Muslims among early gold miners in Central Otago


Central Otago was home to some of the first Muslims to arrive in New Zealand, historian Abdullah Drury, of Hamilton, says.
Using contemporary sources including newspapers and court records, Mr Drury has uncovered evidence of Muslim immigration and settlement from the earliest periods of colonial history.
‘‘Some of the earliest Muslim workers in this country were in the gold-mining industry.’’
Mahomet Khan was the earliest identifiable Muslim resident who worked in the goldfields at Kyeburn around 1869.

First Musli . . . An advertisement in the Mount Ida Chronicle in 1869 shows Mahomet Khan was co-owner of a water race. PHOTO: MT IDA CHRONICLE

Muslims were often described as Mahometans — ‘‘with various spellings of it’’.
The April 1874 national census reported 15 Chinese ‘‘Mahometans’’ in Otago, most of them working in gold-mining sites including Nokomai and Dunstan.
Described in local newspapers as the ‘‘Mahometan hawker’’, Ahad Baksh Malik arrived from India and settled in Central Otago about 1890.
He spent nearly 30 years travelling to remote farmsteads to sell goods to farmers, as well as running a small shop in Arrowtown, Mr Drury said.
He was ‘‘a popular and lively member of the community’’ who was sympathetically reported on in contemporary newspapers.
Tolerance and racial harmony existed in Central Otago communities during the early years of immigration and settlement.
‘‘There is evidence of racial hostility and abuse occasionally, but there is also evidence of them being defended by their neighbours.’’
In 1901, about 100 Indian soldiers drawn from different units from the British Army of India toured New Zealand.
The soldiers were of the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths.
‘‘The newspapers raved about what wonderful men these were defending the British Empire.’’
However, at the same time the tour was taking place, legislation was being introduced to restrict immigration from Asian countries.
There was ‘‘mixed sentiment’’ within the country — ‘‘respect for the soldiers’’ but also a move towards ‘‘keeping New Zealand as a British colony’’.
But it was incorrect to suggest colonial pioneers were all ‘‘cultural bigots and nasty racists’’, Mr Drury said.
‘‘I would refute the idea there was ongoing, long-term oppression and suppression of minorities.’’

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