Story: Energy supply and use

Page 2. Energy before the 20th century

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Māori and energy

All agricultural, building and manufacturing work by Māori relied on muscle power. Goods, and occasionally people, were carried. Waka (canoes) were used for transport and were paddled, or when necessary pushed overland on skids.

Muscle power was supplemented with fire, geothermal heat and, to a lesser extent, wind and water power. Wood fires were used for cooking and heating, and for some manufacture, for example tree trunks were burnt out to make waka. Rama (lamps) were fire lit. People living in the central North Island used geothermal energy to cook food, and geothermally heated pools were bathing spots. Tainui Māori were reported to burn waro (coal).

Water was used to transport goods, for example moa killed inland were taken down by waka to a central butchering area at the mouth of the Waitaki River. Wind-powered sailing waka were also used.

Introduced energy

With Europeans came horses, bullocks, wheeled carts, sailing ships and widespread use of coal. Artificial light was provided by candles or simple lamps, made from or using tallow (animal fat), and camphene (distilled from turpentine made from tree resin). Kerosene distilled from petroleum became cheap enough for general use for both lighting and cooking from the late 1850s. Horses and bullocks carried goods, pulled carts, and were standard farm work beasts.

Cow girls


Johann Wohlers, a Ruapueke Island missionary, described the refusal of local Māori men to drive oxen (bullocks): ‘Men who could sail their boats on the high seas work with oxen! This was too much for their high pride … The girls however, did not consider it beneath them to occupy themselves with the oxen as the men did. They made good drivers, and the Maoris found it astonishingly convenient to have the things they used to bear on their backs carried for them.’1


Wind and water

Wind provided the power for sailing ships, the standard method of travel. Sail continued to be used until the end of the 19th century, alongside coal- and wood-fuelled steamships from the 1850s. Water drove machinery in factories and mills.


Wood was the main fuel for industrial and domestic purposes. Domestic heating, cooking and laundering, and commercial baking, brewing, candle and soap making, wool scouring, and tallow manufacturing all used wood. Industries like flax and timber milling, printing and the new dairy factories used wood-burning steam boilers.

Many people simply gathered wood from the bush or a beach. But people in towns bought their wood from fuel merchants. Some parts of the country were better supplied than others. Southland, Nelson and Wellington were well supplied and Auckland was richly supplied, while Otago and Canterbury had relatively little wood.



Selling wood was a common way of making ends meet, but the income was threatened when uncontrolled fires swept through the countryside in the 1880s. In Waimauku, north of Auckland, 200 tons of firewood was lost; near Masterton stacks of 200 cords (7,200 cubic metres) of wood were only saved when the wind dropped; at Seaward Bush in Southland several large woodstacks were destroyed.


The amount of wood used is not known, although an attempt was made to calculate it in the mid-1880s. Historian Rollo Arnold estimated around 3,000,000 tonnes of wood were used in 1885.


Like wood, coal was used for domestic heating and cooking, and to provide power for everything from factories to steam trains and ships. Coal was also used to make a gas known as ‘town gas’ or ‘coal gas’, which was used for lighting and cooking, heating water and buildings, and driving machinery.

Some communities had a local source of coal, and others brought it in. Domestic coal production in 1895 was 726,000 tonnes, and growing rapidly. By the time production levelled off, in 1912, it was over 2 million tonnes. Another 200,000 tonnes were imported.

  1. Quoted in James Watson, Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996, p. 62. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Energy supply and use - Energy before the 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 11 Mar 2010