Flanders to Rome

Nicola Sciascia
Family Pilgrimage 2007

Dr Guido Nicosia

Dr Guido Nicosia - Italian Ambassador to New Zealand
Speech as presented at Sciascia-McGregor Reunion 1990

It is with great pleasure that I have accepted this invitation, initially from the Mayor of Levin, Mr Sciascia, and then formally extended by the chairman, Mr Kereama, to take part in this reunion of the Sciascia - McGregor family.

There are three reasons why I am glad to be here to address you:
#1: the importance of the name Sciascia (that is the correct Italian pronunciation) being also the name of one of the most renowned Italian novelists, living today, Leonardo Sciascia;
#2: a fascination for the short but remarkable life of your grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather, Nicola Sciascia, a seaman and traveller who came to New Zealand when he was about thirty and established here the Sciascia - McGregor family which today exceeds more than 2000 persons; [Ed: now more than 4,000]
#3: the land of origin of this man - the noble city of Trani in the ancient region of Puglia, a crossroad of civilization for twenty Gentries.

Therefore, allow me to say a few words about these three points; the name, the man, and the place.

The name Sciascia is probably of Sicilian origin and indeed today is widespread mainly in Sicily. Sciascia is an example of one of the many Christian names that, with the passing of time, evolved into a surname, such as John to Jones and Peter to Peters in the English language. Indeed Sciascia is a Modified familial for the name Rosario, which in the Hispanic world is used as a feminine form while in Sicily it is a masculine form. Rosario leans both a rose-garden and the rosary - the chain of prayers invented by St. Dominic. Since my first name is Rosario I could be called Sciascia in Sicily, but I am better known by Guido, my second name. As I mentioned earlier, Sciascia is the family name of perhaps the most important Italian Author living today and undoubtedly is the most important of this century, The novels of Leonardo Sciascia are strongly characterised by strong social and historical content. He was one of the first to denounce and fight the sad phenomenon of the Mafia which Mussolini almost endeavored to stamp out, but which, aided by the American Mafia, resurged after the war. Almost all Sciascia’s novels have been translated into the main languages and many have been dramatised in film.

And now about the man himself. This first documented information we have of Nicola is a letter written in 1874. Italy had been united for only four years after the fall of the Pope's temporal power and with it the transfer of the capital from Florence to Rome. The 20th September 1870 marked the happy ending of a long dream begun almost 1000 years before when Italians began to realise, during the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages that the Roman Empire had really come to an end and so they started dreaming of the day when they would be unified once again. That day came and with the unification of Italy the dream ended, and Italians had to face the harsh reality. The elimination of barrier tariffs between the different states, into which the Peninsula had been divided, created new economic problems. Some regions became richer, others poorer. The southern areas were the ones that suffered the most. The only solution was to be found in migration and so began a great and continuous flow of people that in forty years until the First World War brought 5 million Italians to all parts of the world. But perhaps the reasons that induced Nicola to emigrate were not only of an economical nature. A great role was no doubt played that young man's spirit of adventure and curiosity. Nicola left his hometown in his early twenties when he started his life as a seaman. From his brother's letters we understand that he went to London, at the time the most important city in the world. He also sailed to Fiume, today known as Rijeka, a very important part of the Austrian Empire, where for awhile a branch of the Sciascia family settled; he went to Marseilles, one of the most important centres of France under Napoleon the third. Nicola was born on the 13 April 1840, a few weeks after the Treaty of Waitangi and 15,000 miles away. He was born into a respectable though not very affluent family, navigation being the main occupation of their men.

In a letter dating back to 1874 his brother Bartolomeo writes, "Our family has never been ashamed of itself -on the contrary, it is every inch praised and respected in Trani". They were people with a good education, in the family everyone could write, and the letters of his brothers and sisters, Bartolomeo, Margherita, Raffaella and even his small nephew, Carlo are written in good Italian and elegant handwriting, a remarkable achievement at a time when only a minority could write and dialects were in any case more popular than the main language.

Nicola's brother, Bartolomeo began his seafaring career as a simple sailor, but soon he wrote with pride of his appointment to second-mate and later becoming captain until he left the sea for a more comfortable job with the railways, which in those years had begun to replace shipping as the Peninsula's means of communication and transportation.

Nicola most probably started corresponding with his family in 1873, perhaps after a silence of ten years or so, but unfortunately we do not have his letters. In 1868, Bartolomeo came across people from Fiume who had seen his brother years earlier, in 1865 in London, on board an American ship. From this we gather that Nicola could have arrived in New Zealand between 1865 and 1870, still a young man, even considering that in those days life expectancy was not very high. In this young country of New Zealand Nicola spent about thirty years of his life. We know little of his early years here, his brothers and sisters letters were always full of questions but Nicola seemed reluctant to answer then, but more is known of his later years after his marriage. At 42 Nicola felt that it was time to settle down and he married the eldest daughter of Teone and Pirihira McGregor in Foxton, He worked as a lighthouse keeper until he was attacked and fatally injured by a bull on the 29th of March 1898 on Portland Island, where his grave still stands. In a fortnight’s time, Nicola would have turned 150.

And now a few words about Trani, town of the Sciascia family. Trani was a fishing village situated on the east coast of Puglia, facing Greece and known in the 3rd century A.D. by the roman name of Turenum. Situated in a region that for twenty centuries was the crossroad of trade between North and South, East and West, Trani quickly became a most important trading centre. After the fall of the roman empire in the seventh century Trani was a city much coveted by the Byzantines for Constantinople, by the barbarian Goths whose capital vas Ravenna and by the Longobards from Pavia. It resisted against the Arabs only to fall into the hands of the Normans at the beginning of the new millennium and later on passed to the Swabian. Under Emperor Frederick the II's rule, who also built a castle there, Trani became a very important trading centre and for a short while competed even with Venice and enjoyed considerable autonomy of government.

During the 15th century when Trani was regarded as the most important South-Adriatic city it was contested for by the French Angeons and the Spanish Aragoneses, after which for a short while towards the end of the 15th century it fell under Venetian rule and became an important centre of juridical studies. It was later absorbed by the Kingdom of Naples until Napoleon the first conquered it at the end of the 18th century. In 1815 it fell again under the domain of the Bourbon family, the rulers of Naples where it stayed until 1860 when all of southern Italy was assimilated into the kingdom of Italy. Presently Trani is renowned as an important wine trading centre of Puglia. The glory and excellence of Trani, and its 18 centuries of history find its best expression in the cathedral, one of southern Italy's most impressive monuments. It actually comprises three churches, built one on top of the other. The result is a tall and spectacular cathedral built in the so-called Norman-Romanesque style, standing above a Byzantium temple and underneath, a tiny Roman catacomb. The building of the higher church dedicated to Saint Nicolas, the Pilgrim began in 1094, 900 years ago, the same year that the pilgrim saint died. It was paid for by "aere minitus", which in Latin means by small, private contributions, according to medieval custom when churches were built by generation and generation of believers, each person contributing either with pieces of stone or with their labour and savings.

It is my wish, that one day you will be able to see this monument in whose shadow Nicola Sciascia was born almost 150 years ago. With this I ask you all to raise your glasses and drink in a toast to.

Dr Guido Nicosia - Italian Ambassador to New Zealand 1990

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