Story: United States and New Zealand

Page 1. Early relations, 1790–1939

All images & media in this story

New Zealand had a long and rich relationship with the United States from the early days of European settlement. During the 20th century this became perhaps New Zealand’s most colourful international relationship.

The mid-1980s breakdown of the military alliance with the US, by then the world’s most powerful country, over the issue of nuclear-ship visits was one of the most important turning points in New Zealand’s foreign policy. Efforts to improve the security relationship between the two countries took nearly two decades to make significant headway. However, the signing of the Wellington Declaration in late 2010 during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Zealand demonstrated a closer security relationship.

Contacts between people

From the last years of the 18th century, American sealers and whalers visited New Zealand waters in pursuit of their catch. In 1838, 54 of the 96 whaling ships that visited the Bay of Islands were American, and James Clendon became US consul in Kororāreka (later called Russell) that year. An American whaler introduced a sweet potato superior to traditional Māori kūmara, and the new variety became known as ‘merikana’ (American). The gold rushes of the 1860s also attracted some miners from the United States. Popular American entertainments such as minstrel shows toured New Zealand, and so did lecturers, such as Mark Twain in 1895.

Reverse flows

While American thinkers influenced New Zealand reformers in the late 19th century, the reverse was also true. American progressives saw the New Zealand example of factory acts, women’s suffrage and industrial relations as significant experiments, and the Chicago reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote two books on New Zealand – Newest England and A country without strikes.

Cultural influences

American ideas were significant influences on late-19th-century New Zealand. The American Women’s Christian Temperance Union had a major influence on the women’s suffrage movement that gained the vote for New Zealand women in 1893. Social thinkers such as political economist Henry George and the Populist political movement (which worked for agrarian reform in the US) influenced attempts to restrict large land holdings at the end of the century. US labour organisations such as the Knights of Labor and the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) provided important examples for New Zealand unions.

Foreign relations

As US power grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were points of contact between the governments of the two countries, well before New Zealand assumed formal responsibility for its own foreign policy. For example, in 1908 the New Zealand and Australian governments both welcomed the visit of the US’s ‘great white fleet’, a battle fleet dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt to circumnavigate the globe and demonstrate US military power. However, New Zealand and Australia continued to rely far more heavily on Britain’s naval power. Indeed, there was some disquiet in New Zealand about American naval power in the Asia–Pacific region. William Massey, who was prime minister during the First World War, questioned whether the US’s growing influence was entirely in British and New Zealand interests once the war was over.

Ngā kaupoi

American westerns had a surprising influence on dress styles and behaviour in some Māori communities, especially on the East Coast of the North Island. During the Second World War the C Company of the 28th Maori Battalion was drawn from the East Coast and they came to be known as the ‘cowboys’.

Interwar years

Following the First World War American cultural and economic influences on New Zealand life increased. US petrol companies and car makers entered the New Zealand market. While before the war the US had provided about 10% of New Zealand’s imports, in the 1920s it rose to well above 15%. General Motors opened a factory at Petone in 1926.

Popular culture also had an impact, especially Hollywood movies and American music, both jazz and popular songs. There were some notable American tourists, such as the writer and fisherman Zane Grey.

How to cite this page:

Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, 'United States and New Zealand - Early relations, 1790–1939', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/united-states-and-new-zealand/page-1 (accessed 13 December 2018)

Story by Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012