The Boat People - by Joris de
Along the Petone foreshore, the street signs proclaim the names
of the boats that brought the New Zealand Company settlers to Wellington
last century. Most Maori New Zealanders readily whakapapa back to
one of the canoes that brought their ancestors here. We are an island
nation, and before the advent of air travel, it was the particular
boats we came in that helped to define our communities, the means
and the point of our arrival, the link with our places of origin.
My waka, by contrast, was a very private one. For all I know, my
immediate family could have been the only people that arrived in
Wellington in September 1954 on board the SS Waterman from Rotterdam.
I once read an interview with New Zealand athlete Dick Quax in the
Listener, in which he said he was on the same boat on the same trip,
but it seemed little more than a strange coincidence. I don’t
know of anyone else who made that momentous five week journey with
us. Yet I know the exact day we left the huge departure hall and
embarked in Rotterdam, the exact morning we steamed into Wellington
harbour. I was seven years old. I have memories of Curacao, the
Panama Canal and Tahiti, places we stopped en route, photos of which
grace our family albums.
More than forty years later, I had a chance conversation with another
child of 1950’s Dutch settlers. It crystalised passing thoughts
over the years. Although she was born in New Zealand, she too could
name the boat her parents came on, the Fairsea. Just as I could
recite the names of the other boats of the Rotterdam Lloyd fleet
that carried the Dutch to New Zealand - the Zuider Kruis, the Johann
van Oldenbarneveldt (hardly a candidate for a street sign) and the
Oranje, she could list the other boats of the Sitmar Line that sailed
from Southampton. I suppose it’s the same for the children
of the English, the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the Greeks, the
Italians and others who were recruited en masse to post-war New
Zealand. Their boats and ours never became symbols. There was no
great fleet of the 1950’s, although it poured thousands of
migrants into New Zealand. How we got here, where we came from,
was best forgotten. We were here to start a new life, wipe out our
I was flying back to Wellington on the metroliner with others who
had been to a meeting in Gisborne. The woman sitting in the single
seat across from me had a name as obviously Dutch as mine. She had
started the conversation with a hesitant question. “Were you
born here?” No trace of a Dutch accent in either of our voices.
A sense of curiosity. I’d had the same question during the
meeting, but hadn’t asked. We were both part of a generation
of immigrant children who came to New Zealand when “assimilation”
was the official culture. We weren’t Dutch, the Government
called us “new New Zealanders”, we bought into it, but
our Dutch accents set us apart. We wanted desperately to be the
same as everyone else. Our parents had left Holland for good. To
help us adjust, English was spoken at home. In our own eyes, we
were “kiwis”, although we were obviously foreign. Our
parents’ accents were an embarrassment. It was a shock to
find out later from former classmates that we had one too. We hated
being labeled as Dutch.
For a long time, I thought it was just the way we were. There was
a sort of fellow-feeling with the few other Dutch children at school,
but you didn’t feel inclined to get too close to them. Dutch
children that came to visit were more like surrogate cousins than
friends. It only dawned on me later that it wasn’t the way
we were, but how others defined us and shaped our attitudes. It
was like the adoptions of the time - forget your past, your other
identity, you’re one of us now. Don’t hang out with
your former kind.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but a Dutch accent still sets off
alarm bells in my head. I’m nervous about Dutch clubs, people
who call themselves Dutchies. My defences go up. Not as much as
they used to, because I’ve been back to Holland. There, Dutch
people are normal, relaxed, not trying to impress anyone. They don’t
speak with an accent. When they speak English, there’s an
American flavour, just like with other Europeans. There is a new
breed of Dutch person in New Zealand too, those who have come without
fleeing post-war Europe, who are relaxed about being Dutch, whose
residential intentions are not so single-mindedly permanent. There
are Dutch backpackers, Europeans just like the Swiss, the Germans,
the Belgians. They aren’t required to assimilate. They are
welcomed for what they are.
Now it seems that the Dutch migrants of the fifties were a class
of their own - a unique product of post-war Europe and pre-multicultural
New Zealand. A try-hard generation, an embarrassment to their own
children, brave, high achieving, driven by a need for acceptance,
proving a point, burying their past. I can pin-point the accent
of my parents’ generation. We tried to train them out of it.
(“It’s an egg, Dad, not an ack.”). We mimicked
it and mocked it. It’s a peculiarly New Zealand Dutch accent,
littered with consciously learnt colloquialisms which sound strange.
