Story: The voyage out

Page 1. Journeys to New Zealand

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The longest journey

Europeans who decide to make a new home in New Zealand embark on the longest journey of migration in human history. In the 19th century this voyage was made by ship. Not only was the passage long and comparatively expensive, it was miserable and dangerous.

The Atlantic comparison

Most who left Europe in the 19th century opted for North America – a shorter, cheaper passage across the Atlantic. In 1850 this took 10 days and cost £4. By comparison, the journey to New Zealand took from 75 to 120 days and cost at least £15. But trans-Atlantic emigrants faced worse conditions and, because the passage to New Zealand was better regulated, greater risks of death by shipwreck or illness.

Government regulations

In the 1830s the British government began stationing officers at British ports to ensure that regulations about the seaworthiness, ventilation and provisioning of emigrant ships were observed. Those promoting emigration to New Zealand had a particular reason to see that standards were maintained: on such a long voyage, bad rations and poor conditions would have led to disease and death. To prevent the passage to New Zealand becoming notorious, the New Zealand provincial and central governments insisted on even higher standards than those of the British. This spared migrants to New Zealand the worst abuses of the Atlantic crossing.

Bad press

Reports of the dreadful conditions on board, from those who had made it to the other side of the world, put many people off. In the early 1870s a Wellington immigration officer informed the agent general in London that ‘letters written home by immigrants who have been made miserable throughout the passage by causes entirely remediable, do more to retard emigration than all the costly advertisements, peripatetic lecturers, and highly paid agents do to advance it’. 1

The dividing line

Although the journey was easier for 20th-century immigrants, whether they were boarding a sailing ship at London’s East India docks or a plane at Heathrow, leaving your homeland to make a new beginning was a major life event. New Zealanders have an experience common to all recent immigrant nations: they or their ancestors left one place for another. The sense of belonging to another place has been passed down even to those who did not themselves migrate. The memory of Hawaiki may be stronger for many Māori than the memory of a European or other place of origin is for most non-Māori New Zealanders, but all share stories of a journey made by ancestors from a distant homeland.

An immigrant in 1956, approaching New Zealand by steamer, rose at the crack of dawn for a first sight of land. What appeared to be just a bank of cloud resolved itself into land with cloud above. His thoughts turned to others who had approached the same land after a long voyage, and perhaps to the name the early Polynesian navigators gave it – Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’. This, he told himself, ‘would have been what the early canoeists would have seen’. 2

Ships and shipping companies

Between 1839 and the 1890s, several hundred sailing ships brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe to New Zealand. In the 1840s the ships were generally around 500 to 600 tons and carried between 100 and 250 passengers. By the 1880s they could weigh over 2,000 tons and carry up to 500 passengers.

The ships were owned by several companies. When the New Zealand Shipping Company was founded in Christchurch in 1872, the government welcomed it as competition to British firms whom they perceived as tending to place cost-saving above the wellbeing of passengers.

The route

In the late 18th century a route to transport convicts from Europe to Australia had been developed. This took ships south-west down the north Atlantic, often as far west as Brazil, then south-east to Cape Town. The ‘easting’ to Australia from Cape Town was roughly along the 39th parallel. By the 1840s ships bound for New Zealand were following a similar route across the Atlantic (though seldom reaching Brazil), then swinging wide round the Cape of Good Hope into the roaring forties – westerly winds that moved ships along at great speed.

Vessels were sailed as far south as their captains dared, in order to benefit from stronger winds, but there was a risk of violent storms and icebergs. In 1850, when the Charlotte Jane went as far south as 52˚ 36', the Lyttelton Times criticised its captain for inflicting miseries on passengers in the interests of making a fast passage.


Immigrants were subjected to a great variety of conditions en route. Storms in the English Channel or the Bay of Biscay were followed by pleasant sailing in the trade winds. In the equatorial doldrums, awnings were often raised over the decks to provide shade from the incessant sun. Storms were encountered again in the Southern Ocean or Tasman Sea, sending ships tumbling and rolling.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1873, D-11, pp. 91–92. › Back
  2. Quoted in Megan Hutching, Long journey for sevenpence: an oral history of assisted immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947–1975. Wellington: Victoria University Press in association with Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 118. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'The voyage out - Journeys to New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005