The first to make it this far south were the Paravić brothers and Petar Zambelić in 1878, later followed by many Croatians from the southern Croatian Dalmatia region, most hailing from Brač island and from Mimice near Omiš
The southernmost point on the map of the world on which Croatians settled—for centuries driven by their poverty, hunger and desperation—lies inside the Antarctic circle in the land of Chile, more precisely on Navarino and Lennox islands. These places are very difficult to access, requiring a whopping thirty hours by ship to reach from Punta Arenas, the southernmost city on the continent. The total distance from Split, for example, is fourteen thousand kilometres as the crow flies.
140 years ago, then, when the first Croatians moved there, they traversed tens of thousands of kilometres, usually by steamship. The ride from Brač, from whence most of the people moved, to Chile’s Lennox and Navarino islands near Cape Horn, lasted several very arduous months. It was often the case that people leaving Croatia would simply perish on the way to South America.
They were driven to take on this monumental venture by the promise of gold, although the overriding impetus of the trip was always that the “belly went where the bread was.” In the late nineteenth century a gold rush sparked global interest, and the always thrifty people of Brač island, and others from the southern Croatian region of Dalmatia, those on whose tables there was a perpetual lack “either of cabbage, or of oil”, were wont to sail around half the globe, to leave their scanty island and make for South America, and there to spent the rest of their lives with feet wet in the coastal ocean shallows, digging for nuggets of gold. They, of course, never grew wealthy from this pursuit, but they did earn what there was a dearth of back at home: a solid meal.
To honour the willingness of these people to make these sacrifices, who wished only to provide their children and descendants a dignified life abroad, the head of the Split branch office of the Croatian Heritage Foundation Branka Bezić Filipović has proposed the installation of a memorial plaque to mark the 140th anniversary of the arrival of Croatians in the part of Chile bounded by the Antarctic circle. In this she has received the wholehearted support of Blaženko Boban, the prefect of Split-Dalmatia County, which has led to a mini thematic mission undertaken by Ms Bezić Filipović in the company of the president of the county assembly Petroslav Sapunar.
“I have the deepest admiration for these people, our ancestors, who were so wiry and steadfast. I saw how important it was to install this plaque three years ago, when I was previously in Chile to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Croatian association in Punta Arenas. I visited Lennox island at the time in the company of the Chilean Navy (because there is no other way to get there) and noticed that there already was a memorial plaque there, installed in 1978, but that, in the political spirit of the time, it commemorated the arrival of the first Yugoslavs. I felt that the record had to be set straight because these people were in fact Croatians, what’s more: exclusively from the Dalmatia region, most from the island of Brač and a few other smaller places in the region,” Ms Bezić Filipović said, happy that our county prefect has understood how important it is to rectify this clear misinterpretation of the facts.
The historical context of the arrival of the first Croatians on these islands to the south of the Tierra del Fuego where, by the way, there has for some time been neither gold nor inhabitants, due to the exceptionally harsh weather, is also fascinating.
In the late nineteenth century, namely, this was still the home of the Yaghan people. At the time the Chilean government approved a concession for the exploitation of coal and gold and the development of animal husbandry. “Usufruct” of the small island of Picton was awarded to Thomas Bridges, the Englishman that founded the town of Ushuaia. Nueva island was awarded to Ante Miličić, who had come from Hvar in Croatia, while Lennox island went to Stipe Lončarić. Also seeking gold on Lennox island was Ivo Borić, and one of the island was named in his honour as Arroyo Boric. Borić was one of five hundred Croats that gathered a total of 115 kilograms of gold in the period of about a month, from December 1891 to February of 1892! About a tonne and a half of gold nuggets was found on the Chilean islands of Picton, Nueva, Lennox and Navarino in the space of two years, from 1891 to 1893! News of the rich finds spread quickly, which was one of the reasons from the massive wave of Dalmatians scurrying off to the south of Chile.
The first to make it this far south were the Paravić brothers and Petar Zambelić in 1878, later followed by a swarm of other people from the Dalmatia region, the great majority of which hailed from the island of Brač and from Mimice near Omiš.
“At the time the Chilean government was awarding benefits to anyone that wanted to go there. Anyone signing up to be a colonist was sold land at a low price and received construction material with which to build a house and some cattle, with a three year grace period for payment. In 1884 the government printed flyers that, besides listing the benefits offered, also enumerated the advantages of life in Patagonia. Besides gold and bituminous coal it noted that there were no epidemics of disease and that the climate was extraordinarily well suited to vegetable growing. The latter was an exaggeration as even Charles Darwin, passing through these parts, had wondered why one would leave the north for these inhospitable areas,” notes Branka Bezić Filipović, adding that winters in this part of Chile, near the South Pole, were cold and long and the summers short, more like a winter in the southern Croatian city of Split, with almost interminable winds.
“Nevertheless, by the dawn of the twentieth century the population of this inhospitable land grew by fifteen per cent, a third of which were foreign arrivals, of which in turn thirty per cent were Croatians. Time would show that the Croatian children were the greatest gift the new homeland could receive, as many went on to be successful and educated people,” remarked Bezić Filipović, the initiator of the installation of a commemorative plaque on the museum on Navarino island and the author of numerous publications on the topic of Croatians and the marks we have left around the world.
“Whether it was the digging for gold, the wind, the animal husbandry, the fisheries and the navigation of rough seas, the language barrier or the perpetually poor weather, our people persisted through it all, overcoming all obstacles. They had no time to gripe, being far too busy struggling to survive and keeping their families alive. At a time when long distance communication was sporadic at best their bond to the old homeland was in the names they gave to their children after the grandparents. So I’d say a commemorative plaque is the smallest nod of the head we came make to them,” concludes the head of the Split branch office of the Croatian Heritage Foundation.
On Navarino island we see that some sites bear Croatian names, places like the port of Puerto Beban and Caleta Beban cove, named after Fortunato Beban (born in 1851) who arrived here after leaving the Croatian village of Zlarin back in the nineteenth century. He was a friend of Petar Zambelić and they worked together, trading with the Yaghan people who lived there. Navigating the ocean to the end of the world was everything but a simple undertaking, but Beban knew how to overcome the winds and tempests. He even invented a method of navigation at the exit from the Brecknock Channel, a site of many shipwrecks. His instructions were passed on by word of mouth and saved many lives, so many that the place is commonly referred to as Paso Beban. (Slobodna Dalmacija)
By: Lenka Gospodnetić