Proud grandchildren of Dutch immigrants

New Zealand has been a pot pourri of cultures after waves of immigrants have come here over the last two hundred years, mainly from Europe, the Pacific Islands and more recently in numbers, from all over Asia, most notably from India and China.

Dunedin was founded by Scottish people who were concerned that the country would be dominated by the English. That is part of the city’s heritage, and bag pipes and haggis still feature in ceremonies.

But the Chinese New Year is also celebrated, and there are a variety of cultures represented in other events.

The last mayor of Dunedin was born here but had distant Chinese heritage, and the mayor before that was born in India.

One culture that is barely noticed these days is that of the Dutch, but when I was young that was more evident. We had Dutch visitors (I don’t know what connection they had with our family), and in the seventies I worked with the son of Dutch immigrants. Another generation or two on it’s barely noticeable, but there will have been a definite impact in New Zealand from Dutch culture.

Martin van Beyen writes Dutch immigrants of the 50s fading away

I bought a new suit the other day. The suit got its first outing this week at my Uncle Theo’s funeral. He died, aged 90, surrounded by his family last Friday.

Uncle Theo came to New Zealand in 1953 and was followed three months later by his bride-to-be, Afra. His sister (my mother, who is still alive) arrived two years later with my father, who died about 10 years ago.

A pastry cook by trade, Uncle Theo went on to own a number of bakeries in Christchurch including a wholesale pie business.

Some would say Uncle Theo (we called him Ome Dick) was a typical Dutchman. He was hardworking, routine-driven, stubborn, socially conservative, a natural contrarian and knew the value of a dollar. He would have seen my new suit as a waste of money.

He was also one of the last of his generation of about 11,000 Dutch immigrants who came to New Zealand between 1951 and 1954. Well over 100,000 New Zealanders now have some Dutch heritage.

A small but significant minority, possible accentuated by the short surge in Dutch immigration.

I wonder how we will regard the legacy of that wave of Dutch immigrants who came to New Zealand in the 50s and who are now fading away. Mostly blue collar workers and tradespeople (my dad was a mechanic), they made a major economic contribution, already often acknowledged, and brought a not always welcome brand of Europeanism to the racing, rugby, beer-orientated New Zealand society. Although their skin was the right colour, locals often found their accent strange, their manner brusque and their thrift ungracious.

Although some immigrants tried to preserve their Dutchness, most knuckled down and assimilated aggressively.

Perhaps they took to heart the attitude of senior immigration official Dr Reuel Lochore: “We must make new Britishers: by procreation, and by assimilation; by making suitable aliens into vectors of the British way of life.”

But some things were hard to suppress. Uncle Theo worked as a storeman when he first arrived and was told off by his fellow workers for working too fast.

It was clear the Dutch work ethic came as a shock to the strongly unionised New Zealand workforce where British work to rule was more the custom. Maybe some of that Dutch work ethic did rub off and it was certainly instilled in their next generation. Well, mostly.

I learnt a strong work ethic when I grew up, but it was in a rural area with no sign of union locally.

However in Central Otago the work ethic wasn’t universal, as there were frequent references to the shovel sucklers of the ‘sunshine gangs’, Ministry of Works workers were not known fore their industriousness.

Making fun of them probably reinforced the work ethic I learned.

As I was growing up I didn’t get the impression being Dutch was highly regarded and at high school it was definitely nothing you would want to advertise.

After Uncle Theo’s funeral I was sitting with some of his grandsons having a beer and asked them what they thought about their Dutch heritage.

They seemed proud of it, to the extent they emphasised their Dutchness over the other backgrounds flowing through their veins. A very different attitude to my generation and one that Uncle Theo and Aunt Afra can take a lot of credit for.

You can talk a lot about material contributions but you know the Dutch have truly arrived when the legacy of people like Uncle Theo lives on in the pride his grandchildren have in their heritage.

In contrast, I have English heritage. One grandmother was a Great War bride (from Chelsea) who married my grandfather, son of an immigrant from Liverpool and a grandson of a family who arrived (ex rural Bedfordshire) as part of the  Canterbury settlement in 1852.

I have a bit of historical interest but little empathy for my English heritage. I don’t back any English sports team, and feel nothing for the English royal family – to me they are foreign not just in country but also in what they stand for.

On my other side my mother was born a couple of years after her parents and five siblings immigrated from northern Wales (from near Caernarvon). As far as I saw they almost entirely they left their culture behind,

My teidiau (I just looked that up online and don’t know if it’s correct) died before I was born, but I’ve been told he learnt to speak English when serving in World War 1. Twice, both times reluctantly on request, my nana (that’s what we called her) said just one Welsh word – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

That is the only reference to my Welsh heritage I can remember apart from my mother recalling being taunted with ‘Taffy was a Welshman’ as a child.

This may not have been just a family thing, I have seen little sign of Welsh culture in New Zealand. I think the Welsh wanted to distance themselves from being seen as second class to the English.

Perhaps as a result I don’t feel subservient, nor superior. I am a product of the Kiwi melting pot – much like those with Dutch ancestry. I’m a proud Kiwi – and part of that pride is due to a general acceptance of a range of co-existing and overlapping cultures in Aotearoa.

I’m interested in other cultures – it makes a welcome change for the narrow mono-culture I grew up in.