The earliest recorded Polish contact with New Zealand goes back to James Cook’s second voyage in 1772. On board the Resolution were two scientists, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, from Danzig (now Gdańsk). They were of Scottish descent and German-speaking, but were Polish subjects by birth.
Nearly a century later, a number of Poles came to New Zealand in search of gold. Few of these early arrivals settled, and many moved between Australia and New Zealand.
Settlement of Poles in New Zealand began in the 1840s, although the numbers through the 19th century were small – estimates range from fewer than 500 to over 1,000. Early immigrants settled as individuals or single families who had little contact with other Poles.
A first family
The Subritzky family claim to be New Zealand’s first Polish settlers. Matriarch Sophie Subritzky arrived in 1843 with her extended family, and they settled for a time with German immigrants at St Paulidorf in the Moutere valley, near Nelson. Later they moved to Australia, then returned to settle in Northland, where they intermarried with Māori tribes. In 1993, to mark the 150th anniversary of the family’s arrival, 3,000 descendants gathered at the original homestead at Houhora.
Who were the Poles?
Difficulties in determining how many Poles came to New Zealand in the 19th century arise from the division of Poland between 1772 and 1795 by Prussia (a German state) and the Russian and Austrian empires. Poland did not exist as an independent state again until after the First World War. There were almost certainly Poles among those recorded in censuses or on ships’ registers as Russian, German or Austrian. A number of immigrants from Poland were Jewish, but despite their ethnic and religious differences from Poles, some had feelings of loyalty to Poland.
Vogel scheme immigrants
In the later 19th century, life became increasingly hard in the Prussian and Russian parts of Poland. Forced ‘Germanisation’ and ‘Russianisation’ provoked a Polish national consciousness. There was a mass exodus of Poles after the failed uprising of 1863; most went to other parts of Europe or America, but a small number came to New Zealand. These immigrants were often identified as Germans, as they were frequently German speaking and came from Prussian-dominated (western) Poland.
When more Polish families arrived in the 1870s, often travelling together in the same immigrant ship, they settled in groups. During this period Poles took advantage of New Zealand Prime Minister Julius Vogel’s offer of assisted passages, to encourage agricultural labourers and others to come to New Zealand.
Writing about Oceania
The first description of New Zealand written in Polish, including translations of Māori songs, was by a 19th-century adventurer, Sygurd Wiśniowski. He visited New Zealand in 1864. The publisher Dennis McEldowney described his novel, Children of the Queen of Oceania (Dzieci królowej Oceanii), published in 1877, as far better than any novel about New Zealand written in English as early as this.
The rural settlements
Group migration in the Vogel years was followed by chain migration, by which others came out to join relatives and friends. Small Polish settlements developed in the South Island at Marshlands near Christchurch, and at Allanton and Waihola on Otago’s Taieri Plain. In the North Island the largest settlement was in Taranaki, around Inglewood and Midhurst. There were smaller settlements at Halcombe in the Manawatū, in the Wairarapa, and in Rangitīkei.
Many of these early pioneers worked in occupations requiring little English, felling bush, draining swamps and building tracks. Eventually acquiring their own land, they turned to farming.