Researcher Zvonimir Navala lived in Johannesburg for a quarter century and has recently published a comprehensive tome, Croats in the Anglo-Boer War, South Africa 1899–1902. Navala plans the Croatian edition for the first half of 2021 and would certainly like to see the promotion done under the auspices of the Croatian Heritage Foundation.
Researcher Zvonimir Navala lived in Johannesburg for a quarter century and has recently published a comprehensive tome, Croats in the Anglo-Boer War, South Africa 1899–1902. In our discussion with Navala, who now lives with his wife and son in California in the United States of America, we learned a number of interesting things about the ethnic Croatians that live in that part of Africa and their fates.
South Africa was a destination for Croatians moving abroad for almost a century and a half, Navala says. There are now some seven thousand people of Croatian extraction in South Africa, making it one of the smallest Croatian communities in comparison to the other major destinations of Croatian emigrants. The reason for this is that the so-called first wave of emigration out of Croatia began in 1880 with tens of thousands of Croatians moving to North and South America and Australia. The Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 cut short the route to South Africa and led to significant material losses to the Croatian colony, from which it never recovered. During and after the war some of the Croatian immigrants left South Africa to try their luck in the USA. The First World War created further difficulties. At the time Croatians were citizens of Austria-Hungary, which was allied with Germany in its war with the Entente Powers (Britain, France, Russia and others). South Africa, as a British dominion, thus declared all citizens of Austria-Hungary enemy subjects, i.e. subjects to the opposing side, leading to hundreds of Croatians being locked up in prison of war camps. The rate of emigration heading to South Africa picked up after the First and was more intensive after the Second World War. This period also saw the most activity among the ethnic Croatian community, with associations and clubs founded and a number of serial publications produced. Today there is no more Croatian migration to South Africa. The laws and regulations of South Africa effectively make it impossible. The only two institutions that see to the needs of the community are the St Jerome parish in Johannesburg and the Croatian embassy. Despite the fact that a growing number of these ethnic Croatians have been fully assimilated, their emotional bond with and interest in their Croatian heritage and ancestry remains significant.
Navala began his research work in 2016 and it has led to the 400-page book published in October of this year. The book is out in South Africa and Croatia, and had access to the necessary documents in Vienna and London. Although the central theme of the book is the Boer War and the participation of Croats in it, the first part of the book focuses on the colonization of the south end of the African continent beginning in 1652 and the history of Croatian immigration to South Africa up to the outbreak of war in 1899. This was the period that saw the discovery of diamonds and gold, events that hugely impacted the course of historical events in South Africa. The Dutch Cape Colony was formed early into the first phases of the European colonization of the south of the African continent. The British Empire forcibly took over this Dutch possession in 1806 and established the British Cape Colony. An increasing number of emigrants came into conflict with the British administration; 1835 saw the start of the “Great Trek” of immigrants to the interior of Africa. This was followed by the white Boer farmer settlers forming two independent republics, Transvaal in 1852 and the Free State in 1854. Two discoveries, However, changed the situation in the south of Africa. Diamond deposits were discovered on the Free State border in 1867, which increased world production several times. The discovery of gold in 1886 in what is now Johannesburg made Transvaal the world’s leading gold producer, surpassing the previous leader, the United States of America. Although various opinions have been proposed, it is clear that gold was at the heart of the war between the British Empire and the Boer republics. In the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 the British Empire pitted 450,000 troops against 50,000 Boers, today’s Afrikaners. It was the largest scale British imperial assault prior to the First World War.
It is within this historical frame that Navala tells his story of the Croatians that had moved to the south of Africa. The first Croatian emigrants worked as sailors with the Dutch East India Company that settled in the Cape Colony, or had deserted ships in any one of the South African ports. Increased Croat immigration correlates to the discovery of diamonds and gold, and the first part of the book focuses on Croats in the diamond and gold fields. Little or nothing is known about the Croatians that worked in the diamond fields of Kimberley. During his research Navala came across the graves of Josip Sabljić, who hailed from the area around Bakar in Croatia, and Tripa Vučinović from Boka Kotorska at an abandoned cemetery in Kimberley. Researching the archives, he learned what had happened. In 1884 there was a great miner strike in the diamond fields. Both were killed in the clashes after police fired on the strikers. As far as Navala knows Josip Sablić was the first emigrant Croatian to be killed during a labour dispute.
In the Johannesburg gold fields the Croatians were mostly miners, but also worked as builders and farmers. It is a fact previously unregistered in Croatian historiography that ethnic Croatians had a monopoly on vegetable production in the Transvaal and Pretoria. People with roots on the Croatian islands of Krk, Brač and Korčula were the best-known vegetable growers: Milovčić, Kraljić, Sinovčić, Foretić-Kolenda and others. Dr. Erwin A. Schmidl of the University of Vienna writes to this effect in his doctoral dissertation “Osterreicher im Burenkrieg 1899–1902”, in chapter 2.2.3 concerning “Das dalmatinische Gemusemonopol”.
