The history of the Dalmatian people has brought changes to their name, and to their country.
In the 1880s when the first Dalmatians came to New Zealand, the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled Dalmatia, which is on the Adriatic coast of the Mediterranean. This is why they were often mistakenly called ‘Austrians’ in New Zealand.
After Austria-Hungary was defeated in the First World War, Dalmatia was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929 this was renamed Yugoslavia.
In the early 1990s, the wars in the Balkans tore Yugoslavia apart. Eventually Dalmatia became part of the new country of Croatia.
Immigrants from this part of Europe have been known not only as Dalmatians but also as Yugoslavs and Croatians.
Many early immigrants to New Zealand hated the Austro-Hungarian empire, and when Dalmatia became part of Yugoslavia they proudly called themselves Yugoslavs. But those who arrived after the Second World War had lived in Yugoslavia and did not share this enthusiasm.
As the war atrocities in Yugoslavia mounted during the 1990s, factions developed in the Auckland community. For some, the sight of the Yugoslav flag became offensive. Others disliked the word ‘Croatian’ because Croatian fascists had supported Hitler in the Second World War.
But if they were not Yugoslavs or Croatians, what were they? The Auckland Yugoslav Society met to debate the issue. The term ‘Dalmatian’ was eventually reinstated, being the most neutral.
Dalmatia is a province of the central Adriatic coast of Croatia. For centuries it was exploited by the city-state of Venice and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Opportunities for illiterate peasants, living on rocky islands and a ribbon of fertile coast, were limited to subsistence farming, grape-growing, quarrying, fishing and seafaring. In the 1880s a population increase put pressure on scarce land.
‘‘‘Nova Zelanda!” They said the name over, liking the promise that it held. Father Ilya had even got them a piece of the kauri gum from the museum in Vienna. It looked rich and wonderful stuff. They all wanted to hold it, to feel its polished smoothness, to look into its mottled depths for a sign of the future. “A new kind of gold!” Stipan’s grandfather, old Dida Petar, the village stareshina (patriarch) pronounced, and Father Ilya said: “It means gold and that’s what you’ll never get if you stay here. I tell you young men, go. Look for a better life in a new country far from the troubles here.”’ 1
In 1892 Austria-Hungary signed a trade agreement with Italy that excluded Dalmatia. Around the same time the pest phylloxera arrived in Dalmatia, decimating vineyards. In search of better opportunities, men sailed for the far corners of the world. Many were also escaping the Austrian army’s conscription, introduced in 1881.
The first Dalmatians in New Zealand probably arrived via the Californian and Australian goldfields. By the early 1860s they were prospecting South Island diggings. In the 1880s some began pulling golden kauri gum from Northland’s gumfields. Wayfarers returning home described ‘Nova Zelanda’ as a land of good prospects.
Landing in Auckland, Dalmatians lodged in boarding houses run by their compatriots, before venturing north to the gumfields. They lived in rough huts constructed from mānuka poles and sacking, and bought supplies on credit from the local store. Their days were spent deep in trenches and swampy holes.
Dalmatian gum diggers are part of our inventive heritage. In the 1890s John Ivan Botica fitted the tip of a gum spear with a wire coil. When the spear bumped into an object under the soil he twisted it and the coil screwed in, taking a sample. Once the spear was pulled out the digger could decide whether the object was precious gum or just a worthless buried stump. This innovation, dubbed the ‘joker’ or ‘toggle’, was widely adopted by diggers, and saved hours of fruitless labour.
Dalmatians stood out, camping in huts and working in gangs. In 1896 Pārengarenga near North Cape was termed ‘a little Vienna’, as Dalmatians were often labelled Austrians. Census returns for Mangōnui County, which included Whangaroa and the far north, show just 54 in 1896, and 241 in 1906. But in 1898 the Bay of Islands member of Parliament claimed there were 2,000 Dalmatians in the county. Although gum diggers moved around and some might not have been counted, this exaggeration is best explained as prejudice towards non-English immigrants.
Gum in the ground was seen as an income source for settlers trying to develop the land, and Dalmatians methodically mined an entire area. British settlers resented them sending money home, and their unsettled ways. Referred to as ‘birds of passage’, some 60% returned to Dalmatia.
