by Barbara Scrivens

An island nation like New Zealand has no problem with defining borders. One is either on land or in the sea.

It is not that simple for a country like Poland, where boundaries have been changing from the moment the Slavic nation made its home between the Odra (Oder) and Wisła (Vistula) rivers in the first centuries.

While the sea crashed around the predominantly rocky shorelines surrounding New Zealand as it waited for discovery, on the plains of central Europe the first inhabitants formed family groups, cliques, and eventually created separate communities with linguistic and cultural differences.

By the ninth century, some of the original Slavs moved south to the Balkan Peninsula and others east towards Russia and Asia. The rest, known as the West Slavs, remained in Europe. German expansion assimilated the Lusatians and Veletians. Czechs and Moravians formed the first Czech Kingdom. The Slovaks aligned themselves to the Hungarian Kingdom. The Polanie (Polans), Wislanie (Vistulans), Pomorzanie (Pomeranians) and Mazowszanie (Mazovians) settled on the flat, fertile land and eventually formed the first Polish state.1

… it gave him the backing of the powerful Pope … and transformed his kingdom into one of the strongest powers in Europe.

The exact date of the birth of Poland is unclear. Polish legend names Lech, leader of the Lechites in the sixth century, as the founder of the Polish nation. Another Lechite, Krakus, gave his name to Kraków in the eighth century.

The year 966 remains undisputed. It marked the baptism of the first historically recognised ruler of the Polanie, King Mieszko I, who accepted Christianity on behalf of his people.

This politically shrewd move gave him the backing of the powerful Pope. Of Piast linage, King Mieszko I extended Poland’s boundaries and transformed his kingdom into one of the strongest powers in Europe.

His descendants’ refusal to accept the law of primogeniture, however, led to a divided land. Family independence and interdependence, religious beliefs and differences, intertribal marriages and those of convenience, deceptions, greed, rivalry, loyalty, political shenanigans, invasions and counter-invasions—all created dynastic struggles, years of battles and land gained and lost.

The meadows dominating north Europe—ideal for crops, building roads and Polish expansion—remained a geographically unhindered conduit for plundering enemies from the east and west. Polish armies were essential protection.


In 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the largest country and one of the greatest powers in central Europe. Its lands stretched across the Baltic States, past Kiev in the east and south to the Black Sea. The era, spanning nearly two centuries, became known as the “Golden Age” for the commonwealth. A minority of szlachta (nobles) governed, Latin the official language. The joint state influenced European politics, trade, literature and discovery. Non-Poles may not be familiar with the works of Mikołaj Rej, the first to write exclusively in Polish, or fellow poet Jan Kochanowski. They are more likely to know Mikołaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus), the Renaissance astronomer and mathematician who shocked the world when he announced that the earth revolved around the sun.

By the 17th century the Polish-Lithuanian military had devised cunning tactics against the vast forces of the Turks and the Tartars. The Poles used highly mobile cavalry units to prise out weaknesses in their opponents and attacked with light cannon artillery and rocketry. Polish-Lithuanian general, military engineer and gunsmith, Kazimierz Siemienowicz, published his artis magnae artilleriae in 1650. It included designs for rockets and other pyrotechnic devices, and became the Polish army's standard instruction manual for the next two centuries.

The Poles gained a reputation for being fierce fighters and frightening to face, something they exploited with embellishments on their livery and horses.

Despite the victories, constant war led to inevitable losses. A third of Poland’s citizens perished in conflicts with the Turks and Tartars in the second half of the 17th century.

External enemies had been made but Poland’s own nobility consumed the commonwealth from within. The same nobility that made up most of Polish-Lithuanian military forces also made the country vulnerable.

Within 40 years, its members granted themselves numerous privileges at the same time as restricting the rights of the peasants…

The Polish monarchy and aristocracy began their destructive tangle in 1454. Jagellonian King Kazimierz IV (Casimir) needed the support of the nobles to go to war against the Teutonic Order. He persuaded the nobles to fight for him by offering to create a law that ensured no new taxes or military levies could be raised without their consent. The resulting committee evolved into the parliament, or sejm. Within 40 years, its members granted themselves numerous privileges while restricting the rights of the peasants who made up the majority of the population.

In due course the king’s role changed. The nobles created a system of serfdom and economic advantage for themselves while reducing the powers of a non-hereditary king chosen from their own ranks. They introduced a law that provided any king-elect swearing to uphold the constitution and all the nobles’ privileges. They introduced a strategy called a liberum veto, ensuring equal rights to each member of the Polish nobility: Every new law, or law change, had to be passed without opposition.

Earlier military triumph, economic prosperity, religious freedom and professed equality among its people unravelled below the extreme privileges of the few. Personal agendas constipated the parliament. Neighbouring enemy states able to befriend a noble—or find a means to bribe him—could manipulate the sejm  without messy military confrontation.


