What do Dubrovnik and a desolate piece of Australian coastline have in common? Well, they are both heritage listed. But more interestingly they were also home to Croatian cannibals.
Yes that’s right - read on.
A great many Croatians, particularly from the Dalmatian region, have chosen to live in Australia. Most of them came after World War two and have gone on to have happy and productive lives. First reported in the Australian newspaper Argus on Wednesday 7 June 1876 the story of one who had not gone there by choice, a 16 year old Dubrovnik boy, midshipman Miho Baccich is truly extraordinary. A story of good and bad luck; of great deeds and not so great deeds. A story which showcases the very best of human nature and the very worst.
The story was brought to light in a book by Miho’s grandson who based it on a manuscript which had been written by a priest in Dubrovnik when the boy returned home. It began in 1875 aboard the sailing barque “ Stefano” which having left from Dubrovnik picked up a cargo of coal in Cardiff Wales and was bound for Hong Kong.
On the 27th of October the Stefano was off the coast of Western Australia when it hit a submerged reef and sank. On board were 27 young men mostly from the Dubrovnik region with the oldest being captain Biagia Miloslavic who was only 26 . They were cast into the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean where seven, including the captain, died that night and the remaining men made it to shore by clinging to anything they could find.
Painting in Our Lady of Mercy in Dubrovnik
Australia is a harsh land at the best of times but the semi arid Ningaloo coastline of the state of Western Australia is even today one of the most remote places on the planet. It was into this terrifying environment that the young Dalmatian boys were cast. To make matters even worse their maps on board described this stretch of coastline as “the Cannibal Coast”.
Terrified of the indigenous aboriginals they could see following them they wandered along the coastline looking for food and water. Needless to say they were not that successful and over the course of the weeks many died. This terrible attrition continued until there were only two left - Miho Baccich and 20 year old Ivan Juric. Whilst they had survived this terrible ordeal to this point they were facing sure death and out of sheer desperation their basic instincts to survive kicked in and they decided to eat one of their recently deceased comrades.
It was at this point that one of the great ironies occurred. The horrified aboriginals watching in the bushes decided to intervene and save them. You see Aboriginal Australians aren't cannibals - they are far too civilised to need to resort to that for their survival. As the oldest living continuous culture of earth they have survived in a hostile land for 50,000 years by learning how to live off the land. It was these skills that they generously gave to the desperate Croatian boys. They nursed the two boys, sometimes carrying them, for three months. Sharing their food, water and culture in the most generous way possible.
Acts of kindness by the aboriginals were not uncommon and as far back as 1790 when the English first set foot on their land they had been willing to help. The colonists would not have made it through the first winter if it had not been helped by the natives. And all this kindness was repaid by the English in their own special way. They set about a campaign of genocide which that well known German mad man would have been proud of. Indeed, in one state, Tasmania, they were successful and wiped out the entire indigenous population. They went on to decimate the aboriginals all over the rest of the country. Today remnants of their culture survive and that is no thanks to the European settlers who mostly treated them with the utmost disrespect.
Eventually the shipwrecked sailors were saved by a passing vessel and a painting depicting this scene hangs in the church of Our Lady of Mercy in Dubrovnik. The two were delivered to the port of Fremantle. The place my grandfather first set foot on Australian soil some fifty years later. Having come from Scotland another land suppressed by the English.
Miho went back to Dubrovnik and completed his naval training and attained the qualification of ship’s captain. He said he found it difficult to live in a town where everybody thought he had died so after a short while he went to New Orleans in America. Here he married a good Croatian girl and lived a happy life with a large family. He never went to sea again. After all that one could hardly blame him.