Arrivals before 1840
Indians have come to New Zealand since the late 18th century. At that time British East India Company ships brought supplies to Australian convict settlements, and often stopped in New Zealand to pick up homeward cargoes. Their crews included Lascars (Indian seamen) and Sepoys (Indian soldiers), some of whom deserted in New Zealand.
A Bengali man is said to have jumped ship in 1810 to marry a Māori woman. One man was living with his Māori wife in the Bay of Islands in 1815; another took up residence on Stewart Island after 1814.
1840–1890: few and far between
Before the 1880s Indians were not identified in census records, but their presence was noted. One, Edward Peter (also known as ‘Black Peter’), arrived around 1853. Although the Australian Gabriel Read is credited with discovering gold at Tuapeka in Otago, it was Edward Peter who told him where it could be found.
The 1881 census recorded six Indian men, three of whom lived in Canterbury and were probably servants of wealthy English settlers who had lived in India.
Steadier Indian migration to New Zealand began in the 1890s. By 1896 the number of Indians in New Zealand had grown to 46. The numbers fluctuated over the next 20 years as people arrived and departed, but by 1916 there were 181, including 14 females. They came mostly from the Navsari and Surat regions of Gujarat province, but also from Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur in the Punjab.
Reasons for choosing New Zealand
Overpopulation, underemployment, and the decline of village industries led many Indians to seek advancement in other countries. The rising standard of living, combined with crippling family wedding expenses, also made it vital to earn more money. Gujaratis and Punjabis had always had close contact with Westerners through British-run industries in India, and were aware of opportunities overseas. Some who were seafarers or employees of British civil servants heard about New Zealand’s employment possibilities.
Occupations and destinations
These first immigrants were often sojourners rather than settlers: they intended to return to India once they had improved their lot. They were almost all men. Many, especially Sikhs, were employed as flax workers, drain diggers and scrub cutters. In fact, in 1916 nearly half of all Indians lived in rural areas. They also built roads and made bricks, and in urban areas they worked as bottle collectors and hawkers of fruit and vegetables. Apart from a small community in Christchurch, most chose to live in the North Island, especially Auckland.
Racism and official opposition
Indian immigrants encountered prejudice from white settlers. They were often lumped in the category of ‘Assyrian hawkers’, along with Syrians and Lebanese. During the 1890s there were attempts to legislate against the activities of these hawkers, and to limit their immigration.
The Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1899. Before this date Indians, as British subjects, had been able to enter New Zealand freely, unlike other Asian migrants such as Chinese, who as ‘aliens’ faced restrictions from the 1880s. The new act made it necessary for anyone not ‘of British birth and parentage’ to fill out their immigration application in a European language. But it proved only a minor barrier to Indians determined to go to New Zealand. Many simply memorised application information at special ‘cramming schools’ in Fiji, en route to New Zealand.