Story: Asia and New Zealand

Page 1. Early contacts with Asia

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Trade and culture

New Zealand has had important links with Asia since European contact. Before it formally became a British colony, New Zealand was part of the British Empire’s network of trading posts, and in that way was connected to Asian ports and trade routes.

The first Indian settlers

Author and traveller John Lidiard Nicholas met a ‘lascar’, an Indian sailor, at the Bay of Islands in 1814. The sailor had jumped ship in 1810. He had married into Ngāpuhi and adopted their way of life, preferring to stay in New Zealand rather than return to India. In 1813 six lascars jumped ship in Otago Harbour. Three ended up living with Ngāi Tahu and received moko. The lascars reputedly taught Ngāi Tahu to attack ships in the rain (because muskets could not be used if the gunpowder got wet), as well as how to dive and cut ships’ cables.

From the 1790s to the 1820s, tens of thousands of New Zealand sealskins – often used for felt and leather – were exported to Guangzhou (which Europeans knew as Canton), the capital of China’s Guangdong province and the main trading city for South China.

Kauri spars for masts were shipped to India and China, and in 1826 two young Māori rangatira travelled to India on the kauri transport ship St Patrick. They became the ‘toast of Calcutta.’

The trade of commodities and ideas between Britain, China and India influenced New Zealand’s colonial society and culture as it developed. Indian tea, Bengal rum and Chinese porcelain, textiles and furnishings were among popular Asian imports. From 1870 Indian religions and ‘Oriental wisdom’ attracted fascination and debate in religious circles across the British world, including New Zealand.

Language theories

British and German studies in comparative philology (the branch of linguistics that compares languages) suggested that Indo-European languages all originated from ancient Sanskrit. Following on from this it was widely believed, at least until the 1930s, that Māori and British probably shared a north Indian ‘Aryan’ ancestry.

Goldfield migration

From 1866 the goldfields of central Otago and Southland drew Chinese workers, with as many as 5,000 Chinese mining there for gold by the 1880s. Nearly all were from Guangdong province. Some came straight from China; others had already been mining in Australia. They also had links with Chinese populations in North and South America and the Pacific Islands.

After the gold rushes many Chinese returned to China, but a considerable number chose to stay. Chinese communities emerged, particularly in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland. Some established market gardens, laundries and shops selling vegetables and Chinese products.

Very few Chinese men could afford to bring their wives to New Zealand, but some married Māori or Pākehā women.

Asia in Māori newspapers

Māori-language newspapers, published from the mid-19th century, included many articles on Asia. There were detailed accounts of Asian cultures, religions, cities and commerce. They also covered events such as the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 and the famines of the 1870s in China and India. In response to reports in Te Wananga, Māori shearers from a range of tribes donated money to help victims of the 1874 Indian famine.

19th-century impressions of Asia

During the 19th century New Zealand’s Pākehā population generally regarded Asians as backward and inferior. Although India was seen as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, it was considered that only the British had the ability to rule it.

Few Indians migrated to New Zealand before the early 20th century. However, numerous British settlers arrived who had spent time in India or other parts of Asia, usually serving in the army.

Doctors and missionaries also travelled to India and China from New Zealand, with women particularly active in missionary work. These travellers’ experiences were often published in newspapers, providing a key source of wider knowledge about Asia.

How to cite this page:

David Capie, 'Asia and New Zealand - Early contacts with Asia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/asia-and-new-zealand/page-1 (accessed 8 December 2019)

Story by David Capie, published 20 Jun 2012