Restrictions on immigration were first imposed in 1881. Until then, anyone who arrived in New Zealand had been able to remain in the country, including ‘aliens’ (non-British subjects) who could, after 1844, apply for naturalisation.
Fears about the increasing number of Chinese in New Zealand grew during the 1870s. Numbers of Chinese first arrived when they were invited to work Otago’s declining goldfields. By 1869 there were about 2,000 Chinese men in New Zealand. Despite this small number, and an 1871 parliamentary report dismissing allegations against Chinese, calls to restrict the entry of Chinese people mounted.
The Chinese Immigrants Act 1881
This act was the first to restrict the entry of a specific group of people. The number of Chinese who could arrive on one ship was limited to one for every 10 tons of the vessel’s weight. A poll tax of £10 was also imposed on each Chinese person entering the country. In 1888 the ratio of immigrants to ship tonnage was cut to one Chinese person per 100 tons. In 1896, it was halved to one per 200, and the poll tax increased to £100.
‘A barbarous measure’
In 1881, during a debate in the Legislative Council, a speaker pointed out the hypocrisy in taxing Chinese immigrants before they were admitted to the colony:
‘When we first came to New Zealand did the Maoris ever impose a tax upon us? No: and I will venture to say that we have done a great deal more harm to the Maoris than the Chinese are ever likely to do to us. I think the people who come after us will be thoroughly ashamed and thoroughly astonished at what their progenitors have done, for it is simply an inhuman and barbarous measure.’ 1
Indians and other Asians
Unlike the Chinese, most Indians were British subjects and free to enter New Zealand until the very end of the 19th century. From 1896, despite objections from the British government, New Zealand tried to pass more comprehensive legislation restricting the immigration not just of the Chinese but also of Indians and other Asians.
The Immigration Restriction Act 1899
The 1899 act (which was acceptable to the British) was not aimed overtly at Asians. It prohibited the entry of immigrants who were not of British or Irish parentage and who could not fill out an application form ‘in any European language’ – which in practice meant English.
These rules were in place for the next 20 years. But the application form was standard, and applicants could simply memorise a few lines of English. The requirement was used, however, to keep Chinese, Indians and others out.
Under the 1899 act, the Chinese remained subject to the poll tax of £100 and the shipping tonnage restriction imposed in earlier legislation.
The Chinese Immigrants Amendment Act 1907
Under the 1907 Chinese Immigrants Amendment Act the Chinese had to pass an additional English-language reading test – they had to read 100 words of English in front of customs officials. The £100 poll tax remained.
The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1908
In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act required Chinese people living in New Zealand to place a thumbprint on their certificate of registration before leaving the country, in order to get a re-entry permit. The aim was to prevent the permit being used by another person wanting to enter the country. The Chinese were the only group who had to do this.
The prejudice against Asians
The fear of economic competition was one reason why the entry of Chinese, Indians and other ‘race aliens’ was restricted. Contemporary ideas about Asia and the non-white world also justified the restrictions. But more importantly, there was a strong belief in the superiority of white people and a desire to make New Zealand a ‘Britain of the South’. These views were accompanied by a sense of the dangers of miscegenation (interbreeding of different races). Nonetheless, although there was wide support for what was in effect a ‘White New Zealand’ policy, some spoke out against the restrictions.
New Zealand was not alone in restricting the entry of race aliens. A poll tax on Chinese settlers was also levied in Australia and Canada.