Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

When I was eleven, my class studied a topic I’ll never forget. At least I’ll never forget the image of a dead baby being thrown overboard wrapped in a Union Jack. The topic dealt with the history of immigration to New Zealand.

Each member of my class had to write a pretend diary from the perspective of an English immigrant making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. As I was an English immigrant whose family had moved to New Zealand only a year previously, I found the topic particularly affecting.

Of course, my family had not come to New Zealand by ship, but by plane. And it had taken us twenty-four hours of travelling, not six months. And none of us had died on the way. Still, I understood the heartbreaking enormity of leaving your home for a strange country on the other side of the world.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th Century

An 18th-century Maori chief

Well any history of immigration to New Zealand – however brief – should begin with the Maori. The ancestors of the Maori came to New Zealand from Hawaiki, a Polynesian homeland that has passed into legend. They came in canoes, guided by the stars. No one knows exactly when they first arrived, but archaeological evidence seems to suggest that it was during the thirteenth century.* To put this in perspective, at around the same time as the Magna Carta was being signed, as European knights were crusading their way across the Middle East, and as Braveheart was yelling “FREEEEEEDOM!” in a totally non-anachronistic way, New Zealand was only just being settled.

Europeans didn’t discover New Zealand until the seventeenth century. The first, that we know of, was Abel Tasman in 1642. Tasman’s first meeting with the Maori did not go well. He anchored in what is now Golden Bay in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, and sent some of his crew to find water, but they were immediately attacked by a group of Maori in a waka, or canoe. This led Tasman to sail away rather quickly, and to name his place of anchorage Murderers’ Bay. (But Golden Bay sounds much better to tourists.)

A drawing one of Tasman's crew did of "Murderers' Bay"

Murderers’ Bay, as depicted by Tasman’s ship’s artist

Golden Bay Abel Tasman National Park New Zealand

Golden Bay today

European immigration to New Zealand didn’t begin until the nineteenth century, although trade between Europeans and Maori had been gradually increasing throughout the eighteenth century. During that time, New Zealand had become very popular with European and American whalers, (and escaped Australian convicts.) Their favourite port of call was Kororareka, a settlement which would become known as Russell – and the hellhole of the Pacific. This wretched hive of scum and villainy had been commended by James Cook as a “most noble anchorage” and, since his 1769-70 voyage around New Zealand, had become a haven for entrepreneurial Maori. European goods such as muskets were traded for Maori goods such as women. Needless to say, this behaviour shocked arriving missionaries.


Some random colonial men

British immigration to New Zealand began in earnest with the formation of the New Zealand Company, whose main mission was to acquire as much land from the Maori as possible – fairly or otherwise. The British government stepped in to regulate this, and other “lawless” behaviours by the immigrants, in 1839. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which gave the Maori the same rights as British citizens – in exchange for ceding their sovereignty to the British Crown. At least that’s what the English version says. The Maori translation of the treaty isn’t perfect, so it’s possible that many of the Maori chieftains didn’t have a full understanding of what they were signing. Besides, even if the Maori and the British were on the same page, it’s not like every Maori chieftain in country signed it. The document remains in dispute to this day.

Irish immigrants

Irish immigrants

Other Europeans continued to arrive, but the bulk of immigrants were British and Irish. Maori chiefs in the Waikato became alarmed at the rate at which their land was being taken over, and came together to resist further land acquisitions by the government. This led to the New Zealand Wars, which ended in the early 1870s with the victorious government confiscating huge areas of Maori-held land.

In the 1860s, New Zealand experienced its own Gold Rush, resulting in the arrival of many more immigrants, including a significant population of Chinese prospectors. The government attempted to limit the number of Asian immigrants and, in 1881, imposed a poll tax on all incoming Chinese citizens. It wasn’t repealed until the Second World War. The war, of course, brought a few thousand European refugees to New Zealand.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook claimed New Zealand on behalf of Great Britain in 1769

Following the Second World War, skilled immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe were encouraged to come and settle in New Zealand. Many Dutch people arrived at this time, including one of my family’s greatest friends when we first arrived. I remember being fascinated by his story of coming by ship in 1950s – a journey that took five weeks.

From the 1960s, large numbers of Pacific Islanders began to arrive in New Zealand. In 1987, the government stopped choosing migrants based on race, opting instead to assess individual skills.

The last twenty years have seen a huge increase in the number of Asian immigrants, but the influx of British immigrants remains high. A few years ago, there was concern over the number of New Zealanders leaving to live in Australia, seeking higher wages, but the rush seems to be slowing. In 2006, 23% of New Zealand’s total population were people born overseas, and the number of incomers continues to rise. Though there’s a lot more frustrating paperwork these days, moving to New Zealand is a lot easier now than it was in the nineteenth century.

An immigrant ship

An immigrant ship

The New Zealand Maritime Museum on Auckland’s harbour front has a fantastic exhibition detailing the experiences of those early European immigrants. As a kid, I was particularly affected by it. It has a reproduction of an 1840s steerage cabin, so you can get an idea of the frightful conditions that people had to endure for months to reach New Zealand. Many of the immigrants kept diaries, which, I suppose, was the inspiration for the school project I did. Here’s an example of one. It’s by someone called Hannah Butler, who sailed to New Zealand in 1840. At least seven children died during her voyage.

I remember being bewildered, when I was a kid, as to why so many immigrants would take the risk. Surely a new life in New Zealand wasn’t worth at least one of your children dying on the way? But then, I suppose, it wasn’t unusual for large numbers of children to die back then anyway.

Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour

Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour

I’m very glad my family came by plane.

* This date is highly disputed. Researching it is frustrating, as every thing I read seems to say something different. Could be a few hundred years earlier.

3 thoughts on “Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

  1. captyid says:

    Very interesting, quite different from Iceland’s homogenous population. Hard to believe people were ever actually leaving New Zealand, but the prospect of productive work is a strong motivator.


  2. […] best museums in New Zealand. If this kind of thing interests you, allow me to recommend my articles Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand and The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman, which is about an Australian […]


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