Sugar from Fiji
In the early 20th century trade with the South Pacific was dominated by imports of sugar cane from Fiji. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company built up sugar plantations and milling operations in Fiji, and opened a refinery in Birkenhead, Auckland, in 1884.
Ballad of the Stonegut Sugarworks
Poet James K. Baxter briefly worked as a cleaner at the Birkenhead sugar refinery in 1969. He later recorded his impressions in a poem:
Oh, in the Stonegut Sugar Works
The floors are black with grime
I think they must have built it
In Queen Victoria's time.
And all the sugar in the land
Flows through that dismal dump
And all the drains run through the works
Into a filthy sump.
And then they boil it up again
For the money in each lump.1
In the 1920s it became more profitable for the company to source raw sugar from other countries, and Fiji ceased to be the main source of supply. Although the Fiji trade revived briefly in the 1940s and again in the 1980s, most sugar has been imported from Australia since 1960. It is still processed at the refinery in Birkenhead.
Phosphate from Banaba and Nauru
The second major Pacific trade commodity was rock phosphate, which is formed from bird droppings or animal bones that have dried and built up over a long period. This is combined with sulphuric acid to make superphosphate, the main fertiliser used on New Zealand’s pastoral farms since the 1930s.
The trade began after large reserves of rock phosphate were discovered on Banaba (Ocean Island) and Nauru, then a German protectorate. They were found in 1900 by Albert Ellis, a New Zealander working for the Melbourne-based Pacific Islands Company. Similar large deposits were found soon afterwards on Makatea (Aurora Island) in what is now French Polynesia, and Angaur in the Caroline Islands (now Palau).
Originally guano (bird droppings) was imported, but this was replaced by rock phosphate in the first decade of the 20th century. From the early 1920s until the mid-1980s phosphate was New Zealand’s main import from the Pacific region.
Mining the phosphate
The privately owned Pacific Phosphate Company controlled the early phosphate trade on Nauru, Banaba and Makatea. The company’s interests in Nauru and Banaba were taken over by the British Phosphate Commission in 1919. A New Zealand government representative always held one of the three directorships on this commission.
The commission mined the deposits at a rate much faster than would have given the greatest return to the islanders, and the phosphate was sold at low prices – sometimes half the world market price – for the benefit of New Zealand and Australian farmers. Makatea’s phosphate had run out by 1966, Banaba’s by 1979, and Nauru, which controlled its own phosphate after its independence in 1968, stopped large-scale production in 2000. The British Phosphate Commission was wound up in 1981. New Zealand’s phosphate supplies now come mainly from North Africa.