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History of immigration

by  Jock Phillips

Moving to another country is a big decision, especially when it means a long and dangerous journey. New Zealand’s immigrant stories over the last 200 years tell of people escaping a difficult past, or lured by promises of a better future.

Early years

Last and loneliest

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, New Zealand was seen by Europeans as the most remote country on earth. Fifty years after James Cook arrived in 1769, fewer than 200 travellers had ended up settling there. In contrast there were 100,000 Māori. For most Europeans New Zealand was an unappealing prospect, a strange and lonely land reached after 100 days on dangerous seas; its coasts were thought treacherous, its inhabitants bloodthirsty. Only exceptional reasons led people to set off for such a distant corner of the globe.

Across the Tasman Sea

Some had come most of the way against their will to the Australian convict settlement of Sydney. Established in 1788, the town of Sydney had 5,000 people by 1813, and 12,000 by 1826. Many of New Zealand’s early immigrants first spent time in Australia, and most of them were only temporary visitors in search of items to trade.


Among the earliest visitors were sealers, attracted by the promise of high-quality oil, and fur for hats (often sold in China in return for tea). Arguably, some sealers who set up camp in Dusky Sound in November 1792 and stayed for 11 months were the first non-Māori group to ‘live’ in New Zealand. Other people followed before the sealers moved to Australia’s Bass Strait in 1797, then from 1805 back to Foveaux Strait and the subantarctic islands. Most were temporary visitors, but a few married Māori women and fathered children. One was the first-known sealer and settler Thomas Fink, who was living near Bluff in 1805.

The tattooed European

Sixteen-year-old James Caddell was a sealer when he landed with sailors on Stewart Island in 1810. They were attacked by Māori, and all were killed except for Caddell. He married the chief’s daughter, Tokitoki, had his face tattooed, became a local chief and, when Europeans encountered him in 1823, remembered so little of his mother tongue that it was difficult for him to act as interpreter.

By the early 1820s perhaps 100 sealers and deserters from ships were living semi-permanently in European–Māori communities on the coasts of southern New Zealand. Many were ex-convicts of English or Irish background, but there were also a few Americans (at least one of whom was black), and Indians (known as Lascars and Sepoys), who had arrived with the East India Company trading ships. As seal numbers were depleted and international prices declined, sealers supplemented their living by trading in flax, timber, pigs and potatoes, all bought from Māori.


As early as 1792, whalers came to the northern end of the country, also as temporary visitors. Whales provided oil, bone for corsets and ambergris, a waxy substance used as an aphrodisiac and a base for perfume. The whalers’ prey, sperm whales, were caught at sea. But before long the whalers would harbour in the Bay of Islands to replenish supplies and relax. Among them were many English and Americans, a few Scots and Irish, and the occasional Scandinavian, Spanish and Chinese. Māori tradition says that a few of these whalers – they were all male – left their whaling boats and set up on shore to trade from 1809.


The first women settlers, who landed in 1806, were the ex-convict Charlotte Badger and her fellow traveller Catherine Hagerty. Some seamen or ex-convicts lived with or close to Māori, learning their language, often fathering children with Māori women, and acting as go-betweens for traders, and interpreters. They were known as Pākehā–Māori.

The first settler?

Who was the first European to settle in New Zealand? We can never know for certain, but it may have been James Cavanagh, a convict sailor, who fled from the New South Wales government vessel, Lady Nelson, into the bush in the Bay of Islands in 1804.


The first mission station was set up by a Yorkshireman, Samuel Marsden. A chaplain and magistrate in New South Wales, he arrived under the auspices of the Anglican Church Missionary Society at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands in 1814. Marsden was accompanied by three missionaries and their families and others, including Thomas Hansen, who settled in the Bay of Islands and lived there until his death in 1874. By 1823 there were three mission stations in the area, and the Wesleyan Missionary Society had established a station at Whangaroa. Superficially, the missionaries were very different from other settlers. Outwardly committed to the moral life, they formed self-sufficient communities, with European wives and children. Yet like the other settlers, they were isolated, and some were more accepting of Māori ways than they cared to acknowledge.

When the missionary Henry Williams arrived from England in 1823, not a single Māori had been converted to Christianity, and the community was divided. Four years later there were still only 20 adults and 40 children in the three Church Missionary Society stations of Rangihoua, Kerikeri and Paihia. 

A growing settlement: 1825 to 1839


In the late 1820s the number of non-Māori living in New Zealand began to rise. As more deep-sea whalers arrived for replenishment, rest and recreation, Kororāreka in the Bay of Islands attracted retailers, grog-sellers and other ‘panderers to the worst vices of the most abandoned men.’ 1 From 1830 they outnumbered the missionaries in the area.

Shore whaling

As sperm whales became elusive, whalers turned their attention to right (or black) whales, which they hunted from shore-based stations. Despite the common view that the first station was John Guard’s at Te Awaiti in the Marlborough Sounds in 1827, it is probable that the honour belongs to one established at Preservation Inlet (Rakituma) in Fiordland in 1828.

Shore stations spread up the coast to the Otago Peninsula, Cook Strait, and eventually the East Cape. Usually funded by Sydney merchants such as Johnny Jones, whaling stations employed up to 30 men and the occasional woman. Initially the whalers stayed only for the May to October season, but increasingly they summered over and began to plant potatoes and keep pigs. By the end of the 1830s there were perhaps 30 stations (Jones alone owned seven) and some 700 people living in the shore-based whaling stations.


Flax was another generator of growth. Although recognised early for its rope-making qualities, and used for many purposes by Māori, flax was not successfully traded until the late 1820s. By 1833 Henry Williams noted there was ‘scarcely a part of the coast where Europeans are not settled, for the purpose of procuring flax.’ 2 Most of these settlements were in the northern half of the North Island. But the boom did not last, and within a few years flax trading was dead.


Some Europeans, nearly always male, lived within Māori communities in the first half of the 19th century. Largely adopting Māori ways of life, they became known as Pākehā–Māori. Most were escaped convicts or seamen. Some, like John Rutherford, a seaman and sole survivor of the wreck of the Agnes, were tattooed in the traditional Māori style. Others, like the American Kimble Bent, fought alongside Māori or, like the Irish-Australian Jacky Marmon in the Hokianga, helped arrange trade between Europeans and Māori.


The export of timber to Sydney for residential and ship construction was centred on the Hokianga and Firth of Thames. By 1836, according to the British government’s representative James Busby, there were over 90 European males in the Hokianga. In the whole North Island about a third of Europeans were involved in the timber trade.

Church and trade expand

From 1830 the number of missionaries grew and their influence spread. The first baptisms were performed in that year. By the end of the decade there were 10 Church Missionary Society stations in the North Island – as far south as Waikanae – and 11 Wesleyan missions.

As whalers, merchants and missionaries settled in numbers, others arrived to support them. They included assorted traders and grog-sellers (some of whom had arrived as escaped convicts or deserting seamen), and Pākehā–Māori (Europeans living with and as Māori) who exchanged flax or timber with Māori for muskets. By 1839 there were perhaps 150 such people.


