KAITAIA, 27 November 2019 – A large crowd is expected at the Kaitaia Dalmatian Cultural Club in New Zealand this Saturday, 30 November, when a plaque commemorating the first recorded marriage in New Zealand between a Croatian and Maori will be unveiled.
127 years ago, back in 1892, Croatian Andrija Kleskovic married his Maori Princess Erina Kaaka at St Saviour’s Church in Kaitaia in the far north of New Zealand. The couple had 13 children over an 18 year period.
Andrija Kleskovic was the son of storekeeper Andrija Kleskovic and Ana, nee Tonkovic of Mlini, a village near Dubrovnik in Croatia. Following the death of Andrija’s mother, his father married Franica Turcinovic. Unfortunately, Andrija and his stepmother did not get along. Andrija’s cousin, a priest visiting from the United States, persuaded his young cousin to come with him when he returned to America to study and join the priesthood.
Andrija duly accompanied his cousin to America and became a member of the church choir and served as an altar boy. However, after three years, a rift developed, and Andrija left. Feeling much bitterness, he did not return to his Catholic upbringing until many years later, a few months before his death.
Andrija went to San Francisco where he worked as a cook at the Golden Gate Bridge construction project. Around 1884, he came to New Zealand. He joined the tide of young men who travelled from Dalmatia, to dig for kauri gum in the Far North. His three years in California had given him a good grounding in the English language and as a result, was able to assist his countrymen to buy provisions and sell their gum. He was at ease with Maori, he enjoyed sharing jokes and shared a mutual respect for them. He made many friends. In addition to his native Croatian, he was fluent in English and Maori. He assisted his Maori friends with trading their gum for provisions.
In 1892 while he was gum digging at Houhora, he made his commitment to a new life complete when he married his Maori Princess, Erina Kaaka from Te Kao, of the Ngai Takoto tribe. She was the daughter of Chief Hohepa Kaaka and Aneta Marupo. Erina’s mother had significant land at Takahue. The couple were married by the Reverend Joseph Matthews three years before he died, at St Saviour’s Church, Kaitaia. It was the first recorded marriage between a Croatian and Maori. They settled down together at Spring Camp, Waihopo and worked together digging gum. In some reports Erina’s surname is spelt Kaka, the marriage certificate was signed “Ellen Kaka” and her father, Hohepa Kaka, likewise.
Andrija and Erina had 13 children over an 18 year period; Lizzie, Annie, Sonny, Joe, Leo, Tat, Mary, Lily, twins Ellen and Hazel, Patrick, Frank and Theo. The family moved from gumfield to gumfield, living in rustic shanties. Erina made their home comfortable by weaving flax mats to cover the dirt floors and gathering tataramoe (grows wild on ti tree) to fill their mattresses. They were at Tangoake Landing at Te Kao for a time before finally settling at Jews Point, Pukenui, where Andrija built a house for his family.
Andrija and Erina spoke Maori in the home, with a little pidgin English mixed in. The children didn’t learn English until they went to school. In the classroom, Maori was not allowed to be spoken; in fact, they were given the strap if the teacher overheard any students speaking Maori.
Being fluent in Maori, Andrija was asked on many occasions to act as a Maori Land Court interpreter. A judge had difficulty pronouncing Andrija’s name and so he was known as “Mr Anderson”. Andrija changed his name to Andrew Anderson for ease of pronunciation for both Maori and English speakers. He was naturalised in 1901 under the name “Anderson”. I will refer to him as ‘Andrew Anderson’ for the rest of the story.
Erina’s parents taught their grandchildren how to plait whips of flax and make pois from raupo. The grandchildren also learnt how to make and apply some of the old Maori healing remedies. The children were brought up with strong Christian principles, they loved their grandparents dearly and were very respectful towards them.
When she was a baby, Hazel was given to her Uncle Raipo Kaka and his wife, Meremere Wi Tamehana, as they couldn’t have children. They provided her with a good start in life and Hazel loved them dearly.
Tane Marupo, son of Matamori and Hoera, came to live with the family at Jews Point. He was raised as an older brother and grew into a strong athletic man. Family legend recounts he was involved in the rescue of survivors from the Elingamite ship disaster in 1902.
From Jews Point, the family moved to a farm at Kumi Road. Andrew relocated their home by barge down from Pukenui, into the Awanui River, then overland with bullocks onto the Kumi farm.
Sonny and Hepa (Joe) went off to fight in the Great War. Private Joe Anderson was amongst the wounded on 11 May 1917. It was about this time that Erina became ill. Lizzie was called home to run the household and care for the younger children.
Tragically, Erina died on 18 January 1918. Lizzie took on her mother’s role in caring for the family. In July of the same year Lizzie married Ted Jones, a Welsh steam engineer. They had 17 children, all born at home and brought into the world, by a Maori midwife. In 1924 they moved in with Lizzie’s father at Kumi Road. There was no running water, no electricity and by this time, six children.
Andrew stayed on in Awanui for several years, before moving to Dargaville, Henderson and then Thornton in the early 1930s. In 1939 he went to Taneatua, a small town in the Bay of Plenty near Whakatane. For the next 17 years he lived with his son Peter, his wife, Sarah, and their family. He enjoyed netting whitebait and fishing for eels; also farming pigs, fowl, calves and lambs. Andrew also established a small orchard growing fruit trees. He even attempted making wine from the fruit using an old fibre separator, until there was a loud bang from the direction of the shed. It must have been a potent brew as it blew out the shed walls! Andrew never attempted winemaking again. He developed a large garden and he and Sarah sold vegetables at the roadside to supplement the household income. He loved eeling and he boiled up the small eels in a kerosene tin to use as manure for the garden. During the whitebait season, Andrew and Sarah caught whitebait.
Lily married Anton Posa in 1925 but once she was pregnant she became seriously ill with septicaemia. She died in 1926 of the dreaded disease, at the age of only 22.
Andrew died in 1952, a man with a big heart who earned the respect of all he encountered. Andrew and Erina are buried in St Joseph’s Maori Church Cemetery, in Awanui.
It is noted in the Kleskovich Reunion booklet. “We acknowledge that we are descendants of two cultures, our Croatian heritage through Andrija and our Maori heritage through Erina, without which we would not be here.”
The story is one from historian Kaye Dragicevich’s book titled Pioneer Dalmatian Settlers of the Far North. The book took four years to complete and features 200 interesting stories of families who arrived in New Zealand’s gumfield area in the far north from Croatia. It also includes 900 historical photographs.