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South Pacific peoples

by  Carl Walrond

For Pacific Islanders who want to enjoy the benefits of moving to a more sizeable country, New Zealand is often the nearest, and the choice of many. Large communities of Samoans, Tongans, Fijians and others are prominent, especially in Auckland. Many smaller Pacific groups have also made New Zealand their home. These include Kiribati people, Tuvaluans, French Polynesians, Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders.

Early migration

Colonial ties

The migration of Pacific peoples is strongly linked to their colonial history. When transport routes were forged between colonising country and island, this opened the way for travel and eventually migration. Tahitians and New Caledonians went to France, American Samoans to America, and Melanesians to Australia. Pacific peoples who migrated to New Zealand came mainly from those islands which were nearest, and from islands with a British colonial history. Fewer people migrated from islands colonised by France and the United States.

Seafarers and students

A few Polynesians boarded passing European ships and worked as crew members. A Tuvaluan named Telava made it as far as the Antarctic ice, and commemorated the event by naming his granddaughter Taimalo (‘the sea is solid’). In the 1800s a handful of Polynesian wayfarers landed in southern New Zealand, probably arriving on whaling ships. Known as Kanakas, they were not common, but they did stand out. Settlers gave them British names. As early as 1856 a ‘South Sea Island native’ known as Jack was working as a shepherd in Southland, while in North Otago around the same time there was a ‘Ben Tucker’ who was either ‘Otaheitian’ (Tahitian) or ‘Hawaiian’. Another man, described as ‘Matakeni, a South Seas islander’, was a ferryman on the Waitaki River.

Anglican missionary George Selwyn visited New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the 1850s, and returned to New Zealand with a group of young students. Schooled during summer in Auckland, they were returned in autumn because the winter was ‘too cold and too wet for such hot-house plants’. 1 Over the next 18 years Selwyn’s Melanesian mission schooled 152 youths at St John’s College, Auckland, and St Andrew’s College, Kohimarama (later renamed Mission Bay).

The 1872 New Zealand census lists 31 people born in the ‘South Sea Islands’. While many were probably island-born British colonials, it is likely that some were indigenous islanders. By 1916, records show that 18 Melanesians, 49 Fijians and 151 ‘other and undefined’ Polynesians had settled in New Zealand. After the Second World War Solomon Islanders, Papua New Guineans and Tuvaluans attended schools and universities in New Zealand. In 1956 Francis Talasasa graduated with a bachelor of arts from Canterbury University – he was the first Solomon Islander to receive a degree. Students tended to return home after their studies, to work for the benefit of their people.

    • E. S. Armstrong. The history of the Melanesian mission. London: Isbister, 1900, p. 9. › Back

Island groups and recent migration

Many islands

In 2013 the six largest groups of Pacific peoples in New Zealand were Samoans, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Niueans, Fijians and Tokelauans. However, there were also people from most of the other islands that pepper the world’s largest ocean.

Living in New Zealand were Austral Islanders, Belau/Palau Islanders, Bougainvilleans, Caroline Islanders, Easter Islanders, Gambier Islanders, Guam Islanders, Hawaiians, I-Kiribati (Kiribati people), Kanaka (New Caledonians), Marquesas Islanders, Marshall Islanders, Nauru Islanders, Papua New Guineans, Phoenix Islanders, Pitcairn Islanders, Society Islanders (including Tahitians), Solomon Islanders, Tuamotu Islanders, Tuvaluans, Vanuatuans, Wallis Islanders and Yap Islanders.

The most numerous of these other Pacific groups in New Zealand were Kiribati people, Tuvaluans, Papua New Guineans, Solomon Islanders, Vanuatuans and French Polynesians.

The total number of other Pacific peoples increased from around 2,000 in 1986 to nearly 7,000 in 2013. Most lived in the north of the North Island, particularly in Auckland. Although groups were small, many had distinct communities which gathered to celebrate traditions and to speak their native tongue.

Kiribati (Gilbert Islands)

Kiribati, a former British colony, is a group of 33 islands straddling the equator north of Tuvalu. The name Kiribati (pronounced kiri-baas) is a Micronesian transliteration of the former English name for the main island group, the Gilbert Islands.

In the First World War a few Kiribati men, along with some Niueans, served in the Māori Pioneer Battalion. But most Kiribati people have arrived since the 1970s in search of work. Some settled permanently, and by the early 2000s there were about 500, living mostly in Auckland. The Pacific Access Category, established by the New Zealand government in 2003, allows 75 Kiribati citizens to migrate annually, and sets quotas for other Pacific Islanders.

Regard for katei ni Kiribati (the Kiribati way) is strong – demonstrated by their conviction that the group is more important than the individual. The Kiribati community formed clubs in Wellington and Auckland. In 2000 the Wellington club gathered to mark the 21st anniversary of Kiribati's independence from Britain (12 July), with a feast and traditional performances such as the tekatoka bau (flower garland presentation dance). Dancers’ arms and hands were decorated, and they wore costumes made from coconut fibres or pandanus leaves.

Tuvalu (Ellice Islands)

Tuvalu consists of nine atolls which lie roughly midway between Hawaii and Australia.

In the 1970s the New Zealand government introduced a labour scheme for some Pacific Islanders. This allowed Tuvaluans and Kiribati people to work in New Zealand on 11-month contracts. The majority returned home after their contracts expired. Most of the Tuvaluans who settled permanently arrived after the islands became independent from Britain in 1978.

In 1994 the Tuvalu government made a formal request to Australia and New Zealand to take 1,000 of its 10,200 people, as the tiny atolls were becoming overcrowded. From 2003 the New Zealand government’s Pacific Access Category gave 75 citizens per year from Tuvalu the opportunity to settle here.

