Traders from the Australian colonies began visiting in New Zealand harbours in the late 1700s. The first trading ship, the Fancy, arrived in the Hauraki Gulf in 1794. Its crew felled trees (probably kahikatea) beside the Waihou River with the help of Māori. Other ships visited between 1798 and 1801, taking kahikatea, but many logs rotted or were lost at sea.
Some traders struck trouble when Māori refused to haul felled logs out of the forest, or took offence because ships’ crews ignored their customs. Different views led to disaster in 1809 when the Boyd called at Whangaroa Harbour to get timber. Whangaroa Māori thought the captain had ill-treated the chief, Te Ara, who was travelling on board. They killed most of the crew and passengers, and burned the ship. The timber trade came to a halt.
The spar trade was risky because mast-makers were selective about the timber they bought. They judged the quality of a spar on various points including its colour and smell, and looked for signs of weakness or rot. Mast timbers had to be strong but light, and flexible enough not to snap in strong winds. The ideal proportion of a spar was one inch in diameter for every yard’s length, and a total length of at least 84 feet (25 metres). If these standards were not met, a spar, or even the entire cargo, could be rejected.
Missionary leader Samuel Marsden believed that the first step in converting Māori to Christianity was to ‘civilise’ them by teaching them to use the resources of their country. Missionaries including a carpenter, William Hall, were sent to the Bay of Islands in 1814, accompanied by three labourers and sawyers. They showed local Māori how to saw timber to European requirements. Timber and flax cargoes were sent to New South Wales to help fund the mission. Missionaries welcomed timber traders and interpreted with Māori for them.
Royal Navy interest
British Royal Navy ships visiting in the early 1820s discovered kauri – ideal timber for spars – at Hokianga, Kaipara, Coromandel, Mānukau and Tauranga harbours. By 1827, navy tests had proved that kauri was stronger and lasted better than kahikatea. The British government began to encourage the timber trade.
As the Australian colonies grew from the 1830s, they needed timber for houses and ships. Soon building materials were being sent from New Zealand. Kauri was preferred, but woods such as kahikatea, rimu and tōtara were also used.
Skilled European tradesmen were needed to choose the correct trees and supervise felling and milling. Also required were Māori workers prepared to haul and load the trees in return for goods such as blankets, tools, tobacco and firearms. In the 1820s and 1830s, trading stations were founded at places like Hokianga where there were suitable trees and a keen workforce.
Māori tribes often wanted to attract timber trade, which they controlled by bargaining over cutting rights or labour. A few charged port fees for ships entering their harbours. Some Māori became skilled sawyers and traders.
Timber and the Treaty of Waitangi
In the mid-1830s, over 30% of the North Island’s European male population was involved in the timber trade – including all types of men, from ex-convicts to wealthy traders. Their reputation for lawless behaviour was one reason that a British Resident was appointed in 1833. British interest in New Zealand increased, and in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony under the Treaty of Waitangi.