Page 1: Biography
Totich, John Mark
Gum-digger, boarding-house keeper, community leader, consul
This biography, written by Stephen A. Jelicich, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Ivan Marko Totić (known in New Zealand as John Mark Totich) was born to Marko Totić, a farmer, and his wife, Marija Violić, in the village of Kuna, Pelješac peninsula, Dalmatia, a province of Austria, on 18 May 1882. He was educated at the village primary school and then received private tuition at the Franciscan convent in Kuna. He appeared destined for the priesthood.
Totich lived with his parents and an older sister, Kate, until September 1898, when he was seized with the idea of going abroad. Having obtained his father's permission, he left home to join a second cousin, Charles (Vlaho) Segetin, who had been digging gum in New Zealand for five years. With 10 or so others from the surrounding district, Totich undertook the long journey to Naples, where they sailed for Sydney, New South Wales. They trans-shipped to Auckland in late November 1898.
Totich stayed at Loui Kinkella's boarding house for a few days and then went to Kumeu and Taupaki to dig gum. Some six months later he joined some of his compatriots on the gum-fields of Northern Wairoa. He worked at Scottish Camp with John Nobilo and at Redhill with Baldo Tomich before buying a small block of land with the latter.
John Totich was an intelligent, enterprising individual, who adapted quickly to the rugged conditions and lifestyle. Soon after settling at Redhill he attended night classes in English. He became a naturalised British subject in 1903, played rugby and participated in local affairs. Popular and compassionate, he befriended many Redhill settlers, and had also been accepted as a leader by the Dalmatians. When he moved to Dargaville township in 1906 or 1907, he and his partner donated to the Redhill community half an acre of land on which to build a hall.
In Dargaville in 1908 Totich and Dick Fredatovich purchased a boarding house and billiard saloon; a grocery store was later added. The premises became a home away from home for the many Dalmatian diggers moving on and off the gum-fields. Totich's knowledge of the English language, understanding of New Zealand ways and his integrity equipped him for leadership. He was always on call as an interpreter, translator and counsellor, and never refused anyone his assistance. He also belonged to, or served on the committees of, the Esperanto Club, Slavonic Football Club, Kaipara Chamber of Commerce, Northern Wairoa Racing Club, Northern Oak Lodge and several other organisations. During the Balkan wars of 1912–13 he initiated a fund-raising committee to help the Serbian Red Cross.
Totich fought vigorously for the recognition of Dalmatians as good citizens and loyal New Zealanders. When Gordon Coates contested the Kaipara parliamentary seat in 1911, his close friendship with many Dalmatians, including Totich, led them to campaign actively for him; the more so as the sitting member, John Stallworthy, was believed to have little sympathy for foreign settlers. Coates's victory in the second ballot by 572 votes may have owed something to Dalmatian electors. Coates became the Dalmatians' voice in Parliament, and his representations on their behalf, with Totich acting as intermediary, smoothed out many problems.
During the First World War Dalmatian Croats, as former or current subjects of Austria, were regarded with suspicion and even open hostility, in spite of many of their number volunteering to serve overseas (60 served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force before the government prevented any further enlistments). Tensions rose in proportion to the growing number of New Zealand casualties. The Dalmatians, denying any affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, set up committees in Auckland and Dargaville and published a newspaper. Prominent figures such as Totich argued unavailingly for their acceptance as friendly aliens.
In 1916 the government decided, in collusion with a commercial gum-digging enterprise, to intern the Dalmatians in the Parengarenga district near North Cape. A deal was struck, but somehow John Totich heard of it. He immediately voiced his bitter resentment in a cable to the prime minister, William Massey. Coates, then on overseas service, expressed his deep concern, requesting that the Dalmatians be put to work on essential government schemes if necessary. The government quickly backed down.
In June 1915 the Alien Enemies Commission had been formed to advise the government on aliens in New Zealand. When it inquired into the Dalmatian community in September 1916, Totich appeared to represent them. Despite the inquiry's finding that Dalmatians, by now regarded as Yugoslavs, were of proven loyalty, waves of anti-alien hysteria continued. The Dalmatian community became divided against itself: some persisted, with Totich's support, in the idea of joining the Serbian army on the Salonika front; others adopted an unco-operative stance, disillusioned and embittered by government wrangling and indecision. When compulsory service on non-military works was introduced for aliens in 1918, few Dalmatians joined up willingly because of the low pay and the vindictive attitude of the commissioner of aliens, John Cullen.
John Totich married Ethel May Fry at Auckland on 13 July 1917. He continued to work for the removal of barriers between Dalmatians and their fellow New Zealanders. He saw the creation in 1918 of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as it was officially known after 1929) as the realisation of a dream. His ultimate reward was to be appointed honorary consul for the kingdom in 1927. Ethel Totich died at Dargaville in 1935. John Totich moved to Auckland in 1938 and worked as an interpreter and land agent in addition to performing consular work. By 1944 he seems to have been close to bankruptcy. He drew a small pension, but depended on the earnings of his daughter, Marjory, with whom he lived in rented rooms until his death at Auckland on 18 October 1957.