‘A Nation of Drunkards’

John Flatt, who had been in New Zealand the previous year, told a select committee of England’s House of Lords in 1838 that there were so many ex-convicts and runaway seamen in New Zealand that ‘the natives have told me, in their own language, to teach my own Countrymen first before I taught them. They have called us a Nation of Drunkards, or mad with drink. This arose from their seeing a Majority of Europeans of that Stamp in New Zealand.’ 3

By 1839 the total non-Māori population was about 2,000. Two-thirds of them lived in the North Island, especially Northland. A large majority were single men, but during the last years of the decade there were more women and children. Increasingly, too, people were looking to purchase land and settle, rather than simply to exploit the resources and move on.

Because Sydney remained the main departure point, probably 90% were of British background, and of these almost 7 in 10 were English. There were also some Americans, French whalers, and other Europeans such as Phillip Tapsell, a former whaler from Denmark.

    • John Dunmore Lang, New Zealand in 1839, or, Four letters to the Right Hon. Earl Durham ... on the colonization of that island, and on the present condition and prospects of its native inhabitants. London: Smith, Elder, 1839, p. 7. › Back
    • Quoted in Peter Adams, Fatal necessity: British intervention in New Zealand, 1830–1847. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1977, p. 24. › Back
    • U.K. Parliament: reports from select committees on New Zealand with minutes of evidence and appendix and indices, 1837–1840. In Irish University Press series of British parliamentary papers. Colonies: New Zealand. Vol 1. Shannon, 1968, p. 38. › Back

British immigration and the New Zealand Company

A turning point

Until 1839 there were only about 2,000 immigrants in New Zealand; by 1852 there were about 28,000. The decisive moment for this remarkable change was 1840. In that year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. This established British authority in European eyes, and gave British immigrants legal rights as citizens. The treaty helped ensure that for the next century and beyond, most immigrants to New Zealand would come from the United Kingdom. It was also in 1840 that the first immigrants assisted by the New Zealand Company arrived. The company introduced long-term settlers directly from Britain, as opposed to those who travelled across the Tasman simply to harvest resources or souls.

The push to emigrate

In early 19th-century Britain conditions were such that millions set off for the New World in search of a better life. After the industrial and agricultural revolutions the population had increased from 16 million in 1801 to 26 million in 1841. However, in formerly rural areas, the enclosure of common lands deprived people of their livelihood, and the introduction of machinery reduced the demand for workers. Factory production of textiles replaced the old rural cottage industries.

There was distress in rural areas. In 1831 southern England saw riots as labourers took their axes to threshing machines. In the Scottish Highlands crofters were driven off their lands, and in Ireland the potato famine of the late 1840s brought a million to their deaths. Some fled to the city, but suffered overcrowding, disease and pollution. Others set off for new lands.

Initially New Zealand attracted few of these people. Almost none came from the Irish famine, and few arrived directly from the Highlands. The disincentives were still great – the long and expensive journey, competing attractions of closer, more settled areas such as the United States and Canada, New Zealand’s continuing reputation as a home of bloodthirsty cannibals, and its association with the convict settlements of Australia.

Not exactly paradise

In evaluating New Zealand’s advantages and prospects as a British colony, Charles Terry wrote in 1842:

‘The islands of New Zealand are uncultivated wastes either of mountains covered with dense forest, of plains and lowlands covered with high ferns, or of swamps and marshes covered with rush and flax without any open spots for pasturage, or of verdant downs and hills for sheep.’ 1

The New Zealand Company

The New Zealand Company overcame these barriers. Founded as a commercial operation designed for investors, it was also based on the widespread view that population growth – regarded as desirable – was related to food production, and that the solution to mass starvation was to export surplus population. Added to this belief were the ideas of the Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who developed theories about solving social distress. He argued that to make emigration to a colony ‘pay’, and to promote a ‘civilised’ society rather than a dispersed, barbaric settlement, land should be charged at ‘a sufficient price’. This would ensure that only some would be able to afford to buy land, and that landowners would have labourers to work for them.

Paradise regained

In England, Edward Gibbon Wakefield spoke in glowing terms to a House of Commons committee in 1836:

‘Very near to Australia there is a country which all testimony concurs in describing as the fittest in the world for colonization, as the most beautiful country with the finest climate, and the most productive soil; I mean New Zealand.’ 2

Promoting New Zealand

Investors in the company were promised 100 acres (40.5 hectares) of farmland and one town acre; the initial 1,000 orders were snapped up in a month. But how to attract the labourers? To combat negative notions about New Zealand, the company used books, pamphlets and broadsheets to promote the country as ‘a Britain of the South’, a fertile land with a benign climate, free of starvation, class war and teeming cities.

Agents spread the good news around the rural areas of southern England and Scotland. As added inducement the company offered free passages to ‘mechanics, gardeners and agricultural labourers’. Some responded and the first ships arrived in Wellington from January 1840, Whanganui from September 1840, New Plymouth from November 1841, and Nelson from February 1842. Two offshoots of the company, the Otago Association and the Canterbury Association, brought people to Dunedin in 1848 and Christchurch in 1850.

New Zealand Company practices

The company’s promises were flights of fancy, only partially made good by dubious land purchases from Māori, one of which eventually led to violence on the Wairau in Marlborough. Wakefield’s neat plans did not work out – land titles were uncertain, there was a lack of useable land and no obvious way to generate income through exports, and there were too many absentee landowners (about three-quarters of those in the Nelson settlement).

By 1843 the new settlers were short of food and the company was virtually bankrupt. Two interventions by the British government saved it from total disaster. Yet the company began to organise large-scale migration to New Zealand. Advertising and propaganda attracted thousands of people over the next 10 years, and the main drawcard, the free or assisted passage, became hugely important. Company immigrants sent letters back home which encouraged others to come out over the years.

The influence of the company

Considering its dubious practices it is easy to disparage the New Zealand Company, but it had a remarkable impact on immigration to New Zealand. Of the 18,000 settlers who came directly from Britain between 1840 and 1852, about 14,000 were brought in by the company or its successors. As a result of the company’s policy, by 1852 the European population in New Zealand had reached some 28,000. The New Zealand Company established the outlines of immigration from Britain to New Zealand, setting in place the mechanisms and promotional pitch that were used by the provinces and the government in later years.

    • Quoted in W. D. Borrie, Immigration to New Zealand, 1854–1938. Canberra: Demography Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1991, p. 10. › Back
    • Quoted in A. J. Harrop, England and New Zealand: from Tasman to the Taranaki war. London: Methuen, 1926, p. 39. › Back

The immigrants: 1840 to 1852

Non-British settlers

Not surprisingly, most of the people who moved to New Zealand Company settlements were British. There were two exceptions. First, the French Nanto-Bordelaise Company had grand ideas of a colony in New Zealand. However, their ambitions were thwarted by a lack of enthusiastic support from home, and only a small group of French people – fewer than 100 – settled in Akaroa in 1840. Secondly, 281 Germans, many of them rural labourers, arrived in two shiploads in 1843–44 and settled close to Nelson.

Assisted New Zealand Company passengers

The vast majority of passengers whose fares were paid by the New Zealand Company came out in family groups; there were as many women as men, and almost half of this group were children. Apart from the Otago Association settlers, who were recruited largely in Scotland, most were from England. Fewer than 2% came from Ireland.

Where they came from

Almost two-thirds came from three areas in the south of England – the Home Counties of Kent and Sussex, the far south-west of Cornwall and Devon, and London itself. These were places close to the ports of London and Plymouth from which ships set sail for New Zealand. There were clusters of immigrants from particular locations, often the sites of recruiting agents. Scottish migrants came largely from areas close to Edinburgh and especially Glasgow, which was near the port of Greenock.

