The young Indian man assaulted on the streets of Sandringham earlier this month migrated to New Zealand believing it was a peaceful, tolerant place. Our history suggests otherwise, writes Scott Hamilton.
Content warning: contains racist language and descriptions of violence.
The man had been enjoying the June winter sunshine, walking the deserted midday streets of Sandringham. As he crossed Fowlds Ave a silver hatchback surged towards him; its crew of young men leered. The man ran across the avenue and down a footpath; the car’s engine followed. He heard doors slamming, and felt fists on the back of his head, his neck. The men shouted abuse while they kicked and punched their victim. They left him bleeding and screaming in the middle of the road.
When he talked to journalists afterwards, he explained that he had emigrated from India two years ago. New Zealand, he had believed, was a safe and tolerant nation. The racist language of his attackers had upset him as much as their fists.
He was not the first to believe in New Zealand’s tolerance. After the terrorist atrocity in Christchurch on 15 March, our prime minister fronted a press conference where she insisted that racist violence was ‘not us’. The prime minister believes that the terrorist’s ideas, as well as his actions, belonged not to New Zealand history but to distant, more troubled lands.
We have a long history of racism and racist violence against our Indian migrants, that was perpetuated by the attack in Sandringham.
On 4 June 1920, exactly 99 years before, New Zealand’s largest voluntary organisation held a national conference in Wellington. The Returned Services Association had been formed in 1916 by veterans of Gallipoli and other battles of the Great War. By 1920, though, the group was preoccupied by thoughts of a new racial conflict. The delegates to its conference passed a resolution declaring that New Zealand was threatened by an ‘influx of Hindus and Chinese’ and demanded that Prime Minister William Massey do something to stop this army of immigrants. The intruders were, the RSA believed, taking jobs and farms from returned soldiers, and threatening the safety of white women and children.
The RSA’s resolution had been sought by its Te Awamutu branch. Three months before the conference, Indian migrants and locals had rioted on the main street. The Indians had tried to buy beer at a local tavern and had been ejected. Pākehā drinkers had followed them onto the mud race that passed for a footpath. Soon men were sprawling and grappling in the mud.
The Waikato Times reported that the morning after the battle, the local courthouse was filled with ‘badly battered’ combatants. Constable Doyle, whose beat included Te Awamutu, told the paper that ‘Hindus’ had become a ‘menace’ to the town.
Shortly after the RSA’s denunciation of Indian migrants, a group of workers building a road from Lyttleton and Christchurch, over the vertiginous Port Hills, learned that several ‘Hindus’ had been recruited to help break stones for the retaining walls they were raising by the route’s dips and bends. The white men dropped their shovels and abandoned their wheelbarrows, vowing not to go back to work until the Public Works Department sacked the Indians. After a week the department acceded.
Soon the anti-Indian crusade spread to Carterton. Late on a cold spring afternoon, a group of seven Indian workers who had been scything gorse and uprooting ragwort on a remote farm walked into a cottage their employer had acquired for them on the edge of the Wairarapa town. The workers wanted to rest and to take shelter from the weather, but news of their arrival in Carterton soon spread, and a mob of 70 whites laid siege to the cottage, shouting threats and abuse. Policemen arrived but were unable to disperse the crowd. Eventually, the mob got its wish, and the Indians retreated to Masterton, where they camped for the night in a park.
Like the RSA’s anti-Indian resolution, the ethnic cleansing of Carterton was endorsed by many New Zealand newspapers. The Waipa Post, for example, printed news of the Indians’ expulsion alongside an editorial on ‘The Hindu Menace’.
Large numbers of Indians had been arriving in the South Pacific since the late 1870s when Britain began to import workers to plant and cut sugar in Fiji. In the slums of Calcutta and the villages of Uttar Pradesh, recruiters told hungry young men about the fine houses and high wages that awaited them in Fiji. After signing contracts they often could not read, the indentured labourers had to work for five or ten years, for wages of three pounds a year, and live in shacks not much larger than dog kennels. Overseers whipped and caned them.
After they had finished their contracts, hundreds of Indians began to leave Fiji for New Zealand where they worked as itinerant hawkers selling clothes and jewellery in small towns, and as scrub cutters and fencers on Pākehā farms. Although the migrants were commonly referred to as ‘Hindus’ by newspapers and Pākehā politicians, Hindu/Hidutva is the religion or way of life, Hindi is the language originating from Sanskrit, and Hindustan/Hindustani refers to India and being Indian (Hindi is sometimes used colloquially). The influx of migrants from India were not just Hindu but included Muslims, Sikhs, Ahmadiyyans and Parsees.
In an effort to stop the migrants from Fiji, New Zealand authorities created an ‘Education Test’, which required them to answer a series of questions in English. In response, ‘cramming schools’ opened in Suva and Nadi, where would-be migrants earned enough English to enter New Zealand.
A few Indian migrants were able to buy their own plots of land or open stores. By 1920 the Waikato and the King Country had become centres of a fledgeling New Zealand Indian community.
Some of the Indian people who could not escape indenture on Fiji appealed to their homeland for help. In 1912 Mahatma Gandhi, already a famous anti-imperialist, responded to letters from Fiji by sending the young lawyer Manilal Doctor to the colony.
