An Overview of the History of Croatians in Western Australia
Causes of Early Migration
EARLY MIGRATION from Croatia began before the nineteenth century, and consisted of individual and group emigration. Individual emigration occurred in the coastal regions where life centred on the sea and seafaring traditions. The first group emigration was tied to the penetration of the Turks into the region in the sixteenth century, when many people fled to the neighbouring countries of Italy, Austria and Hungary.
News about the gold‑rushes in Australia reached Croatia from several sources. A few Croatian adventurers and several Austrian warships, whose crews consisted largely of sailors from coastal Croatia, visited Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century. These people returned home with news of the great opportunities in Australia. The publication of Tomo Skalica’s account of his travels around the world (and particularly his description of a visit to Sydney and the goldfields in the Croatian magazine, Neven, published in 1856) may have done much to encourage Croatians to head for Australia. News of the gold‑rushes in Victoria and New South Wales also spread as a result of the visits of the Austrian merchant vessels and warships ‑ such as the brig, Splendido in 1854, under the captaincy of the great Croatian sailor, Ivan Visin, and the frigate Novara, with 173 Croatian sailors, to Sydney and New Zealand in 1858.
Another example of early Croatian contacts with Australia was in October 1875 when the Croatian Barque Stefano, hit a reef and sank on its approach to the West Australian coast. Of the crew of 17, all except one (who was English) were from coastal Croatia. Nine reached the shore and for over two months roamed aimlessly along the coast in search of food and water, sometimes helped by a group of local Aboriginal people. By January 1876, seven had died from hunger or exposure. The two survivors, Baccich (aged 16) and Jurich (aged 19), spent the following three months travelling the Northwest Cape with a community of Aboriginal people. They were found by the crew of a pearler in April 1876 and, after a few months in Fremantle, where they enjoyed the hospitality of the townspeople, they returned to Croatia.
With the news of gold discoveries in Western Australia in 1892, Croatians from the homeland, from New Zealand and from the eastern states of Australia began to drift to the goldfields. These early settlers, such as Mate Rabanasich, Ante Marinkovich and Mijat Silich, wrote of their successes to their families and friends in their native islands of Vis, Brač and Korčula.
Two other clearly identifiable factors causing migration from Dalmatia (the largest of Croatia’s coastal regions) during the nineteenth century were the ‘wine clause’ and phylloxera. Wine‑growing was the most important branch of agriculture in Dalmatia and wine was the principal product intended for market. Dalmatian wines were sold mainly within the Austro‑Hungarian Empire. As Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance, Germany and Austria‑Hungary granted it various trade privileges to maintain the precarious union. Thus, the so‑called’wine clause’ was included in the trade contract of 6 December 1891 between Austria‑Hungary and Italy, allowing the importation of wines from Italy to Austria‑Hungary at a very low duty. Dalmatian wine‑growers were severely affected by the competitive Italian wines on the domestic market. The price of Dalmatian wine fell drastically and it also became difficult to sell. Then, only two years after the introduction of the trade clause, phylloxera began to ravage Dalmatian vines. The wine‑growers, who were already impoverished, had no resources to deal with this new problem. Individuals and families decided to risk a life in the New World.
The first‑known Croatian settler in Western Australia was Vicko Vuković from the island of Šipanj near Dubrovnik. He anglicised his name to John Vincent after arriving in Western Australia in 1858. On 16 March 1867 he married Bridget Russell, an Irish woman from Limerick, and the couple had five children. Vuković died at sea in 1879 when his vessel, the Rosette, was wrecked in a storm off Rosemary Island in the Dampier Archipelago, west of Cossack.
From about 1892 onwards, many Croatians arrived on the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. They found their first work as woodcutters, truck‑loaders and drivers on the woodlines which radiated from Kalgoorlie and which provided the timber to be used in the mine furnaces. Croatians arrived regularly in Fremantle and most headed for Kalgoorlie. The last significant group, before the First World War stopped immigration, arrived on 30 December 1913, when 25 Croatians disembarked from the Seydlitz at Fremantle.
Not all chose to stay on the goldfields, and by the eve of the First World War small settlements of Croatians began to appear in Spearwood, the Swan Valley, Fremantle and Osborne Park. By 1918 there were over 30 Croatian settlers living in the Spearwood area and about the same number in the Osborne Park area; most were engaged in market‑gardening. A small Croatian fishing industry had been established at Fremantle by 1916.
