As early as 1888, the brothers and bankers Isacco and Giuseppe Morpurgo rented three steamships from Austrian Lloyd for the transport of emigrants to Brazil. But the authorities soon thwarted their enterprise after they had managed to transport only a very small number of passengers.
A period of systematic transport of emigrants to America from Trieste started on 10 November 1903 when the Cunard Line’s steamship Aurania set sail for New York, with stops in Rijeka, Venice, Palermo, Naples, Algiers and Gibraltar.
In a cutthroat competition, waged by the German shippers against their English counterparts, Cunard did not manage to hold its ground in Trieste. The Austrian Littoral was under strong German influence and Cunard never managed to secure more than 15% of the market in the transport of emigrants in Trieste. However, on the way to America its ships called at Rijeka, a Hungarian port, where the English fared better.
Austro-Americana, founded almost immediately after Cunard started calling at Trieste, transported most of the emigrants The third company, Canadian Pacific Railway transported only a negligible number, since it started operating just before the war
In 1904, shortly after Cunard’s initiative, Trieste saw the founding of a major domestic shipping company, Unione Austriaca di Navigazione (Austrian Shipping Association), also known as Austro Americana & Fratelli Cosulich. The name bears witness to the merger of Austro-Americana (founded in 1894) and Fratelli Cosulich, a shipping company from Lošinj whose seat had been moved to Trieste in 1889.
In only a few months, the new shipper doubled its capital stock, thanks to investments by large north German shippers and Austrian banks. Because of their large investments, the Germans assumed control of the Company, with the intention to squeeze the intruder Cunard Line out of their “domestic” market.
At the time of its founding, in 1904, Austro-Americana had a fleet of 19 ships, with a total capacity of 61,440 DWT. It launched a service for New York in June 1904 using the steamship Gerty, which also called at Messina, Naples and Palermo. In July 1904, the Giulia and the Freda joined the Gerty on this route.
In only a decade, from late 1903 until late 1914, as many as 220,312 emigrants set out from the port of Trieste to the Americas. Out of that number, three-quarters (73.5%) went to the USA, slightly less than a quarter (22.1%) to South America and 4.4 % to Canada.
Austro-Americana transported most of them (83%), Cunard transported much fewer (14.7%) while Canadian Pacific Railway transported only a negligible number (2.3%).
The total traffic per year was under 20,000 passengers, which put Trieste in the ninth position among the top ten emigration ports in continental Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, a peak period for emigration from Central Europe and Italy, most emigrants went from the ports of Naples, Bremen, Genoa, Hamburg, Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Rijeka and Trieste.
Out of the total number of people who emigrated through Trieste, 40.4% were from the Austrian part of the Monarchy, 16.7% from Hungary (more than a half were Croats, whereas the Hungarians were fewer) and 4.4% from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The rest consisted of foreigners – 22.9% from Russia, 4.3% from Turkey, 3.2% from Greece, 3% from Italy, 2.4% from Romania and under 1% from Bulgaria and Germany.
The Austrians came from Galicia (39.6%), Dalmatia (26.5%), the Austrian Littoral (reaching to the western suburbs of Rijeka, 12.7%), Carniola (Slovenia, 11.1%), and Bukovina (3.4%). The smallest contingent consisted of German speaking Austrians from Styria, south Austria and Tyrol (5% in total).
Notably, the least represented among the emigrants embarking at Trieste were those from the Austrian Littoral, i.e., the Triestine hinterlands, Istria and the Kvarner islands. They often emigrated through western ports.
A large number of returnees, including seasonal labour, also called “birds of passage,” used Trieste as a port of entry. But some returnees came back penniless and had to rely on the support of Triestine social services. When their numbers started growing on the eve of World War I, they became a significant burden for the city hospital and public services. That was partly blamed on the shippers, primarily on Austro-Americana, who were blinded by profits and neglected the interests of these wretches.
Between 1904 and 1914, 63,290 returnees disembarked at the port of Trieste, including 86.1% from the USA, 12.9% from South America and 1% from Canada.
It should be noted here than more than half of the returnees from America consisted of Hungarian subjects (50.9%), which meant that the number of Hungarian returns, whether ethnic Croats, Slovaks, Hungarians or others, almost equalled the number of Hungarian departures at this port.
Austro-Americana bought a large house in Servola, a coastal suburb of Trieste, with the intention to use it to accommodate emigrants. Although sanitary inspectors often complained about the house’s overcrowding, claiming that the facility should accommodate no more than 700 persons, rather than a thousand, which made disinfection impossible, the emigrants at least had a place to stay.
Due to poor water supply and sewage and inadequate garbage collection, the emigrants’ house soon witnessed outbreaks of infectious diseases – smallpox and typhoid. As the result of frequent complaints, Austro-Americana was forced to limit the number of lodgers at the emigrants’ house and began to consider expansion.
Following an outbreak of typhoid, even a newspaper in Cracow, Galicia, the region of origin of most Triestine emigrants, published a rabid criticism of Austro-Americana.
Partly under the pressure of trade unions but primarily in line with its new business policies, in 1913 Austro-Americana embarked on a major expansion and upgrade of the emigrants’ hostel and on the construction of quarantine facilities for emigrants with infectious diseases adjacent to it.