easy. This is the story of one of those men and an Aborigine girl who befriended him.

The conspiracy was going to plan … Artini had crept away from the makeshift woodcutters camp in the mallee. These camps were temporal things and so isolated that the guards saw no great need to be severe in their security habits … indeed, the Italians, using the grapes from the Loveday area near Loxton made their own wine which they smuggled along with them whenever they were sent to the wood-cutting camps. On the night of Artini’s escape, some other Italian men conspired to distract the guards with wine and song … they sang their songs to the accompaniment of home-made instruments … in this case a ukulele, made from tea-chest plywood, mallee-wood stem and some fine piano wire.

The tragedy happened with Artini disobeying the request of his Indigenous guide … the young Tess, distressed as she was at the wanton cutting down of so many trees, to leave his mighty axe on the other side and cross the river by himself … but he decided he would need the axe to cut and build a humpy for themselves after he crossed … so he secretly strapped it to his back under his coat so as not to offend her and he would reveal it once across when it would be too late for Tess to protest and he could persuade her of the need to keep it.

Unfortunately, on that very night of his crossing, the sluices-gates of Lock 1 just up-river at Blanchetown were opened and a huge surge of water came down the river to catch him whilst in the middle of the ford. He was swept away and he cried that it was his axe, his mighty axe dragging him down and he could not swim … Tess cried for him to throw the axe away, but it was tied too tight under his coat and he could not get it off … and it was believed he consequently drowned that night in the river. His body was never found but his rolled-up swag with his personal papers were found downstream and it was recorded as “suspected death by drowning … an unfortunate accident “ … But my father’s letters tell a different story.

But there is the mythological songline that has grown around the story of Artini and his Aboriginal compatriot. It goes like this:

“Artini was the biggest, best, strongest Italian woodcutter in the Swan Reach district during the war years … The ‘ring’ of his mighty axe could be heard miles away through the mallee! His axe was of the hardest steel special made from his own instructions by the blacksmith in the camp … the handle he cut and shaped himself from the hardest mallee wood … and it was so heavy, it could not be used by any of the other woodcutters in the camp. Artini was an “enemy alien” internee from the Italian Alps; The Dolomites, who used to cut wood for the charcoal burning camps in the mallee.

Artini could often be heard singing an alpine song “Ill tuo fazzolettino” (“Give me your bandana, my darling … ”) in his dialect as he swung his mighty axe at the mallee trees … His voice was so strong it would carry for a great distance through the tops of the mallee trees and it was heard by Tess one day as she fetched water from the river.

Tess was a young Aboriginal woman who lived at the mission along the river at Swan Reach. She would also get some work at a station just up the Murray a bit from the mission. The trees were a part of her life and of tribal significance … and every tree that Artini cut down was as a wound to her heart. She set about to lure Artini with affection to stop cutting the trees, throw away his mighty axe and escape the internment camp to cross the river. He could be hidden in a secret cave known only to the Aborigines of the river … Artini agrees, but he cannot swim, so Tess says she will “sing” him a song one night to guide him across a secret ford in the river known only to the Aboriginal people there, but on one condition; he must leave his mighty axe behind and cross without it.

Her “song “she disguised as a lyrical call mimicking the call of the Bush Stone Curlew.

He agrees, but at the last moment secretly straps his mighty axe to his back under his coat … but when he sets out to cross the river. The river, seeing his duplicity and intent sends a torrent of water down and he is threatened to be swept off the ford. Tess, on hearing his cry, realizes he is weighed down by his mighty axe and tells him to throw it into the waters … but he cannot untie it from under his coat and so he is swept away …

And to this day, his cry of despair and her intermingled lament can still sometimes be heard along with the whisper of their secret in the eddies of the water and through the boughs of the mighty river red gums along the Murray River as the call of the Bush Stone-Curlew blown in the wind through the mallee … ”

There is a song that accompanies this story-line, to the strumming of the ukulele, but I won’t put it up here … I hope to one day write an opera for this story … along the lines of; “A Ukulele Opera”.


1 comment

  1. Michael Taylor

    Very enjoyable and entertaining read, Joe.

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