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Searching for Angelo . . .

Saturday last, the 29th of October, marked the 162nd anniversary of the death of my 3rd great-grandfather Angelo. He died on that day in 1854 in the colonial hospital in Auckland in circumstances that cannot now be fully explained. It seems a tenuous connection to commemorate, but simply knowing about his time here brings some understanding of who we are as a family and how we came to be in New Zealand.

Searching for traces of him has revealed fragments of a fascinating life and provided a window into the earliest days of Auckland. My paternal grandmother always proclaimed a Maltese connection but could not elaborate any further, other than offering up the name of ‘Pergy’. It was simply all she knew.

A mere germ of information and not much to go on. Some official records and an internet message board found by chance, connected the dots . . . and there he was emerging stridently from the past.

One Angelo Paragee. Over the years he has taken shape. Early resident of Auckland, native of Tarxien in Malta, almost certainly of Italian descent. Boatman, waterman, sailor, adventurer, sportsman, all-round character. Angelo John Joseph Phillip Paragin to be exact, 1821 - 1854. A short but eventful life.

Subsequent discoveries by various people were shared with Auckland historian Lisa Truttman who elaborated some more:

Whilst all of my forebears were very early settlers to this country, arriving here in the years between 1840

and 1880, it is Angelo who is the most compelling. For the simple reason that despite being predominantly

of Irish, Scots and English descent - we just don’t look like that. With dark hair, very dark eyes and olive skin, people have constantly commented on what our background might be. Spanish, Italian, Croatian, Jewish, Iranian - the list was endless. Dad was once described by a rugby spectator on the sideline as

‘that Chinese-Maori halfback’. Whatever that meant. Travelling through Croatia & Italy, people would assume

I spoke the language, strike up conversation and be equally baffled when I could not reply. It seems somehow, the entire payload of Angelo’s genetics seems to have landed with us.

The family dynamic from my Dad’s side is also more southern European in outlook, which was not the New Zealand norm. A confident, often noisy, very extended and yet incredibly close-knit bunch. Whilst licensed to say outrageous things to each other, outsiders daring to express the very same opinions do so at their peril. The annual Christmas bash is an initiation rite of sorts for newcomers. Food, lots of laughter and a thorough vetting process all combined. Did I mention food? Welcome to the family . . . as the Corleone’s would say. Most striking is the fact that they are uber-competitive in everything they do. I remain convinced that trait has been passed down.

I can completely understand how anyone with a small amount of ethnicity can identify with a particular culture. It is more than a question of being half of anything, or an eighth, or a sixteenth. When two of my sisters visited Angelo’s birthplace in Tarxien last year, they said it felt like they belonged there and yet our connection to the place is really only historical. If a fundamental need we have, is a sense of belonging, it seems that home can be in many places all at once . . . or, perhaps where the heart is drawn to most.

Angelo numbered a population of just 'one' according to Maltese immigration researchers Dr Carmen Dalli

and Mark Caruana. His name is routinely misspelled everywhere, with over twenty variants found so far. Often, even his first name was recorded wrongly - Angelo/Antonio. Accuracy did not seem important. Mysteriously, he is described as illiterate, but is at the same time known to be writing letters to the editor of the Southern Cross. Perhaps that simply meant English was not his first language? A part of the foundation of this place yet surely set apart from it in many aspects, despite abilities and connections that seem to reach across the social strata. A working man who spent his leisure time involved in the fairly gentrified pastime of sailing racing yachts. There is so much that can’t be known now, from the actual date of his arrival here to what his true place in the new society was.

His life was cut short by a tragic set of events and there is no doubt he suffered terribly, taking three weeks to succumb to his severe injuries. A bitter irony, that after a life lived around water, it was fire that would despatch him.

Last Saturday was typical October day, bright one moment, the next a blustery squall blowing up from the harbour. A biting chill to the wind with that familiar, heady, springsweet fragrance when it calms.

For a few hours in the afternoon, I was only a short distance from where he would have been confined during his last days. I thought about him having been long forgotten and then remembered again and that he deserves at least to be acknowledged. There is no grave to visit, his remains were disturbed long ago by the southern motorway project which relocated much of the cemetery. It is doubtful it was ever marked by

an actual gravestone. The ‘watering place’, where he plied his trade, is long gone - erased by a century of reclamation and development. Wynyard wharf is now a watering place of a different kind.

As more detail about his early life comes to light, it seems like a circle is becoming complete.

Recently, thanks to new information, his Italian lineage in Malta appears conclusive and we can move further backwards in time by another two generations. Giovanni, Catarina, Maria, Battista, Nicola - those names dance across the page in shaky copperplate.

To the relative that told me that we should never look back, only forward: I strongly disagree.

We should know at least a little something about Angelo. On the days when this harbour is picture perfect

we should be pleased to know he sailed his racing gigs under the red and white of the Maltese cross - that his boats: The Susannah, The Fear-naught, The Alphabet, The Rory O’More and The British Queen traversed these same waters. Mostly, we should be extraordinarily proud of this crazy-brave young man who risked all for life in the new colony. When we rail against the tide of new arrivals and a city bursting at its seams,

we ought to reflect that we were all immigrants once. We all started somewhere.

I tip an imaginary hat to a man who felt motivation enough to row around Brown’s island for a wager and to a son who caused confusion for his descendants by listing his mother’s family name as ‘Langelka’ on official documents . . . It was not her surname at all, but his own native local dialect for ‘My mother, the angel’.

That is my kind of guy.

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