They conjure up my father with his dictionary of colloquial English,
methodically learning one phrase a day, which he would somehow manage
to weave into the conversation over breakfast. I can even pick the
other children. There is no obvious trace of a Dutch accent, but
you can recognise an almost exaggerated New Zealand one.
My parents’ generation are showing up now where we seldom
saw them in earlier decades - in the honours list, rest homes, death
notices, cemeteries. As New Zealand has become more tolerant of
diversity, and air travel has made emigration a reversible operation,
they have reconnected to their homeland, reunited with their families,
rekindled an interest in Dutch language magazines, made Dutch friends,
talked about their past.
And what of their children? In an odd sort of way, the beginning
of our parents’ passing has given us roots. We have children
of our own, and they have grandparents who lived and died here.
While for many, uncles and aunts are beyond reach (and the special
birthday postings of salted licorice and other Dutch delicacies
are long gone), cousins are meeting each other. We are enriched
by an extra dimension, rather than impoverished by its suppression.
More recent Dutch arrivals are a special connection, and contacts
with other children of the migration offer insights into our common
experience. We are reinterpreting, reclaiming our past. Memories
of earlier decades are being rediscovered, re-examined, repackaged,
finding their place. Some things about ourselves that earlier couldn’t
be contemplated or admitted start to find expression.
Mental and physical landmarks testify to the journey we’ve
made. Like the Delicatessen, which back then was a cluttered shop
at the end of the shopping centre or in a back street, eschewed
by most New Zealanders but frequented by Poles, Italians, Greeks,
Hungarians, Jews, us. We bought our smoked beef, sauerkraut, rookworst,
biscottes, salted licorice and spekulaas biscuits there, picked
out from amongst the olives, salamis, and dolmades. It was normal
food to us, strange foreign food to the majority. We ate it in private,
with our weak tea and our strong coffee. Now the deli is a feature
of every shopping precinct, a counter in every supermarket. They’re
eating our food (and drinking our coffee) in New Zealand.
Some of us came from Indonesia, an Asian country, off the Commonwealth
map. My grandparents were missionaries there. We ate Kroepoek, Nasi,
Bami, Sambal, foreign foods no-one knew the names of except us.
There were delicate pictures and carvings of Balinese dancers in
our homes. Foreign stuff. When I went to a conference in Indonesia
with two New Zealand students in the 1960’s, it was exotic
to them, strangely familiar to me. They spoke Dutch there. Indonesian
students felt at home in our house. Now, everyone goes to Bali.
We are part of Asia. Nasi Goreng and Bami Goreng are on every Chinese
takeaway menu. There are Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants. Indonesia
is a shared experience.
Our parents never talked about the war, they wanted to forget.
We learnt about it from a New Zealand perspective, “our boys”
going to Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East. A glorious chapter
in our history. Whose history? Our parents were uncomfortable, grateful.
They couldn’t forget the experience of Nazi occupation, of
the liberation. It was the other side of the story, but not so glorious.
We didn’t hear war stories from our dads and grand-dads like
others did. Our mothers were in the theatre of war, not left at
home. Now, slowly, the stories are coming. Dutch people, like Jewish
people, are writing their stories, remembering, coming to terms
with their nightmares. Recently, I read a book by a Jewish Dutch
American, written with great difficulty and pain, much of which
was centred on the time she was in hiding with my grandparents in
Rotterdam. I learnt of the aunt, after whom my sister was named,
who had died of typhoid caught while nursing patients in a makeshift
Red Cross hospital. My parents wrote a book, which told me things
I had never heard about their experience in the occupation. I was
finally told of an uncle who had collaborated with the Nazis, and
was ostracised by our family. As children, we began to see our parents
in a new light, as heroes, sheltering Jews, hounded by the Nazis,
going underground. We wondered what it was like to live in an occupied
country, how they coped, how we would cope. We found our own perspective,
shared with others in war torn countries and dictatorships, with
refugees and survivors.
German stereotypes outlived the propaganda movies for those left
at home during the war, surviving in comic strips, war movies and
schoolboy war games. Achtung, Achtung, Englischer Schweinhund. They
were comic characters, with exaggerated German accents. We were
good at imitating them, a party piece. Rather like a Dutch accent
really. What did that tell us? I never really thought about it at
the time. German was an easy subject at school, something we could
do well. My parents spoke it, but when I got a scholarship to Berlin,
my mother was uncomfortable about me living in Germany. My German
is better than my Dutch. My grandmother told me disapprovingly that
I spoke Dutch with a German accent. Today, there are lots of German
tourists in New Zealand. Our Holland is the bridge between Germany
and England, not just in geography, but in language.