Types of work

The company wanted mechanics and agricultural labourers, and this is what they got. A third of the adult men were farm labourers, and another two-fifths were ‘mechanics’ – traditional rural craft workers such as builders or blacksmiths. They were not starving down-and-outs, but people under threat as farm wages fell and the old crafts disappeared. These skilled rural folk looked to New Zealand to fulfil dreams of independence through land ownership. There were few industrial workers or even clerks.

Fare-paying passengers

About a fifth of the New Zealand Company recruits came as paying cabin passengers, often the younger sons of the gentry or ‘remittance men’ – black sheep sent out to the colonies. There were retired military officers, and a few professionals such as doctors aspiring to a higher social status. Many were single males, although there were also spinsters keen to work as governesses or to find a husband. In general the New Zealand Company migrants were a more genteel group than later arrivals.

Auckland settlement

Settlement of Auckland province was more haphazard than in the company settlements. There were three main groups – assisted migrants, individuals and military settlers.

About a fifth of the Auckland settlers in the 1840s came as assisted migrants, sponsored by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners in Britain. Among them were 514 who sailed from Paisley near Glasgow in 1842, following acute unemployment among the handloom weavers of that city.

 Not wanted here

In 1842, 98 so-called ‘Parkhurst boys’, aged 11 to 20 and inmates of a reformatory on the Isle of Wight, were given free passage to Auckland. They received a very ambivalent reception in a community seeking to distinguish itself from the ‘convict colony’ across the Tasman.

The majority of the 8,000 people who came to Auckland between 1840 and 1852 paid their own way. Many came from Australia, including some Cornish miners who had first migrated to South Australia and then came across in 1845 on hearing news of Kawau Island’s copper mines.

Many of Auckland’s Irish belonged to the military. As a consequence of conflict with northern Māori in 1845, the Royal New Zealand Fencibles were brought in to garrison the area south of Auckland. The men were described as broken-down old soldiers, and over half were born in Ireland. Together with wives and children, they numbered 2,581; about 30% of Auckland’s immigrants. Another 723 men, also mostly Irish, were soldiers brought to Auckland for the war and then discharged in 1849–50.

Compared to the settlements further south, Auckland’s community included fewer families and more unmarried men, and the balance of nationalities was distinct. Well under half were born in England, and over a third came from Ireland. Many were Catholic, adding a distinct religious and cultural flavour to the town. Further south in New Zealand, there were only a tiny number of Irish.

Settlement in the provinces: 1853 to 1870


From 1853 to 1870 the non-Māori population of New Zealand rose from just under 30,000 to over 250,000. This was a period of energy and growth, fuelled first by the export of wool and then by the discovery of gold. About 70% of the population rise was due to immigration. People arrived steadily in the 1850s, and poured in to dig for gold during the early 1860s, but the numbers tailed off at the end of that decade. As with the inflow of the 1840s, there were three main groups – assisted families coming directly from Britain; individuals from across the Tasman looking for a better life; and military settlers.

Provincial assistance

In 1854 New Zealand’s provincial governments were given responsibility for immigration and, two years later, for land revenues which could pay for immigrants. Seeing immigration as the key to growth, most provinces had schemes. Copying the New Zealand Company, they used agents to push a positive view of the colony, and offer the carrot of free or assisted passages.

Hawke’s Bay, Southland, Nelson and Taranaki had small schemes, as did Wellington, which recruited in Australia rather than in Britain. Otago was more active, and focused on recruiting in Scotland. Canterbury was the most ambitious and attracted almost a fifth of all New Zealand’s immigrants between 1858 and 1870; two-thirds of Canterbury's immigrants were assisted. Generally these provinces paid half the fare and the immigrant or a sponsor paid the rest. Auckland was alone in offering land grants rather than subsidising fares. The provincial agents were usually instructed to attract agricultural labourers, builders, bricklayers or masons. Single women were the most preferred and were given free passages, to even up the sex ratio and provide wives and domestic servants.

Who were the provincial immigrants?

Most provinces also assisted people nominated by family or friends of settlers already in New Zealand, reinforcing chains of migration. Not surprisingly, therefore, the people who came out under these schemes were from the same areas of Britain. Once more, the English counties of the south-west and south-east were well represented and good numbers, especially of single women, came from London.

In Canterbury, however, there was a clear increase in Scottish arrivals (forming about 20% of Canterbury’s assisted migrants) and an important new migration from Ireland (which provided 22%). Canterbury also began targeting the Protestant community of Ulster, especially its single women.

Auckland’s immigrants: 1853 to 1870

Land grants

While Auckland offered assisted passages to domestic servants and builders, its main energies went into offering land to those who could pay their own way – 40 acres (16 hectares) per person aged 18 or over, and 20 acres for those aged 5 to 18. Agents were established in Britain and Ireland, and also in Canada and Cape Town. In the years the scheme was operating (1858–68) 14,516 land orders were issued, accounting for probably half of Auckland’s immigrants in those years. Among them were the first group of settlers from Staab in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), who established a community at Pūhoi.

Waipū and Albertland

Two other significant group settlements were established in the Auckland region during this period.

From 1853 to 1860 some 800 people settled at Waipū in Northland. They were followers of a strict Calvinist preacher, Norman McLeod, who in 1820 had led people from the Highlands of Scotland to Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. Suffering from poor crops and starvation, an initial group of migrants set off for Australia, but finding land expensive, they came on to New Zealand.

Another important religious group were the settlers of Albertland (named after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert). The community, on the Kaipara Harbour, was founded in 1862 to mark the bicentenary of the expulsion of the nonconformist clergy from the Church of England. Between 1862 and 1865, 3,000 people arrived in New Zealand under this scheme, although fewer than half made it to Albertland. Most were English nonconformist farm labourers.

Military settlers

As well as land, a second stimulus for organised migration in Auckland was the constant threat of military conflict with Māori. In 1864 and 1865 over 4,000 settlers arrived under the Waikato immigration scheme. A joint project of the Auckland and central governments, its aim was to place military settlers on land confiscated from Māori in the hope of consolidating territorial gains and increasing security. Largely a family migration, it attracted a considerable number of Protestant Irish, who settled around Pukekohe in particular.


In addition, two groups of soldiers were brought to Auckland province. In the midst of the Waikato war of the 1860s, the central government proposed the introduction of an armed population on conquered lands, to act as a buffer between colonists and Māori. In the event, four regiments of the Waikato militia were recruited (6,382 people in all), one to settle on land near Tauranga and Ōpōtiki, and the other three in the Waikato, around Cambridge and Hamilton. Many were recruited in Victoria, Australia. Four-fifths were male, and of these about a quarter were Irish.

Also, men discharged from regiments serving in the New Zealand wars were offered generous deals to purchase Crown lands. A total of 7,692 former soldiers acquired almost 350,000 acres (141,640 hectares) as a reward for their service. Most settled in the Auckland region, and once more well over half of them were Irish. Among the English, a considerable number came from the north.


Gold discoveries

While the state brought families and soldiers to New Zealand, gold was the lure for a different type of migrant. The discovery of gold at Aorere in Nelson attracted perhaps 2,000 people between 1857 and 1859. Many were locals, including Māori, but some came from Australia. They were almost all men.