Prosperity lived in Poland among extreme poverty. Religious tolerance during the “Golden Age” had led to an influx of those persecuted in other countries for their beliefs. Catholics, Jews and Muslims found refuge in Poland and Jewish communities thrived. Many Jews saw opportunities to work within the system, and created a new level of prosperity—under the nobility and above the peasantry. An arrangement called arenda allowed Jews who allied themselves with land-owners to tax and collect dues from the peasantry in any way they wished. This made those Jews as unpopular as the original landlords.

Poland’s neighbours took advantage of this dithering sejm and by the latter half of the 18th century, Russia meddled freely in Polish-Lithuanian politics…

As land-owning magnates grew their power, the nobles lost theirs. Sejm members held onto their leverage at the expense of their commonwealth—and ultimately themselves. They refused to pass necessary reforms and resisted supporting a regular army for fear it may be used against them.

Poland’s neighbours took advantage of this dithering sejm and by the latter half of the 18th century, Russia meddled freely in Polish-Lithuanian politics—aided in part by an alleged liaison between the last king of the commonwealth, Stanislaw II, August Poniatowski and the Russian empress Catherine II.

No longer a military force and with its nobility weakened and demoralised—or following Russian orders—it was little wonder that the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth did not resist when Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed swathes of its territory in 1772.

The sejm ratified what became known as the first partition after nobles bribed by the Russians dismantled the liberum veto and ensured a majority vote.

A 20-year national revival could not stop a second partition in 1793 by Russia and this time Prussia took a share of north-western Poland-Lithuania. The next year Austrian troops joined those from Prussia and Russia and annihilated the Poles in a final battle at Maciejowice. By then, not even the accomplished military leader and strategist Tadeusz Kosciuszko could help his beloved country.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth teetered on until 1795 when it was partitioned a third and final time by the empires of Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary and ceased to exist on geographical maps. Stanislaw II was forced to abdicate, taken captive (or moved) to Russia and died in St Petersburg in 1798.


Jan Rajnold Forster was 43 when Prussia first seized his hometown of Tczew, on the Wisła river, about 40 kilometres south of Gdańsk. His surname came from his Scottish grandfather who apparently left his homeland in 1642, the year the English Civil War started. Forster senior joined the thousands who escaped Scotland to start a new life in Europe basking in its “Golden Age.”

1712 map of Poland

This 1712 map of Poland shows the original names of familiar cities today.2

Jan Rajnold’s mother was Polish and his father was once Tczew’s mayor. Jan Rajnold grew up hearing both Polish and German spoken in the home.3 The family could afford to let him pursue his theology, geology and natural history studies. His son, Jan Jerzy Adam Forster, was born on the outskirts of Gdansk, Mokry Dwór, in 1754. At 11 he accompanied his father in Russia for a year, on a contract to Catherine II. Jan Jerzy absorbed his father’s teachings in languages and the natural sciences and joined Jan Rajnold again when his father moved to England to teach.

Poland’s first partitioning happened to coincide with increasing British interest in the most southern reaches of the globe and the tantalising possibility of a great southern continent. The British Admiralty agreed to sponsor Captain James Cook and the hms resolution on a second “deep South probe.”

Joseph Banks, the naturalist and artist who accompanied Captain Cook on his hms endeavour voyage from 1768 to 1771, withdrew shortly before the scheduled departure of the second expedition and Jan Rajnold Forster’s name emerged.4 Forster did not have Banks’ large contingent but his 18-year-old son proved his worth as an able assistant and talented illustrator. During the resolution’s journey the Forsters were known as “two sons of the Commonwealth of Two Nations.”

In March 1773 in Dusky Sound, Fiordland, they became the first Poles to set foot on New Zealand soil.

… it is understandable to surmise that Jan Jerzy Adam Forster… may have been confused as to his nationality. He was not.

The description of Forster senior as “brilliant but cranky” is one of the more polite.5 Jan Rajnold does not seem to have been the most tactful of people and often disagreed with Cook. The Pole, for instance, disputed Cook’s concept that sighting sea ice meant proximity to land, and refused to accept that only unsalted water could produce ice. The British Admiralty needed to agree with Cook’s hypothesis to gain funding for more voyages. On resolution’s return to England, it forced Jan Rajnold to honour the narrow confines of his contract, squeezed him out of a joint publication with Cook, and refused to allow him to publish independently before Cook.

The conflict put Jan Rajnold in financial jeopardy and disillusioned Jan Jerzy. He believed his father’s and Captain Cook’s narratives to be completely different, his father's on the several hunderd new species of fauna and flora they had discovered and Captain Cook’s on the navigation and mapping. Jan Rajnold gave his journals to his son, who, not bound by the same restrictions as his father, took over the writing of their joint observations.

