Pressure to assimilate
On arrival, all new migrants faced pressure to discard their Dutchness. In the early 1950s the government wanted settlers to blend, socially and culturally, into the British-influenced society. The attitude was summed up by senior immigration official Dr Reuel Lochore: ‘We must make new Britishers: by procreation, and by assimilation; by making suitable aliens into vectors of the British way of life.’ 1
On arrival the ‘aliens’ were fingerprinted and obliged to carry papers. For some, this echoed the painful years of German occupation. The authorities carried out ‘pepper potting’ – scattering new immigrants throughout the country. This policy arose from fears that closed communities would form if ethnic groups were allowed to cluster together. Assisted migrants faced further restrictions. For the first two years after arriving, they were directed to specific jobs and localities, often in temporary construction or railway camps.
Alone in a far-flung land
The first arrivals welcomed the fresh air, the wide open spaces, the huge helpings of meat and dairy food. But women in particular suffered isolation and homesickness, pining for the tight-knit communities of home. They found that the spirit of gezelligheid (conviviality), which is at the heart of Dutch culture, was in short supply.
Some arranged for loved ones to follow, and the legendary Brides’ Flight of 1953 brought out young women engaged to Dutch men. But a large proportion married locals, settling down where they had first gone to work. Studies show that a decade later, almost half had not moved. Other Dutch settlers dispersed throughout the country.
While thousands renounced their Dutch nationality in order to become naturalised Kiwis, some came to regard naturalisation as a form of second-class citizenship. Residency in another country for more than six years, or any criticism of the Queen of England, could have seen their nationality stripped from them. Protests about these restrictions led to a change in the law by 1960. By 1970 only about a quarter of the Dutch-born migrant population had transferred their allegiance to their adopted country. Yet figures show that overall, two-thirds of the Dutch who came here have stayed.
Rejecting and reclaiming culture
The 1950s Dutch migrants have been called a ‘lost generation’, scarred by the disruptions and trauma of economic depression and military occupation in the Netherlands. On reaching their adopted country, many kept their heads down and suppressed their heritage. Some believe their experiences made them assimilate too well.
Efforts were made within the migrant community to keep cultural roots alive through Dutch clubs, and celebrations of annual festivals like Sinterklaas (Santa Claus), where St Nicholas arrives ‘from Spain’. But many rejected these trappings of communal identity – some even stopped speaking their native tongue. A 1984 Christchurch survey revealed that half never or rarely attended Dutch clubs, nor did they listen to Dutch radio broadcasts. Four out of five never read Dutch newspapers. Studies show that children of Dutch migrants retained less of their parents’ language than other ethnic minorities.
But as the wave of 1950s migrants aged and became more affluent, they often reclaimed their cultural origins. The 1992 Tasman year celebrations sparked interest. Some chose to recreate their childhoods in distinctively Dutch retirement villages like Ons Dorp in Henderson, Auckland. Others returned to the Netherlands.
Speaking Dutch is increasingly seen as the key to keeping the culture alive. Since the 1990s there have been efforts to establish Dutch language schools. Broadcasts from Echo Radio, the Christchurch-based network, and satellite radio from the Netherlands, also play a role.