Home » News » Unveiling the Diaspora: Understanding the exodus from Dalmatia’s coastal towns

Unveiling the Diaspora: Understanding the exodus from Dalmatia’s coastal towns

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

By Igor Goleš

What prompted generations of Dalmatians to leave their hometowns since the middle of the 19th century? 

At that time, Dalmatia, as the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, was quite neglected. The government in Vienna did not invest too much effort in its development, nor was it attentive to the problems faced by the population. All the same, life in rural areas and villages flourished, and people made their living primarily from agriculture. 

From the 1880s, a series of unfortunate circumstances began to affect the population of Dalmatia; from the vine disease that threatened the most important branch of the economy – wine production, the lack of adaptation of shipping to the appearance of steamships and the demise of sailing ships, to the tragic First World War. 

All these reasons led to the drastic emigration of thousands of Dalmatians whose descendants are today all over the world. 

How did the unfortunate series that led to the first mass exodus to overseas countries began?

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Departure from Trieste to USA

Certainly, one of the first triggers for emigration was the situation with viticulture. Dalmatian viticulture reached its peak when phylloxera appeared in France in the 1870s. 

This disease ravaged vineyards in France and opened a new market for many regions to export their wines to France, and one of these wine-growing regions was Dalmatia. The French found Dalmatian red wines an excellent substitute for their Bordeaux wines and paid handsomely for them. The increased demand for wine pushed many peasants to quickly give up their arable land and olive groves and turn them into vineyards, because the profit from wine was much higher. 

This wine renaissance of Dalmatia lasted about 20 years, and the first problems arose with the French ban on the import of foreign wines as soon as their vineyards recovered. To make the situation even worse for Dalmatian producers, the government in Vienna took care of it. 

Instead of protecting their market, they allow Italy as an ally to import Italian wines to the territory of the entire Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with low imperial clauses. The announcement of the signing of this wine clause created unrest, so before it took effect, in November 1891, Narodni list wrote: ˝The protection of our wine towards Italy is a vital issue for Dalmatia˝. Although everyone had an inkling, they could not even guess how much damage this clause would cause, which was active for 13 years, until 1904.

The first consequences of this unfortunate contract were felt already a few months after its signing. On February 5, 1892 The Pučki list from Split, which was intended for land workers, announced that a lot of wine remained unsold. Dalmatian winemakers had to lower prices in order to be competitive on the market, and thus winemaking, the most profitable branch of agriculture, came to the brink of profitability. 

All this time they also fought with downy mildew, a vine disease, and finally in 1894, phylloxera appeared. All together resulted in the decline of farmers, merchants, and artisans. Phylloxera was particularly difficult, and the first places where it attacked vineyards were on the northern Dalmatian islands: Silba, Olib, Skarda and Ugljan. 

Over the next ten years, it reached the central part of Dalmatia, where most vineyards were located. For Dalmatia, which in the 19th century was completely dependent on wine production, this unfortunate series of circumstances was tantamount to cataclysm.

The process of rebuilding the devastated vineyards that had to be carried out was arduous because many farmers were over-indebted. 

Given that at the end of the 19th century, almost 70,000 families in Dalmatia were engaged in viticulture, it is not surprising that this situation eventually gave birth to so many poor and over-indebted

families. The only alternative for them and getting out of debt was to try their luck in a distant world, in the hope of making money to pay back their existing debts.

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Vela Luka

Parallel to these events was the collapse of the shipping industry; the appearance of steamships suppressed transportation by sailing ships. 

The first steamship lines quickly pushed out the small sailing fleets from the Dalmatian islands out, and shipowners could not enter into races with steamship companies.

There was not enough financial power or political support to modernize shipbuilding. The decline of sailing meant the end of age-old traditions and skills. which contributed to the high reputation of our seafaring in the world. 

For some islands and island settlements, seafaring meant well-being, and a real example of this is the island of Silba, where even 10% of the population owned a ship, and 50% of the population lived from seafaring. In the second half of the 19th century, ships from Silba had as much as 2,800 tons of carrying capacity, while those from Zadar, for example, only had 500 tons. 

In just a few decades, the maritime tradition of this island died out. One of the negative examples is tiny Orebić, whose Maritime Society from Pelješac at one point had as many as 33 sailing ships, and it shut down in 1892, overwhelmed by the dominance of steam shipping. Although their sailing ships sailed on almost all world routes, literally overnight they started losing jobs and bankruptcy was inevitable. 

