Although New Zealand was originally settled by Polynesian migrants (the ancestors of Māori) around 1250–1300, links with Polynesia were lost until European vessels renewed those connections in the 17th and 18th centuries.
With the expansion of European and North American whaling activities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the protected anchorages of New Zealand’s Bay of Islands became an important base for the provisioning of Pacific-bound vessels, particularly from America. Māori agriculture was transformed by servicing whaling ships. Forests were cleared to make way for cultivation of potatoes, wheat and maize, and Polynesians were recruited aboard American ships bound for the Pacific whaling grounds. Many of these vessels deliberately left New England short-handed, intending to pick up a full crew in New Zealand, Hawaii or elsewhere amongst the Pacific Islands.
Selling bird poo
In 1861, 16 Cook Islanders dug up the first load of guano from Starbuck Island in Kiribati (the Gilbert Islands), loading it into the Coral Queen to bring to New Zealand. The 40-tonne cargo sold well and was effective as fertiliser. The bird-droppings trade flourished. Soon hundreds of tonnes were being imported, and by the late 1860s there were a number of vessels bringing Pacific guano to the New Zealand market.
The foundation of the New South Wales penal colony in 1788, and the expansion of European settlement to Hobart Town in Tasmania, and across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, soon fostered sporadic trade linkages with the Pacific Islands.
Exports and imports
In the 1880s Auckland dominated trade to and from the Pacific Islands. Much of what was sent were ‘re-exports’ – manufactured goods made elsewhere (usually Britain), shipped to New Zealand and then on-sold to the islands. With time exports expanded to include meat and butter, and potatoes, cement, coinage and textiles. Imports included sugar, fresh fruit, cocoa beans and copra (dried coconut).
Dreams of a Pacific empire
English emigrant Coleman Phillips's Pacific colonisation scheme, which he submitted to New Zealand Governor James Fergusson and Premier Julius Vogel in 1873, included plans for the 'ultimate dominion' of all Pacific islands and the forced 'supply of native labour'. 'I cannot see,' he wrote, 'why we should allow European Powers to take up or decline at pleasure that which is ours by proximity'.1 Like many such proposals, the scheme was intended as a Pacific version of the immensely profitable British East India Company. Although the detail of his scheme was ignored, Phillips inspired Fergusson and Vogel, igniting a passion for empire in 19th-century New Zealand.
From the later 19th century most New Zealand (and Australian) politicians aspired to political ascendancy across the Pacific Islands. New Zealand was ‘ordained by nature to be future Queen of the Pacific,’2 claimed MP for Auckland East (and former Governor) Sir George Grey, who introduced a Confederation and Annexation Bill in 1883 that would allow the building of an island empire. The Polynesian schemes of New Zealand delegates at the Inter-Colonial Convention of November 1883 – like those advanced in the 1870s – attracted little sympathy from the Colonial Office (responsible for running Britain’s empire).
Rivalry over commercial linkages, land acquisition and strategic issues helped drive New Zealand’s interest in the Pacific Islands. Deep-water harbours like those in Tonga’s Vava’u or Samoa’s Pago Pago were eagerly sought by the world’s industrial powers, generating fears in New Zealand of threatened maritime dominance by potential enemies.