Story: Sri Lankans

Page 1. Immigration

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Sri Lanka’s history

The story of Sri Lankan emigration to New Zealand has its roots in the colonial past. From 1796 until 1972, this beautiful island at the southern tip of India, called ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean’, was under British control. Known as Ceylon, it was a Crown colony from 1802 until 1948, and a dominion until 1972, when it became independent and was renamed Sri Lanka.

From the 16th century until British intervention, coastal areas had been subject to Dutch and later Portuguese control. As a result, Sri Lanka became home to four distinct groups:

  • The majority were the Sinhalese, an ancient people who were Buddhist.
  • The Tamils, a smaller group, were both Hindu and Muslim. Some Tamils came from India to Ilankai (as they called Sri Lanka) in the 19th century, but others had been living there as long as the Sinhalese.
  • The Burghers, mainly Christian, were descended from the early Dutch and Portuguese colonists.
  • People of British origin came to Sri Lanka as tea planters and traders.

Early arrivals

Some early visitors came to New Zealand from Ceylon, and the gold rushes attracted a few prospectors. But by 1874 New Zealand residents born in Ceylon numbered a mere 33. As part of Britain’s empire, however, New Zealand dutifully imported both people and commodities from Ceylon. After 1890, Ceylon began to surpass China as New Zealand’s supplier of tea. And by 1901 the number of residents born in Ceylon had grown to 106. It seems likely that many were British colonists in search of fresh opportunities.

The tide swells

After 1950 some students and trainees received education in New Zealand under the Colombo Plan. But the number of New Zealand residents born in Ceylon remained static until the late 1960s. A demand for skilled professionals in New Zealand led to a noticeable increase about this time. Racial and economic tensions in Ceylon, made worse after the declaration of the republic in 1972, also swelled immigrant numbers.

The 1980s and beyond

In 1983 Sinhalese political dominance was openly challenged by the militant Tamil Tigers, who sought a separate Tamil state within Sri Lanka. Civil war broke out. As a result many Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, fled Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan-born population in New Zealand began to rise dramatically.

Some Sri Lankan exiles had found temporary employment in Africa and Saudi Arabia, intending to return to their homeland, but military intervention against the Tamils in 1987 convinced them to emigrate permanently. As New Zealand had by this time relaxed its immigration policies towards Asians, it was seen as a welcoming destination. The numbers arriving continued to increase, and at the 2013 census there were over 9,500 Sri Lankans living in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Sri Lankans - Immigration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 July 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015