Anzac Day was when New Zealand men went to dawn parades and wore
their medals. The day they showed an unusual degree of passion,
put their chests out, and then got drunk at the RSA. The RSA was
their club, their retreat, not open to us. My father, a Minister,
was blacklisted by them in Upper Hutt for spoiling the service by
preaching about turning swords into ploughshares and spears into
pruning hooks. The Dutch perspective. War was horrible. After Vietnam,
it became more acceptable to speak of the darker side. This year,
one of my daughters was selected to represent the youth of New Zealand
at the national commemoration at the Cenotaph. I wished her grandfathers
had been alive to see it, one had been in the Dutch underground
and the other in the English navy. Everyone was talking about peace,
the horror of war. It was a coming together. Anzac Day is OK.
The Springbok Tour was a challenge to the dominant culture. The
united front broke down. There were images on the television of
rows of helmeted police, the Red Squad bludgeoning demonstrators.
Images that re-awoke memories in our parents. My mother buried her
head in a cushion when the news came on. Nazis. She came here to
get away from all that, couldn’t bear to remember, feared
it would shatter her dream. But New Zealanders were just as shocked,
even many police. Something changed.
South Africa was another place where Dutch people went. “Boer”
is the Dutch word for farmer. It sounded warm and familiar, and
featured in a favourite nursery rhyme. My grandmother lived there
as a child. New Zealanders fought the boers. She was there around
that time. The boers supported the Nazis because they hated the
English. The Dutch hated the Nazis. It was confusing. Their accents
were not dissimilar to ours - a blend of Dutch and English. The
Springboks came to our monthly Presbyterian Dutch service at St
Andrews on the Terrace when they were here on tour in the fifties.
It was easy to hate the accent when we joined the anti-apartheid
movement. It was that Dutch accent again. Now, with Mandela, the
familiarity is back, the accent sounds friendly in front of the
new flag.. There are even some boer heroes who opposed apartheid.
There are Africans with Dutch names and Afrikaans accents. It feels
like a bit of our history that’s coming right, a connection
I could hardly speak a word of English when I started school. My
first six weeks were spent in the office of the powdered infant
mistress before I was released into Primer 4. I couldn’t even
say I needed to go to the toilet, and got sent home early when I
burst into tears. We dipped in IQ tests when we couldn’t match
needle with haystack, a stitch in time with saves nine, a pot of
gold with the end of the rainbow. But we were good at language.
Later, a well-intentioned teacher told my sister’s classmates
in secondary school that they should be ashamed of being beaten
in English by a Dutch girl. I topped the English class as well.
Dangerous territory. But English was the test, we had to be good
at it. A secret pride.
We laughed along with people who good humouredly laughed at us
for getting things wrong, bringing an empty plate to a function
in response to the exhortation for ladies to bring a plate, being
given a packet of Zig Zag cigarette papers for a family of nine
in a dairy when we thought we’d asked for toilet paper. It
was worse when people were too polite to tell us to our face and
we found out later.
My father told me to find a good New Zealand girl when I got married.
I mustn’t marry an English immigrant, because they got homesick
(God forbid). Most of my generation complied, but I married an English
woman, a real one, from England, where I met her. She was only born
a few hundred miles from my own birthplace, closer than Invercargill
is to Wellington, but it was like she came from the other side of
the world. She came back to New Zealand with me, a fellow immigrant.
The church was very important in our lives. We were Dutch Reformed,
which logically made us Scottish Presbyterians. Our new icons were
the burning bush, St Andrew’s Cross, John Knox. Presbyterians
were protesters against English Catholics and Anglicans. It was
strange but familiar. Maybe it was easier for the Catholics, with
the icons remaining the same, although the flavour was Irish rather
than European. We weren’t different enough to have our own
Church, Tabernacle or Temple (although some did, and were frowned
upon). We had daily prayers and bible readings at home, morning
and evening, and family hymn singing. Our parents took their religion
more seriously than most New Zealanders. We strictly observed the
Sabbath, while others dressed casually, went to the beach, did the
lawns. Despite the liberalism of my parents, I had a fear of Catholics,
memories of watching Catholic processions in Holland, of the milkman
having a charcoal cross on his forehead on Ash Wednesday. Later,
I learnt of a history of religious division in Holland every bit
as bitter as in Ireland. Something else to share and overcome with
other New Zealanders, from Ireland. I felt a sort of perverse pride
that I and my two brothers all married Catholics. A bit of history,
shared, understood, resolved.
