The earliest recorded Polish contact with New Zealand goes back to Captain 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the First World War Poland became an independent nation. The ‘push’ factors (the harsh conditions imposed by powers dominating Poland) declined and the ‘pull’ factor (assistance from the New Zealand government) ceased. The flow of migrants slowed.
The next migrants from Poland were Polish Jews who arrived in the inter-war period as refugees from European anti-Semitism. They numbered at most a few hundred. Their Jewishness did not prevent them also identifying themselves as Polish, and they formed an association of Polish Jews in Wellington in 1944. This organisation later helped non-Jewish Polish migrants who arrived during and after the Second World War.
The Second World War devastated Poland, and many Poles were forced to leave. Three distinct groups with different war experiences arrived in New Zealand: children, war veterans and displaced persons. All shared the traumatic experience of being uprooted from their homeland.
In 1943 New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, encouraged by Polish Consul General Kazimierz Wodzicki and his wife, invited a group of mainly orphaned Polish children to New Zealand for the duration of the war. A group of 734 children and 103 adults arrived in 1944. They had survived deportation to the Soviet Union, hard labour in Siberia, a terrible journey to the southern Soviet republics, and finally evacuation to Persia (Iran). They had witnessed the deaths of parents and siblings. At the end of the war, when Poland came under Soviet influence, the children were given the opportunity to settle in New Zealand.
The Polish children’s camp near Pahīatua was called ‘Little Poland’ by locals. It was thought initially the children would return to Poland when the war was over, so they were educated in Polish. Their unusual situation – they came as temporary guests and then stayed as settlers – makes their story unique among New Zealand’s immigrant groups. ‘Little Poland’ recreated a world that they had lost, where they learnt to be patriotic Poles, although they did not return to Poland.
This second group, mostly men who had children or family already in New Zealand, came immediately after the war. They numbered about 200 and had fought with the Allies, then found themselves outside Poland at the end of the war. They were given the same rights to settle in New Zealand as British ex-servicemen.
Many of the displaced persons who came after the war had spent the war years in prisoner-of-war, labour or concentration camps in Nazi-controlled territory. They were often without identity papers. New Zealand belonged to the International Refugee Organisation that settled these people. More than 700 Poles were among the 4,500 displaced persons who arrived between 1949 and 1951.
When Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence at the end of the war, Poles had great difficulty obtaining passports. Polish migration virtually stopped during the Cold War period.
The next mass movement of Poles from Poland occurred in the 1980s with the rise of the Solidarity movement. This began with strikes in the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980, and led to a period of turmoil in Poland. In these troubled times, people flooded out of Poland into Austrian transit camps. More than 290 came to New Zealand.
In the 20th century Polish settlement was predominantly urban, but before the 1940s there were no Polish immigrant associations.
The Polish Association in New Zealand was established in 1948 in Wellington. Those who founded it saw themselves as an exile community fighting for a free and independent Poland so that they could return home. Their association was geared toward charitable works for their community. At the same time they kept their language and customs alive, and passed them on to their children.
In the early 1970s, a Polish scholar, Dr Jerzy Pobóg-Jaworowski, visited Taranaki to research the history of the settlers from his homeland. His visit sparked a revival of interest in Polish family history in the region. Plans were made for a centennial celebration in 1976. The organisers expected about 40 people to attend but ended up with 1,800!
There are now similar associations around New Zealand. The teaching of the Polish language at Auckland University is supported by the community and the Polish Heritage Trust. The trust also has a museum and library in Howick.
Catholicism has been an important focus of Polish community life. Although there is no exclusively Polish parish, the Wellington Polish Association has maintained a Polish priest attached to St Anne’s Church in Newtown. The visit of the Polish Pope to New Zealand in 1986 was of great importance to the community.
Once they had arrived in New Zealand, the 19th- and 20th-century immigrants had little choice but to settle permanently, as lack of money, and political restrictions in Poland, made it difficult for them to return. In the 21st century, Poles and Polish New Zealanders can move between the two countries more freely than at any other time, and choose where they wish to settle.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Poland.
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. ‘The Poles.’ In Immigrants in New Zealand, edited by K. W. Thomson and A. D. Trlin, 125–151. Palmerston North: Massey University, 1970.
Ducat, Michelle, David Mealing, and Theresa Sawicka, eds. Living in two worlds: the Polish community of Wellington. Lower Hutt: Hutt City Council for Petone Settlers' Museum, 1992.
Ogonowska-Coates, Halina. Krystyna’s story. Wellington: Bridget Williams, 1992.
Pobóg-Jaworowski, J. W. Polish settlers in New Zealand, 1876–1976. Wellington: J. Pobóg-Jaworowski, 1976.