A number of Croatian settlers became successful pioneers in the history of Western Australia. Among them was Joseph Marian, born in Pitve on the island of Hvar in 1836. He arrived in Melbourne in 1865 and became involved in the fishing industry until 1897, when he left for Western Australia. Four more years with the Fremantle fishing industry enabled him to purchase a 60‑acre (24‑ha) property at Armadale in 1901. By 1905 Joseph Marian had produced his first supply of wine, which consisted of about 1000 gallons (4500 litres). Undoubtedly, he was the first Croatian commercial wine‑grower in Western Australia. In the meantime, he was joined by his nephew, Ante Marian, who had spent four years as a gunner on the Austrian warship, Tegethoff. Both Ante and Joseph worked hard at their trade and in the 1913 season produced 8000 gallons (36 000 litres) of wine. On 23 September 1914 Joseph died, and Ante, with his wife and young family, was left to continue the business. The vineyard was later sold, and the Marian family returned to Croatia. They were later to remigrate to Australia.
Vincent Vranjican (Vincent Abbott), who was born in 1847 in Starigrad on the island of Hvar, arrived in Australia in 1882. After spending 10 years in New South Wales, he moved to Western Australia, where he discovered the Abbotts goldfield on the Murchison River. On 2 November 1892 he applied for a gold‑mining lease for a 12‑acre (5‑ha) plot on the Murchison goldfield, which he called Mount Vranizan. Abbott was not only a good prospector but also a shrewd businessman and by 1894 had sold all his shares in the lease for £875. On his retirement he lived at Riversdale in Burswood Road on the Swan River. Abbott died at the age of 81 on 25 February 1928.
Among the Croatian pioneers were a few women. Dragica Budiselik, born in Lič, Croatia, in 1881, arrived in Fremantle in 1908 and settled with her husband and young family in virgin country 28 miles (45 km) from York. The property, fondly known as Mount Jack, was named after their Croatian born son Jakov (Jack). She helped to clear the land and carted water as well as doing all the housework, cooking, looking after several farm workers and raising a family of six sons and one daughter. She died in 1953 aged 72.
Another Croatian woman pioneer was Perina Rocchi. She and her husband, Luke, arrived in Australia on 7 September 1886 from their native island of Vis. After some time in Broken Hill, they moved to the Western Australian goldfields where Luke died in 1906. Perina single‑handedly looked after her four children and also ran a boardinghouse near the Horseshoe Dump in Boulder. In 1914 she and her children moved to, she was a good businesswoman and generous to new arrivals, taking many settlers from Vis under her wing.
The Croatian Slavonic Society of Western Australia
A turning‑point in the history of Croatians in Western Australia was the formation of the Croatian Slavonic Society of Western Australia in 1913. The club‑house was situated in Moran Street, Boulder. By 1916 the society had 131 members. A small library within the building had 150 books and subscribed to 28 Croatian newspapers from the United States of America, New Zealand and Austria‑Hungary. The tamburica orchestra Velebit boasted 25 instruments, with at least 18 regular players; the singing group comprised 12 members; and the Sokol (or athletic group), called Zrinski and Frankopan had 60 members. The repertoire of the Tamburica Orchestra included the song “Malena Je Dalmacija” which was particularly relevant at a time when the Croatian people wanted freedom from Austria.
Malena Je Dalmacija
Malena je Dalmacija
Al je dika rodu svom.
Još hrvatska trobojnica,
Na barjaku sokolskom.
Pa bio dug i težak put,
sokol ne žale trud.
Zato, bračo, naprijed hajdmo,
Za slobodu i za dom – hrvatski dom!
In 1915, the Croatian Slavonic Society leadership created a committee to assist the Yugoslav Committee in London which was formed essentially by Croat emigres to promote the cause of Croatian Independence from Austria and its unification with Serbia and Montenegro in what, at the time, was hoped to be an equal partnership. In 1917 the Boulder Group was closely involved in the recruitment of a Yugoslav Legion in which the Croats from Western Australia formed the bulk of the 88 volunteers. This corps was transported to Salonika to fight with the Serbian army on the Balkan front, while another dozen or so local Croats joined the AIF. About 600 non-naturalised Croatians from WA were interned during the Great War as enemy aliens, first on Rottnest Island and later transported to the Liverpool Concentration Camp in NSW; of these 20 died, about 100 were released for army service or allowed to return to WA and the remainder were deported to their homeland in 1919, accompanied by some family members and others who chose to return. Thus, while more than 2000 Croats arrived in Fremantle between 1903 and 1914, when the 1921 Census was taken there were only about 500 Croatian-born in WA, of which less than 100 or 20% were naturalised.
