For about 100 years from the 1870s, the emigration of the Italian people was one of the greatest movements from a single country in modern history.
Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, many people in Italy were living in desperate poverty and faced a bleak future. In the 1870s, a quarter of all children died in their first year, and two-thirds of the population was illiterate. Suffering from overcrowding, a lack of arable land, natural disasters and localised wars, the unemployed and the landless saw emigration as a matter of survival.
Between 1876 and 1900, up to 300,000 set off each year in search of ‘la bella fortuna’ (good fortune). They went first to other European centres, but later established major settlements in America, Canada, South America and Australia.
A comparatively thin stream of migrants found their way to New Zealand, often by chance or after trying their luck in Australia.
There are numerous examples of an affinity between Māori and Italians:
The family of early settler Salvatore Cimino were made honorary members of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe.
There are more than 2,000 Māori–Italian descendants of the Māhia lighthouse keeper Nicolas Sciascia and his wife Riria McGregor.
In 1896 the missionary Dom Felice Vaggioli published a commentary on British exploitation of Māori.
Māori and Italians worked together on Tūrangi’s Rangipō tunnel during the 1970s, and a number of Italians married Māori women.
A higher proportion of Italians than of any other New Zealand ethnic group identify their second ethnicity as Māori.
The first Italian to reach New Zealand shores was Antonio Ponto, who sailed on the Endeavour with Lieutenant James Cook in 1769.
Immigrants who arrived up until the 1890s were mostly young single men. Some took up residence, but others often set sail again. One of the earliest settlers was Salvatore Cimino, a shipping trader from Capri who arrived about 1839. He was married twice, to New Zealand women, and had close ties with Māori, including Te Rauparaha.
A small group of Italians came during the gold rushes of the 1860s, working the Garibaldi Diggings in Central Otago and Italian Gully in Westland. When the gold ran out, some left for Australia or home, and some headed for the cities; others turned to dairy farming at Lyell in Westland, sending for family members in Pirano, Lombardy (now Piran, Slovenia) on the Gulf of Venice.
By 1874, the New Zealand census identified 258 men and 22 women as Italian-born residents.
Early attempts at organised migration were a sorry tale of false hopes and poor judgement.
In 1860, nine Italian friars (including Ottavio Barsanti) were brought out by the Catholic Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier. Their purpose was to revive the Catholic mission to Māori in Hokianga and the Bay of Islands. Māori showed no interest, however, and by 1873 the priests had returned home.
Ironically, not long after the failure of the government’s plan for Italian immigrants to grow grapes in Westland, an Italian visitor identified the ideal locations for successful vineyards.
In 1895 the viticultural adviser Romeo Bragato arrived from Australia. He tasted his first local wine at Arrowtown, and noted that gold miners had planted vines at Cromwell and Clyde. Central Otago, he reported, was the best place on earth for the production of Burgundy grapes. However, little action was taken, and it was decades before others realised the region’s potential.
In the 1870s Premier Julius Vogel extended immigration assistance to southern Europeans. The government hoped to boost the growing nation with settlement, public works and forest clearing. Most of the 230 town workers who responded to the lure of free passage came from Leghorn (Livorno) in Tuscany. They arrived between 1875 and 1876, unprepared and unsuited for the hard labour that awaited them. The first group began work on the Featherston railway, but were dismissed within a month because of disputes. The government promptly stopped assisting Italian immigrants, claiming: ‘they have proved utterly unfit for the work of colonisation’. 1
A second group of 53 were dispatched to grow grapes and mulberries at Jackson Bay in Westland. Thick bush, swampy soil and torrential rain ruined any chance of taming the land; to survive, they had to work on government roads. By 1879 every Italian had left the bay.
The 1890s saw the beginning of village-based trails from rural Italy to several locations in New Zealand. These would characterise Italian immigration until the late 1960s.
As government policy allowed southern Europeans to nominate relatives up to first cousins, immigrants would encourage family members to come, offering work and accommodation, and frequently the fare. Over time, close-knit communities developed, sharing the bonds of kinship and a common village or region back in Italy.
Often, a married man would come to New Zealand, earn enough to build a house, and bring out his wife; sometimes she could wait 10 years before joining her husband. Single men would also return to marry, and bring their wives back. Before the Second World War it was rare to bring out children.
From around 1900, several settlements developed from migration chains.
In the 1890s the Russo family arrived from the volcanic island of Stromboli. They began fishing at Eastbourne, buying land and establishing a small village. Around 1900, 12 ex-gold miners, also from Stromboli, started fishing at Island Bay, which was more sheltered. By the 1920s the Eastbourne contingent began to join them, and relatives of both groups continued to arrive from Stromboli and Massa Lubrense, near Naples, into the 1950s. They worked mainly as fishermen or fish retailers. The Little Italy of Island Bay was still active in the early 2000s.
'The day she left, Caterina did not move from the boat deck until the island was no longer visible – she cried inconsolably. On leaving Italy she cried again, continuing to do so throughout the journey to New Zealand. When she arrived in Wellington she really did feel as if she had reached "la fine del mondo" – the end of the earth.' 1
Giacomo Persico, of Massa Lubrense, came to Nelson in the early 1900s, and a smaller chain originating in Potenza began in 1915. These two groups settled in The Wood, which became a major tomato-growing community.
In the early 1890s a group of South Island gold miners, originally from northern Italy’s Valtellina valley, moved to the kauri gumfields in Northland. Later, some became dairy farmers in Taranaki. This chain continued until the Second World War.