In May 1861 Gabriel Read, a prospector from Tasmania, found gold ‘shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night’ in Central Otago.

By December there were 14,000 people on the Tuapeka field in Otago. Further rushes to Dunstan, Wakatipu and Taieri saw over 22,000 on the fields by early 1864. The miners then surged up to Wakamarina in Marlborough, and across to the West Coast. By 1866 there were probably 30,000 people in Westland. The next year there were further discoveries in Thames–Coromandel.

Who were the miners?

Legend says the miners were a transient band of footloose men that formed in California in 1849, rushed to Australia’s Victorian fields in the 1850s, and then came on to New Zealand. True, many did come from Australia, not only in 1861 but later – directly from Melbourne to Hokitika. It is also true that in the early stages the newcomers were overwhelmingly male, and about 90% were unmarried. But the goldfields also attracted a less transient supporting cast of publicans, bankers, prostitutes and shopkeepers, and after establishing themselves, some miners sent for their families. It also appears that many miners were comparatively young, not veterans of previous gold rushes or former convicts. More likely they were recent migrants to Australia who could not easily enter the capital-intensive Victorian mining industry. The alluvial fields of New Zealand offered opportunity for someone with nothing more than their wits and the stamina to withstand cold winters and stony beds.

Places of origin

One-third of the miners on the Otago fields were born in England. Many of them came from Cornwall, where copper mining was declining. Slightly fewer came from Scotland and Ireland.

From copper to gold

On the Tuapeka goldfields today can be found ‘Cornishman’s dam’, named after one of the many Cornish gold miners. Faced with the collapse of the Cornish copper-mining industry, some of them had come originally to the South Australian copper mines, while others had been assisted to Canterbury to dig the Lyttelton–Christchurch train tunnel.

Among the Scots, the most distinctive group were from the Shetland Islands, pushed out by land clearances and attracted by articles in the Shetland Advertiser in 1862. Many Irish originally came south as assisted migrants to Australia and then moved across the Tasman. They included large numbers of Catholics from the south-west of Ireland.

Non-British miners

The goldfields also attracted people from outside the British Isles. Despite the legend of the hordes from California, the numbers of American-born residents increased by only 500 between 1861 and 1871. But a number of gold miners came from Germany, Scandinavia and other European countries. The most significant new group were the Chinese (mostly from Guangdong province) – the census of 1871 recorded 2,641, the greatest number for any non-British country. Virtually all were on the Otago goldfields, and there were only four females among them.

The impact of the miners

The miners did not revolutionise New Zealand’s population. Most were English speaking and, like New Zealand’s other immigrants, had been agricultural labourers or craft workers. What they brought were some distinctive traditions – of the Shetlanders, the Cornish, the Munster Irish and the Chinese – and a rekindling of that Australian masculine culture which had been so strong among New Zealand’s earliest settlers.

The great migration: 1871 to 1885

The migration of the 1870s was the most significant in New Zealand history. In 1871 the non-Māori population was just over a quarter of a million; over the next 15 years more than that number (289,026) flooded into the country, although about 40% of them took a look and moved on. In 1874 there was a net addition of over 38,000 immigrants, the largest annual increase until 2002.

Vogel’s ‘think big’

The main reason for this flood was the free or assisted passages offered by the New Zealand government. Almost half of the new immigrants came with government assistance. Three-quarters of these sailed directly from the United Kingdom.

The explanation for offering this help is found in the ambitious vision of Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel. By 1870, with wool prices down and gold production in decline, New Zealand was in depression, and the New Zealand wars had created negative impressions overseas. Vogel believed that borrowing overseas funds could pay both for building railways and roads, and for large-scale immigration. This would not only create an economic boom; the new immigrants could settle on land purchased and confiscated from Māori, to engender social order and ‘British civilisation’. The Immigration and Public Works Act 1870 created the position of agent general in London to advance the immigration proposals. In March 1871 Isaac Featherston was appointed.

Brogdens’ navvies

At first there was little success in attracting prospective immigrants in Britain. People were put off by the bad reputation of New Zealand’s climate, its dangerous ‘natives’ and the high costs and perils of the journey. So a bulk contract was signed with the engineering firm of John Brogden and Sons, who brought out 2,712 labourers (known as navvies) in 1871, for work on railway contracts.


The 1870 act was open to Europeans, so Isaac Featherston turned his attention to Germany and Scandinavia. In October 1870 the Celaeno left London with 40 settlers from Norway and Sweden, and over the next two years several thousand arrived, attracted by the subsidised passages and offer of land. German forest workers and railway builders were brought out and gave their name to ‘German-towns’ near Waimate and Gore. Within 10 years the number of German-born people doubled to almost 5,000, and there were almost as many Scandinavians.

Attracting British immigrants

Conditions were made more attractive for United Kingdom immigrants. From 1873 the fare of £5 per adult was waived and travel was free. In addition, New Zealand residents could nominate friends and relatives to come and join them. The London office sent out public speakers and recruited local people – book sellers, grocers, schoolteachers – to spread the message. By 1873 there were 53 New Zealand government immigration agents in England, 78 in Scotland, and 46 in Ireland. Newspaper advertisements and posters called for married agricultural labourers and single female domestic servants, provided they were ‘sober, industrious, of good moral character, of sound mind and in good health.’ 1

Picture show

One agent described how his meetings were illustrated with large sheets of watercolour paintings which produced an ‘electrical effect’ on the audience. The illustrations included ‘the smoking meal of joints of mutton waiting for the New Zealand workman, enough to make him dance after a hard day’s work’. 2

The Revolt of the Field

People responded to the call. Many were farm workers facing the end of the golden age of British agriculture. Cheap foreign wheat lowered prices, wages and the demand for labour (numbers of farm workers fell by 16% in the decade). Increasingly, men were hired by the day on a casual basis. Cottage industries, like glove- or lace-making, disappeared, replaced by factories. Housing was poor, police cracked down on poaching game for food, and humanitarian but unpopular legislation ruled out the option of children earning.

According to Joseph Arch, a Methodist lay preacher and hedger, the farm labourers ‘were no better than toads under a harrow’. 3 Arch organised a labourers’ union, and like the ‘Captain Swing’ labourers’ riots 40 years earlier, the ‘Revolt of the Field’ spread across southern England. When the unions were locked out by the farmers in 1874 they encouraged members to sail to New Zealand. A unionist, Christopher Holloway, was given a free trip to New Zealand, and wrote back in positive terms. The trickle became the flood of 1874.

The land of bread and honey

In November 1873 the Labourers’ Union Chronicle wrote, ‘Not a farm labourer in England but should rush from the old doomed country to such a paradise as New Zealand – A GOOD LAND – … A LAND OF OIL, OLIVES AND HONEY; – A LAND WHERE IN THOU MAY’ST EAT BREAD WITHOUT SCARCENESS … Away, then, farm labourers, away! New Zealand is the promised land for you.' 4

Scotland and Ireland too

In Scotland a fall in wages and employment and the decline of domestic spinning brought suffering to people in the Lowlands. This was exploited by the leading New Zealand agent, the Reverend Peter Barclay, who insisted on a certificate of character from employers and clergy.

In rural Ireland poverty led the younger generation of peasant farmers to move – sometimes first to England or Scotland and then further. Many, particularly those from Munster (Southern Ireland), were nominated by relatives who had migrated to New Zealand during the gold rushes. In Ulster, agents often recruited women to work as domestic servants.

