The shipping years
Shipping – by waka (canoe), whaleboat, sailing boat or steamship – dominated the local and national freight business from first settlement by Europeans until the early 20th century. In the early days New Zealand’s dense bush and mountains, and the existence of paths rather than roads, made it difficult or impossible to move goods over land for more than a short distance. Settlement was sparse and usually on a coast, river or lakeside.
Supply ships to remote whaling stations and settlements in the late 18th century were the earliest freight runs. Within a few decades, a coastal trade was beginning, and by the 1840s it was well established. Where useable harbours, inlets or navigable river mouths were lacking, lighters (barges) carried goods out to waiting ships, or goods were loaded onto waka, whaleboats or scows run up onto a beach.
Māori freight business
Māori were a strong force in the freight business. On sea, rivers and lakes, Māori owned and operated waka, whaleboats and, from the 1830s, schooners and cutters. Generally, Māori preferred European vessels for freight – they were more stable than single-hulled canoes and more manoeuvrable than double-hulled canoes, and needed fewer crew. Waka, though, were the only vessels that could navigate many of New Zealand’s rivers, and they continued to be used to carry freight and passengers until the late 19th century.
In 1834 Ngāpuhi’s Tītore Tākiri told Britain’s King William IV that he ‘was beginning to think about a ship’ because his waka capsized when carrying potatoes and other goods.1 Tākiri solved his problem the following year, when he seized a large sailing vessel from European trader Henry Southern.
Māori ship-owners carried a considerable amount of freight. They carried their own produce to sell, and moved goods for Pākehā settlers and farmers.
By the 1860s Māori engagement in the freight business had passed its peak. A collapse in the prices paid for produce reduced their income at the time that more expensive iron sailing vessels and steamships were starting to be used. European settlers were also building their own shipping businesses.
Freight from 1850 to 1870
In the mid-19th century, most coastal freight was carried by small-scale operators with one or two ships. Typical cargoes were coal, building material, grain, potatoes, flour and beer – often a mixed collection of ‘small lots’ rather than a large quantity of a single item. After iron was introduced as a shipbuilding material and more efficient engines were developed, larger ships with more cargo capacity resulted in a reduction in freight rates from the 1870s.
Not all cargoes were safe or easy to manage during a voyage. Stock, particularly before the introduction of steamships, were vulnerable to delays and bad weather – on some voyages up to half the animals died.
The coastal boom: 1870–1914
Coastal shipping increased more than tenfold between 1870 and 1914. The introduction of refrigerated shipping, increasing use of steamships, and improved port facilities and organisation all contributed to this growth.
From the 1880s larger steamships took over the trade between the major ports. Many minor ports declined or were restricted to feeder services such as the one between Pātea and Wellington. The greater speed and regularity of steamships resulted in timetabled freight services around the country. Better wharves, improved cargo-loading gear, and dredging (which allowed larger ships to be used) became commonplace.