Page 1: Biography
Gum-digger, balladeer, poet, writer
This biography, written by Stephen A. Jelicich, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Ante Kosovich, recognised as the bard of the Dalmatian kauri-gum diggers in New Zealand, was born on 5 November 1879 at Zaostrog on the coast of modern Croatia, then part of Austria-Hungary. He was the son of Simun Kosovich, a labourer, and his wife, Ane Jasprica. The village of Zaostrog nestled around a long-established Franciscan monastery, the source of local pride and learning, and an inspiration to budding poets and writers. As a child Ante studied at the village school under a dedicated teacher who nurtured a love for the heroic and poetic traditions of the Croatian people.
Kosovich arrived in New Zealand in 1898, driven by poverty and by the oppression of Austrian masters. He joined an older brother on the gumfields north of Auckland. Little is known of his first few years in New Zealand. His contemporaries would have said that he was less interested in back-breaking toil than in reciting ancient ballads, accompanied by his gusle (a one-stringed fiddle); or in writing poems and dreaming of his homeland. Kosovich was a Croatian patriot, yet he saw the need for southern Slav (Yugoslav) unity as a defence against domination by neighbouring nations. He also developed a love for New Zealand and on 1 October 1906 became a naturalised British subject.
In September 1907 Kosovich published a collection of eight lengthy poems. Entitled Dalmatinac iz tudjine (From the Dalmatian in exile), it was reprinted in 1908 in Split, Dalmatia. The poems reflect the trials and sufferings of Kosovich's compatriots before they achieved acceptance in New Zealand, with titles such as 'Toil and suffering in New Zealand', 'Eviction from the gumfields by the English', and others in similar vein. On 14 August 1907 a long poem by Kosovich appeared in Napredak, the Auckland Croatian-language newspaper. The poem was addressed 'To the Croatian people' and appealed to their patriotism in support of the paper.
In New Zealand Kosovich involved himself in community activities, becoming particularly interested in sport. In 1905 he organised an athletics day at Houhora, and in 1915 helped form the first all-Yugoslav rugby team at Waiharara. A staunch supporter of the formation of a Yugoslav state, he raised funds and organised functions in gum camps and local halls in aid of the Serbian Red Cross during the Balkan wars of 1912–13 and the First World War. His patriotic fervour and newborn Yugoslav idealism led him to write the epic poem Uskrsnuce Jugoslavije (The resurrection of Yugoslavia), which was published in Auckland on 5 January 1920 with the support of 496 donors. There is no record of the number of copies published, but the book was well supported by a community that identified itself with the new nation. As Kosovich himself wrote, 'I am proud to be a true Yugoslav in body and soul.'
Kosovich probably moved to Auckland before his book was published. On 19 June 1923 he married Henrietta Ethel Doube at St Patrick's Church, Panmure. The marriage was dissolved in 1930; there had been no children. Kosovich was vice president of the Yugoslav Progressive Association in 1925 but the organisation lapsed through lack of support. In 1927 he joined in establishing the Yugoslav Library in Auckland, re-formed as the Yugoslav Club in 1930; he remained a member until his death in 1958.
Between the two world wars Kosovich continued to write and to entertain his compatriots with simple rhymes, earning the reputation of a comic balladeer, particularly among the young. In a sense he was misunderstood and somewhat ignored by a community that only valued workers, but he maintained his dignity. He was a deeply religious man and was always polite. Much of his work was never completed and little was published in his latter years. His small undated tribute, 'Kia ora, brave New Zealander, Jean Batten', written in English, failed to match his writings in Croatian.
The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1941 brought disillusionment and despair: an ideal had been destroyed by external invasion and internal divisions. In 1945 a republic was set up under communist rule. Kosovich, as ever the patriot, drew on his Panslavic idealism and supported the new regime. In 1947 he published Uskrsnuce Slavena (The resurrection of the Slavs), which traced the Russian and Yugoslav struggles during the Second World War. This too was financed by family and individual contributions. As well Kosovich continued to recite his verses in praise of community events and leaders into the 1950s.
Ante Kosovich died on 24 February 1958 at Auckland and was buried in Waikumete cemetery among his Croatian kinsfolk. His epitaph, chosen from one of his poems, 'Svaka sila za vremena', expresses the depth of his feelings and his Catholic faith.