    • W. D. Borrie, Immigration to New Zealand, 1854–1938. Canberra: Demography Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1991, p. 52. › Back
    • Evening Post, 29 September 1874. › Back
    • Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land: English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1981, p. 23. › Back
    • Labourers’ Union Chronicle, 29 November 1873, p. 1. › Back

The immigrants of the great migration

Special settlements

While most of the immigrants came as individual family groups, there were a number of organised settlements. More than 1,000 families from southern England settled on the Manchester block in the Manawatū, under arrangements negotiated by Colonel William Feilding of the Emigrant and Colonists’ Aid Corporation. George Vesey Stewart organised two settlements, the first at Katikati in the Bay of Plenty in 1875–78, and the second in Te Puke in 1880–83. Many of these 4,000 settlers were Protestant families from Ulster.

Less successful were the 400 people who were settled on the wild coast of southern Westland at Jackson Bay between 1875 and 1878. Originally, British agricultural labourers were to break in the land there, but this did not eventuate. Instead, unemployed Germans and Poles and a group of Italians were held for months in a Wellington depot before being despatched to struggle in vain against the bush and the rain.

End of assistance

After 1874 assisted immigration tailed off, as winter unemployment in the mid-1870s signalled a downturn in New Zealand’s economy. A brief economic revival in 1878 induced another influx, but by July 1879, 117 of 159 local agents had stopped recruiting. From 1880, immigrants had to pay £5 in advance, and assistance was given only to people who had been nominated by those already in New Zealand. After a temporary rise in these immigrants in 1883–84, the long economic depression bit hard, and the flow reduced to a trickle. Eventually in 1890 all forms of assistance were stopped.

Taken in

Some immigrants found conditions rather different from expectations:

‘This country is not what the agents represented it to be; they are sending out thousands into a country where there is no work. Every step you take you sink up to the waist in mud or sand. There are no bridges, so you have to swim across the river … If you know anyone that is coming out here warn them of what they will have to go through’. 1


The immigrants who paid their own way were a different group – they tended to be richer, older and were more likely to be men. Many came from the urban industrial areas of northern England that were ignored by the recruiting agents. The few Irish who paid their way usually crossed from Australia.

The English

In the 1870s and 1880s almost all immigrants were still British or Irish by birth, and of these close to three-fifths were English. Many were agricultural labourers or village craftsmen – carpenters, painters, blacksmiths or boot makers – who came with their families from the home counties and southern Midlands or from Cornwall and Devon. These were the same areas which had sent out people in the 1840s and were targeted by recruiting agents. Methodists were especially well represented.

Scots and Irish

Just over a fifth of all immigrants were from Scotland, most still from the Lowlands, but also including about 1,200 who made the trip from the Shetland Islands.

‘Gone to New Zealand’

The major migration from the Shetland Islands in the 1870s was later noted by the English poet John Betjeman:

‘All over Shetland one sees ruined crofts, with rushes invading the once tilled strips and kingcups in the garden. “Gone to New Zealand” is a good name for such a scene, because that is where many Shetlanders go, and there are, I am told, two streets in Wellington almost wholly Shetland’. 2

The Irish comprised another fifth. Typically they were Catholic families joining their kin from the south-west, or single women recruited in Ulster. The Irish migration included more women than men, and more single people.

Young and energetic

In general the immigrants of these years were young (80% were under 35) but sober, arriving with the energy to make a home for their families in the New World. They formed the heart of Pākehā society for the next 50 years.

    • Labourers’ Union Chronicle, 2 January 1875, p. 7. › Back
    • John Betjeman, Coming home: an anthology of his prose, 1920–1977. London: Methuen, 1977, p. 336. › Back

Depression: 1885 to 1900

The 1880s and 1890s have come to be known as the long depression in New Zealand. In the winters there was visible hardship and distress. Those who had come out in the 1870s sent less positive messages home, and free passages were ended. Fewer new settlers arrived, and people began to leave. They went particularly to Australia, where ‘marvellous Melbourne’ experienced a boom in the 1880s.

In 1888 about 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived, and in the years from 1881 to 1900 the net gain from migration was only about 40,000 (almost 100,000 less than in the decade of the 1870s). By the dawn of the 20th century New Zealand had fewer foreign-born people than 20 years before. The proportion of the non-Māori population who were born overseas went from a half to under a third. New Zealand lost its status as an immigrant nation.

Anti-immigrant legislation

As economic conditions worsened, locals became less tolerant of newcomers who were not Anglo-Saxon. The imposition of the poll tax on Chinese immigrants in 1881 was the first sign of this, followed in 1888 and 1896 by further measures increasing the tax and limiting the number of Chinese immigrants per ship’s tonnage. One effect was that the number of Chinese in New Zealand was almost halved. An 1899 law imposed an English-language restriction on all immigrants not of British or Irish parentage.

New immigrants

Despite such measures some interesting immigrants arrived in the 1890s. There was a significant increase in Australians who moved to New Zealand when Australia, ‘the lucky country’, also began to suffer. News of work on the kauri gumfields in Northland filtered back to Europe, and by the turn of the century almost 2,000 Dalmatians had reached New Zealand’s shores. But it was not long before they too began to suffer discrimination. The Kauri Gum Industry Act 1898 preserved certain gumfields exclusively for British subjects. A significant number of Indians arrived in New Zealand, and some Lebanese – the latter working as travelling sellers. There was a small Lebanese community in Dunedin in the 1890s.

Yet both in ethnicity and identity New Zealand remained overwhelmingly British, with the Māori population now reduced by disease, land confiscation and social dislocation to fewer than 50,000 people.

Migration: 1900 to 1914

With the new century New Zealand’s fortunes changed and the country prospered. Refrigeration in ships opened up overseas markets for meat and butter, dairy farming expanded and secondary industry and services grew. With jobs on offer, the flow of immigrants revived. Between 1900 and 1915 New Zealand’s net population gain was just over 120,000. There were two distinct strands: one-third of the immigrants came from Australia, and two-thirds from the United Kingdom.

Clarion calls

In 1899 William Ranstead, founder of the socialist Clarion Fellowship in Manchester, visited New Zealand and decided it was a good spot to start a new community with some of his followers. The next year about 200 ‘Clarionettes’ funded their own emigration to New Zealand. A branch of the fellowship was established in 1901, and the settlers were also involved in the formation of the New Zealand Socialist Party that year.


Substantial migration from Australia characterises the early 1900s. In 1903 net immigration across the Tasman was almost 10,000. New Zealand’s recovery coincided with drought and depression in Australia, especially in the wheat belt of northern New South Wales and the gold-mining areas of Victoria. The fare across the Tasman was only £2. Some had previously come from Britain, a few were New Zealanders returning home, but four out of seven were Australian-born. In the five years 1901–6 the number of Australians in New Zealand increased from 26,991 to 47,256. There were twice as many men as women among them, and a high proportion were single. They settled especially in the North Island – on the west coast or the central small-farm frontier. Those from Victoria brought experience in dairying; others such as Michael Joseph Savage, who went on to become prime minister, brought ideas of international socialism.

Australians in government

Of the 13 members of Michael Joseph Savage’s first Labour government in 1935, five were born in Australia and had migrated to New Zealand between 1900 and 1907. They were Mark Fagan, William Parry, Robert Semple, Patrick Webb and Savage himself. In addition the previous leader of the Labour Party, Harry Holland, had crossed the Tasman in 1912.