Sailors and shipbuilders lost their jobs, and hundreds of families lost their income literally overnight. There are many more examples, such as the Bjelovučić family from Janjina on Pelješac, which had 27 sailboats built in shipyards all over the Adriatic. 

Their shipping company Rođaci Bjelovučić, which was founded in 1835, successfully sailed the market until 1895, when it was shut down under the surge of steam shipping.

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Dalmatian sailing ship far away from home

Perhaps the most bizarre reason for the emigration was the duration of military service in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy of even 4 years. 

Many young men were not ready to give up so much and stay away from their estate for several years, and considering that they had no other alternative, they left for emigration. The years of working and creating capital abroad, although arduous, sounded much more delicious than being in the army. 

Additional fear of military service was present after the cataclysmic World War I, which claimed millions of victims, so the aversion towards the army was not surprising among young people. The Austro-Hungarian Navy had many Dalmatians in its ranks who were recognized as excellent sailors, and they especially proved themselves during the Battle of Vis in 1866.

After families made decisions about going to a distant world, the last obstacle awaited them. The purchase of a ticket for transoceanic travel, and it was precisely this that was a huge burden for many. Many cases were recorded where families sold their entire movable and immovable property in order to be able to go on a trip or to pawn family valuables at banks or village cashiers. 

I had the opportunity to read several letters in which expatriates send money back to their homeland, while asking for the gold they pawned to be returned to their wives. One such example of the return of a loan is the letter he sent to the Administration of the Rural Treasury in

Ložišće from Antogafasta on July 29, 1923. Stjepan Marinov says:˝I know that I owe the Treasury 15,000 kruna and there will be interest on what has not been paid. 

With this, I want to inform you that I have sent all the money to my wife to pay off that debt, and at the same time, I am asking you to give my gold that I left in the Treasury, and when you receive the money, I want you to give the gold to my wife in my place, and to recognize her as well as me. I think that if there is anything my wife needs in advance that you will not deny her, in addition, please accept my greetings from the entire Management of our Village Treasury, cooperative greetings, Stjepan Marinov ˝. 

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Antofagasta letter

Far more difficult than parting with material possessions was parting with families, parents, siblings or spouses. Many never met again. There are many examples where, after a few years of immigration, men would bring their wives and children to the new world and continue their life together. 

Unfortunately, there are also those who were never heard of again. Most emigrants were convinced that they were only leaving their homeland for a few years and that they would return to their native land when they had saved some money. 

Many of their abandoned houses ended up being closed for decades, and the keys stored with relatives or first neighbours were eventually covered by cobwebs. During my wanderings in Dalmatia, I regularly come across many such houses that have been closed for years or have fallen into disrepair and collapsed. In many of them, the last human cry or laughter resided on the very day when their owners left to look for happiness on the other side of the world. 

Those from Blato on Korčula remain in my memory in particular. So monumental, abandoned, empty and with bare walls, neglected facades and gardens where almost forest vegetation grows. 

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Houses in Blato

It was Blato that experienced a particularly traumatic exodus of the population to Brazil on several occasions during 1924 and 1925. It is particularly memorable that in one day as many  as 70 entire families set off from the port of Prigradica, accompanied by 2,000 fellow residents. 

The Split daily Novo doba, no. 116, June 15, 1925: ˝They moved out there, chased by the angry black hunger that was suffocating them on their doorstep and on their parents & chests. The nation can no longer feed itself on its own breast. He can no longer sell his main product, wine, into which he invested all his effort, all his money and all his hopes!”

How did it actually happen that the people of Blato and Korčula travel to Brazil instead of the much more attractive United States and Australia? 

Given that there was a labor shortage in Brazil caused by the abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century, the Brazilian government had to launch an immigration campaign. They were chronically short of workers to work on the plantations, and in order to attract immigrants, they offered to cover the cost of travel to Brazil. 

When you take into account that the quotas for Australia and the USA were limited, and, for example, immigrants to Australia had to pay a deposit of 40 pounds due to the provision of money landing, it is not surprising that many were initially forced to give up those final destinations. 

The lure of the Brazilian government was an irresistible bite for the poor, although even then they had problems with preparing travel documents and visas, which had to be paid 40 dinars. Even that was too much money for many. 