Anti-Dalmatian sentiments were expressed in Parliament and local newspapers. In the election year of 1893 ‘the Austrian question’ became politicised and the government appointed a kauri gum commission to hear evidence.
In 1898 a second commission described Dalmatians as ‘hardy, sober, industrious, law-abiding people’ who ‘would make admirable settlers’. 1 But nothing was done to encourage settlement – instead the discriminatory 1898 Kauri Gum Industry Act was passed. It established kauri gum reserves exclusively for British subjects, and a licensing system with a three-month qualification for new arrivals.
‘They were honest men; there was no thieving. You could leave your gum, or money, in a sack and nobody’d touch it. If one fella didn’t pay his store bill, the others would pay it for him – then give’m hell. All this so that they didn’t get a bad name.’ 2
Further restrictions followed. Under an act passed in 1910, British subjects alone could hold gum-digging licenses. As a result, Dalmatians’ applications for naturalisation were delayed, shipping companies were pressured to prevent further arrivals, and Dalmatians had to find work on private gumfields.
When war broke out in 1914 people defined as Austrians (which included Dalmatians) were declared enemy aliens. Auckland’s Dalmatians publicly demonstrated their support for Serbia, which was at war with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Many wanted to enlist, but the British government was reluctant to accept ‘alien enemies or descendants’. The majority were required to work for soldier’s pay on land clearance, drainage, and road and rail projects.
As the gumfields became depleted, a desire to settle emerged. Rural labouring enabled the gum diggers to purchase small scrubby plots – often damaged by holes from gum digging – with clay piled over topsoil. Early Waiharara settler Mrs Vica Srhoj recalled a visit by the minister of lands: ‘He said the land was worthless and advised us and others not to waste our time. He was wrong.’ 1
Settlement increased in the early 1900s. Turiwiri West Road near Dargaville was commonly known as ‘Dally-Alley’. Monday to Saturday, farmers rose early and seldom returned home before sundown. On special occasions mutton and spare ribs were roasted on spits – basted with the padded end of a mānuka branch soaked in olive oil, mint and spices, and washed down with home-made wine.
Lacking capital to buy farms, some Dalmatians reverted to traditional skills. They netted mullet on the Kaipara Harbour and opened a cannery at Batley in 1896. Thirty years later on the Waitematā Harbour they introduced seine netting from new types of trawlers. Many fishing companies, such as Talley’s (founded in 1936 by Ivan Talijancich in Motueka), are Dalmatian in origin.
Restaurants and fish shops became popular family businesses in Auckland and Wellington. Many Dalmatians still worked in family groups, whether in a Henderson vineyard or a Mt Wellington quarry.
In the late 1890s Dalmatians were growing grapes at Herekino. By 1906, 14 vineyards were producing 2,000 gallons of wine annually. The three Frankovich brothers planted vines on the Whangaparāoa Peninsula in 1899. Naturalisation papers from the early 1900s listed ‘vintager’ among Dalmatians’ occupations. Disciples of the temperance movement disapproved, and early vintages, mainly fortified wine, were dubbed ‘vile Austrian wine’ and ‘Dally-plonk’.
Prime Minister W. F. Massey was not enamoured of winemakers, and passed a bill in 1914, licensing winemakers and placing restrictions on how much they could sell. In Parliament he had the following to say on ‘Austrian wine’:
‘I have never seen the stuff, but I believe it to be one of the vilest decoctions which can possibly be imagined. … it is a degrading, demoralising and sometimes maddening drink … there has been loss of lives attributed … to the use of Austrian wine as a beverage.’ 2
Small farms with vineyards and orchards also emerged in west Auckland. Today the founders’ names read like a who’s who of New Zealand wine – Babich (1919), Selak (1934), Yukich (Montana Wines, 1944), Nobilo (1943) and Delegat (1947). By the mid-1950s, the majority of the 80 vineyards were operated by Yugoslavs or their descendants. Such names as Vella, Marinovich and Sunde are similarly renowned in the fruit-growing regions of Oratia and Henderson.
Dalmatians replaced hybrid grapes with single varieties that produced higher quality wines. They also helped form the Viticulture Association, which lobbied successive governments to deregulate the wine industry. Winemaker George Mazuran’s idea – an annual field day for politicians – became an institution, and by the mid-1950s the government was reducing red tape. The wine industry boomed.
