Embassy of Portugal in Canada

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Learn about the interesting history behind the Saturnia, the ship that carried the first set of Portuguese immigrants commissioned by the Canadian government in 1953:

In 1953, a group of Portuguese men boarded the Saturnia ship as part of the first wave of officially sponsored immigration by the Canadian government.

Here are some interesting facts that you may not have known about this 632 ft long liner:

  • The Saturnia was built by the Italian company, Cosulich Societa Triestina di Navigazione in the port city of Trieste in northeastern Italy (1).
  • At the time, the ship’s design was very innovative — it was one of the 1st transatlantic liners to be powered by diesel engines, rather than turbines, which had been the norm up until then. Not only did this innovation require less fuel (100 tons every 24 hours, versus 300 tons used by the traditional designs with turbines and boilers) but it also made room for about 300-400 more passengers (with a total capacity of about 2167). For this reason, the Saturnia, and its sister ship, the Vulcania, were often referred to as the “ships without smoke” (1).
  • Originally used as a luxury cruise ship, the Saturnia embarked on it’s first voyage on September 21, 1927. However, over the years, it took on many other roles (2).
  • Starting in 1941, after the British occupied Italian Somalia and Ethiopia, thousands of Italians were sent to internment camps with very poor living conditions. The Italian Governor of these colonies at the time, Francesco Caroselli, had good relations with British authorities, so he was given permission to organize the repatriation of the Italians living in the camps. The Saturnia and the Vulcania were the vessels charged with this mission. By the end of it, about 30 000 Italians had been successfully repatriated (1).
  • In 1943, after the Italian Armistice, the ship had been sent to carry cadets of the Naval Academy to Brindisi, Italy, before being placed under the control of the Allies (1).
  • In 1944, after docking in New York, the Saturnia was turned into a hospital for the American forces (1).
  • After the war, the ship began being used to transport immigrants from Europe to North America. It is estimated that about 265 000 immigrants traveled on the Saturnia between 1946 and 1965, when it finally docked for good (2).
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