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150 years later

The Beehive in Wellington, New Zealand

This evening I attended a celebration at Parliament honouring the contribution Croatians have made to New Zealand since the first settlers arrived in 1858.

Today, 150 years later, life is very different for over 100,000 New Zealanders who claim Croatian heritage thanks to the hard work and determination of their (and my) ancestors. They have paved the way for us by embracing life in a new land while at the same time never forgetting where they came from. This pride has been passed down the generations and it was very evident amongst the people gathered tonight to celebrate and remember.

One thing is painfully evident – the early Croatian settlers had an incredibly hard life. They found themselves heading straight for the Far North to become gumdiggers. They were ostracised and treated unfairly. Many were shocked to discover what they had come to. The sense of displacement and the vast cultural differences continued to cause problems for these settlers.

They were so sure of the opportunities here that few were prepared for the reality. Most walked off their ships in Auckland with little money, food, and no English.

And to make things much worse, they were not welcome …

They couldn’t do anything right by the British gumdiggers … They were accused of lowering the price of gum, and of damaging the economy by sending their hard-earned money back home to Croatia.

One storekeeper declared proudly that he had refused on “all occasions” to give credit to the Croatians gumdiggers, but he had “never refused a Britisher”.

Even the Prime Minister, Dick Seddon, described them as “locust-like”, and helped to usher in laws aimed at restricting the number of Croatians on the gumfields. Croatians were made to pay an alien fee, while large areas of Crown land were reserved just for the digger of British extraction”.

… As far as the rest of New Zealand was concerned, Maori and Croatian were on equal standing, at the bottom of New Zealand society.

Webby, K., & Misa, T. (2002). Tarara Maori: A forgotten history. Mana Magazine, 44, February-March, 32-36.

Stephen Jelicich points out in his recently published book From Distant Villages, that it was impossible for these early settlers to create any kind of replica of their lives back in Croatia. They had to adapt and change if they were to survive.

On the gumfields they had to reshape their lives and adjust to the harsh, bitter realities of virtual exile, unending toil and the loss of ties with their families left behind in their homeland (p46).

Throughout these tough times the Croatian personality shone through; we are a determined people. The saying, ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’ really applied then and is equally as applicable to all those that followed later.

The Croatian settlers from Dalmatia were and still are an outgoing people, generous to a fault and welcoming to all who approached then in genuine friendship. Frankness and honesty were notable qualities (p45).

Jelicich, S.A. (2008). From Distant Villages: the lives and times of Croatian settlers in New Zealand 1858-1958. Auckland, New Zealand: Pharos.

It is no wonder that a special kind of relationship formed between the Maori and the Croatians at this time. Northland Maori coined the name ‘Tarara’ to identify anyone of Croatian descent. No one is exactly sure how this name came to be however there is speculation that it stems from the way the Croatians rolled their ‘r’s while others say it is because they spoke so fast (Webby & Misa, 2002).

The two groups still have much in common. We both love to eat, love to be noisy, love to entertain. Tarara are boisterous like the Maori and love to socialise. They’re also just as strongly family oriented as Maori. That’s one of the greatest aspects of the relationship. They have an almost identical feeling about life and death, they cry and wail the same as us, that’s why Maori and Tarara got on so well. It was a lucky mix.
Simon Petricevich: Son of Lawrence Petricevich, brother of Dame Mira Szaszy.

Webby, K., & Misa, T. (2002). Tarara Maori: A forgotten history. Mana Magazine, 44, February-March, 36.

The inevitable happened – Croatian men married Maori women – and the bond became even further cemented as they produced Tarara Maori children. There are countless examples of high profile people in our country who share this compatible genetic make-up. A large number of them were present this evening.

Some things however have persisted over the years such as being stereotyped as a foreigner. Most of us, even though we were born here, have unusual names for example. This automatically signals a possibility to a non-English cultural connection.

I have many stories to tell from my own experiences growing up in the land of my birth which wasn’t the land of my blood. My roots were firmly embedded in another culture based in an unfamiliar land yet I knew I was intimately connected to it. I grew up speaking the Croatian language, eating its food, listening to its music, learning and performing traditional dancing, and socialising with its people who were in the same situation as our family. We had almost no family here so our ethnic community became our extended family. These roots spread far and wide and tonight familiar faces emerged amongst the crowds and took me back to special times that we shared together.

This evening was a big ‘family’ reunion. It was so wonderful to catch up with my extended family that I had not seen for far too long. As I watched my parents while listening to the Prime Minister and other dignatories speak, like Professor Jamie Belich who is now back teaching at Victoria Universtiy in Wellington, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride that I was a Croatian ‘Tarara’ New Zealander.

Jamie Belich speaking at a Parliamentary reception honouring Croatians in New Zealand

It dawned on me that my parents have lived more of their lives in this ‘new’ land than they have in their beloved home country. They, along with many other Croatians, have achieved huge amounts when you consider they arrived here with nothing but their suitcases in hand and a dream. They ventured into the unknown. They were not afraid to work hard to create a better life for themselves and their families once they arrived at their destination, no matter how disappointed they may have been at what greeted them. They have achieved so much despite all the barriers and they should be so proud of this.

For a long time I have wondered who I was. Like the Tarara Maori I too feel like the product of two cultures – Croatian and New Zealand. At times I have found this to be confusing. I walked out of the Banquet Hall in the Beehive tonight feeling a glow associated with the realisation that I belonged. I am a woman of many parts and all of them matter. Just because I wasn’t born in Croatia and just because my Croatian language speaking skills may be rusty my roots are set far from here. I have an extensive biological family on the other side of the world. I am connected to them and I am connected here.

My tree stands tall and strong just like the stunning 1,200 year old Kauri tree Tane Mahuta in Waipoua Forest, Northland. I have an inner strength that comes from a people that is strong, proud and prepared to take a risk rather than sit around and complain. They are people of action yet they never forget what matters above all else – family and friends – oh yes, and having fun together.

There is one thing nagging at me though. What is my family story? How did we get to be here? My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father were all gumdiggers for a period of time. I can see I have some work to do to start unearthing our story – the story of the Sevelj family in New Zealand.

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