New Zealand’s Tuvaluan population quadrupled from 900 in 1996 to 3,537 in 2013. Many arrived during the 1990s for health, education and financial reasons. Some came because they feared that rising sea levels might drown their low-lying islands. In 2013 most New Zealand Tuvaluans lived in Auckland.

Tuvaluans are religious people, and many belong to the Protestant Christian Church of Tuvalu. Some islanders living in New Zealand send money home to their relatives. Among Tuvaluans a handshake is the usual greeting, while relatives may sogi – press cheeks and sniff deeply. Like Niueans and Tokelauans, Tuvaluan women practise the arts of weaving and creating adornments.

Big city, bright lights

Unlike many other Pacific Island peoples in New Zealand, most Tuvaluans have arrived since the 1990s. They tended to live in west Auckland, where they formed close-knit communities. Tuvaluan minister Suamalie Losefa helped newcomers adjust to their new life. ‘They need a lot of tuning up,’ he said. ‘They come from a very microscopic country, we don't even have street lights in Tuvalu’. 1

French Polynesia

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori settled New Zealand, so it is unsurprising that the Polynesian and Māori languages are very similar. James Cook took the Tahitian chief Tupaia and his young servant Tayeto on board the Endeavour in 1769. As Tupaia spoke some English and understood Māori, he could translate what Māori were saying to Cook. Tupaia and Tayeto were probably the first Pacific Islanders to visit New Zealand since the era of Polynesian settlement.

French Polynesia is vast. It takes in the Society Islands (which include Tahiti), the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Australs and Gambiers. Most French Polynesians in New Zealand are Tahitians from the Society Islands; in 2013 there were 465 French Polynesians living in New Zealand, mainly in Auckland.

Tahitian cultural groups such as Auckland’s Tahiti Ia Ora often perform at the annual Pasifika Festival, where women wear coconut-shell bras and practise their alluring hip-swaying dances.

Papua New Guinea

Originally, many Papua New Guineans visited New Zealand as students. Some stayed on, and by 1976 there were 544. The number born in Papua New Guinea had increased to 1,347 by 2013.

Ticking the ‘other’ box

Mali-Ann Jane Cole found that her mixed ethnic background presented complications when filling out forms:

‘I was conceived in the Solomon Islands and born in New Plymouth, New Zealand on the 5th of August 1970. What do I call myself? When it comes to this question, I just thank God for the little box called ‘other’ on the census forms. Seriously, I either put Melanesian/English, or Melanesian/English/Kiwi – which is a bit of a mouthful. I put Melanesian for my Mum who is a Solomon Islander, English for my Dad, and Kiwi for me, because I was born here in New Zealand and I have lived in Christchurch for most of my life’. 2

There are hundreds of languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, but the New Zealand group communicates in Pidgin (a mixture of English and local languages) or English. In the early 2000s they had an online chat room – PNG Wantoks [friends] in New Zealand – where people could organise meetings or just converse in Pidgin. In 2003 there was also a Papua New Guinea Student Association at Auckland University. As the national sport, rugby league has a keen following. Many play rugby league or rugby union in New Zealand.

Solomon Islands

A few Solomon Islanders came to New Zealand on secondary school scholarships in the 1960s. Some migrant families opened their homes for Solomon Islands university students, who in turn taught Melanesian kastom (tradition) to their New Zealand-born children. By 2013 there were some 600 people born in the Solomon Islands living in New Zealand.

Solomon Islanders are football mad, and players such as Henry Fa‘arodo, Batram Suri and Commins Menapi were standouts in the Nelson football scene in the early 2000s.

Women have been important figures in New Zealand’s Solomon Islands community. Mary Cole, who first came as a school student in 1965, and Doreen Prebble, wife of politician Richard Prebble, have been active in promoting Solomon Islands issues.

    • › Back
    • P. Fairbairn-Dunlop, and G. Sisifo Makisi, eds. Growing up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2003, p.189. › Back

Facts and figures

Ethnic identity

In the New Zealand census, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group. 


  • 2006 census: 279
  • 2013 census: 333
  • 2018 census: 429


  • 2006 census: 1,116
  • 2013 census: 2,115
  • 2018 census: 3,225


  • 2006 census: 90
  • 2013 census: 126
  • 2018 census: 135

Papua New Guinean

  • 2006 census: 687
  • 2013 census: 807
  • 2018 census:1,131

Pitcairn Islander

  • 2006 census: 201
  • 2013 census: 174
  • 2018 census: 216


  • 2006 census: 621
  • 2013 census: 783
  • 2018 census: 981


  • 2006 census: 1,329
  • 2013 census: 1,410
  • 2018 census: 1,737

Solomon Islander

  • 2006 census: 435
  • 2013 census: 600
  • 2018 census: 777


  • 2006 census: 2,625
  • 2013 census: 3,537
  • 2018 census: 4,653


  • 2006 census: 240
  • 2013 census: 492
  • 2018 census: 990

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in South Pacific countries.


  • 2001 census: 504
  • 2006 census: 825
  • 2013 census: 1,473
  • 2018 census: 2,196

Papua New Guinea

  • 2001 census: 1,149
  • 2006 census: 1,251
  • 2013 census: 1,347
  • 2018 census: 1,482

Solomon Islands

  • 2006 census: 522
  • 2013 census: 618
  • 2018 census: 741


  • 2001 census: 1,419
  • 2006 census: 1,227
  • 2013 census: 1,419
  • 2018 census: 1,854


  • 2006 census: 312
  • 2013 census: 567
  • 2018 census: 1,206

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'South Pacific peoples', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015