Manilal Doctor wore a handlebar moustache and thick spectacles. He had worked for Gandhi in Mauritius, representing that colony’s Indian workers. Doctor infuriated British administrators by winning a series of cases on behalf of indentured labourers in Fiji’s courts. Doctor set up a newspaper, the Indian Settler, and an organisation, the Imperial Indian Association, to argue against the enslavement of his countrymen.
On the first day of 1920, Britain finally abolished indentured labour in Fiji. The colony’s Indians had the right to strike, and they soon began to use it. By the end of January, many of Viti Levu’s sugar plantations were deserted, as thousands of Indians walked off the job and marched on Suva demanding better wages and conditions. After a white man beat up one of the marchers, the Indians began to arm themselves. They occupied Suva’s commercial district, brandishing long sticks and knives. They set up checkpoints on bridges over the city’s rivers, and broke into the wharfside warehouses where the sickly sweet fruits of their labour awaited export.
Desperate to take back control, colonial administrators appealed to New Zealand for soldiers. Prime Minister Massey sent 60 artillerymen, armed with six heavy machine guns on the government steamer Tutanekai. The Labour opposition criticised the mission, and the Tutanekai was held up for a day in Auckland when waterside workers, who were suspicious of the ship’s strike-breaking mission, refused to load it with coal. Perhaps worried by this bad publicity, Massey imposed a blackout on news from Fiji. Journalists and Labour politicians chafed at the lack of cables from the colony. ‘New Zealand may be involved in a state of war without its people knowing anything’, the Taihape Times complained on February 4.
Without news from Fiji, New Zealanders spread fantastic rumours. Some Pākehā believed that the white males of the colony were about to be exterminated by the striking sugar workers, and that the white women would be ravished by the rebels. Others speculated that Indians would use Fiji as the base for an invasion of New Zealand. Since the nineteenth century, many white New Zealanders had seen India as an alien and dangerous place. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 had almost destroyed British rule in India and showed the potential power of the subcontinent’s huge population. Now, with the uprising in Fiji, the threat from distant India seemed to have been brought near. Fiji had become a sort of portal, through which the ‘Indian menace’ might reach New Zealand.
But the striking sugar workers were no match for New Zealand’s artillerymen. At a bridge over the river Samabula, on the edge of Suva, the New Zealanders opened fire on a huge crowd of strikers. At least one Indian was killed, and many more were wounded. The rebellion died, and Manilal Doctor was deported to New Zealand.
Doctor settled among the besieged Indian community of Te Awamutu and gave a series of public lectures about Indian culture and racial equality in the North Island’s small towns. He applied for a lawyer’s licence, saying he wanted to represent New Zealand Indians brought before the courts. But the Auckland Law Society blocked him, saying that events in Fiji had shown he was a man of ‘bad character’. In 1922 Doctor left for India.
Most of the early attacks against Indians were spontaneous, but soon the colony’s racists began to organise. In 1923 a retired Presbyterian minister from New Jersey named Huston toured New Zealand, promoting the Ku Klux Klan. At a meeting in Dunedin’s Knox Hall, Huston called the Klan a force for “light and truth”, and claimed that it had “saved the United States” by “putting the Negro in his place”. In August 1923 the Auckland Star announced that a branch of the Klan had been formed in the city, with the object of stopping ‘Oriental’ migration. In October an Indian-owned shop on Christchurch’s Colombo Street was vandalised, and a note saying “The KKK is here” was pushed under its door. In December four shops on Auckland’s Mount Eden Road burned down. One of the bereft shopkeepers told police he had recently been visited by a man claiming to represent the Ku Klux Klan. He had treated the man’s threats as a joke; now he knew the Klan was no joke.
The White New Zealand League, which was founded in Pukekohe in 1926, was a more genteel vehicle for racism. The League’s campaigns against Indian and Chinese migration were endorsed by the RSA, which passed a resolution at its 1926 conference reaffirming its commitment to a ‘white New Zealand’. The Auckland Trades Council also endorsed the League’s call for the deportation of all non-white migrants from New Zealand.
Pressure from the White New Zealand League and its co-thinkers helped to segregate many public facilities and private businesses around the North Island. Indian, Chinese, and Māori patrons of Pukekohe’s cinema were for many years required to sit upstairs, away from white customers. The town’s barber shops were closed to non-whites, and its pub had separate rooms for whites and non-whites. Towns like Kaitaia, Tauranga, and Hamilton had segregated restrooms until the 1950s, and in 1959 the Papakura Tavern became the centre of a national controversy after the psychiatrist Rongomau Bennett exposed its refusal to serve Māori.
In 2003 Pukekohe’s mayor apologised to the town’s Indian community. Heather Maloney acknowledged that Indians had suffered decades of segregation and vilification, and hoped that the racism of the past had been banished from the 21st century.
Recent history suggests Maloney was too optimistic. A year ago an Indian Kiwi was threatened in West Auckland by a woman who told him to “go back” to his “own country”. After Avi Jayapuram shared his story, scores of Indian New Zealanders used social media to document their own experiences of racism. In January last year the owner of design shop Precinct 35, Prak Sritharan, whose ancestors were part of the Waikato Indian community that hosted Manilal Doctor, recalled in a piece for Newsroom being verbally abused on four separate occasions on a Saturday night out, having rocks thrown at him, and being called a “black c***t”.
Unfortunately, the recent violence in Sandringham is part of a long and lamentable history.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.