The Poll Tax in New Zealand

I became curious about the poll tax when a customer requested a book by Nigel Murphy called 'The Poll Tax in New Zealand' (1994). The research and writing of this book was commissioned by the New Zealand Chinese Association. The book highlights the NZ government's involvement in discrimination against Chinese settlers and the hardships they suffered as a result of the steep poll tax they had to pay when moving to NZ (see post on 19 March 2013)..

The NZ government introduced the poll tax in 1881. Under the Chinese Immigrants Act only Chinese immigrants had to pay the poll tax. The tax was a response to anti-Chinese attitudes in European settler society after an economic slump and increasing competition for jobs.

Ref: 31-60218, Mr Going, 1910, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Initially the poll tax was £10 per head. In 1896 the Act was amendment and the tax raised to £100 per head. This was an astronomical cost then - £10 is the equivalent of $1560 today and £100 equates to around $17600.

A 1908 article in the Dominion newspaper describes the process Chinese settlers had to endure when paying the poll tax. Name, origin, occupation, destination and fingerprints of both hands were all recorded as evidence of payment.

Ref: AWNS-19330301-34-3, hostilities between Japan and China, 1933, Sir George Grey Special Collections
The poll tax was collected until 1934 when Japan invaded Manchuria (reported in The Auckland Weekly News). It was finally repealed in 1944 - NZ was the last country in the world to do so. Research such as Murphy's book finally brought the poll tax under public scrutiny in the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually, in 2002, the NZ government made a formal apology to the Chinese community and The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust was set up to assist descendants of people who had to pay this debilitating and expensive tax.

Back to the customer who requested the book – her grandfather, who had paid the poll tax, appeared in the book. She was literally on her way to China and had arrived at the Central Auckland Research Centre just before closing and was thrilled to see the book.

Ref: 4-2212, looking north west along Cook St from Hobson St, showing the Chinese Mission Centre (on left), 1928, Sir George Grey Special Collections
For more information, Auckland Libraries has a number of heritage resources relating to the poll taxArchives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o Kāwanatanga also holds some poll tax records, and has an online exhibition. Other Chinese related resources include The Chinese Digital Community, which  is a collaboration between Auckland Libraries and the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Chinese in New Zealand website.

Author: Emma Chapman, Central Auckland Research Centre