A maritime empire
In the early years of European contact with New Zealand, the country was visited by ships of several nations – French explorers, Australian sealers in small boats built in Sydney, American whalers. However, Britain’s defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815 ushered in the Pax Britannica, a century in which Britain possessed the world’s most powerful navy and its largest merchant marine. The greatest number of ships were British, bringing explorers, missionaries, traders and eventually colonisers.
The British connection deepened after New Zealand became a British colony in 1840. By the time the New Zealand Company immigrant ships dropped anchor off the first settlement sites that year, their passengers had been cooped up at sea for months. It was not the holiday that promoters sometimes suggested. These ships were ‘Blackwall frigates’, heavily built and rigged, and smaller (400–800 tons) than the colonial clippers that would appear in the 1870s. And slower. The Aurora took 126 days to reach Wellington and the Bolton 154 days.
But they left their mark. Christchurch still talks about its ‘first four ships’, Dunedin of the Philip Laing and the John Wickliffe. These and other early migrant ships live on in the names of streets and buildings in many New Zealand cities.
Against the wind
Since the wind set the pace, settlers learned to put up with delays, accidents and uncertainty en route. When the colonial shipowner Johnny Jones ran the Anne Jane from Dunedin to Ōamaru in 1854, for example, a succession of storms turned the short journey of 50 nautical miles into a 14-day struggle.
The coastal connection
While the arrival of a migrant ship was always big news, the humble coasters (coastal cargo ships) had more impact on settlers’ daily lives. Every centre developed its own webs of commerce: Auckland’s craft traded to the north, around the Hauraki Gulf and to Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty. Lyttelton had a busy trade with the Banks Peninsula settlements. Dunedin’s network fed in coal from Shag Point, grain from Kakanui and Allday Bay, building stone from Ōamaru, Kakanui and Moeraki, timber from Riverton and Waikawa, and potatoes from Port Molyneux and Moeraki.
In the absence of rail and with roads in poor condition, passengers, livestock and cargo were all carried by one- and two-mast vessels such as cutters, ketches and schooners. For the first 30 years or so after colonisation these small craft dominated shipping movements at colonial ports. Local papers recorded the comings and goings, which were mostly over fairly short distances. On 1 May 1866, for example, four ships left Nelson Harbour. The steamer Lord Ashley sailed for Sydney via Hokitika, but the others were no bigger than modern launches: the 17-ton schooner Australian Maid sailed for Awaroa with 5 passengers and the 18-ton cutter Ann for Waitapu.
Small ships had small-scale owners. Before the 1870s New Zealand shipping businesses were minnows, mostly single-ship ventures, owned by one person or by a few friends who split the shares. An early exception was Auckland partnership Henderson and Macfarlane, whose Circular Saw Line ran in the coastal and Pacific Islands trades for over 50 years from the mid-1840s.
Māori coastal trade
In the early years of European settelement Māori played a significant role in shipping. At first they used waka (canoes) and whaleboats to bring timber, firewood and produce to the new towns. In 1852 traditional craft brought 1,560 tonnes of wood, and fish, flax, grain, fruit, potatoes, vegetables, livestock and poultry for sale in Auckland. Next came the so-called ‘schooner mania’, when some groups invested in schooners and flourmills. The schooner orders kept European shipbuilders busy. At Ōpotiki, for example, Māori owned or part-owned craft such as the Providence, Napi, Mary Paul, Mana of the Queen and Louisa. But the boom was brief and by 1859 it seems that no Ōpotiki Māori owned ships. Expensive to buy and costly to maintain, trading craft were risky investments.