The Huguenots were a family tradition. No-one else seemed to have
heard of them. All my sisters were given Huguenot crosses, an elaborate
cross with a dove. The same cross is engraved on my brother’s
headstone, unexplained, in a cemetery in Palmerston North. He was
named after a proudly claimed ancestor who was a leader of the Dutch
Protestant rebellion, the author of the Flemish Confession of Faith,
put to death by the Catholics. A private pride. It was a history
I thought was unknown to New Zealanders till I learnt that the Huguenots
had also fled to Ireland, England, Scotland, and ended up all over
Europe, in South Africa. There are lots of New Zealanders with Huguenot
ancestry. We are part of an international tapestry woven centuries
England was referred to as “home”. It was where all
the other New Zealanders, except Maori and “foreign”
immigrants, came from. We learnt about England at school, English
history, English geography, the Kings and Queens, the British Empire,
the red bits on the world map. We didn’t know anything about
Dutch history and geography. Later, when I went to London, I had
the strange experience of feeling at home. Then, in Amsterdam, I
felt the same. But I was seen as a New Zealander in both places.
Home was New Zealand.
Maori were the people who weren’t English. They weren’t
very evident, but were very much a part of New Zealand for us. One
of two peoples in the country, living in harmony with each other.
We didn’t see the reality. We learnt their songs and stick
games at school. They spoke with pure vowels like the Dutch, we
could pronounce their names if we tried, and they could pronounce
ours. Later, they were the pathbreakers for cultural diversity.
Their renaissance was as much a liberation for us as it was for
them. They were the first to be interested in our ancestry. They
welcomed us. We didn’t purport to be indigenous. They valued
my parents for learning Maori, when others couldn’t see the
point of learning a “dying” language. They kindled a
pride in being different. We recognised their feeling about the
wrongness of assimilation, our common experience of the colonial
The naturalisation ceremony was the big moment when you got to
become a New Zealander, a natural. It took five years to qualify.
It was eagerly awaited. We paraded across the stage of St David’s
Presbyterian Church Hall in Upper Hutt, shook hands with the mayor,
watched by a packed audience who beamed with a sense of a mission
accomplished. It felt like a baptism, a confirmation or a prizegiving.
We were told that as minors we could make a choice when we turned
twenty. Unthinkable. There was a family crisis when one of my sisters
didn’t want to attend the ceremony. What was the matter with
her? Her glum face in the photo now conveys enviable courage. Today,
it’s called a citizenship ceremony. You can do it in private.
No-one could pronounce our names, they made us stand out. So we
changed them. In our family, Tjitske became Lyn, Margreet became
Margaret, Joris became George. Lots of others did the same. Some
people had it done to them, whether they liked it or not. I changed
mine back when I went to university in Berlin, because the German
for Joris (the same) sounded better than the German for George.
My real name sounded more normal, and I got to like it. I tried
it out when I moved on to England. It was OK. When I came back I
stuck with it, but still used the English pronunciation. It’s
easier. My own family struggled with the change. The only people
who pronounce it correctly now are Dutch and Maori. It sounds good.
Europe was a place somewhere behind England. It had been saved
twice from self-destruction by the English, the Americans and the
Anzacs. It was the Old World, the home of French culture, German
militarism and communism. The Dutch came from Holland, which was
over there somewhere. We didn’t know much better, except that
our relations lived there. It wasn’t the place it is today,
with European fashion, food, furniture, style, the European Union,
and high standards of living. Even the English have become Europeans.
We were brought up to call our grandparents Grandma and Grandpa,
the New Zealand way, even though our grandparents referred to themselves
as Oma and Opa. We taught our children to use the same English term
for our parents. Now, the next generation have started to refer
to their great grandparents as Oma and Opa, something special to
distinguish them from their New Zealand great grandparents, and
they love it.
We were lucky. One set of our grandparents followed us to New Zealand
and moved to be near us whenever our family moved. My grandfather
got relieving jobs as a Presbyterian Minister in parishes where
they couldn’t recruit, in Mangaweka, Kawerau, Shannon, and
Ruawai. He and my grandmother looked an odd sight, riding their
high, black, Dutch-shaped bicycles with straight handlebars and
ivory coloured tyres on their way to visit parishioners. In the
end, they went home again, to be with my grandmother’s family.
