The 1880s and 1890s have come to be known as the long depression in New Zealand. In the winters there was visible hardship and distress. Those who had come out in the 1870s sent less positive messages home, and free passages were ended. Fewer new settlers arrived, and people began to leave. They went particularly to Australia, where ‘marvellous Melbourne’ experienced a boom in the 1880s.
In 1888 about 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived, and in the years from 1881 to 1900 the net gain from migration was only about 40,000 (almost 100,000 less than in the decade of the 1870s). By the dawn of the 20th century New Zealand had fewer foreign-born people than 20 years before. The proportion of the non-Māori population who were born overseas went from a half to under a third. New Zealand lost its status as an immigrant nation.
As economic conditions worsened, locals became less tolerant of newcomers who were not Anglo-Saxon. The imposition of the poll tax on Chinese immigrants in 1881 was the first sign of this, followed in 1888 and 1896 by further measures increasing the tax and limiting the number of Chinese immigrants per ship’s tonnage. One effect was that the number of Chinese in New Zealand was almost halved. An 1899 law imposed an English-language restriction on all immigrants not of British or Irish parentage.
Despite such measures some interesting immigrants arrived in the 1890s. There was a significant increase in Australians who moved to New Zealand when Australia, ‘the lucky country’, also began to suffer. News of work on the kauri gumfields in Northland filtered back to Europe, and by the turn of the century almost 2,000 Dalmatians had reached New Zealand’s shores. But it was not long before they too began to suffer discrimination. The Kauri Gum Industry Act 1898 preserved certain gumfields exclusively for British subjects. A significant number of Indians arrived in New Zealand, and some Lebanese – the latter working as travelling sellers. There was a small Lebanese community in Dunedin in the 1890s.
Yet both in ethnicity and identity New Zealand remained overwhelmingly British, with the Māori population now reduced by disease, land confiscation and social dislocation to fewer than 50,000 people.