European explorers visiting New Zealand in the 1700s quickly saw the possible uses of flax. Rope was then in demand for rigging on sailing ships and many other purposes. Māori demonstrated their skill in ‘dressing’ flax (stripping the fibre from the leaves). They made flax ropes for visiting ships and bartered flax and weaving for European goods. This exchange of products and skills helped bring Māori and Europeans into close contact with each other for the first time.
Naming New Zealand flax
Father and son botanists Johann and Georg Forster voyaged with explorer Captain James Cook in 1772–73. They named New Zealand flax Phormium tenax for its useful qualities – ‘phormium’ is derived from the Greek word for basket, while ‘tenax’ is Latin for strong.
Trade with Australia
Sydney merchants showed an interest in flax fibre, and by the 1820s a trade began with Australia, peaking in the early 1830s. Trading stations were set up on the coasts of Northland, Waikato, Taranaki, Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, Southland, both sides of Cook Strait, and Banks Peninsula. Fibre exported from New Zealand to Australia could be re-exported to Britain at a good profit. In 1831, for instance, a ton of flax that sold for between £13 and £22 in Sydney fetched between £27 and £44 in Britain.
Effects on Māori society
The Māori producers were not paid in cash but in goods – usually muskets. The trade therefore had a lasting impact on Māori society. With firearms, conflicts between tribes turned into full-scale wars. Tribes competed for control of the flax trade and thus the supply of muskets. They moved from their traditional homelands to be closer to trading posts and to the swamps where flax grew. Food cultivation was neglected in favour of the new trade.
The trade declines
The flax trade declined in the 1830s for several reasons. Warfare among Māori sometimes held up supply. Hand stripping of flax could not provide the amount required. Supplies of fibre for export varied in both quantity and quality. For the market to revive, flax fibre needed to be produced more efficiently.