Invisible reviewed in the New Zealand Journal of History


A review of Jacqueline Leckie’s Invisible: New Zealand’s history of excluding Kiwi-Indians has appeared in the New Zealand Journal of History’s April issue. Reviewer Jane Buckingham writes:

Invisible is an uncomfortable book. As noted in the introduction, it does not focus on the resilience and triumph against adversity of migrants to New Zealand from the Indian sub-continent, though many have needed such qualities in abundance to thrive. Rather, it confronts the historical exclusion, marginalization, prejudice and overt racism experienced by many seeking to make a life here. The book is timely, passionate, highly readable and deeply challenging. As an Australian migrating to New Zealand in 1996, I was counselled that New Zealand was different and did not have the equivalent of a “white Australia policy. Leckie’s work puts paid to any lingering doubt about New Zealand’s historical response to Indians seeking a place here.

Building on research by Brawley, Nachowitz, McLeod, Andrews, Bandyopadhyay and others, Leckie brings rich new material to demonstrate irrevocably the depth of legal and discretional strategies practised to keep Indians out of the country until the significant liberalization of the 1987 Immigration Act. Dating from the late nineteenth century, New Zealand’s approach was not unique and was based in wider imperial reluctance to allow non-white immigration into British settler colonies, except as short-term contract labour. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada all established immigration policies of varying degrees of severity that targeted Asian immigration. Much of the focus was on restricting Chinese immigration, but Indians were also caught up in the stereotyping and marginalizing of non-white peoples. What complicated efforts to exclude Indians from New Zealand and other settler societies was that, unlike the Chinese and other Asian targets of racism, they were, like the white settlers, subjects of the British Empire and then, after Indian independence in 1947, the Commonwealth.

As the stories of individual Indians and their families interwoven through the book show, many migrants had the aspirations of any settler: to remove themselves from violence or extreme poverty, to work, to find opportunities denied them at home, to escape harsh and restrictive social pressures, to develop the financial security to afford to marry and support their families and, more recently, to benefit from education and training. Histories of Irish and Scottish migration through the British Empire and the reasons for post-war migration away from Europe are not dissimilar.

The value of this book lies in part in its reproduction in easily accessible form of rich primary source materials. Official documents, photographs, petitions, newspapers, legislation, commissioners’ reports, interviews and community sources demonstrate irrevocably the history of legal, institutionalized and casual racism in New Zealand. The faces and lives of the individuals and families involved also speak through the pages, resisting and persisting despite marginalization, and making lives enriching not only for themselves but the communities around them.

The book is divided into seven chapters that bring a mix of narrative, historical and thematic insight into a very complex history. After the cowardly attacks in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, the use of race to promote white nationalist and political agendas remains a real threat to New Zealand’s civil and democratic society. These tendencies and the persistence of casual racism are central to the argument made in Chapters 3 and 7 for recognizing the historical and current experience of Indians living in New Zealand. Chapter 3, which unpacks Pukekohe’s history of racism directed at both Chinese and Indian immigrants, shows how easily cultures of vicious exclusion become entrenched in local communities. The establishment of a range of anti-Asian organizations in the early twentieth century, including the “White Race League” and, from 1923, branches of the Klu Klux Klan in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, to prevent “Oriental immigration is particularly jarring. The chapter also demonstrates Indian resistance. The New Zealand Indian Central Association was established to counter misinformation, vicious threats and intimidation, and its members quietly petitioned government and gained traction for their right to be respected as British subjects.

Other chapters focus on the context and justification of racism. The interwar period is of particular importance. Ideologies of eugenics rife at a global level in European societies combined with anxieties about the depletion of white racial stock in settler societies. When so many strong settler men had been killed in war and the 1918 flu pandemic wreaked havoc on those remaining, desperately needed immigrant workers were seen as a threat to Pākehā and Māori womanhood, and to the purity of the settler society and culture. At the same time, white working-class men and their families, struggling through the Depression, feared immigrant workers taking their jobs and working for lower wages. These arguments against immigration recur through New Zealand’s history and are familiar refrains in Britain and other white settler societies.

At the same time, the openness and warmth of New Zealanders to Indian immigrants is recognized and embraced. As Leckie shows, the tension between bicultural and multicultural Aotearoa New Zealand is resolved often on a personal level with Pākehā and Māori families, neighbours and communities expressing manaakitanga, and finding more common ground than cause for fear and isolation.’