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Emigrants to Australia

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It was in 1924. Times were hard and they weren’t getting any better for the next 30 years. Overpopulation was still common in spite of large emigration in the 1920’s. Terjärv, which is famous for the beauty of its scenery but also for its small-scale farming with unsuitable farming land, was again to observe its precious sons going to find their fortune and future in a strange land.

It wasn’t just a question of being fond of adventures but a way of procuring a better future which made 16 young men from Terjärv emigrate to Australia. Without any reliable contacts they took off for the unknown with optimistic expectations that they would be lucky. Some of them left their families behind. They considered it to be too risky to bring their children along without knowing the real circumstances.

Later on the family was reuiniteed. Johan Nestor Ström, Arne Johan Forsberg, Elis Edvin Björklund, Anders Alfred Mattsson, Uno Herman Bexar, Otto Fritiof Bexar, Karl Verner Djupsjöbacka, Hugo Teodor Rymbacka, Vilhelm Rudolf Pasen, Joel Severin Furu, Frans Rufus Nyman, Runar Johannes Furu, Ture Vilhelm Furu, Leander Sanfrid Fors, Väinö Teodor Hansson, Karl Joel Sandvik, Anders Villiam Särs. These 16 were the first from Terjärv to emigrate to Australia.

Fride Leander, son of Hilma and Leander Fors, was one among these. These young men were in very good spirits. They looked forward to a well-paid job. Two pounds a day they had said at Saksa travel agency when they advertized Australia for the emigrants. In England they had to wait for three days before the long sea journey to Australia started. Some Finnish sailors, on their way from Australia were surprised then they heard these young men tell about their future plans. “Not more than half a pound a day will you earn. You are lucky if you get any job at all,” were the warning replies these youngsters got from the sailors. But they didn’t take them seriously and it was indeed easier to believe in the facts which they had obtained from Saksa travel agency.

After five weeks at sea they came to Melbourne, where eight men went ashore. The fellowship in the group was thus interrupted as well as the opportunites to support one another in the adversities which soon were going to face them. Fride was among those who continued another week to Sydney. There they experienced the everyday life of a ‘greenhaning’.

Suitcase after suitcase were in a row in the corridor at the Finnish consulate, all belonging to Finnish-speaking emigrants who had arrived before them. With the help from the consulate they went every day to the city office to ask for work. The answer was always the same: “Come back tomorrow!” It continued this way until they understood that the answer was just a matter of routine and nothing to be trusted. The money they had borrowed from the bank for the trip, with father as the guarantor, was running out and soon the time came when the interest had to be paid.

This was a promise they couldn’t break. The expectations about earning two pounds a day were dashed to the ground. Now they remembered the sailors’ words: “You’ll be happy if you get any work at all.” Everybody realized how hopeless it was.

But suddenly there was light at the horizon. It was the day when a man came wanting four men with him to the forest. The Bexar boys, Ture Furu and Fride Fors placed themselves in a bad, old car with the employer as the driver. A whole sack of wheat, a pot and four heavy axes were also loaded onto the car. They took the biggest axes they could find because they were going to cut down trees. Not just single trees, but many hectares of forest. The man drove on, hour after hour. They didn’t try to communicate with him. Questions and answers were equally hard to understand. But he made it clear that it was about Australian burn-beating. The forest was to be cut down and burned and in the ashes they would start a banana plantation. Their house was a shed, one side was open for sun and rain, for birds and all sorts of animals.

The work was hard and tiring, but they were used to that from the old country. They made wheat porridges – they ate a lot and often – the consequence was that their stomachs started to protest and shouted for rye porridges. The visits to the pit with the bar became more frequent and the howling of the wild animals came closer and closer. And they never knew what would appear in the open side of the shed. Their stomachs were sore and they became very tired, their arms didn’t have enough strength to swing the heavy axes. But the contract was signed and the area they had agreed upon was to be cut down. The employer came every now and then and brought the most necessary things for the lumberjacks. The comfort could have been better if the employer had brought bed linen, which now consisted of empty sacks. They slept on them and pulled them over themselves to keep out the cold.

They didn’t see any future in this work. The optimistic expectations of the emigrants had received a serious blow. After the contract had been completed the group dispersed. They continued walking, looking for work.

Fride was alone. He went to a place far away, rumor had it that there would be work there. But it was unreliable, as were so many others. Once when he slept under a bridge, another wanderer from the opposite direction told him that the situation was equally bad everywhere. The trip continued.

Fride came to a sheep farm. It was sheep-shearing time and the farmer had mercy on the wanderer. After the working day was over Fride was allowed to look for a place to sleep anywhere in the farm where there were thousands of sheep. It was difficult to sleep although he was very tired. In the middle of the night the big choir of bleating started. His thoughts went here and there. Continuing like this he would never have any money for the interest of the fee for the journey. He couldn’t even think about paying back the loan.

Life on a sheep farm wasn’t very enjoyable. After acquiring the basics of the language of the country it was time to face new challenges. Fride wasn’t born with grabbing and throwing but he was more used to a calm and composed rhythm of work. That was my style, he says. But a banana plantation of his, that would be something to go in for.

