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.
The Kiwi joker
Dalmatian gum diggers are part of our inventive heritage. In the 1890s John Ivan Botica fitted the tip of a gum spear with a wire coil. When the spear bumped into an object under the soil he twisted it and the coil screwed in, taking a sample. Once the spear was pulled out the digger could decide whether the object was precious gum or just a worthless buried stump. This innovation, dubbed the ‘joker’ or ‘toggle’, was widely adopted by diggers, and saved hours of fruitless labour.
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’. 1 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.
Salt of the earth
‘They were honest men; there was no thieving. You could leave your gum, or money, in a sack and nobody’d touch it. If one fella didn’t pay his store bill, the others would pay it for him – then give’m hell. All this so that they didn’t get a bad name.’ 2
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.