In the preface of his book, Jan Jerzy set out his disappointment in the way his father had been treated. The “British legislature” apparently expected a philosophical account and not Jan Rainold's precise scientific work.

“I thought it incumbent upon me, at least to attempt to write such a narrative,” said Jan Jerzy. Six weeks before Captain Cook’s account of the voyage appeared in print, the Forsters published Jan Jerzy's account: a voyage round the world in his majesty’s sloop, resolution, commanded by capt. james cook, during the years 1772,3,4,5.6

Both books cost two guineas. Cook’s included more than 60 prints and sold well but Forster's did not even cover publication costs.7 Jan Rajnold apparently sold many of his son's botanical drawings to Joseph Banks in an attempt to clear his debts.

Jan Jerzy could have written the book in Polish, German, Latin, French, Russian or English. In 1775 and 1776 the Forsters published a Latin edition describing 75 new genera and 94 new species.7

His father’s financial predicament put pressure on Jan Jerzy to support his father’s family as well as his own. A German version of the book came out in 1778. In 1784 the younger Forster moved to Wilno (now Vilnius in Lithuania) to take up a position as a professor at the Polish University. His last move was to Paris, where he died, aged 40, not living to see his country’s final partitioning in 1795.

With distant Scottish heritage and Polish birth and speaking at least six languages, it is understandable to surmise that Jan Jerzy Adam Forster—also known as Georg, George and Joannes Georgius Adamus—may have been confused as to his nationality.

He was not. In 1792, while living in Paris, he received a letter from Minister of Prussia, Ewald von Hertsberg, in which the minister instructed him to “behave like a good Prussian.” Jan Jerzy replied:

Urodziłem się na ziemi polskiej o milę od Gdańska; opuściłem tęż ziemię rodzinną w chwili, gdy przeszła pod panowanie pruskie, a więc nie jestem pruskim poddanym. (I was born in Polish territory, a mile from Gdańsk, and I had left my motherland when it passed under Prussian rule. Therefore, I am not a Prussian citizen.) 8

He apparently repeated this statement in several scientific and other publications. In his reply to Von Hertzberg, Jan Jerzy said, “Ubi bene, ibi patria,” translated from the Latin as, “Where you feel good, there is your home.”

Jan Rajnold 
and Jan Jerzy in Tahiti

Jan Rajnold and Jan Jerzy Forster in Tahiti. This appears to be plate five of a series engraved after the resolution voyage, paid for by the British Admiralty, and jointly owned by captain Cook and the senior Forster. John Francis Rigard painted the image in 1780.9

Jan Jerzy's assertion to von Hertzberg highlights the complexity of Polish nationality, not made easier today with Polish diaspora accounting for between 10 and 20 million living in more than 90 countries. In the 2006 New Zealand census, nearly 2,000 people classified themselves as Polish,10 marginally more in the 2013 census. Both numbers are considerably smaller than the statistics gathered by the Polish Embassy in Wellington, which records at least 6,000 Poles of varying ancestries living in New Zealand.

The discrepancy may be because there is no specific category for Poland on the census forms and unless one was born in Poland, there is no accurate count of those in New Zealand who have Polish heritage. With no mention made that the form is capable of capturing up to five ethnic groups for each person, there is a natural tendency to put one’s cross against “New Zealand European” in the ethnic group section.11

Jan Jerzy thought of himself as a Pole. After Prussia absorbed the part of Poland where he was born, he could have been classified as any combination of Polish, Prussian or German, depending on the record-taker. Outside Poland, his Scottish surname would have steered people who did not know him away from his Polish ancestry. The various languages that father and son spoke must have provided their ease in a number of countries. Their levels of schooling in the 18th century were a luxury not available to the majority of Poles indentured to their nobles and landlords.


Poles from the rural areas of the same Prussian-occupied Poland as the Forsters decided to leave their country nearly 100 years later for the same reasons that Jan Rajnold’s grandfather left Scotland—loss of land, identity, religious freedom and the dream of a better life.

The Prussian occupiers gradually added pressure on the population to relinquish their Polish roots. The new authority first germanised geographical entities like towns and rivers. By about 1848, it was unlawful for clergy to baptise or register a child with a non-German Christian name. Later it became impossible to register original Polish surnames for marriages or deaths. Until the abolition of serfdom after 1863, nobles received protection from name changes. Some Poles manipulated this nicety in an attempt to keep their Polish names by adding the suffix “ski” to signify their belonging to the house of a noble. Subtleties like that did not work once Otto von Bismarck rose to power and set about creating a vast German Empire. It became illegal in Prussian-occupied Poland to speak, write, read, or keep anything written in Polish. Polish schools were banned, Polish priests disappeared.12

…if the Polish farmers gave him the deeds to their land to “hold,” they could spend the war growing food for the Prussian army instead of facing conscription.

