Ethnic Minorities

While many Europeans were out hunting gold in the South Island, they were joined by a variety of other ethnicities. There were Maori, Indian and African-American miners present on the goldfields, but by far the biggest majority were the Chinese. These Chinese miners often found life difficult on the goldfields, as many European miners held prejudices against them. This resulted in the Chinese miners having extremely different experiences on the fields compared to their European counterparts. Overall, ethnic minorities lived very different lives on the goldfields.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Maori did not place any value on gold. During the early stages of the rushes, some Maori acted as guides for European miners searching for gold in areas which the Maori knew well. When Maori learned of the value that the Europeans placed on gold, some joined in the rushes themselves. However, other Maori weren’t as keen on the gold rushes. When a small amount of gold was found in the Coromandel, the Maori there were very reluctant to open up their land to miners, and resisted against pressure from Europeans. In 1935, Hori Watene called gold a “curse” that had been placed upon New Zealand. This was because gold resulted in Europeans desiring Maori land even more, and made the settlers even more desperate to own areas that could be rich in gold.[1]

Chinese Miners
Chinese gold miners outside their shack in Otago.

About 5000 Chinese miners made their way to New Zealand from Australia, in order to follow the rush to gold. Chinese miners had faced prejudice and had run into trouble during previous gold rushes in California and Victoria, and this time had learned several lessons from these experiences. In New Zealand, they set up their own communities, separate from the main European communities. Most of the Chinese miners were neither Christian nor English-speaking.[2] Their language, appearance and opium habits set them apart from the European miners, and anti-Chinese feeling began to spread through the Europeans.

The Chinese miners were given claims that had already been mined by Europeans. The Chinese miners would typically go over their areas meticulously, and would leave very little gold behind. This was in contrast to the mining methods of the Europeans, which were often haphazard, resulting in inefficiency.[3] This passing down of used land, and the ability of the Chinese miners to mine gold from it, often bred resentment within the European communities.

Yellow Peril

A comic portraying the “Yellow Peril” attacking NZ. The arms have words such as “Opium”, “Greed” and “Evil Habits” on them.

While physical violence against Chinese miners never really occurred like it did in California and Victoria, there was still enough dislike to make the situation uncomfortable for immigrants. Chinese miners were often forced to live in small, rundown cottages in Dunedin, and there was often anti-Chinese propaganda present in the mining towns. As more and more Chinese immigrants arrived, resentment towards them increased, and eventually anti-Chinese legislation was passed by the New Zealand government.[4] The anti-Chinese prejudice resulted in a poll tax being placed on Chinese immigrants in 1881. This was an attempt to deter the Chinese from migrating to New Zealand.[5]

The Chinese miners in particular had a hard time on the gold fields of New Zealand. They were often targeted in practical jokes, and were the victims of some anti-Chinese legislation. This led to them having a very different gold mining experience compared to the European miners.


[1] Te Ara, Page 10

[2] Olssen and Stenson, Pages 166-177

[3] Te Ara, Page 10

[4] Olssen and Stenson, Pages 166-177

[5] Te Ara, Page 10

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