Urbanisation brought greater assimilation, but government attitudes were slow to change. In 1926 the government introduced an upper limit of 3,500 Yugoslavs, after which only wives, fiancées and young children could be admitted. Dalmatians continued to come, although many were now proxy brides destined to marry men seen only in photographs.
In the late 1940s, Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito appealed to expatriates to return to build a united, communist Yugoslavia. Around 290 answered the call. One was 17-year-old Aucklander Gordon Sunde. On arrival in the port of Split he was overwhelmed by the ethnic divisions and devastation – ‘the people … had killed more of their own than the Germans.’ 1
Sunde voluntarily laboured on motorway construction. Because he spoke English, he was questioned by secret police. Visiting a Dalmatian village he saw ‘the poverty of the place. It was sheer rock, and I understood why people had to leave’. Like many, he returned to New Zealand, disillusioned by the atmosphere of partisanship and mistrust.
Others were getting out. In the 1950s people displaced by war began arriving in New Zealand, including former prisoners of war interned in Germany and Italy. Around 18% of New Zealand’s post-war Yugoslav immigrants were displaced persons. Typically they were married with dependants.
Refugees, another new group, made up 16% of the inflow to New Zealand. Many had risked their lives escaping from communist Yugoslavia into Austria and Italy in the 1950s, for political or religious reasons.
Halid Alic arrived in New Zealand in 1993 to escape the Balkans wars. As he reflected, ‘the trouble started in Slovenia, in Croatia, and then in Bosnia – in Sarajevo. Sarajevo is 150 kilometres from my home town, and it was too close. I expected [the war] to be even longer, because after the Second World War we had the longest period of peace – 50 years. We always had wars – always problems between nationalities. It just needed a good opportunity to burst out. [It was] always underneath – like Ireland.’ 2
As the Yugoslavian regime became more liberal, emigration was allowed. In the late 1960s, 238 skilled workers came to New Zealand, recruited for Northland’s Marsden Point power station and Southland’s Manapōuri hydroelectric scheme. Young men in this group tended to settle, while those with families returned. Many later arrivals could not comprehend the pride early migrants took in their ‘Yugoslav heritage’. Having lived in Tito’s Yugoslavia they did not support a united Slavic state.
During the 1990s more than 4,500 people from the former Yugoslavia were approved as permanent residents. Many had fled the wars in the Balkans.
Dalmatians got on very well with Māori of the far north – Te Aupouri, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu and Ngāti Kurī, who dubbed them ‘tarara’. Some intermarriage occurred, producing significant figures such as Dame Mira Szászy, who was president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. A few Māori even learnt to play the Croatian national folk instrument, the tamburica.
Of a Sunday on the gumfields men gathered for religious observance. The women who emigrated missed the Catholic festivals of their homeland. Writer Amelia Batistich recalled her mother believing that ‘there were no Sundays in New Zealand’. In the 1930s, on Kuma Martinovich’s first Sunday in Te Kopuru she asked her husband, ‘Where are the bells?’ His reply: ‘Only bells you will hear here are cowbells’. 1
Nine Croatian-language newspapers were published between 1899 and 1919. Urbanisation fostered the development of clubs, which became important meeting places and avenues for keeping alive customs such as kola dancing. Successful clubs were formed in Dargaville, Auckland and Wellington in the 1930s.
Unlike some immigrant groups, Dalmatians married within their community for generations, helping to preserve culture and language. But sometimes families anglicised their surnames, as Kiwis had trouble pronouncing them.
Some Dalmatians are keen bowls players. National title winner Nick Unkovich is not so far removed from the gum diggers and their Sunday games with baked mud-balls.
Dalmatians and others from the former Yugoslavia are proud of their heritage. Their hard-working attitude and contribution to the country is well-recognised, especially in Northland and Auckland, where the term ‘Dally’ is now one of affection.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries which included Dalmatia.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Brown, Michael, and Aleida Spoelstra, eds. The figs and the vines: gumdigging in Kaipara. Dargaville: Academy, 1997.
Marshall, Brian. ‘Dalmatians in the north.’ New Zealand’s Heritage 60 (1972): 1677–1680.
Scott, Dick, and Marti Friedlander. Pioneers of New Zealand wine. Auckland: Reed/Southern Cross, 2002.
Trlin, Andrew. Now respected, once despised: Yugoslavs in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1979.