Apart from Māori, the other major non-European minority up to 1945 were Asian people, especially Chinese and Indians. Chinese had first arrived in numbers during the 1860s gold rushes, and Indians came in during and immediately after the First World War.
Indian migrants were British subjects by virtue of India’s membership of the British Empire. This gave them some protection against strict immigration control and denial of citizen rights in New Zealand. Chinese, however, were officially prescribed as foreign ‘race aliens’. They could not become naturalised New Zealand citizens (from 1908 to 1952) and had to pay a poll tax (between 1881 and 1944) if they were allowed to enter the country. They were not able to vote or participate in political arenas until 1952, were excluded from state employment, and were barred from entering many professional occupations.
Both Indians and Chinese were unable to receive old-age pensions from 1898 until 1936. Unlike Māori, they were seen as too culturally and racially different to be assimilated. The result was scattered, small populations, whose individual relations with other groups varied over time and in different places. As visible ethnic minorities they were generally forced to rely on their own resources and adopt a low political profile. They lived in their own communities and had their own social gatherings.
Packed like sardines
From the 1920s until the 1950s many Indians worked as scrub-cutters. It was tough work which other New Zealanders avoided; the hours were very long, and the workers lived in tents or one-room corrugated-iron huts. Visiting one such hut, C. F. Andrews wrote that ‘there was not an inch of spare room in the hut: we were all packed like sardines in a tin, with a fire in one corner and a room full of smoke.’1
Yet some individuals in both groups established successful niches in the New Zealand economy, especially as market gardeners and greengrocers – so they may not have been greatly worse off in material terms than other working-class New Zealanders. But their social and political standing was very different.
Divisions within the European majority
European settlers, mostly from Britain, rapidly became the dominant majority after the 1850s. They did, however, contain ethnic divisions. English, Scots, Irish and Welsh migrants displayed cultural, regional and religious differences, and their histories in Britain were marked by divisions and conflict. In New Zealand this was most often expressed in hostility towards the Irish, especially Catholics. There was some discrimination against Irish Catholics in recruiting migrants, and in employment.
The Catholic community believed they were treated unequally because taxes supported a secular free school system, but not Catholic schools. New Zealanders of an Irish Catholic background were found less often in the high-status professions and more often in the prison population. There was a tendency for Catholics to live close to one another, for instance around the Barbadoes Street Catholic cathedral in Christchurch.
On the other hand the shared interests of settlers from Britain and Ireland in controlling resources in New Zealand, especially land, and the relative advantage of their elites in shaping a new state and nation, often transcended these differences.