New Zealand has a longstanding relationship with Europe, dating back to the early European explorers. An enduring tie was established between New Zealand and Great Britain in 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and New Zealand became a British colony.
Most European migrants to New Zealand were British, coming from England, Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Ireland.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries these new arrivals were sealers or whalers, staying only for months at a time. Flax, timber and Christian commitment drew others. By the end of the 1830s there were about 2,000 non-Māori in the country, approximately 90% of whom were British.
At the start of the 20th century, immigration to New Zealand was still 95% British. Of the ‘white’ British colonies (New Zealand, Australia and Canada), New Zealand was traditionally seen as the most British.
The link between Britain and New Zealand was often described as a mother–child relationship. By 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC – later the European Union or EU), New Zealand’s British heritage was deeply embedded. English was the dominant language. Political institutions and government structures, the legal system, introduced plant and animal species, children’s rhymes and Christmas carols, were all largely drawn from the British Isles.
Homesick for New Zealand
New Zealand-born William Pember Reeves first went to England in 1874, intending to study law. Later, with his family, he returned to Britain as New Zealand’s high commissioner in 1896. Although they were welcomed by left-wing London society, Pember Reeves longed to return to his political life in New Zealand. His daughter Amber, mourning the loss of freedom and the seashore, described London as hateful. Despite their feelings, the family settled permanently in England.
Travel back and forth
People travelled between New Zealand and ‘home’, as Britain was often called by Pākehā, even when a one-way trip involved a three-month sea voyage. Steamships cut that to four to six weeks. People went to visit family or to study, or returned to settle in Britain after years in New Zealand. A visit would usually last for months or even years. The cost was high, and most of those who went were well-to-do.
The sense of England as ‘home’ did not break down until after the Second World War. Factors in this change included the need to find other allies, Britain’s joining the EEC, stronger relationships with Pacific Island countries, the declining percentage of British-born New Zealanders, the Māori cultural renaissance, new arrivals from Asia and the Pacific, and the growing assertion of a distinctive New Zealand identity.
People from other European countries also emigrated to New Zealand in the 19th century. Small groups of settlers came from France to Akaroa, from Germany to Nelson, and from Bohemia (the Czech Republic) to Pūhoi. The discovery of gold drew fortune seekers from across Europe, including Scandinavia. Others came as assisted migrants during the great wave of arrivals from 1871 to 1885, and in the late 19th century the kauri-gum fields drew migrants from Dalmatia (Croatia). The arrivals were a trickle rather than a steady flow, and this continued into the 20th century.
Hungry, wet and miserable
After keeping a group of German, Polish and Italian migrants waiting in Wellington for months in the mid-1870s, the authorities sent them to Jackson Bay on the southern West Coast. The land needed breaking in, the soil was poor, rain fell for days on end and money for the project ran out. Most of the settlers left – those who stayed became subsistence farmers.
In the first half of the 20th century the New Zealand government favoured migrants from Britain or of British descent, and actively discriminated against non-white migrants. A world war, economic depression, the increasingly desperate position of European Jews and another world war did little to make New Zealand more welcoming.
A post-Second World War labour shortage and the government’s industrialisation policy had more effect. Italian tunnellers and Greek refugees worked on power projects, Scandinavians helped run pulp-and-paper mills, and thousands of Dutch migrants arrived, the men to help build homes and factories, the women to work in them. In the late 20th century more Germans came to New Zealand than ever before, and by the early 2000s they were the biggest group of new European migrants. The environment – both natural and social – rather than the economy drew them across the world.
From 1975 the preference for migrants from Britain or the ‘white’ Commonwealth weakened. The government introduced rights of residence based on skills and wealth.
International air travel and rising incomes encouraged travel to and from Europe and Britain from the 1960s. Before this, international travel had been the preserve of the wealthy, and most of those who visited New Zealand were from the UK upper class.
In the 2000s family ties and a shared language continued to encourage British visitors. Britain ranked fourth as a source of visitors to New Zealand in 2018. Germany (fifth) was the only other EU country in the top 12.