Immigration from Britain

Immigration from the United Kingdom was slower to recover but boomed in the six years before the First World War, reaching a peak of 12,000 net migration in 1913. It was a period of exodus from Europe, and in Britain’s case this involved a redirection from the United States towards the dominions of the British Empire. The high cost of a passage to New Zealand had held people back, but numbers rose with the resumption in 1904 of government assistance for the fare.

New Zealanders experiencing prosperity were less opposed to new immigrants arriving. Farmers wanted labourers, businesses wanted skilled workers, and middle-class families wanted domestic servants. People in these occupations were targeted for assistance. Emigrants considered suitable were not the down-and-out, but, as Prime Minister W. F. Massey said, ‘people of the right class – steady, industrious and respectable people.’ 1 They had to provide evidence of some capital, and a certificate as to health and character. New Zealanders could also nominate friends and relatives for assistance; about half of the 36,563 assisted immigrants of 1904–15 came out in this way.

Home help wanted

Domestic servants were in great demand in the early 1900s. In Wellington, middle-class matrons would board immigrant ships to lure any single women into their employ. In Napier in 1906 a ‘domestic syndicate’ paid the fares of 23 servants.

Attracting immigrants

Shipping companies and the government advertised in British newspapers, and even included appeals in the programmes for the 1905 All Black rugby games. Shipping agents were paid £1 for each passenger. This had the effect of attracting others who paid their own way.

British immigrants

As with the great migration wave of the 1870s, there were many rural labourers, craftsmen and domestic workers from the United Kingdom (often referred to in New Zealand as ‘home’). There were more women and children among them than among those coming from Australia. Few industrial workers emigrated.

Over 20% of United Kingdom migrants came from Scotland, but less than 10% came from Ireland, and those few were increasingly from the north, and Protestant. The English were the biggest group. Although like earlier arrivals they often came from the south – especially London and the home counties – substantial numbers now hailed from the north. Despite their rural occupations, the newcomers settled in the cities rather than rural areas.

An Anglo-Saxon nation

With restrictions against Asians, and the number of Catholic Irish falling, New Zealand was becoming more English, more Protestant and less cosmopolitan. At a time of large-scale immigration, the number of New Zealand residents who were not born in the British Empire rose by a mere 63 persons between 1901 and 1916. Dalmatians and Chinese stayed on under public sufferance at a time of rising racism, but their numbers were not replenished.

    • J. S. McBean, ‘Immigration into New Zealand, 1900–1915.’ MA thesis, Victoria University College, 1946, p. 22. › Back

Between the wars

The Great War of 1914–18 (the First World War) put a stop to long-distance migration. Ships were not available and travel was dangerous. From 1916 to 1919, the net increase of population from migration was under 3,000.

‘98% British’

War intensified suspicion towards outsiders. People of German background were harassed, and they and socialists were targeted by the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919. Hostility towards Asian people also grew stronger. Although in the 1916 census only 181 Indians were recorded in New Zealand, anxieties grew that ‘Hindu coolies’ brought to Fiji under indenture might come on to New Zealand. When in the first half of 1920, 174 Indians arrived in New Zealand along with 725 Chinese, the government passed the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act, requiring an entry permit for people ‘not of British or Irish parentage’. That definition included ‘aboriginal natives’ of British Empire countries. A ‘white New Zealand’ policy had been established. Asians were not the only victims. The act was used against Dalmatians and Italians intending to enter New Zealand during these years. ‘98% British’ was the decree.

Migration for the empire

The Great War tightened bonds between Britain and its empire, and led to a revival of assisted emigration to the colonies, including Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The British race would be strengthened by exporting men from crowded cities to healthy dominions, and women to areas where there was a surplus of men. Single women might become British mothers. For the first time the British government subsidised migration, first with a scheme in 1919 to assist the migration of ex-servicemen, and then with the Empire Settlement Act 1922, which provided support for family emigration to the dominions.

Boys and girls come out to farm

One unusual immigration scheme brought out juveniles to New Zealand farms. It was known as the Flock House scheme, named after the homestead and property in the Manawatū where the young people were to be trained as farmers. Funded by New Zealand sheep farmers, it was intended as a debt of gratitude to British seamen. The 635 boys and 128 girls who came out were the children of seamen killed or wounded in the First World War.

New Zealand responds

Some New Zealanders, especially those in the labour movement, feared mass immigration would worsen housing problems, increase unemployment, and lower wages. But manufacturers and farmers wanted more labour, and the demand for domestic servants was still strong. New Zealand agreed to boost British government subsidies, reducing fares further.

The 1920s migrants

Between 1921 and 1927, assisted migrants from the United Kingdom represented over half all long-term migrants. They came in four main groups.

The largest group emigrated under the Empire Settlement Act. Through this scheme New Zealanders could also nominate anyone for whom they could provide a job and accommodation. This allowed many families to bring out relatives.

The other groups were:

  • Wives of New Zealand ex-soldiers.
  • Some 13,000 British ex-servicemen and their families.
  • 1,400 young men brought out to work on farms.

The influx of the early 1920s was one of New Zealand’s major immigration flows. Most of the newcomers sailed directly from Britain, as trans-Tasman migration had now dwindled.

There was much that was familiar about the character of the immigrants – women and children were well represented, craftsmen and builders were common among the men, domestic servants among the women. A good number came from London and the home counties as before. But the populations of Cornwall and Devon were now depleted, and many came from the northern industrial counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Durham. For the first time industry workers figured prominently.

Women on the waves

The SS Mahana was known as the ‘Brides’ Boat’ when it sailed to New Zealand in 1920. It was carrying English women on their way to marry New Zealand soldiers. Among the passengers were three sisters of one family who lived at Hornchurch, the site of a New Zealand convalescent hospital, all of whom were engaged to Kiwis.

Three in ten came from Scotland, where along with farming the older industries such as shipbuilding were in decline. Fewer came from Ireland; those who did were mostly from the north. Previously over half of Irish immigrants had been Catholic; now only a third were Catholic.

These ‘Homies’, as British immigrants were sometimes called, fitted well into small-town New Zealand. But in the cities resentment remained, particularly where there were housing shortages.

End of assistance

An economic downturn hit New Zealand in 1927 and became a full depression from 1929. The country was no longer an attractive destination, and government assistance tailed off before being abandoned in all but name in 1931. The Department of Immigration was shut down in 1932. From that year until 1935, 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived. In 1935 there was only one assisted migrant. The doors of New Zealand were essentially closed.

The Second World War: 1939 to 1945

The election of a Labour government in 1935 did not improve prospects for aspiring immigrants. Loyal to its working-class roots, the Labour Party was suspicious of immigration. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was blunt: ‘We are not going to pay anyone’s fare to come to New Zealand … until we have solved our economic problems.’ 1 The flow of paying immigrants was just reviving when war broke out in 1939.


Once more, war disrupted international travel, and the crisis raised immigration issues. Even before shots were fired, the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany invited a response from countries around the world. Yet under the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931 European aliens could only enter if they had guaranteed employment, and some capital or skills which would allow them to be rehabilitated without affecting New Zealand residents. Although thousands applied for refuge in New Zealand, only about 1,100 escapees from Hitler, mostly Jews, were accepted (many fewer on a per capita basis than the numbers taken in by the United States and Britain). Of those who came, many made distinguished contributions to cultural and business life.


