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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Early Development

Countries of the East, particularly China and India, have traded with Europe almost throughout the history of Western civilisation. This trade was changed and expanded by the productivity which the industrial revolution in Europe brought in its train. As far as New Zealand was concerned, although its immigrants of the nineteenth century were mainly of European stock, the colony in its early years had little commerce with the countries of Asia and the Far East. The main reason for this state of affairs was that the industrial revolution had not reached those countries and they, like New Zealand, had economies based largely upon primary production. The nature of their industries did not allow much scope for a mutual trade in raw materials or finished goods. By far the greatest trade was with China, which supplied quantities of tea, some textiles and, during the 1860s, purchased seal skins, the product of the almost defunct seal fisheries. In the latter half of the nineteenth century New Zealand developed a flourishing shipbuilding industry, and small quantities of teak and other hardwoods were imported from Burma, and sisal and hemp from the Philippines and from Java. It was in 1881 that shipments first came to New Zealand directly from India and Burma, the former supplying jute which previously had come via Britain. At about the same time Japan began supplying the New Zealand market with fancy goods, rice, silk, and cotton goods, but until about 1900 the annual value of imports from that country rarely exceeded £10,000.

By about 1890 Ceylon had begun to surpass China as a supplier of tea, and after 1903, when preferential duty rates of 2d. per pound were extended to teas from British possessions, the tea trade with China almost disappeared. Tea and jute were also supplied by India, but trade with that country was supplemented by exports from New Zealand. In 1887 the Union Steam Ship Co. inaugurated a direct shipping service between New Zealand and Calcutta which ran three times yearly for several years and catered for shipments of horses purchased by the Indian Army. Bullion and wool and, later, tallow became other items of export to India. At the present time tallow and milk powders are the main items exported to India, others being wool and some dairy machinery and equipment. Imports from India include jute, textiles, tea, and, until recently, large quantities of petroleum spirit. In 1964 the value of imports from India was £49 million and the value of exports was £734,000. The shipping service between India and New Zealand includes scheduled ports of call at Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Ceylon. Imports from Ceylon in 1964 (mainly tea and coconut) were valued at £21 million, and exports (tallow, dairy products, and other foodstuffs) were valued at £276,000. During 1920 and 1921 the value of trade with Ceylon and India was as follows:

1920 1921
Exports to: £ £
India 49,756 42,917
Ceylon 10,245 28,019
Imports from:
India 940,569 607,926
Ceylon 729,893 320,188

Changing Trade Pattern

The First World War changed the pattern of trade with a number of countries in the area, and some of the change was the result of technological advances made in the use and development of new materials. Until 1914 Japan had supplied less to New Zealand than had either India or Ceylon, but after that date the quantities of textiles – mainly silk – and apparel supplied increased rapidly. A peak was reached in 1920 when imports from Japan were valued at 1,470,071, the largest amount to that time ever imported from any one country of the East. Exports (some wool, some scrap metal), made to Japan were of no great amount and were valued at £4,904 in 1920 and 20,149 in 1921. The Second World War interrupted the trade with Japan, but, from about 1947 onwards, trade and exports in particular began to grow again, with wool and dairy products becoming important items. The inauguration of a shipment of meat in 1953 and of a shipment of logs in 1957 led to considerable exports of those goods. The trade in meat was almost wholly in beef and it received a setback in 1957 when the high prices being offered by the United States diverted supplies to that country. A trade in mutton, however, arose and is now well established. Meantime, Japan had become a source for some base metals, electrical and industrial machinery, and other goods, in addition to the traditional trade in textiles. Silk, however, had largely been displaced by cottons and textiles made from synthetic fibres. In 1958 New Zealand signed a trade agreement with Japan under which each accorded the other most favoured nation tariff treatment. The agreement was revised in 1962.

The following table shows exports to and imports from Japan.

Exports Imports
£ £
1920 20,149 593,343
1938 592,689 1,197,225
1964 17,009,000 16,274,000


New Zealand has had a long-standing trade with Indonesia, but little of this trade has been in exports. Between the wars, Indonesia became an important supplier of rice, of tropical fruits, and of sisal, hemp, kapok, and raw rubber. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Indonesian goods were in short supply and imports were mainly confined to petroleum, oils, kapok, sisal, and raw rubber. On the other hand, Singapore and also Malaysia have become quite a useful market for New Zealand goods, as well as being a source for certain base metals, rubber, canned pineapple, and some timbers. Singapore's role as an entrepôt port is of use also in diverting the export of New Zealand goods to Sarawak, North Borneo, and Brunei.

Summary of the Trade

Exports Imports
Indonesia £ £
1920 3,514 603,292
1938 7,668 2,159,740
1964 2,000 1,257,000
1920 42,369 89,385
1938 64,080 95,590
1964 2,652,00 4,532,000

In 1961 New Zealand and Malaysia signed a trade agreement under which each country gives reciprocal British preferential rates of duty to the other upon certain commodities.

Philippines and China

Both the Philippines and China had early developed trading ties with New Zealand, but it was some time before exports began to flow to those countries. China's war with Japan and her internal political difficulties might have stimulated her buying New Zealand wool; on the other hand, it might have made it difficult to develop trade in New Zealand meats and dairy products. The close association of the Philippines with the United States effectively restricted export avenues for New Zealand goods. After the Second World War, however, New Zealand was able to supply meats and dairy products to the Philippines; China became a more substantial buyer of wool, of tallow, and, on occasion, of wood pulp. Given suitable conditions, trade with the two countries could grow as regular shipping links (inaugurated in 1956 with the Philippines, in 1962 with China) have been established.

Summary of the Trade

Exports Imports
China £ £
1920 35,224 219,485
1938 34,560 108,989
1964 2,313,000 813,000
1920 12 72,447
1938 16,066 19,821
1964 1,371,000 124,000

The 1939–45 war accelerated the development of Hong Kong as an entrepôt centre and as an international free port. During the 1950s Hong Kong became an established supplier to New Zealand of cotton textiles and garments. By the same token, Hong Kong became a market for meats, dairy products, and for quality foodstuffs such as quick frozen vegetables. This trade is well established and supported by a number of shipping services.

Summary of the Trade With Hong Kong

Exports Imports
£ £
1920 28,964 34,707
1938 3 1,043
1964 829,000 3,797,000

by John Bernard Prendergast, M.COM., Director, Overseas Trade Division, Department of Industries and Commerce, Wellington.