New Zealand ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

With thousands of emigrants settling in New Zealand since 1800, Jeremy Palmer discusses the many ways to track their lives on the other side of the world.

New Zealand, unlike the various British colonies in Australia, was never a place of convict settlement and so migrants to the country from the UK arrived as free settlers. While the two main islands making up New Zealand – North Island and South Island – had first been charted by Europeans in the 17th century, it was not until the late 18th century that European settlement took place there. It is estimated there were only 50 Europeans resident there in 1800 compared to between 100,000 and 200,000 Maoris.

The growth of the British colony in New South Wales, Australia, saw a rise in trade with Maoris for items such as flax and timber, but it was not until 1826 that the first attempt at colonisation of New Zealand from here took place, when two shiploads of immigrants arrived. However, many found conditions in the new country too harsh and resettled in New South Wales, leaving only a few hardy types behind. In 1840, British sovereignty was declared following the Treaty of Waitangi, whereby Maori chiefs ceded overlordship to Queen Victoria in return for protection of their lands and rights.

At this time, there were about 1,200 European settlers in the North Island and around 200 in the South Island and these numbers steadily grew over the next 20 years or so. However, the main era of immigration came in the late 1850s and early 1860s following the discovery of gold in the islands. In one month in 1861, more than 14,000 people arrived at the port of Dunedin and by 1867, there were over 217,000 Europeans in the colony.

Free settlers and assisted immigrants continued to flood into the country and by the end of the 18th century, European numbers had reached nearly 750,000. In contrast, the Maori population had declined due to diseases brought by the Europeans and also the effects of the Maori Wars (1844-1872).

By the end of the 18th century, there were just over 42,000 Maoris in the islands. Migration continued in the 20th century and, like Australia, New Zealand saw an upsurge in the numbers arriving from the UK in the period after the Second World War.

Many settlers travelled directly from Britain, but there was also a large amount of traffic with New South Wales and so often the New Zealand colonists of the 19th century may have travelled via Australia, where they may have lived for months or years. Many white New Zealanders of European descent, or “Pakeha”, will probably have no more than five or six generations of ancestors, given the fairly recent nature of the main migrations.

The majority of British immigrants came from England simply due to the larger home population but Ireland and Scotland also contributed a large percentage of people.

Photo © Getty Images

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