THE BEGINNING OF LATVIANS IN AUSTRALIA
The first record of a Latvian in Australia was in 1829, when Latvian born Aaron Wolf was brought to Australia as a convict, from the U.K. In 1891, 160 people living in Australia called themselves Latvian.
Early in the 20th century more Latvian sailors arrived from Europe, searching for a new beginning. A number of refugees fleeing the 1905 revolution arrived and settled mainly around Sydney.
During Latvia’s first period of independence very few Latvians resettled in Australia. By 1933 only 76 Latvian born people lived in Victoria.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR. PROCESSION OF REFUGEES AND EMMIGRATION
Between 1947 and 1952 around 19 700 refugees arrived in Australia.
Minister Caldwell was sent on a work assignment to Europe in 1947, where he visited displaced persons camps. In that same year, on 21st of July, ministers signed an agreement to accept refugees in Australia.
In this agreement among a number of conditions, were the following:
- Australia would only accept people physically capable of working
- Each immigrant must work two mandatory years in a government assigned job.
The first boat of 843 Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians arrived in Fremantle in Western Australia on the 28th of November, 1947. All those who arrived were transported to a camp in Bonegilla, Victoria. In May of the next year, a second camp was built in Bathurst, NSW. Refugee camps became widespread throughout Australia. Living quarters were old, slightly modified army barracks. Bathrooms, toilets, laundry areas were all communal. By the end of 1950, there were 30 refugee camps around Australia.
Even though a large proportion of Latvian immigrants had a high level of education and extensive work experience, the Australian government chose to ignore this fact. As a consequence, a large number of Latvian immigrants were assigned to work as unskilled labour.
Latvian women worked in factories or country hospitals. Men built roads, worked in sugarcane fields, logged forests, built railroads, bridges, buildings etc. The largest employer for immigrants was the Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric scheme. This project lasted 25 years and new immigrants made up 70% of the scheme’s workforce.
PRESERVING A LATVIAN IDENTITY
Latvians had to fight for their own identity. Everything that was associated with the preservation of the Latvian culture, including funds, had to be provided by the refugees themselves. Arriving at their new home, Latvians organised societies, Christian churches, folk dancing and theatre groups. At Sunday schools Latvian families were taught their native language, Latvian history, geography, Latvian traditions, and celebrations. Cultural festivals were organised in Australia. Latvians established their own press and public libraries, and pubished books in the Latvian language.
The Latvian Federation in Australia was founded in Melbourne on 22nd of July, 1951. At the first meeting there were 19 representatives from 17 organisations.
As its main aim the Latvian Federation put forward ‘Upholding Latvian community-mindedness and ideals in the exiled community’.
To support these aims, the executive council of the Latvian Federation in Australia also founded a Cultural Education and Information Fund. In 1951 and 1952 a Sunday school program was developed, book weeks were organised, and statutes for the Cultural Fund and Educational fund were written. As a tradition, a Cultural Festival was organised in Australia’s largest cities. The Association of Latvian Organisations in New Zealand joined the The Latvian Federation in Australia in the late 1960’s, forming what is now the Latvian Federation in Australia and New Zealand.
Since 1991 when Latvia regained independence, a small number of Australians of Latvian heritage has returned to live in Latvia.
At the last census in 2011, 4675 people living in Australia were born in Latvia, and over 20 000 considered themselves to be Latvians. In New Zealand 210 people were of Latvian heritage, of these one third had arrived in the last 5 years.
For further information:
Latvians in Australia: alienation and assimilation. A. Putniņš., Australian National University Press Canberra, 1981
Latvieši Austrālijā: Skats no tālienes. Trimdas gadi. Ineta Didrihsone-Tomaševska, 2014
Early Settlers in Australia. Edited by A. Putniņš. Sterling Star, 2010