The Italians In New Zealand

Dating from the mid-1870s, Italians facing a bleak future began emigrating to other countries in what was to become one of the greatest mass movements from a single country in modern history. While most went to other European countries, North and South America and Australia, a small number made their way to New Zealand.

Wellington, New Zealand

Here is a brief timeline of the movement of Italians to New Zealand:

1770: Antonio Ponto, a seaman on Captain James Cook's ship, the Endeavour, was the first Italian to set foot on New Zealand soil around 1770.

1860: Italian friars arrived in New Zealand to set up a Catholic mission for the local native population, the Maoris. It was a dismal failure and the friars returned to Italy in 1873.

A small group of Italians arrived in the 1860s during the New Zealand gold rush. When the rush was over, some returned to Italy, some left for Australia, while others moved to the cities looking for work.

1870s: A new group of immigrants arrived, mostly single men from the north of Italy who later sent for their wives, children and other family members in what came to be known as 'chain migration'.

1874: The 1874 New Zealand census listed 258 Italian-born men and 22 women.

1890s: Italian immigrants began arriving from rural areas in Italy. With a government policy that encouraged chain migration, whole families were reunited in New Zealand and close-knit communities developed as people from the same areas in Italy joined their fellow villagers in the new country. Many became dairy farmers.

Families from Stromboli, one of Italy's Aeolian Islands, helped to establish the fishing industry at Island Bay. The area features a vibrant Little Italy, and the Strombolani have published two books documenting their history in New Zealand.

1882: Wellington's Garibaldi Club was founded. Activities included social events, folk dancing and card games. It is still active in the 2000s.

1896: Missionary Dom Felice Vaggioli published a commentary on British exploitation of the Maori population.

1900s: Settlers from Massa Lubrese (near Naples) and Potenza, in the Basilicata region east of Naples, established a tomato-growing community in Nelson.

Immigrants from the northern Italian regions of Tuscany and Veneto became market gardeners in the Hutt Valley, supplying fruit and vegetable markets in Wellington.

1901: The 1901 New Zealand census listed 428 Italian-born residents.

1910: Italian miners from Northern Italy worked in New Zealand's West Coast coal-mining industry for the next 50 years.

1918: Street and cinema musicians, mostly from the southern province of Potenza, worked in New Zealand.

Small groups of immigrants came from Massa Lubrense (near Naples) to Gisborne and Hawke's Bay and found work in the fishing and farming industries. Immigrants from Stromboli began sheep farming on D'Urville Island.

Italians from Tuscany set up dairy farming, grape growing and market gardening near Levin and Shannon.

Italian immigrants suffered the same prejudice and ill treatment in New Zealand as they did in other countries. But when Italy joined the Allies in World War I, they began to win a greater degree of acceptance.

1920s: Northern Italian stone workers from Treviso and Udine settled in Auckland and set up businesses manufacturing terrazzo tiles. As late as 1966, 72% of all terrazzo workers were Italian.

1925: Club Italiano was established in Auckland.

1945: During World War II, Italy allied itself with Hitler and was declared an enemy. Approximately 38 Italian men were interned on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. When Italy later joined the Allies, public opinion reversed as Italians assisted New Zealand soldiers in Italy. Diplomatic relations with Italy began in 1951.

1946: After World War II, more women and children arrived in New Zealand as part of the migration chains. A small number of Italian women arrived as brides of New Zealand soldiers.

1951: 130 refugees from provinces ceded to Yugoslavia arrived in New Zealand as displaced persons.

The 1951 New Zealand census listed 1,058 Italian-born residents.

1955: Auckland's Società Dante Alighieri was founded to encourage an appreciation of Italian culture. Wellington's branch of the Società was known as the Circolo Italiano.

1960s: A large number of northern Italian miners and tunnellers were brought to New Zealand on contract to work on hydroelectric projects. Two-thirds married New Zealanders, while others returned to Italy in the 1980s.

1961: The 1961 New Zealand census listed 1,427 Italian-born residents.

1970s: Italian migration dwindled due to Italy's economic resurgence.

1976: The 1976 New Zealand census listed 1,844 Italian-born residents.

1987: The New Zealand immigration policy offered opportunities for Italians to set up businesses, opening the doors for a movement away from traditional occupations like agriculture and fishing. By 2001, 59% of Italian-New Zealanders were working as managers, professionals or technicians.

1990s: A total of 312 Italians immigrated between 1992 and 1998.

1996: For the first time, the 1996 census allowed people to identify with more than one ethnic group. Those responding as 'Italian' increased dramatically from 1991: from 1,539 to 4,911. A number of early Italian immigrants married Maori women so many New Zealanders claim both Italian and Maori ancestry.

2001: The 2001 New Zealand census listed 1,440 Italian-born residents.

2006: The 2006 New Zealand census listed 1,539 Italian-born residents. The number claiming some Italian ancestry was 3,114.

Since the 1990s there has been a growing interest in all things Italian. Demand is growing for Italian foods – pasta, pizza, wine, espresso coffee, vegetables, herbs and breads. Italian culture is highly valued, from fashion and language classes to furniture and garden design. The younger generations of Italian New Zealanders cater to this niche market with their own businesses and restaurants, particularly in Auckland and Wellington.

The Italian-New Zealand community in Wellington has published two excellent books on their history. You can find them by clicking on Italians In New Zealand.