For a few of those disrupted by war, New Zealand was a haven. In 1940, 566 children were shipped from England to escape the German air raids. Some of them stayed on. Then in 1944, to great public fanfare, 837 Polish refugees arrived in Wellington and were sent to a camp at Pahīatua. The majority were orphaned children or teenagers, and many eventually settled around Wellington after the war.


The perils of war, and the divisive impact of post-war Russian control of Eastern Europe made millions homeless in the late 1940s. The International Refugee Organisation, established in 1946, eventually resettled a million people worldwide before disbanding in 1952. Between 1949 and 1952 New Zealand received a number of refugees – almost 300 Yugoslavs; about 1,000 Greeks mostly displaced from Romania, Bulgaria or Turkey; and another 700 Poles.


With the wartime alliance with China, the government lifted some restrictions against the Chinese. Between 1931 and 1935 only 29 Asians had been allowed entry, but in the decade after the Second World War over 2,500 settled.

Still British

These small concessions to diversity could not alter the fact that by 1951 the proportion of immigrants in the New Zealand population had reached its lowest point since 1840. And of those who were foreign-born, over 85% were from either Great Britain or Australia.

    • Megan Hutching, Long journey for sevenpence: assisted immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947–1975. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999, p. 34. › Back

Assisted immigration revives: 1946 to 1975

Populate or perish

The Labour government’s opposition to assisting immigrants was never universally shared. Even in the depression, isolated voices such as the immigration activist A. E. Mander claimed that New Zealand must populate or perish. Employers and manufacturers in the Dominion Settlement and Population Association stressed the problems of a declining birth rate, the levels of out-migration and the need for skilled workers and a larger market. The war raised concerns about the need for a large population for national defence. However, the government preferred to emphasise natural increase, which they encouraged with the 'family benefit' allowance. Housing shortages were another obstacle to immigration.

The 1947 assistance scheme

The demand for skilled workers required a solution. In 1946 a few psychiatric nurses were brought out as assisted migrants, and in July 1947 a full assistance scheme began which, over the next 30 years, brought over 100,000 people to New Zealand. It differed in several ways from the earlier schemes:

  • There was a preference for single people rather than families because of the housing shortage.
  • The focus was not on farmers or domestic servants, but urban people with industrial skills.
  • Immigrants were bonded for two years and given jobs, and initially housed in special barracks.

But there were also similarities with the past. Nomination by employers or friends was again introduced in 1948, provided the nominator could arrange accommodation. There was always a preference for the young – at first for those aged 20 to 35, extended to 45 in 1950. Above all, assistance went primarily to British citizens ‘of European race and colour’ 1 .

Applying to emigrate

The immigrants were carefully chosen. Advertisements appeared in newspapers and trade journals, displays were set up at trade exhibitions, and a film, Journey for three, based on the experiences of three assisted migrants, was shown in British cinemas. The New Zealand High Commission in London interviewed applicants who brought along birth certificates and references, and when there was difficulty in filling quotas for particular skills, the deciding factor would be ‘the applicant’s bearing and the estimates of his character as a potential New Zealand citizen’. 2

Wide open spaces

New immigrants from Britain in the 1950s were often struck by the emptiness of New Zealand’s centres. One commented that in a New Zealand city at the weekend, ‘you could have shot a rifle in the street and you wouldn’t have hit anybody’. 3

The applicants had often met New Zealanders or had relatives there, and they came for a ‘better life’, usually perceived as a sunnier climate, a healthier lifestyle, and an egalitarian society. Some were disappointed. New Zealand, with its rugby obsession, regimented ‘six o’clock swill’ of beer at hotels, flimsy wooden houses, and social separation of the sexes, was more different than they had expected, and many encountered a surprising hostility to ‘Poms’ (the slightly derogatory term used for British immigrants).

Yet many became ardent New Zealanders who persuaded others to pay their own way out. By 1971 the number of English-born in New Zealand had risen by over 66,000 from 1945, but the number of Irish had actually fallen and the Scots had risen by fewer than 4,000.

A new meaning of home

One British immigrant described going back ‘home’ and suddenly feeling ‘desperately homesick for many things about New Zealand – the clean air, open spaces, relaxed friendly people, empty roads, native bush, fantails.’ 4


New Zealand also sought other western Europeans who might be easily assimilated. This included between 200 and 350 each from Austria, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Greece. Some Europeans arrived as refugees from unsuccessful revolts against Communism – 1,100 Hungarians after their revolution in 1956, and 125 Czechs following the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968.

The Dutch

The most favoured Europeans were the Dutch, because they seemed the most likely to be easily assimilated.

In 1950 an assisted passage scheme was extended to the Netherlands, to attract skilled migrants such as carpenters or domestic workers. Over 6,000 were eventually selected, the majority of them in 1952–54. The scheme attracted others, many from industrialised west Holland, and some from the former Dutch colony that was now Indonesia. By 1971 there were over 20,000 Dutch people scattered throughout the country, and they comprised by far the largest non-British migrant group.

    • Megan Hutching, Long journey for sevenpence: assisted immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947–1975. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999, p. 49. › Back
    • Long journey for sevenpence, p. 61. › Back
    • Long journey for sevenpence, p. 145. › Back
    • Long journey for sevenpence, p. 171. › Back

The end of a 'white New Zealand' policy

Much as New Zealand tried to keep its immigrants white through assisted migration schemes and entry permits, such a policy was hard to enforce and even harder to defend.

Asian students

Schemes of student assistance, begun in the 1950s, brought young Asian students to New Zealand. In particular the Colombo Plan attracted Malaysians, Thais and Indonesians. A few married New Zealanders and settled. By 1971 there were almost 3,000 Malaysians in the country.

Pacific Islanders

By 1972 there were also over 50,000 Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand (up from 3,600 in 1951). New Zealand’s political responsibilities and paternalistic attitudes to the Pacific facilitated their entry.

Cook Islanders had been British subjects since their country was annexed in 1901, and became New Zealand citizens in 1949. As the Cook Islands’ growing population put pressure on limited land resources, and transport links with New Zealand improved, people emigrated south. In the 1950s, women came as domestic servants, in the 1960s, men came as unskilled labourers for Auckland factories.

Western Samoa had been under New Zealand control from 1914, and when it achieved independence in 1962 a Treaty of Friendship gave Samoans the opportunity for temporary entry permits. Because New Zealand needed unskilled labour, the regulations were only loosely enforced. In Samoa, declining prices for copra and bananas and the 1966 cyclone sent many to New Zealand.

Tokelauans and Niueans also migrated during the 1960s and 1970s. Both groups had rights as New Zealand citizens. A few Tongans and Fijians arrived, although their large-scale immigration came later.

