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.
Gold from the ground
‘‘‘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.