Monday, March 30, 2009

Signor Federli's sub-tropical dreams

Image from Wikipedia.

Another one of those history threads I picked up by having a recreational trawl through old newspaper files is the 1884 proposal by a Mr. Federli and Mr. Murphy to set up a special agricultural settlement at the Hokianga, in Northland.
“The scheme contemplates the production of grapes, raisins, figs, oranges, lemons, olives, silk, etc.”
(Auckland Star, 15 August 1884)

The first traces of Giovanni Battista Federli in Australasia come in the early 1870s, when he and Romeo Bragato “played a pivotal role in the development of the Australian wine industry and helped found viticultural colleges in Victoria and New South Wales. (“Italian migration 1850-1900”, Italian Historical Society)

By April 1876, Federli, with Carlo Turchi and an interpreter named Pietro Corrado), visited Hokitika by order of the Italian government, tasked to evaluate the area’s capacity for settlement. (Grey River Argus, 17 April 1876) The West Coast Italian settlement was likely to have been still-born, but Federli the talented agriculturalist put down his own roots in the colony, and thrived. He married Meta Theresa Willberg in Hokitika in 1880, and assured the NZ Government that year that, yes – New Zealand could indeed grow olives, vines and mulberry trees in abundance. Especially mulberries -- the food of the silk worm, which was the potential goldmine Federli was to spend the next decade promoting all over the country.

He found a good place for both mulberries and silk worms in Akaroa, and made that township and Christchurch his base of operations. (Evening Post, 14 May 1881) In response, the Government assisted by importing “a large consignment of silkworm eggs of green, orange, and white cocoon varieties, and for a quantity of white mulberry trees on which the worms feed. At the same time an order was sent to Sydney for 500 white mulberry tress two years old. The intention is to establish a silk culture m New Zealand. The idea was initiated by Mr Federli, of the Survey Department, who is stated to be an expert m that branch of industry.” (Timaru Herald, 26 May 1881)

By 1883, Federli had published a pamphlet on sericulture (Timaru Herald, 16 February 1883), and early the following year began a series of lectures around the country on the new industry. Meeting up with Josiah Clifton Firth gave him access to the Waikato districts, Firth only too enthusiastic with his support for the venture. (Waikato Times, 22 March 1884)

In April that year, Federli became acquainted with Northland, “greatly delighted with the country.” (Bay Of Plenty Times, 17 April 1884) The Hobson County Council were delighted to see him as well.
“The Hobson County Council has passed a resolution that the county, in connection with other counties north of Auckland, ask Government for 200 acres for a model farm, on which to place a small class of immigrants specially skilled in sericulture and the cultivation of sub-tropical products, for the purpose of imparting knowledge to the settlers as to the best mode of carrying on these industries; and that the Government be petitioned for Mr. Federli's removal to Auckland in order that his knowledge and advice may be available.”
(New Zealand Tablet, 13 June 1884)

The response was Federli and Murphy announcing in August 1884 that they had purchased 5,500 acres of land at Hokianga for “a special settlement for sub-tropical industries,” with plans to introduce fifty families into the area per year over the next three years. (Evening Post, 27 August 1884) The company, financed by a Christchurch-based consortium, the Hokianga Land Company, was to be called the Hokianga Sub-Tropical Company, or the Hokianga Fruit-Growing Company. The name seemed to change with each report.

By 1886, the company’s sections were selling well, and there was talk of another 4000 acres to be purchased – but the grand dreams seem to have turned out the same way the Hokitika settlement did in the 1870s. Federli’s own house in the settlement burned down during a severe bush fire in February 1890 – and from that point, his name, once all over the national press reports, vanished.

By March 1892, he was across the Tasman, living in Rutherglen, Victoria. There, he ended his days making a name for himself as a viticulturalist. Wine growing institutes remember him; there is a Federli Street in Rutherglen, perhaps named after him.

From 1895 until 1909, his wife gradually sold off their South Island real estate holdings. The previous century's Italian-Kiwi dream of New Zealand as the sericulture and sub-tropical produce capital of the South Pacific was over.


  1. I thought his name sounded familiar as I read through your article.
    Then the penny dropped at the end lol.
    That's a shame, it obviously was just not meant to be.

  2. Signor Federli was my Great Great Grandfather. So it was very interesting to read of his efforts. Thank you.

  3. Fantastic Post!!!! Thanks for letting me know about this Lisa awesome! It was a shame his dream was slowly sold off. A true Pioneer of our early Horticultural history wow!