War, as always, is a story to itself. Most of the book focuses on the war and the participation of Croatians in it. In chapter seven it tells of some forty Croatians that fought on the Boer side in the Boer commando and volunteer units. These people had lived along the breadth of the Croatian Adriatic seaboard (Istria, Primorje, Rijeka, Dalmatia) and the Bay of Kotor before moving abroad. A number from the Cape Colony were active as British imperial troopers. In chapter eight Navala tells an interesting and dramatic story about the first experiences of Croatians in the war. In chapter nine he notes that in 1900 and 1901, 55,000 horses were transported from Rijeka for the needs of the British Imperial forces in South Africa, with every twenty horses on board requiring an escort. They were largely recruited in Rijeka and some, like Ivo Marulić of Baška, defected to the Boer camp and fought with them. Chapter twelve is particularly fascinating and tells of the search for fallen ethnic Croatians. In chapter thirteen Navala tells of some eighty Croats that were deported under the charge that they had participated in the July conspiracy of 1900 aimed at assassinating the British lord Roberts, commander of the imperial military forces. In chapter seventeen we learn of twelve Croatians taken prisoner during the war and interned in prisoner of war camps in India, British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Saint Helena and Portugal. Among the many photographs published in this book for the first time is one of the grave of Stjepan Dobrić of Novi Vinodolski, who died and was buried on Saint Helena island. Notably, Jan Jerolim Brajević and Ivo Marulić escaped from the camp in Portugal. In his epilogue Navala offers a brief overview of events in South Africa between the Boer wars and the First World War and how the local ethnic Croatians interacted with these events.
Croats took part in all the major battles of the Boer War. Franjo Barac, who hailed from the hamlet of Barci near Crikvenica, took part in the Siege of Mafeking and in the biggest Boer success of the war at the Battle of Magersfontein. He was wounded and captured two months later during the Battle of Paardeberg of February 1900, and wound up at a POW camp in India. Barac was the only Croat to be decorated (1920) by the Union of South Africa. The already mentioned Stjepan Dobrić and Ivan Stepanić from the Rijeka area fought as members of the German volunteer unit on the Boer side. In March of 1900 their unit was retreating northwards from the southern (Free State) front towards Johannesburg. For reasons unknown, eight members had lagged behind the body of the unit, including Dobrić and Stepanić. When they finally made it to the rail station in Sprigfontein where they were to re-join their unit, they found the station deserted. Lacking supplies and exhausted they tied up their horses at the wagons and fell asleep. They were surprised in the morning by a British scouting expedition and captured. Dobrić and Stepanić were interned at a prisoner of war camp on Saint Helena island. Dobrić died and was buried there, while Stepanić manage to leave the island aboard the last ship to transport a British garrison to England. From there he moved on to settle in the United States of America.
At the Battle of Spioenkop, which took place on 23 and 24 January 1900, a Boer force of 8,000 armed with four cannon was taken on by a British imperial force of 20,000 soldiers backed by 36 cannon. Croats from another German volunteer unit took part in the battle. Navala’s research uncovered the names of only two: Ivan Busanic from the Pretoria Commando unit and Jakovic C. H. (possibly a Montenegrin from Boka Kotorska). Jakovic fell in battle and his name is engraved on the monument to the Boer dead at Spioenkop. Ulderik Franić from Vrgorac also took part in that battle as a member of the Carolina Commando unit. Franić was an exceptional person, literate, and a proper soldier. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army, which, in addition to his other qualities, saw him attached to the first Boer scout unit, Edwards’ scouts. One historical curiosity: Winston Churchill and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi took part in the battle of Spioenkop, each in his own role.
On July 24 1900 the Carolina Commando unit clashed with British troops at the Strydkraal farm in the Eastern Transvaal. Ulderik Franić was wounded in the head in that conflict, but a friend managed to pull him out on horseback. Franić was transferred to the Palmietspruit farm where the Boer hospital was located. He died during the night and was buried at the farm. Today, his grave is marked with a modest marble slab set on a concrete base and bearing an inscription indicating that this is the burial site of an unknown citizen from the Carolina Commando unit. Dr Tian Schutte of Nelspruit (now Mbombela) has compiled a document that can be found at the GSSA (Genealogical Society of South Africa) noting that Franić was buried at the Palmietspruit farm near Amerfsfoort in the Eastern Transvaal. Navala also spoke with Franjo Mađarević, one of the most prominent ethnic Croatians in South Africa. He supported the initiative and noted that the new ambassador, Cicvarić, and the Franciscan monastic Sikirić would support it. A Russian delegation comprised of their ambassador and six officers recently unveiled a monument honouring Russian volunteers in the Boer wars at Utrecht in Natal province. This, Navala, notes, would be an initiative worth our attention and support.
Navala plans the Croatian edition for the first half of 2021 and would certainly like to see the promotion done under the auspices of the Croatian Heritage Foundation. He notes that he summers every year in Croatia at a flat he owns in the coastal town of Poreč in Istria County, which he refers to as the California of Croatia. This summer he and his wife began teaching their grandchildren to speak Croatian via the Apple Mac OS videotelephony application FaceTime.
By: Vesna Kukavica
Photography: Archives of Z. Navala