The dream turned into reality for Fride. He became the owner of a small banana plantation. He worked hard. All his time and all his strength went to the plantation. But it was a small one and the income was accordingly. In spite of modest requrements he couldn’t make a living out of this farm. He had to try something else.

Australia turned into a great disappointment for these 16 emigrants from Terjärv. Mostly they wandered along the roads looking for work. They slept under bridges and in road drains. They caught wild rabbits and prepared them in primitive pots. Rabbit steak became a vital part of their daily food. Whatever work they could get was welcome.

One in the group became a camel rider. With a team of six camels he transported salt from a salt mine. Why didn’t you write home to father and mother, they would have helped you to get home. No, we went to manage on our own and we experienced many poor years. Some people from the group enlisted on ships to be able to escape to America and continued there as runaways.

Fride sold his small banana plantation to two boys from Helsinki. The payment was to be made by instalments to the bank. The long journey to Cape Horn started.

The banana farmer from Lytzbacka was now working as a deck-hand on a ship loaded with wheat on its way to South America. It was work and work. A free trip was his salary. After the load had been unloaded in South America there was still a five-day voyage to Seattle on the American west coast. The captain watched his crew carefully; it would cost him $1000 per man if he let anybody escape. And Fride had planned that. He knew that the cousins from Rymbacka lived someplace in this part of the United States. But where? - that was the question.

He managed to get ashore. He then went to the Finnish consulate and asked for Rymbacka. He experienced the most exciting moments of his life. A “yes” meant he could continue his journey toward new goals.

A “no” meant that he had to return to Australia. It was a “no”. The cousins from Rymbacka had changed their names. So Fride sailed back. His hopes about a future had come to nought both in Australia and America.

He prepared to leave the ship in Sydney. The brusque captain had noticed that Fride was a good worker, one that he would have liked to have in his crew on his ship. “Maybe you’ll succeed next time getting into America.” The guarantee money of $1000 he was willing to lose next time. But Fride couldn’t be persuaded. He grabbed his bundle and signed off. How much could you trust a captain’s persuasion when it came from a cold heart?

Fride didn’t stand very long on the shore to say farewell to the ship. Life had to go on. It would be interesting to visit the boys from Helsinki at the banana plantation. He hurried there. But what had happened while he was gone? There were new owners there. He had been a victim of deceivers. When he went to the bank, he just had to face the facts: he had lost everything. What remained now was the endless wandering from one place to another looking for work.

In such circumstances it was difficult to write home. What would you tell? Many lost contact with friends and family. You continued walking, as an outcast, a stranger, abandoned by everybody. The story goes that one of these Australian emigrants said: “It took me 12 years to earn so much money that it would have been enough for a ticket home.”

In a song we sing: “We will overcome, we won’t stop.” That’s how it was with Fride. He met two brothers from Munsala. They were called Back and they had emigrated before Fride. One them was energetic and successful and the other, Karljon, wasn’t financially successful but he had a good heart. And Karljon had work for Fride but no money.

Once more Fride worked as a deck-hand. This time the destination was Finland and home. If you didn’t work enough, because of being seasick or otherwise, it was calculated carefully before signing off and in the worst case you could lose your last dollars. Fride signed off in Norway and from there he went to Turku. Four years had passed since the 16 emigrants had arrived in Australia. Some of them had returned sooner, others found their fortune elsewhere in the world and some of them never returned.

A circle of four years as an emigrant came to an end for Fride. He was pretty empty-handed when he returned, rich in negative experiences. First he went to Pargas (Parainen) to find his uncle and bring greetings home. He had heard that his mother had died but he was shocked to learn that his father had also died. Now he couldn’t escape the thought: he had to choose his path and adjust his life accordingly. After working a winter in the forest and floating in the spring he had his answer clear. In spite of all bad luck and sacrifices he believed that Australia would one day be the land of the future. It wasn’t easy the second time either. The labor situation hadn’t improved and it was a rerun of looking for a job. But perserverance does it. “I know that I’m stubborn and dogged,” Fride used to say.

He started with a banana plantation again. He also had a dairy farm. The profitability was low to start with. But then the second World War broke out and soldiers from America started pouring into the country. Bananas and milk went like hot cakes. Finally Fride saw better days.

When I wrote this about Fride he was about 90 years old and hale and hearty for his age. About 15 years ago he moved back from Australia for good. He is the only one alive of the 16 emigrants who left Terjärv 65 years ago. All the others are dead and their lives have been forgotten. They would have had so much to tell!

Now Fride can spend his final days in his native district, which he has always loved. Fride, with his kick-cycle, can be seen daily in Terjärv village where he goes exercising. “Things are good now and my neighbors give me a feeling of safety,” Fride says when I visited his home in his small apartment by Lake Heimsjön. The home is decorated with photos of his closest relatives.

I noticed a bookmark which is placed on today’s date in his prayer book. He has kept his childhood faith in spite of constant attacks from the evil. Every Sunday his bicycle is parked at the church fence and only twice during the past ten years has he been absent from the brethren meeting. In a hymn we sing: “There is a place for me in the pew and it’s only mine”. Fride has found such a place next to the pillar below the organ balcony, from where he can quietly celebrate service in the church of his native village.

By Hilding Widjeskog “Storbacka and Manderbacka. Groups of Houses in Småbonders”

June Pelo


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