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 this beautiful island off the southern tip of India, known as ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean’, came under British control. Known as Ceylon, it was a Crown colony from 1802 until 1948, and a dominion until 1972, when it became the republic of Sri Lanka.

From the 16th century until British intervention, coastal areas were 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 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 in 1874 New Zealand residents born in Ceylon numbered just 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. By 1901 the number of residents born in Ceylon had grown to 106. Many of them were British colonists in search of fresh opportunities.

The tide swells

After 1950, some students and trainees were educated in New Zealand under the Colombo Plan. But the number of New Zealand residents born in Ceylon remained static until the late 1960s. Then demand for skilled professionals in New Zealand led to a noticeable increase. Racial and economic tensions in Ceylon, which worsened after the declaration of the republic in 1972, also swelled immigrant numbers.

The 1980s and beyond

From 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 from Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan-born population in New Zealand rose dramatically.

Some Sri Lankan exiles found temporary employment in Africa or 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 in 2013 there were more than 9,500 Sri Lankans living in New Zealand. The bloody civil war had ended in 2009.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Sri Lankans - Immigration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Aug 2023