Those who have been to California and Montenegro have without a doubt been struck by the similarity between the landscapes of Northern California and the Montenegrin coast, the Lake Tahoe region and the Montenegrin Highlands, and the city of Sausalito, which Montenegrin Americans call “the Herceg Novi of San Francisco”
The first Slavs to settle in the area were pioneers from Montenegro and Croatia; the first American-born Orthodox priest, Sebastian Dabović, had parents with a Montenegrin heritage; and many Montenegrins worked on and were donors to the Holy Trinity Church, the first Orthodox Church in San Francisco, founded in 1857. The cemeteries of Jackson and Angel Camp are testament to the many Montenegrin immigrants who came to the Golden State in pursuit of happiness. The first Montenegrin organization in the New World was, “Serbian-Montenegrin Benevolent Literary Society,” founded in 1880.
All these similarities and historic connections between Montenegro and California are further confirmed through various endowments in Montenegro. Many transplanted Montenegrins sent hard-earned money to their homeland and loved ones, which was used to build houses but also hospitals, schools, and museums. The buildings have plaques with the names of donors and the name of the city where the money was earned or with a simple inscription: California.
Another crucial thread of history links California and Montenegro. When Montenegro was occupied in 1918, it was abolished and incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. When all hope for the return of the country’s thousand year independence seemed lost, one Montenegrin American in San Francisco, Nikola Petanović Naiad did not give up. He worked, lectured, and wrote for Montenegrin liberty. To do this, he founded a magazine, The Montenegrin Mirror in 1927.
Nikola thought that the near future would radically change the world, as a Republican (most of his Montenegrin compatriots were Royalists) he saw a chance to renew Montenegrin sovereignty based on the principles of U.S. democratic laws and civil liberties. This approach, he hoped, would make Montenegro a regional leader and U.S. ally in that part of the world.
Thanks to a collaboration with Jorge Machado of the Hoover Library, the public can now read the correspondence between Nikola Petanović and David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University. The letters are a testament to their affection and friendship but also to Petanović’s humanist vision and the incredible personal sacrifices he made in his quest to restore the Montenegrin homeland.
Petanović’s republicanism was not well received by many Montenegrins who wanted to restore the royal house and old values. He did not believe that Montenegro should live on past mythology, wanting it to take on Western democratic values and adhere to the rule of law and a constitution, which are above all and yet serve all. He saw the United States as a future guarantor of Montenegrin independence. As he wrote to David Starr Jordan on July 14, 1927, “We have finished our heroic role. Whither we go now? Beyond us is a world in which we are not fit to live. Chaste, savage, free and independent we have always been. But now when the chasteness, savageness, freedom, and our glorious independence are gone what awaits us but a tragic moment which claims our very existence.. Our tragedy is a result of our loftiness and independence we attained through our heroic actions in defence of justice and liberty. America may save us.”
In the same year, on September 13, he wrote, “If I ever succeed to free my mountains….. I will introduce the English language in to the schools over there and will make my people to enter into the liberty –loving traditions of the English –speaking people, Americans principally. I will also make the children of the Black Mountain acquainted with your elaborate works, and they will learn how to love their American friends¨.
In the 1920s, Petanović was aware that Montenegro’s only choice was to ally with the nations that held the same values of personal rights and freedom that Montenegro has fostered for centuries. He writes in one of his letters: “Most of my countrymen are thinking that I aim to become a ruler or political leader of Montenegro. It hurts me…a poet has never been able to rule successfully over a wild mass. I must suffer and, perhaps, die tragically.”
Reading his Montenegrin Mirror, his correspondence, and other works today, we can say with certainty that he was the first Montenegrin to work for a strong alliance between the United States and Montenegro. Today, becoming a member of NATO are important priority for Montenegro.
Nikola Petanović died in San Francisco on January 31, 1932. His tombstone epitaph “As a free man, I will once more see Cetinje” reminds us of his sacrifice and help us remember this great Montenegrin-American who saw that traditional, heroic Montenegrin ideals of freedom and an independent spirit were the strongest thread and a true foundation for the modern and free Montenegro he always imagined.
We, the heirs of our heroic ancestors, have fulfilled Petanović’s dream, nine years ago, with pen in hand we won our country back.
This article appears at the Portal Montenegrina website under the same title. Please follow this link to the original source.