For about 170 years from the early 1800s, ships were a lifeline for New Zealanders.
The first sailing ships in the early 1800s brought explorers, sealers, whalers and traders. Most came from Britain, and others from France, America and Australia.
From the 1840s, thousands of British settlers sailed for months across the world to their new home. The arrival of an immigrant ship in New Zealand was a big event. Roads were rough and there were no railways, so the ports were busy with boats travelling around the coast. Small sailing vessels, such as cutters, ketches and schooners, brought supplies.
By the 1870s steam ships (powered by coal) began to replace sail. James Mills, a Dunedin shipowner, set up the powerful Union Steam Ship Company. It built bigger, faster ships to travel between the North and South islands, and to Australia. The speedy Rotomahana was called ‘the Greyhound of the Pacific’.
In the early 1900s the company built impressive steamers for the overnight trip from Wellington to Lyttelton in the South Island. This became very popular. Today, the two islands are linked by ferries running between Wellington and Picton.
On 15 February 1882 the clipper Dunedin sailed for London with a load of sheep meat. The meat was kept frozen with new technology – refrigerated storage. After this first trip, meat became an important New Zealand export for the next 100 years.
Because steam ships used a lot of coal, until the 1880s it was cheaper to bring people from Europe under sail. Faster ships known as clippers sailed non-stop through rough, cold seas. Later, immigrants came on steam-driven passenger–cargo liners. Depending on how much money they had, they travelled in first, second or third class cabins. In 1955 the stylish liner Southern Cross offered one class for all passengers. But from the 1970s, most people travelled by air.
Loading and unloading cargo at the wharf used to take weeks. But from the 1960s cargo was pre-packed into large steel containers that could be rolled on and off ships quickly. Ships got bigger and fewer workers were needed. Most of the old cargo and passenger ships disappeared. Today New Zealand’s ports are busy with container ships and cruise ships from around the world.