Indians first settled in New Zealand in the late 1800s. Most of these early
migrants came from the regions of Punjab and Gujarat, and were
temporary labourers. They numbered only a handful – an estimated forty-six
persons in 1896 – and were listed in occupational statistics as ‘pedlars,
hawkers, and domestics’ (1).
They were also overwhelmingly men. In 1896, only one Indian woman was listed
as resident in New Zealand! Most of these early migrants did not intend staying
here, but wanted to earn money before returning home.
Migration increased until 1920, when the New Zealand Government introduced
restrictions under a ‘permit system’. By this time, there were just
over 2000 Indians in New Zealand. The number of Indian women had grown to 142,
as some of the Indian men living here sent home for their wives or, if they were
single, for brides.
But the New Zealand Indian community was still overwhelmingly a society of
men. Many of them lived and worked communally. While a few set up shops, most
found work as hawkers, bottle collectors, and kitchen hands in
the larger towns, or as labourers in the market gardens of Otahuhu and Pukehohe.
Others worked building railways or draining the swamps of the Hauraki lowlands.
Around this time, there was increasing prejudice and fear about Asian migrants.
The White New Zealand League emerged in 1926 with the slogan ‘Keep New Zealand
a White Man’s Country’. It found strong support in the press and from
local bodies. Indians were criticised for living in shacks and ‘introducing
alien views of life and standards of conduct’ (2). The White New Zealand
League warned that the intermingling of Indians with both Päkehä and
Mäori would result in the ‘halfcasted citizen of the future’
– a prospect it regarded with alarm (3).
In some places where Indians were perceived as ‘taking over’, prejudices
ran deep and lasted a long time. In Pukekohe, Indians were not allowed to join
the local growers’ association, some landowners refused to lease them land,
and they were not allowed into the balcony seats of the picture theatre. Until
1958, only one barber’s shop in Pukekohe would cut the hair of Indians!
The discrimination Indian migrants encountered, and their increased commitment
to settling in New Zealand permanently, led to the formation of the New Zealand
Indian Central Association in 1926.
After the introduction of the ‘permit system’ in 1920, the number
of new migrants from India dropped. However, of those who did make it here, a
greater proportion were women and children. By 1945, families (mostly of shopkeepers
and fruiterers) were getting established, and marriages of second-generation New
Zealand Indians were to become increasingly important.
But Indian weddings in New Zealand remained rare, even after World War Two when more liberal attitudes allowed for easier entry of Indian migrants into New Zealand. Indians tended to settle in concentrated pockets rather than throughout the country. Punjabis settled in Waipa, Waikato, Otorohanga, and Taumarunui, while Gujaratis settled in Auckland, Pukekohe, and Wellington.
Until the 1980s, over 90 per cent of New Zealand Indians traced their roots
back to Gujarat – especially to the Surat district in the south of the state.
Most were Hindu. The next biggest group (6 per cent) came from the Punjab, and
were usually Sikh. In 1981, Fijian-born Indians accounted for
less than 14 per cent of Indians resident here. At this stage, just under 45 per
cent of a total New Zealand Indian population of 11,577 had been born in New Zealand,
while 31 per cent had been born in India.
Since the early 1980s, the total number of Indians resident in New Zealand
has increased to over 62,000. The make-up of that population has also changed
dramatically, reflecting more arrivals from Fiji since the coup of 1987 (see
Today, Indians living in New Zealand are not restricted to the few trades that
they were in before World War Two. Now few Indians (less than 5 per cent) are
involved in agriculture, while nearly a third (30 per cent) are involved in professional,
managerial, and administrative positions. Indians are prominent in a number of
sections of New Zealand society, including business, medicine, education, politics,
sport, and the arts.
(1) Taher, M. (1970). The Asians in Immigrants in New Zealand. Edited
by K W Thomson & A D Trlin. Palmerston North: Massey University. p 38.
(2) The White New Zealand League (23 March 1927) cited in Tiwari,
Kapil N. (1980) The Indian Community in New Zealand: A Historical
Survey in Indians in New Zealand: Studies of a sub-culture. Edited by K N
Tiwari. Wellington: Price Milburn. p 9.
Some of the following publications may be found in Te Aka Matua Te Library
and Information Centre on Level 4.
Leckie, J (1981) 'They Sleep Standing Up': Gujaratis in New Zealand to 1945,
PhD thesis. Dunedin: University of Otago
Leckie, J (1995) South Asians: Old and New Migrations in Stuart Greif (ed)
Immigration and National Identity in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore
New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings, 1981, 1996, 2001
Statistics New Zealand (1995) New Zealand Now: Asian New Zealanders.