9 Mar 2017

The history of immigration booms in NZ

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:32 pm on 9 March 2017

We are currently experiencing an immigration boom. The last two years have seen annual net migration of over 70,000 - 1.5 percent increase in population.

But New Zealand is an immigrant nation. So how does the current immigration boom compare to previous ones?

The first great migration boom was the early Polynesian settlers during the 13th century.

But since European settlement there have been some dramatic population spikes, Victoria University Historian, Grant Morris told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan.

The Treaty boom

“Just after the signing in 1840 we had 2000 non-Māori immigrants in New Zealand, by 1852 there were 28,000, says Morris.

Around that time it’s estimated there were 100,000 Māori in New Zealand.

He says the big increase in settlers was because New Zealand was seen as a more lawful place to start a new life.

“Before 1840 it’s got that kind of Wild West reputation after Britain says it’s going to take it over as a colony the perception changes you can see that in particular with the New Zealand Company guaranteeing law and order.”

Lithograph by E. Noyce of NZ Settlers preparing to return to Britain

Lithograph by E. Noyce of NZ Settlers preparing to return to Britain Photo: Te Ara / Public Domain

The gold boom

When gold is discovered in Otago in the early 1860s virtually overnight Otago’s population shot up.

“Dunedin becomes a boom town in 1863 there’s net migration of approximately 35,000, this is in a country with a population base of 100,000; that’s a 35 percent increase in one year, it is huge.”

Those immigrants came from all around Britain, previous gold rush locations such as Victoria and California and gold miners from China.  

The Vogel boom

Julius Vogel, New Zealand’s eighth prime minister, pursued an active nation-building programme, borrowing money to fund public works.

“One key aspect of that was, just as it’s argued today the current government, is using immigration to bolster the economy. Vogel said that very openly during the 1870s. There was a huge amount of immigration during that period, a lot of it assisted.”

In 1874 there was net migration of approximately 38,000, Morris says, the kind of big raw numbers we would not see again until the present day.

“Many Pakeha can trace their British ancestry back to this particular boom.”

From then until the end of the WWII New Zealand saw its population increase gradually.

In the 1950s and 1960s Pasifika people came in numbers to work in the then booming manufacturing sector. And there was strong and steady growth until the early 1970s.

“We went through to a bit of a boom in the early 1970s, then a drop off and a bit of a boom in the early 1990s. From the 1990s you get the beginnings of a more Asian New Zealand.”