Story: Samoans

Page 1. History and migration

All images & media in this story

Who are the Samoans?

Samoans are the original inhabitants of the Samoa Islands, which lie north of New Zealand between latitude 13° and 15° south. The two large islands are Upolu and Savai‘i, and the only other inhabited islands are Manono and Apolima. About 80 km south-east is Tutuila, the principal island of the smaller territory of American Samoa.

The birth of a nation

There are many explanations for the name Samoa. One is that when the earth’s centre – known as ‘moa’ – was born, Salevao, the god of the cliffs, brought water to wash the new child. He made water ‘sa’ (holy) to the child and all that grew on the earth.

Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga were the early homelands of the Polynesians. It was from these islands that, beginning some 1,000 years ago, Polynesians settled the rest of the South Pacific, eventually reaching New Zealand.

Contact with outsiders

Over the centuries Samoans exchanged news, trade and marriage partners with neighbouring Pacific peoples (mainly Fijians and Tongans). The first European to sight the islands was a Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1722. Later, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville called Samoa’s islands ‘the Navigator Islands’.

In 1830 the Reverend John Williams landed in Savai‘i, bringing the Christian gospel. This was the beginning of the change from the ‘time of darkness’ to the ‘time of light’, as most of the population converted to Congregationalism. A ‘Samoanised’ form of Christianity now exists in the EFKS (Ekalesia Fa‘apotopotoga Kerisiano o Samoa), also known as the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, or CCCS. This form of Christianity is also found in the Samoan components of the Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church. For many Samoans, Christianity and fa‘asamoa (Samoan culture) are inextricably interwoven.

New Zealand occupation

In 1899 possession of Samoa was divided between Germany (Western Samoa) and the United States (Eastern Samoa). New Zealand occupied Western Samoa on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and administered the islands until 1962 under mandates from the League of Nations and later the United Nations. In 1918 the New Zealand trading ship Talune docked in Apia, carrying people infected with influenza. This led to a devastating and avoidable outbreak of the disease which killed about 8,500 Samoans – over 20% of the population. Many more died during a famine caused by the resulting disruption to agriculture.

Samoan independence

During the 1920s, growing Samoan discontent with the New Zealand administration led to an independence movement called the Mau, which was non-violent. However, on 28 December 1929 at least nine Samoans, including the high-ranking chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, were shot dead by New Zealand military police during a peaceful demonstration.

In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific nation to regain independence, and a Treaty of Friendship was signed with New Zealand.

New Zealand’s apology to Samoa

In June 2002 New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to Samoa for three actions taken by the New Zealand administration between 1918 and 1929: allowing the ship Talune, carrying passengers with influenza, to dock in Apia, which resulted in the deaths of more than one in five Samoans; shooting non-violent protesters in December 1929; and banishing Samoan leaders and stripping them of their chiefly titles.

Migration to New Zealand

Although Samoans travelled to New Zealand from the early 1900s, it was not until the 1950s that they migrated in large numbers. As New Zealand’s industries and service sector expanded over the next 30 years, the search for labour was extended to territories and former territories in the Pacific. Many Samoans moved to New Zealand for greater opportunities and a better education for their children.


Entry was not unrestricted. From 1964, the government issued three-month visas, and from 1967 it set annual quotas for immigrants. As long as the demand for labour was strong, the regulations were not enforced. But when the New Zealand economy declined after 1973, this flexibility ended. Politicians blamed Pacific Islanders for overloading social services, and they shaped a negative stereotype of these communities. State-sanctioned racism in the form of police raids in the early hours of the morning on the homes of alleged overstayers began in 1974, and eventually the policy and its enforcement became known by the name ‘Dawn Raids’. Many Pacific and Māori people were also stopped in the street or in their workplaces and asked to prove their right to be in the country through so-called random checks. Some, particularly Samoans and Tongans, were deported to their home countries.  

Dawn Raids apology

In August 2021, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologised to Pacific communities which were impacted by the way in which immigration laws were enforced in New Zealand in the 1970s in the so-called ‘Dawn Raids’, almost 50 years after these began. She said, ‘The Dawn Raids period cast a shadow over our shared history … Expressing our sorrow, regret and remorse for past actions is the right thing to do and provides an opportunity for closure and reconciliation’.

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said it was clear that the immigration laws had been discriminatory during the Dawn Raids era. ‘Pacific peoples, Māori and other ethnic communities were specifically targeted and racially profiled, which was wrong and should have never happened … Racially targeting Pacific communities created a decades long false impression of the status of Pacific New Zealanders’.1

The focus on these two ethnic groups was unacceptable to many. It was pointed out that the greatest influx of temporary migrants in these years was from the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. For older Pacific Islanders, the Dawn Raids remain bitter memories.

Polynesian Panther Party

The Polynesian Panthers emerged in the early 1970s to support Pacific people in New Zealand through community survival programmes. They informed people of their legal rights and published a Legal rights booklet, ran homework centres for schoolchildren, assisted Pacific and Māori tenants who were being evicted unlawfully from sub-standard rental accommodation, visited inmates at Auckland’s Pāremoremo prison and put on concerts. In the 2020s, after decades of continuing to fight for social justice and human rights for Pacific people, some of the original members of the Polynesian Panthers lobbied for a government apology for the Dawn Raids. 

Continuing migration

Despite the tough immigration laws, Samoans continued to enter New Zealand. Between 1971 and 1981 the number of Samoan-born residents doubled, reaching 24,141. In 1982, as the result of a case taken by Falema‘i Lesa, a Samoan woman living in New Zealand, the Privy Council ruled that all Western Samoans born between 1924 and 1948, and their descendants, were British subjects (and therefore, from 1949, New Zealand citizens). However, with the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982, the New Zealand government rapidly overruled this decision, removing citizenship from more than 100,000 people. The legislation stated that only Samoans who were living in New Zealand on 14 September 1982, or those who subsequently obtained permanent residence, could become New Zealand citizens. New quotas for Samoans seeking entry into New Zealand were set. Since 2002 the quota has allowed 1,100 Samoans to be granted residence each year, enabling them to live, work and study in New Zealand.

In addition, from 2007 the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSE) allowed Samoan workers to come to New Zealand to work in the viticulture (grapegrowing) and horticulture industries, for up to seven months during any 11-month period. Although the scheme was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in June 2022 there were 3,528 Samoan RSE workers in New Zealand, the majority employed in Hawke’s Bay, Bay of Plenty and Marlborough. The workers in the scheme often form tight-knit communities in the accommodation provided by their employers.

In 2018, 182,721 people of Samoan ethnicity were living in New Zealand – almost half of all those with Pacific ethnicity. Two-thirds of these people were born in New Zealand, reflecting the multigenerational nature of the community. 

  1. ‘Government offers formal apology for Dawn Raids’, Beehive press release, 1 August 2021. Back
How to cite this page:

Lupematasila Melani Anae, 'Samoans - History and migration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Lupematasila Melani Anae, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 7 Sep 2022 with assistance from  Lupematasila Melani Anae