From the turn of the century, a chain ran from Pistoia in Tuscany, and Belluno in the Veneto, to the fertile Hutt Valley. By the 1920s the community was supplying Wellington’s fruit and vegetable markets. However, from the mid-1940s the government began to buy the land for housing, and many gardeners sold up.
From 1910 until the early 1960s, northern Italian miners from Belluno, Vicenza and Conco settled in the West Coast coalmining towns of Rūnanga and Rapahoe.
There were also several minor chains based on work:
Although the numbers of Italians have never been great, after the Second World War these characteristically hard-working and enterprising people continued to settle in New Zealand, which, as a 19th-century promoter of immigration put it, ‘bears a striking resemblance to … Italy, turned upside down with the foot end facing up’. 1
Families moved along the migration chains, with more women and children arriving. Immediately after the war, a small number of women arrived as brides of New Zealand soldiers.
In 1951, 130 refugees, many from provinces ceded to Yugoslavia, came as displaced persons. Some worked in forestry, but most moved to the cities.
Because of their reputation as miners and tunnellers, a large group of northern Italian men was brought out in the 1960s on contract to hydroelectric projects at Manapōuri and Tūrangi. Two-thirds of the Tūrangi contingent married New Zealanders, but many returned home in 1982.
Since the 1970s, arrivals have become spasmodic. Only 312 Italians came between 1992 and 1998, and in 2006 the number of Italian-born residents (1,539) was only slightly more than in 1961 (1,427). By 2013 the number had risen to 1,968.
New wording in the 1996 census allowed people to identify with one or more ethnic groups. Those responding as ‘Italian’ increased dramatically from 1991: from 1,539 to 4,911. By 2013 this had dropped to 3,795.
Italians no longer work in agriculture or fishing as they did before the First World War. Changes made to immigration policy in 1987 offered opportunities for Italians to set up businesses. By 2001, 59% were working as managers, professionals or technicians. Italian-born women have moved away from traditional roles, with a higher than average number working in management and business services.
In 2013 most Italian immigrants were living in the main urban centres, with well over half in Auckland or Wellington.
Coming mostly from impoverished villages, many Italians brought the hopes, skills and family bonds that would help them adapt to a new life in urban New Zealand.
Life centred on the family, work and traditional roles, and much value was placed on respect for elders and their traditions. Although there was intermarriage with New Zealanders, many men married Italian women, or New Zealand-born daughters of Italians.
There were regular get-togethers with other families for bowls, card-playing, village saints’ days, or lively evening meals with music, wine and a bowl of pasta. Italians generally socialised with others from their region of origin. The absence of any nationwide associations in New Zealand reflects this tendency.
Wellington’s Garibaldi Club was founded in 1882. Activities included social events, folk dancing and card games. It was still active in the 2000s. Club Italiano in Auckland brought scattered groups together from 1925 until the Second World War. Auckland’s Società Dante Alighieri was founded in 1955 to encourage an appreciation of Italian culture; Wellington’s branch was the Circolo Italiano. In Nelson, men and women joined the Club Italia to celebrate spring and religious festivals, and hold concerts for local charities.
Italians did not establish their own Catholic churches, but the Catholic faith was a constant in their lives. In Island Bay, Nelson and Ponsonby–Grey Lynn, Italian worshippers formed a significant part of congregations.
Many immigrants worked in the fields, in the family shop or factory, at sea or at home. This impeded assimilation into the wider community and reduced the need to learn English. Most Italians encountered some prejudice or ignorance.
Living in New Zealand in the 1950s, Italian writer Renato Amato often faced aggression and intolerance:
‘There was the plumber who wanted to knock his teeth out because he refused to show his Italian passport; the carpenter who wanted to prove with his fists that a primitive Italian couldn’t possibly use a 35mm camera; and the labourer who did knock him out because he had failed to be impressed by the other’s pidgin Italian. … He was seldom allowed to forget his nationality for a day.’ 1
When their country entered the Allied side in the First World War, Italians gained greater acceptance. But the most disturbing instance of prejudice occurred during the Second World War, when Italy was declared an enemy. About 38 Italian men were summarily interned on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. However, when Italy joined the Allies, a closer bond was formed as Italians helped New Zealand soldiers. Direct diplomatic relations with Italy began in 1951.
Since the 1990s there has been a burgeoning interest in things Italian. Foods that were once unavailable to the immigrants are in demand – pasta, pizza, wine, espresso coffee, vegetables, herbs and breads. Many aspects of the culture are highly valued, from fashion and language classes, to furniture and garden design. More recent arrivals cater to this niche market with their own businesses and restaurants, particularly in Auckland.
The family continues to be an anchor, but New Zealand-born children have absorbed their adopted country’s values and language, and moved into other occupations. Many of the younger generation retain a respect for the beliefs and expectations of their parents and grandparents.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Italy.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Burnley, I. H. From southern Europe to New Zealand: Greeks and Italians in New Zealand. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1972.
Duder, Tessa. In search of Elisa Marchetti. Auckland: Penguin, 2002.
Elenio, Paul. Alla fine del mondo – to the ends of the earth: a history of Italian migration to the Wellington region. Wellington: Club Garibaldi, 1995.
Laracy, Eugénie, and Hugh Laracy. The Italians in New Zealand and other studies. Auckland: Società Dante Alighieri, 1973.
New Zealand, an immigrant nation. The unbroken thread: the Italians [videorecording]. Producer, Vincent Burke; director, Caterina De Nave. Wellington: Top Shelf Productions, 1994.
Page, Dion, ed. Famiglie Strombolani in Nuova Zelanda. Wellington: Stromboli Connection Organising Group, 2000.