Story: Africa and New Zealand

Page 2. Colonists, soldiers and sportsmen: 1800s to 1940s

All images & media in this story

For 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealanders Africa was neatly divided into the white colonies of southern Africa, other British possessions, and the rest. South Africa in particular was well known – until the later 19th century shipping from Britain often went via the Cape of Good Hope. Travelling to one colony and then, for a variety of reasons, moving on to the other was also a common experience. Among the steady trickle to and fro was George Grey, New Zealand’s governor in 1845–1853 and 1860–1868. Between his two stints in New Zealand, Grey was governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner for South Africa.

Apart from the British possessions, the rest of the continent remained ‘darkest Africa’ for most New Zealanders. An exception was those few who went to Africa as missionaries. Christian missions were supported by New Zealand churches through the provision of money and sometimes mission staff through the 19th and into the 20th century. The focus was not only conversion, but education, health care and, at times, famine relief.

South African War

South Africa provided New Zealand’s first experience of war beyond its own borders. From 1899 to 1902 the British, with enthusiastic New Zealand support, fought the Boer republics. (The Boer were descendents of mainly Dutch settlers to South Africa). After the war, which Britain won, British and Boer states became the Union of South Africa. In 1907 New Zealand Prime Minister Joseph Ward was one of the few to object to South Africa allowing only white people to vote, as part of the Act of Union passed by the British Parliament. This was an exception – from 1910, when South Africa became a dominion, New Zealand more often supported it against British ‘interference’ in domestic matters.

Cheering for the wrong team

A match between a Māori team and the first official South African rugby team to visit New Zealand in 1921 was marred for the South Africans by Pākehā onlookers cheering for the ‘wrong’ team – the Māori team. An indignant Peter Buck, a Māori leader, is said to have commented that the South Africans did not realise that Māori were Caucasian not negroid in origin.

Sporting contact

New Zealand and South African teams first played rugby against each other at the end of the South African War, with the first official South African side touring New Zealand in 1921. When New Zealand teams visited South Africa, Māori were generally excluded from the team, due to South Africa’s race laws. Although provoking resentment among both Māori and Pākehā, it was accepted until 1970.

Although contact between New Zealand and South Africa through sports other than rugby was less common, cricket provided another important link. The first full tour to South Africa by a New Zealand side took place in 1953/54, with its high point a dramatic match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. With the New Zealanders short one man, members of the team played on while injured. As they were about to leave the field, New Zealand fast bowler Bob Blair, whose fiancée had died in the Tangiwai rail disaster the day before, appeared to play. The crowd greeted Blair by standing in silence as he emerged from the tunnel.

Sporting contact sometimes led to other personal and business contact.


New Zealand granted South Africa preferential tariffs in 1906. Although trade volumes were never high (both countries were primarily agricultural producers that imported manufactured goods), this preference was maintained into the second half of the 20th century.

Sheep OE

Six sheep were the second-most valuable item sent from New Zealand to east Africa in 1924. By then New Zealand was well-established as a source of breeding stock – in the 1870s James Little of Canterbury had developed the versatile Corriedale as a source of meat and wool – a breed that was shipped to south and east Africa.

Elsewhere in Africa trade was even more limited. By the end of the 19th century all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia were under the colonial rule of one European power or another, with Britain and France the dominant powers. Like New Zealand, such countries’ trade was predominantly with the colonising country.

From east Africa (Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar), for example, New Zealand imported cocoa, coffee, spices and tobacco, and exported sheep, furniture, cabinet ware, upholstery and dairy machinery. A large share of the total were re-exported manufactured goods (generally British-made, imported to New Zealand and sent on to Africa). But the trade in the early 20th century was worth less than £100 per year. In the 1920s and 1930s this increased, reaching the low thousands. An abrupt jump during the Second World War was followed by a continuing increase in trade, with annual values reaching tens of thousands of pounds.

North Africa during the world wars

During both the First and Second world wars, New Zealand troops spent time in north Africa. During the First World War troops were based in Egypt while they trained, and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade played a small part in the British defence of the Suez Canal.

During the Second World War the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force took part in Britain’s North African campaign (1940–43). Africa was little more than the setting for the campaign, which was between European powers. The purpose of the allied campaign was to clear German and Italian forces from Egypt, Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), Libya and Tunisia, where they threatened supply lines through the Suez Canal and the supply of oil on which the British depended.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Africa and New Zealand - Colonists, soldiers and sportsmen: 1800s to 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2019)

Story by Megan Cook, published 20 Jun 2012