Kōrero: Kiwis overseas

Whārangi 1. A nation of migrants

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Original homelands: Hawaiki, Britain

New Zealanders have always been a migratory people. Ingrained in both Māori and Pākehā traditions are stories of arrival: the first Polynesian settlers sailed from Hawaiki, and 19th-century colonials came from Europe.

Not all early arrivals to New Zealand stayed. Many British and other Europeans who came were itinerant, and sailed away after the ready gold had been won, the seals clubbed, or the whales harpooned. The country’s first British settlers were in fact rather unsettled. When they spoke of ‘home’ they meant England, Ireland or Scotland. In the 1860s and 1870s, the era of huge pastoral estates, landowners often sojourned in Britain. The Enys brothers of Canterbury’s Castle Hill station were nicknamed ‘buckets in the well', for if one was not in England the other was. John Enys, like many settlers, returned to his English home for good.

Because of their comparatively recent and varied origins – Polynesia, Europe, Asia and elsewhere – many New Zealanders go overseas. They go because they are curious about the lands of their ancestors; because they have entry and work permits to those places; or they go to escape New Zealand’s relative isolation. Many travel for a few years, while others, who are discussed here, emigrate permanently.

Empire of opportunity

Until the early 20th century, subjects of the British Empire had many options as to where to settle. If opportunity didn’t knock in the South Pacific they steamed or sailed to Africa, Australia or India. There was a constant return flow from New Zealand to England, the hub of the empire. It is difficult to know at which point these colonials felt they were no longer returning British expatriates, but rather New Zealanders living overseas.

Links with ‘mother England’ were reinforced when New Zealanders served in the South African War and two world wars. Young men saw the world through war; in an era of expensive travel it was one way to gain a form of OE (overseas experience), if a rather horrific one. New Zealanders also served Britain in peacetime as administrators in her expansive empire. Many established lifelong careers with the British colonial service in what would become diverse Commonwealth countries, aiding the transition to independence from colonial rule. Kiwi doctors, nurses, teachers and missionaries were especially prominent in the Pacific. And the politician Garfield Todd and the social reformer and peace activist Rewi Alley became better known in Zimbabwe and China respectively than they were in the land of their birth.


In the second half of the 20th century as incomes rose and fares reduced, increasing numbers of New Zealanders travelled overseas, first by ship and then from the mid- 1960s by jet. Most continued to go to England, but air travel opened up other options in North America, Asia and Africa. Many who went for ‘overseas experience’ would marry or find an interesting job and eventually end up staying away for life.

A restless curiosity

In his book Report on experience (1947) John Mulgan wrote of New Zealanders’ propensity for travel, and their need to return:

‘They come from the most beautiful country in the world, but it is a small country and very remote. After a while this isolation oppresses them and they go abroad. They roam the world looking not for adventure but for satisfaction. They run service cars in Iraq, goldmines in Nevada, or newspapers in Fleet Street. They are a queer, lost, eccentric, pervading people who will seldom admit to the deep desire that is in all of them to go home and live quietly in New Zealand again.’ (pp. 3–4)

The expatriate community of New Zealanders is growing. Its size is very difficult to determine. Estimates range from 600,000 to one million. In the early 2000s one estimate placed around one in six, or 800,000 Kiwis (500,000 New Zealanders by birth, and 300,000 of their children) as living overseas. In 2006 there were about 390,000 New Zealand-born in Australia. In 2001, there were an estimated 50,000 New Zealanders in Britain, 10,000 in the United States and 9,000 in Canada, with a further 50,000 scattered in other places around the globe.

In 2003, 43% of permanent and long-term departures were to Australia, 21% were to the United Kingdom, and 4% were to the United States. In the 2000s expatriate organisations had formed in at least 17 countries. Although New Zealand consistently loses citizens overseas, external migration is offset by immigration.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Kiwis overseas - A nation of migrants', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/kiwis-overseas/page-1 (accessed 28 March 2023)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, updated 17 Sep 2014