The steamship companies additionally supported the spread of the publicity of departure to Brazil in order to ensure a greater number of passengers and earnings, and they also advertised a leaflet from the Brazilian government that stated the conditions under which one could immigrate to Brazil.

It is therefore not surprising that mostly the people of Blato and Korčula chose this route. Almost 30,000 descendants of Dalmatians live in Brazil today. Their great-grandfathers went through a real catharsis during their arrival in a new country; after a multi-day journey across the ocean in ships in obscure conditions, most emigrants were settled on privately owned coffee plantations. Immigrants continuously encountered many problems, from not knowing the language to the fact that their wages were not paid regularly, they lived in a different climate, and poor hygienic conditions endangered their health. 

Many wanted to return to their native land, but poverty simply did not allow them to return.The example of the difficult conditions of Dalmatian emigrants in Brazil is not the only one. Travel agencies have done reckless advertising to send as many passengers as possible across the ocean. 

A folk song about Ante Golijan´s intermediary agency remains in the Neretva valley and in Metković: ˝God killed Anta Goiljan, what did he send across the ocean? ˝

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Ante Golijan’s agency

The shipping company Navigazione Generale Italiana published an advertisement in the newspaper Novo doba stating how to get to Chile faster. 

Passengers were transported by the steamer Napoli, which departed from Genoa and went directly to Antofagasta through the Panama Canal. The trip lasted 36 days and it was thought that the emigrants saved a third of the total cost in this way because they did not

have to go via Buenos Aires, from where they would have traveled overland to Chile through Argentina. 

On their second propaganda leaflet advertising a trip to South America, particular emphasis is placed on traveling to Buenos Aires for a maximum of 17 days, which they say is the best route from Europe.

The immigration abroad of people from Croatia’s Dalmatian region

Memorandum Navigazione Generale Italiana

It is interesting to read how they protect themselves from possible complaints and how they approach potential passengers: ‘In principle, we do not give notice about the economic conditions in the countries across the Sea, because we do not want to persuade anyone to emigrate. For Dalmatians traveling to Genoa via Trieste, the

train journey takes twelve hours. In Genoa, the traveler has only 24 hours to lose. We feed our passengers for their stay in Genoa in good hotels. The way passengers are treated on the ships, the cleanliness that reigns on them, and the food, which is abundant and delicious, are testified by the passengers themselves, who tell us after each trip in their letters of thanks and praise .˝

This kind of marketing creativity is not surprising. When someone reads the flyer, almost everyone would want to go on a trip. The competition between mediators and shipping companies was ruthless, they fought for every passenger and smeared the services of other companies, all with the intention that passengers would choose the one that was presented and from which they made money. 

On the other hand, passengers experienced extremely unpleasant conditions, often staying in rooms or on decks with many other unknown people, the food was bad, and the hygiene was at the worst level. 

However, the ship journey was only the first obstacle in their struggle, because wherever they ended up, they encountered many problems, however, the courage and hard work of the Dalmatian people helped them to manage and establish themselves in society. 

Many achieved great careers, opened their own shops, companies, became respectable citizens and pillars of society. The largest number of Dalmatians went to the USA, Argentina, Chile and Australia, but they ended up in many other countries, from Bolivia, Paraguay and so on.

Abroad, they suffered greatly for their homeland, helped their families and friends, and a very nice example are emigrants from Ložišća on the island of Brač, who founded in Antofagasta, Chile the Society for the Improvement of Ložišća, and the Ložišća Progress Society in New York. 

Their task was to collect aid for the development of the town, to help emigrants coming to the countries of South and North America, and even to help the village treasury to export wine and oil to the USA.

Emigration from Dalmatia almost stopped in 1931. The reasons were high unemployment in all the countries of South America, where most people immigrated until then, and the stabilisation of conditions in the country. 

Another emigrant wave took place after II. World War, when a large number of political emigrants left the former Yugoslavia, due to fear of reprisals from the communist authorities. It is estimated that around 3.2 million Croats and their descendants live in the world today, most of them from Dalmatia. 

Stories about their successes and lives, but also the adventures they had to go through on the way to their new homes, are topics for some new blogs, each of them should be presented separately, studiously and with respect… With respect for the pain and efforts of our ancestors past on their travels until a better tomorrow.

I look forward to writing the same in the future.

You can see more historic postcards from Dalmatia in the book Greeting from a Dalmatia long forgotten which is available HERE. 

Sign up to receive the Croatia Week Newsletter

Related Posts