Kaszubian Poles who cherished their ancient dialect were among those who refused to send their children to Prussian schools. This stubborn response created an illiteracy that the Poles may have coped with were it not for the increasing discrimination against their Catholic faith and the theft of their lands, as happened to 17 Polish families from Kokoschken.

Barely able to grow enough to feed their families on their own small pieces of land, they accepted employment as labourers at a neighbouring German’s farm. When the Franco-Prussian War started in 1871 the farmer, a Mr Wurtz, suggested he had the means to arrange it with authorities that, if the Polish farmers gave him the deeds to their land to “hold,” they could spend the war growing food for the Prussian army instead of facing conscription. This suited the Poles, who did not relish fighting on the side of their occupiers.

The war ended a year later. The Poles requested the return of their deeds. Wurtz refused—on the basis that he had given them the chance to save their lives. The villagers had no choice but to continue toiling for an employer lacking scruples in a land where they had no rights.

A Pole in Kokoschken who could read saw a pamphlet extolling the virtues of a new country overseas offering employment and a deferred method of payment for their passage. The Polish villagers embraced the idea and investigated. Wurtz found out and reacted by evicting them, cementing their resolve to leave their homeland.13

However, by the time they arrived in Wellington aboard the fritz reuter the colony had terminated the assisted immigration scheme that the Poles had been promised would pay for their voyage. The evening post on 5 August 1876:14

The arrival of the Fritz Reuter with 420 German [sic] adult immigrants caused a complication which at one time threatened to be rather awkward… the immigrants were despatched by the Continental agents after instructions had been given to the Agent-General… not to send out any more shipments of foreigners… On their arrival here being notified to the General Government yesterday, the latter declined to receive or recognise them, declaring their shipment wholly unauthorised.

German Consul FA Krull applied to the government to take charge of the immigrants and broke the impasse. The fritz reuter passengers disembarked on Tuesday, 8 August 1876.


Polish names, germanised under Prussian rule, underwent more anglicised changes…

Single men, sailors, or adventurers who landed in New Zealand in the 100 years after Cook’s voyages decided for themselves how much of their backgrounds to declare and what to reinvent.

During immigration under New Zealand’s Immigration and Public Works Act of 1871 ships’ manifests documented all immigrants. Polish immigrant groups started arriving in 1872 and usually listed as being German or Prussian. Those without the ability to write, or without the help of someone who could, had to rely on their spoken language to explain who they were.

Polish names, germanised under Prussian rule, underwent more anglicised changes, understandable in a situation where documenting officials were not used to Polish diacritical marks and the language’s proliferation of joined and combined consonants.

Mistakes created took away the most basic clues to their Polish identity—the richness of their country’s alphabet. For example: “Bielawski” became “Bolosky,” “Szymanski” became “Schimanski,” “Zdonek” became “Dunick,” “Piekarski” became “Perkaski” or “Pieharski.” Some officials seemed to try harder than others: “Czablewski” became “Shoplifski” and “Czepanski” became “Shamelifski.”15

Theoretically, the earliest Polish settlers to New Zealand could not have been Poles because Poland did not exist at that time. Nearly 100 years after the last partition of Poland, none of them had been born on free Polish soil. What made them Polish was more than ancestry. It was their spirit.

Some of those first Poles may not have wanted to protest too much about their name changes. When starting a new life it is always easier to fit in when one is not too different.

© Barbara Scrivens, 2015
Updated August 2017


  • 1 -   Initial source:
  • 2 -   Map purchased from the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland City Library.
  • 3 -   Wójcik, Z, Museum of the Earth, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. Published by
  • 4 -   Thomas, N, Discoveries, The Voyages of Captain Cook, Penguin Books, 2003, page 150. Note the author spells Jan Rajnold Forster’s name “Johann Reinhold Forster” and his son, Jan Jerzy as “George.”
  • 5 -   Ibid, page xviii.
  • 6 -   Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures
  • 7 -   New Zealand Electronic Text Collection through the Victoria University of Wellington,
  • 8 -   Ibid, Wójcik, Z.
  • 9 -   This particular image from The Guardian
  • 10 -   New Zealand Department of Statistics.
  • 11 -  Ibid.
  • 12 -  Initial source: Ray Watembach, president Polish Genealogical Society of New Zealand.
  • 13 -  From The Fabisz/Fabich/Fabish Story, pages 2,3 & 5, used with permission of Rod Fabish.
  • 14 -  Evening Post, 5 August 1876, page 2, column 4, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand, Creative Commons licence New Zealand BY-NC-SA,
  • 15 -  Pobóg-Jaworowski, JW, History of Polish Settlers in New Zealand, 1988, page 20.