Contemporary Migration and Settlement
The Croatian immigrant population began to increase significantly from the mid 1920’s. With settlement patterns already established, the chain migration process drew more people onto the goldfields and surrounding Woodline as well as into the market‑garden and Swan Valley vineyard areas on the outskirts of Perth. By the next Census in 1933 there were about 2000 Croatian settlers in the state, with the number approaching 3000 when migration ceased after WW2 broke out. While more than 80% of Australia’s Croatian born lived in Western Australia in 1921 this proportion had reduced just below 60% in 1947. By this time, two thirds of the Croatian population in WA were naturalised while the gender ratio was still heavily in favour of males 72% to 28%.
Following the initial success of the Croatian Slavonic Society, the Croatian community in Western Australia from the late 1920’s to the mid 1940’s formed more than a dozen cultural, social and sporting organisations, beginning with the Yugoslav Education and Benevolent Society in 1928. Most of the clubs belonged to the Yugoslav Immigrants Association of Australia which later devoted much of its efforts to providing moral and material support to the Allied war effort and especially the Yugoslav resistance opposing the Axis powers. Croats from WA were at the forefront of the fund-raising campaign to assist their country of origin. Only a few of the pre-war clubs – such as “Oreški” in Perth which had a renowned string band, “Sloga” in Osborne Park and “Jedinstvo” in Millendon – survived beyond 1948-49 when 1000 or so Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins and Macedonians returned to Yugoslavia, the bulk of whom were Croats from WA. Many of these were to remigrate to Australia in the 1950’s.
The period after the Second World War saw a large intake of immigrants, but WA from 1950 on had the third largest Croat population, behind NSW and Victoria. Unlike their pre-war compatriots who came overwhelmingly from the Croatian coast and islands, the new migrants t much more heterogeneous in their regional and social/occupational background. Those joining ethnic organisations tended to polarise into two groups depending on their attitude to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Older settlers provided a support, social and organisational base for some of the newcomers. Clubs such as the Spearwood-Dalmatinac Soccer and Social club (1962), WA Yugoslav Club (1968) with Galeb Soccer team, Unity Club in Carnarvon emerged from joint endeavours of pre- and post-war migrants, and they cooperated with the Committee of Yugoslav Clubs and Societies (1973).
Villa Dalmacija, an aged care home project in Spearwood was an example of intergenerational cooperation between Western Australians of Croatian ethnicity.
Organisations formed almost exclusively by post-World War Two Croatian settlers with perhaps a different political orientation included the Croatian Community Centre in North Fremantle (1974) which absorbed the Croatian Club (1952), the Croatian Home (1971) which incorporated the Australian-Croatian Society (1956) and Croatia North Perth Soccer Club (1968), while the Croatian Co-ordinating Committee (1977) was formed as an umbrella organisation for joint activities.
The first Croatian Catholic Church in WA was established in the mid 1930’s in Wanneroo from where emerged the first Croatian-born Catholic priest, Father John (Ivan) Čokolić, who came to Australia from Croatia as a child in the 1920’s. In the post-war period, the Croatian Catholic Mission was established in Fremantle to meet the spiritual needs of Croatian migrants, and Father Večeslav Šupuk, Father Nikola Čabraja and Father Josip Vidakovič helped the mission to achieve the role it now plays in the community.
Numerous Western Australians of Croatian descent have become well known for their contributions in particular fields, some of the more significant being Ralph Pervan, Joško Petković (Academia) John Yovich, (Medicine) David Andrich (education), Ralph Sarich (engineering) John Kosovich & Jim Talijancich (Viticulture) Sumich family (Large-scale market gardening), Ray Gabelich, John Gerovich, John Rocchi, Andrew Vlahov (Sport), Vincent Serventy (environmentalism/conservation).
Others have received Queens/Australian honours for their services to the community such as Petar Beor and Alex Banovich, while Leslie Thomas Starcevich was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour as a Private in the Australian Army in Borneo in World War Two.
The 1996 Census was the first to show Croatia as a separate/distinct country of birth – recording a figure of 4,151 Croatian-born, 9% of the total for Australia, while 6,211 people stated they speak Croatian at home. These figures may be somewhat distorted as some Croats may have stated their place of birth as Yugoslavia thus statistically boosting the number of Yugoslavs in the State. The impact of such a distortion is significant particularly in terms of funding for Croatian organisations. Though a relatively small ethnic group in terms of birthplace, and while they have at specific times of crisis such as in World War One and during the Depression been resented through no fault of their own but merely due to their presence, Western Australians of Croatian origin have become a well-integrated and respected community group.
By Neven Smoje