Croatian Immigration To New Zealand

The Short Story


The gum diggers

From the 1890s, in the wake of their countrymen seeking gold, Dalmatians banded together in the gumfields of the far north. Their new home – mānuka huts with sacking. Their work was to dig in mud: the prized kauri gum lay buried, often under waterlogged land. It was in demand for varnish and linoleum until the 1930s, when synthetics appeared. Thousands of Dalmatians came out to New Zealand, but after such hardship, many returned home.

Farmers, winemakers, fishermen

In time, the land offered a better life. Some diggers became farmers in the north. Others started vineyards, and today you’ll find their names on wine labels: Babich, Nobilo, Delegat. From early days netting mullet in Kaipara Harbour, fishing became a tradition too.

Later immigrants

Others came in the 1920s and 1930s, and over 3,000 arrived between the 1940s and 1970s. In the 1990s there was a larger wave of immigrants, fleeing the turmoil of the wars in the Balkans.


Prejudice and ignorance hounded the Dalmatians for many years. Harsh rules that favoured the British made it increasingly difficult for them to dig for gum. During the First World War they were mistakenly called ‘Austrians’ and treated as enemies. Their wine was scorned as ‘Dally-plonk’. But Māori accepted them, nick-naming them ‘tarara’ – fast talkers.


Group loyalty kept the gum diggers strong, and proud of their heritage. They even taught some Māori to play the stringed tamburica. As relatives came out to join them, communities in Northland and Auckland grew. It became easier to celebrate their customs: Catholic festivals, playing bowls, singing, and joining in a circle for the lively kolo dance.


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.

Political beliefs

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.

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.

Work and war: 1890 to 1930



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