One of Australia’s most instantly recognisable television identities, The Block presenter and Gold Logie-winner Scott Cam enjoys jumping in his boat and sailing away from it all for a few hours, cruising back for beer o’clock.
The subject of the opening episode of the tenth series of Who Do You Think You Are?, he wonders aloud if he’ll discover that deep-seated seafaring spirit is part of his family’s DNA, in much the same way that horses have been a constant companion. The answer will prove intriguing.
A lovable larrikin, he notes that few, on first glance, would guess his Italian heritage on his father’s side. The family name was changed from Caminiti during WWII, to ward off ill will and ensure the health of their then flourishing fishing business, Cam & Sons, in Sydney.
“We knew a lot about what had happened in Australia, but not much about before they got here, so that was going to be really interesting,” he tells me on a break from filming in Melbourne, recalling his anticipation at filling in the blanks. “Of course there were whispers about this and that, and the story got mixed up along the way, so to get the actual validation was really good.”
As he says in the episode, “I often think that in two generations, I’ll be forgotten, and I started thinking about the previous generations… I’m really excited to bring them back to life a bit.”
And oh, what a life they led. The Cams had always thought that his great, great grandfather Rocco’s family were farmers hailing from Gallio, north west of Venice, but in fact he was a fisherman born and bred in Gallico, Reggio Calabria. The discovery of an old photo of the handsomely swarthy man in question is a real eye-opener for Cam and was the first thread they pulled at in the hidden family tapestry.
Not that they were totally off course. Rocco’s wife-to-be Catarina did hail from the north, and the unfurling story of how they came to meet reads like a classic romantic adventure novel. Surviving gang warfare, high seas, dastardly deception and dreaded disease, they were finally united in Sydney. “They get married six days after Rocco arrived, so they must have been keen on each other,” Cam chuckles.
On his mother’s side, there was talk of a Phoebe Isaacs, with some claiming she was Jewish nobility, others that she came from gypsy stock. “My great grandmother, who came to Australia, she probably wanted to get rid of the gypsy tag, so it wasn’t talked about that much, I assume,” Cam notes of the obscured history.
As he tries to find the truth, another jaw-dropping story unfolds. A tale of adversity turned into success, and then back to tragedy, it does, indeed, tie the family fortune to horses, and also to an unexpected bad boy. “That side have always been rogues, right through to me,” Cam says with a hearty laugh. “Great rogues, you know, hard working people like my grandfather, and my uncles on that side who were all pretty funny people. They loved a beer and a bit of boxing.”
It’s all part of the Cam spirit. “I’ve always knuckled down and tried to do the best job I can,” he says of his own family, with three grown kids who share his drive and determination, and yes, maybe a bit of his roguish charm too. “This is just one chapter in this hard-working family and that’s a legacy that future generations will be able to watch now and say, ‘we’ve come from hard-working stock, so let’s keep up that tradition,’ because my theory is, if you don’t work hard, you get nowhere in life.”
While a stoic Cam says the revelations on both sides weren’t particularly emotional for him, the two-week trip to the northern hemisphere was fascinating, and the stories he uncovered along the way with the help of local historians here and abroad leaves a tangible legacy for his family. “Every family has bits and piece missing from the puzzle and you never actually get it quite right, but I’ve got it quite right now, as far back as we can look. Now it’s just a matter of keeping that going. I’m a bit of a guardian of that history now.”
Scott Cam’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? airs on SBS tonight (Tuesday 6 April) at 7:30PM.
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