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.
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.
HISTORY OF THE DALMATIANS IN NEW ZEALAND
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.
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
The gum diggers
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.
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. 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.
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.
The First World War
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.
Farming, fishing, winemaking
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’.
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.
Immigration since the Second World War
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.
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’ – ‘fast talkers’. Some intermarriage occurred, producing some 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’.
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 Auckland, Dargaville and Wellington in the 1930s.
Unlike some immigrant groups, the Dalmatians married within their community for generations, helping to preserve culture and language. But sometimes families would anglicise 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.
Facts and figures
Country of birth
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries which included Dalmatia.
- 1921 census: 1,588
- 1951 census: 2,901
- 1976 census: 3,625
- 2001 census: 2,616
- 2001 census: 2,280
- 2006 census: 2,070
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Serbia and Montenegro
In the 2006 census, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
- Croat: 2,550
- South Slav: 891