It left us with a sense of pretention about our roots. We were third
generation New Zealanders, we had memories of our grandparents in
small town New Zealand just like others, yet none of us had even
been born here.
We regarded our Dutch family as the people that stayed behind.
They were a long way away, and we probably wouldn’t see them
again. They weren’t as adventurous as us. They were not as
liberal. They didn’t have free milk at school, couldn’t
all go to university, didn’t have a social security system
like ours, plentiful food, fresh fruit and vegetables, white bread,
butter, beaches, warm weather. They didn’t wear shorts or
go round barefoot. They wrote us letters in Dutch handwriting on
funny looking pallid blue aerogrammes with printed stamps and sent
us parcels. They had children whose names we didn’t know.
Later, a few visited. The were very Dutch. Then we started to visit
them. They were prosperous. Their Dutchness wasn’t frozen
in time like ours. They were more liberal than we imagined. They
had more modern gadgets, more modern cars and buses, more stylish
clothes, they were more cosmopolitan. Their pubs were open all hours,
and they didn’t have a hang-up about alcohol. They spoke several
languages. They didn’t have a New Zealand accent when they
spoke English. They were widely traveled in Europe. They were nice,
we were related, and we got on well. We were part of their family.
There were lots of people with our name, it was on their front doors,
and it didn’t look out of place. We had a home in Europe,
we weren’t just tourists.
There was a turning point for me when I was a postgraduate student
in England, wanting to leave university. After a year in Berlin
and two in England, I had spent almost equal parts of my life in
Europe and in New Zealand. The arithmetic was compelling. I thought
of going back to Holland, rang the Dutch Embassy, and asked if I
could get a residence permit. With a familiar touch of Dutch directness,
the official told me that they had spent all their time getting
rid of people, and they weren’t about to take them back. I
was a New Zealand citizen, so I didn’t qualify. I realised
there was no turning back New Zealand was my home. I think I knew
We are left with the question of why. What made our parents’
generation come here, when at the time the decision had to be so
final? No doubt reasons varied, but to us children the obvious answer
was that they thought New Zealand would offer us and them a better
future. New Zealand was a promised land, a land of milk and honey,
with equal opportunity, social security, full employment, health
and education for all. It was a vision shared at least by pakeha
New Zealanders. It was how New Zealand marketed itself to the potential
migrants it needed to boost its workforce. It was something New
Zealanders needed to believe themselves. As new migrants, we were
required to affirm it in response to the frequent question “How
do you like it here?” Woe betide you if you said you didn’t.
But unbeknown to us at the time, our parents must have also have
wanted to forget the war, to escape the depression of post-war Europe,
to make a fresh start at the other end of the earth. They didn’t
talk about that, so it wasn’t part of our consciousness. When
the tables turned, and Western Europe overtook New Zealand economically
and socially, we could contemplate a return, at least for a while,
but our parents couldn’t. Their children had grown up, settled,
integrated. They would have to leave them and their grandchildren
behind, just as they had left their own parents, brothers and sisters.
Whatever the rigthness or wrongness of their original decision,
they had passed the point of no return. The material dream might
have dissipated, but the cultural adjustment had been made.
When I first started school in New Zealand, I was told I had to
write with a pencil. You didn’t use a pen and ink till later
in the standards. It seemed like a step back. A small thing about
which we could privately feel superior when everything else had
to be better in New Zealand. Slowly, things have changed. New Zealanders
have become less defensive about themselves, more interested in
others. Now it’s OK to be Dutch. Harry Duynhoven got into
Parliament, there are people with Dutch names in all walks of life,
the public service, the arts, commerce, industry, medicine, the
law, IT, the church, education, the media. We’ve got a new
name, Dutch New Zealanders, recognising our origin and our nationality.
We have a useful understanding of what it is to be an immigrant.
We can sympathise with Pacific Islanders, Bosnians, Asians, Ethiopians.
When you count the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the English (previously
undifferentiated as “poms”, a special category) and
all the rest of us who came in the twentieth century, the majority
of the population are immigrants. Not just our children, everyone’s
children are descended from immigrants. Even Maori came from elsewhere.
We hopped continents, they hopped islands. They are tagata pasifika
as well as tangata whenua. We are part of an immigrant nation, a
voyager people. Like the credits in American movies, we are a wonderful
mixture of names and nationalities. Everybody’s different,
not just us. We’re all in the same boat.
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