Non-racial attitudes

By 1971 the proportion of New Zealand’s foreign-born population who were from countries outside the white British Commonwealth was 30% – double that of 20 years before. As the colour of the population changed, so did attitudes. Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community encouraged New Zealand to consider its identity as a Pacific, if not Asian, nation. Independence movements in the British colonies, civil rights crusades in the United States and a Māori cultural revival in New Zealand forced many New Zealanders to confront the racist assumptions in their past. By 1970 a writer on New Zealand immigration noted, ‘This is a world in which racist attitudes, once regarded as perfectly natural and needing no apology in an age of European domination of the non-Europeans’ world, are now looked at askance, even when they are not condemned outright.’ 1

In 1973 Prime Minister Norman Kirk stopped a South African Springbok rugby tour because of that country’s racist policy of apartheid. At the first New Zealand Day in 1974 there was a festival of New Zealand’s different ethnic communities. That year a review introduced a new non-racist immigration policy: apart from Australians and New Zealanders, all prospective migrants, British and non-British, had to obtain entry permits, and right of residence became based on questions of skills and qualifications, not ethnicity or national origin. In 1975 a symbolic association with the mother country was severed, with the formal ending of assisted immigration from Britain.

    • W. T. Roy, ‘Immigration policy and legislation.’ In Immigrants in New Zealand, edited by K. W. Thomson and A. D. Trlin, 15–24. Palmerston North: Massey University, 1970. › Back

Many leave, fewer arrive: 1975 to 1991

New Zealand loses its attraction

The years of the third Labour government (1972–75) had seen an influx of immigrants, especially from the Pacific. But there was little chance to implement the non-racist principles of the 1974 immigration policy review before Robert Muldoon was elected to head a National government, after a campaign that included criticism of Pacific immigration. Guidelines for permanent entry were tightened, and there was a controversial campaign to find Pacific Island ‘overstayers’ in dawn raids. Pacific Islanders were not the only targets of public opprobrium – anti-British ‘bash a Pom’ T-shirts appeared in Auckland.

Such attitudes, or more likely New Zealand’s poor economic performance, sent migration flows into reverse. Fewer immigrants arrived and New Zealanders flocked across the Tasman. From 1977 until 1990 there were only two years when more people arrived than left. The net loss of over 40,000 in 1979 was the largest in New Zealand’s history.

Pacific Islanders

Yet there were significant influxes during this period. Migrants continued to arrive from the Pacific Islands, especially Samoa. By 1991 there were 85,000 people of Samoan ethnicity in New Zealand, about half of whom were immigrants and half New Zealand-born. Cook Islands and Niuean migration tailed off, but Tongans came in large numbers during the 1980s. Many Pacific Islanders came to join families, forming settlements in Auckland and Porirua with strong ties to community and church. There was also a significant migration of Indo-Fijians after the two anti-Indian coups led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987. Further afield, political tensions in Sri Lanka also sent some people to New Zealand.

South-East Asians

The collapse of American-backed régimes in Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos in 1975 sent ‘boat people’ fleeing to Thailand. Eventually the New Zealand government accepted some as refugees. From 1977 there was a steady stream which brought in over 1,000 Laotians, and over 4,000 each from Vietnam and Cambodia. After six weeks in Auckland’s Māngere refugee reception centre, the new arrivals were normally ‘pepper potted’ – scattered across the community to hasten assimilation. This was not always successful and they often came together for mutual support, especially in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. Many became employed as machine operators.

Kiwi necessities

When South-East Asian refugees arrived in New Zealand they were each given a bag containing a plastic cup, a cake of soap, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, two singlets and two pairs of underpants. Their first breakfast was baked beans.

1986 immigration review

In 1986 another Labour government embarked on a review of immigration. Once more, legislation widened the selection of immigrants on personal merit rather than national or ethnic origin. The Immigration Act 1987 emphasised skills needed in the domestic economy, the contribution which could be made by business migrants bringing capital, the humanitarian recognition of reuniting families, and a commitment to accept 800 refugees a year.

In 1991 the National government introduced a points system using criteria of age, skills, education and capital; criteria which again were blind to ethnicity.

Multi-cultural New Zealand: 1991 onwards

The points system of entry led to increased and diverse immigration. Between 1971 and 1991 the number of foreign-born residents had increased by 116,000. In the decade after 1991 this increased by 170,000, to a total of almost 700,000 who were born in places other than New Zealand. By 2001 the proportion of these immigrants in the total population was the highest since 1936.

In the following five years, the number of foreign-born residents grew to 879,543 – 22.9% of the population.


Through the 1990s the number of English and Scots fell, and by 2006 those born in the United Kingdom were less than a quarter of all foreign-born immigrants. There were still some new arrivals of European ethnicity.

A few arrived who were born in Australia – some the families of returning New Zealanders, others attracted by job opportunities in a trans-Tasman economy. By 2006, there were over 40,000 South Africans, mostly of European descent, many uncomfortable at the direction of change in their homeland. There were almost 11,000 Germans – a resurgence after 100 years – and almost 18,000 from the United States – both groups seeking a safe, ‘clean and green’ refuge for the family or to take up professional opportunities. The number of French also increased to 2,500, and there were almost 5,000 Russians.

Africans and Middle Eastern people

Political crises in North Africa and the Middle East brought in people from Iran, Iraq and Somalia, to add their distinctive cultures to New Zealand’s cities. Many came as refugees, most notably 131 Afghans on board the Tampa in 2001, when Australia refused to allow them to land. By 2006 there were over 16,000 people in New Zealand from North Africa and the Middle East.

Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders did not arrive in great numbers during this period. The new controls based on skills, capital, and education disadvantaged them, and population pressures had diminished. The only substantial increase was among those born in Fiji, where the Indian community was under political pressure. By the turn of the century, Pacific Island communities were a large and vital part of New Zealand’s cities, and also of rugby and netball teams, but the majority were New Zealand-born.


The most significant influx in this period was from Asia – but not from the regions of Indonesia, Malaysia or the old Indochina which had previously been important sources. By 2006, China and Hong Kong together had contributed over 85,000 to the resident population in New Zealand. Some came for an education or to transfer their skills to an uncrowded, cleaner country. Another major area of origin, with almost 40,000 residents, was North-East Asia: Korea and Japan. All but a handful arrived from the 1990s onwards. Many came to Auckland to invest and establish their families in a healthy environment. Between 1991 and 2006 the Filipino population more than tripled, a high proportion being women marrying Kiwi men. Finally there were substantial migrations from South Asia – in the 15 years to 2006, the Indian community quadrupled, and the Sri Lankan community tripled. In 2006, people of Asian ethnicity made up 9.2% of the population – up from 6.6% five years earlier.

Watershed years

The 1990s were significant in New Zealand immigration history – foreigners came in large numbers, and from new places of origin. The Chinese, though joining older communities, came from different parts of China than before.

Apart from some of the refugees, newcomers were not the poor and the struggling, but educated and comparatively wealthy people. Their numbers allowed them to cluster together in their own suburbs, especially around Auckland, and to establish their own churches, schools, restaurants and social rituals. By living together they became more visible; not surprisingly there was some adverse political response to these developments.

In 1995 and again in 2002 the English language requirements for entry were raised. In 2003 new conditions targeted those with high skills. There was some evidence that as a result the number of immigrants from non-European countries was falling.

Yet the revolution was irreversible. In 2004 it was said that after Australia, New Zealand had the world's second highest proportion of immigrants in its workforce. The census of 2006 also showed that only 67 in every 100 New Zealanders were of purely European ethnicity. People of Pacific Island ethnicity formed about 6.9% of the population; about 9.2% were Asian.

For over 130 years, from 1840 to the 1970s, New Zealand sought to people itself with ‘kith and kin’ from the United Kingdom. In the years since then, immigration from new countries has transformed the nation’s culture and values.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'History of immigration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2015