Story: Migrant and refugee organisations

Page 1. Early migrant organisations

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Migrants or refugees?

People from overseas settle in New Zealand as either migrants or refugees. Migrants choose to leave their homeland and move to a country of their choice. They are able to plan their travel and pack the possessions they want to take, and they can often arrange housing or work in their new country in advance.

Refugees do not choose to leave their homeland, but flee in response to a crisis. They have little choice about where to go and how to get there. They often have no time to pack possessions and may arrive in a new country without passports or local contacts of any kind.

Scottish, Irish and Welsh groups

One of the main reasons a group of migrants forms an organisation in their new country is to keep alive their own culture and traditions, and to maintain links with each other and their homeland. Scots, who made up a large proportion of early migrants, began holding Highland Games in Wellington in the 1840s.

The first organisation for Scottish migrants was formed in Dunedin on 12 August 1862, when a meeting of ‘about forty gentlemen’1 formed the Otago Caledonian Society (Caledonia is the Latin name for Scotland). It held night classes for members and an annual Highland Games. Other districts with large Scots populations did the same. Turakina, near Whanganui, has held its games since 1864, and Waipū in Northland has done so since 1871. The Waipū Caledonian Society not only organised the games but held regular dances, concerts and other events. In the early 1900s it acquired its own park as a venue for the games, and this remains an essential facility for the Waipū community.

Pipes and a wee dram

A keen participant in the 1848 Highland Games in Wellington was Donald McLean, who was born in the Scottish Highlands and later worked for the New Zealand government as a land purchase agent. He played the bagpipes at the games and afterwards was carried shoulder-high to Barrett’s Hotel for a whisky. McLean said it was ‘a sincere pleasure to meet so many people of the same land, the same descent and origin, met together to remember the sports of our parent land, and not forget them’.2

A further reason that migrants set up their own groups is to provide mutual support in their new home. The first Hibernian (from the Latin name for Ireland) Society was established in Greymouth in 1869 by Irish immigrants, mainly to help members in need. In 2018 it had 21 regional branches and offered members a variety of financial benefits.

The first Welsh society, the Cambrian Society of Canterbury, was set up in 1890 with the aims of maintaining traditional Welsh music and literature, encouraging immigration from Wales and helping society members to settle in New Zealand. It held its first eisteddfod (choral and poetry competition) in 1926. Welsh societies were formed in Wellington in 1907 and in Auckland in 1925.

Chinese groups

Several thousand Chinese migrated to the Otago goldfields in the late 1860s. They soon set up informal groups, based on their regions of origin, for mutual support. These lent money to impoverished and sick members and helped them return to China. The first formalised group was the Dunedin-based Cheong Shing Tong (昌善堂), set up in 1878 to organise the repatriation of bodies and exhumed bones.

By the 1900s the Chinese population was shifting north. In the major cities, social, commercial, cultural, sports and religious groups sprang up to meet the communities’ needs. Clan-based groups based on counties of origin played a major role in supporting members and new arrivals. The Poon Fah, Toishan, Kwongchew, Tung Jung and Seyip Associations, all established between 1916 and 1936, continue today.

Political groups were equally important. Some focused on politics in China. The first of these was the Chinese Reform Society (保皇會), set up in Wellington in the early 1900s. Others focused on New Zealand, like the Wellington Chinese Association formed in 1907 to advocate for the community in an era of strong anti-Chinese feeling and legislative restrictions. A descendant of this group, the New Zealand Chinese Association, had 14 regional branches in 2018.

Indian groups

Migrants from India had widely varying religious and ethnic traditions but set up combined organisations to promote their values and culture. In response to the racist propaganda of the White New Zealand League, the New Zealand Indian Central Association was formed in 1926 with branches in Auckland, Taumarunui and Wellington. In 2018 the association had a further seven regional branches and a number of affiliated organisations representing specific ethnic or religious groups, including the Probasee Bengalee Association, the Bangladesh New Zealand Friendship Society and the Pakistani Association.

  1. The Caledonian Society of Otago, (last accessed 25 March 2010). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Turakina games history,’ (last accessed 25 March 2010). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Migrant and refugee organisations - Early migrant organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018