New Zealand Imperialism in the Pacific

Sixty years ago, on the 17th of August 1953, Hector Larsen, the resident commissioner of Niue, was murdered. Larsen’s rule over the people of Niue – he had been commissioner for a decade at his death – was “by most accounts,” as a Radio New Zealand documentary from 2009 puts it, “not just paternalistic but brutal.” The radical historian Dick Scott wrote a book about the incident – Would a Good Man Die?– and depicts Larsen’s death as a symbol of New Zealand-Niuean relations. The three young Niueans responsible for Larsen’s death felt “they were ridding their land of a tyrant.”

This might seem like old history, a misunderstanding from a past era. But the involvement of New Zealand imperialism, alongside Australia, in meddling with, dominating, and interfering with the peoples of the Pacific continues.

This article gives a brief overview of New Zealand imperialism’s role in the Pacific and gives a few examples. It is not the work of an expert; I am drawing on the works of others, and we are publishing this to draw attention to others’ work and to encourage further reading and political reflection.  This is definitely an under-studied field and I hope others will shine a radical lens on other things that New Zealand has done in Oceania.

There is so much history around the role of colonialism in oppressing the people of the Pacific, from New Zealand’s brutal role in the colonial oppression of Samoa to the dawn raids and deportations of Samoan workers in New Zealand in the 1970s. This article introduces just three topics from many: New Zealand’s role in governing Niue; ecological destruction from capitalist imperialism; and the role of imperialism and control in aid to Pacific nations in recent decades.

Imperialism and the “New Zealand Empire”

The term imperialism is much-debated and discussed in Marxist circles. The relationship between imperialism and capitalism has changed much from the days of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, but the core connection stays – New Zealand imperialism is about the New Zealand state dominating and controlling ‘our’ region in the interests of business and political control.

This process has been about stealing from the Pacific, but it has also been about developing the region in the interests of capitalism. From the invasion of Aboriginal Australia by Britain in the eighteenth century to the century following, contact from European powers involved displacing indigenous societies with a new mode of production – capitalism – and this involved violence and appropriation.

Jim Rolfe, in ‘New Zealand and the South Pacific,’ argues that from the 1870s imperial moves on the Pacific started in earnest. New Zealand’s imperialists took the British and Dutch East India companies (which, although established as trading companies, in effect exercised political power) as their models. A trading company, the New Zealand and Polynesian Company, was to be established to develop Pacific trade.”

Capitalism in New Zealand was established through war against traditional Maori society, driving Maori off their land to allow capitalist farming. The rulers of this new country soon had ambitions for influence and control in the wider region. Premier Seddon (1893 – 1906) is known for his imperialism in the Pacific. “He wanted,” Kerry Howe argues in ‘New Zealand’s Twentieth-Century Pacifics,’

a New Zealand empire, one that offered resources as well as the responsibilities that signalled the maturity and right of New Zealand to rule over lesser others, offering them hope and comfort. Typical expressions of this view can be found in his speeches to island leaders on his 1900 tour. As he told the ‘King’ and citizens of Niue, ‘Now, though I should be away from you, I shall be ever thinking of you… and I shall be able to help you. There is now a tie which will help to keep us together; Queen Victoria is now your protector, and her protection will save you for all time.’

Seddon even hoped that Fiji would come under NZ’s control, in 1900 he said that Fijians “are favourable to and have moved in the direction of annexation to New Zealand”.

As is the case with Australian imperialist interests, the local ruling class were usually more aggressively expansionist than Britain. This was not a case of New Zealand leaders failing to ‘stand up’ to bullying from Britain or the United States. Local rulers wanted to expand their reach and influence, and pressured Britain to assist.

In 1902 they pressed the British Colonial Office to “favourably consider the advisability of all islands, either British or under British protection, lying near New Zealand being annexed to this Colony,” hoping to draw Fiji and Tonga into direct colonial rule. During the First World War New Zealand replaced Germany as colonial occupier of Samoa and, in the post-war years, would violently attack and repress independence movements in Samoa.

Post-war expansion

It was in the years following World War One that New Zealand’s imperialist dominance of the South Pacific really developed. Western Samoa was formally recognised as being under New Zealand rule in 1920. The Cook Islands and Niue had been under direct control since the start of the century. Tokelau was ruled from the mid-1920s and New Zealand had moved in to the German colony of Samoa during World War One. As Damon Salesa argues in an article in Spasifik, by the 1930s there was around 100 000 people in New Zealand’s empire in the Pacific, and this was larger in relation to New Zealand than New Zealand was in relation to Britain. A direct colonial relationship was enforced, and New Zealand’s capitalist interests were protected through imperialist domination.

The ideology of Empire at this time argued that New Zealand was a benevolent force, ‘civilising’ the Pacific as colonisation had ‘civilised’ Maori. New Zealand business made money through the opening of Pacific markets to their products, and colonial arrangements ensured they did very well out of this.


Most people in New Zealand today read about Niue almost never. It’s rarely in the news, and its history is not taught as part of New Zealand history very often.

In the introduction to Would a Good Man Die?, Dick Scott describes the neglect by historians of a colony that New Zealand ruled for three quarters of a century. At the time, the latest edition of A History of New Zealand had an index entry for Niue that led to a page reference for Nauru (and it was unmentioned in previous editions of the book).

Joslin Annelies Heyn outlines the process of colonisation:

Niue became a territory of New Zealand in 1901. In 1889 King Fataaiki, wrote to

Queen Victoria asking for inclusion into the British Empire. He wrote that Niueans were “afraid lest some other powerful nation should come and trouble us, and take possession of our island”. Following King Fataaiki’s death and no response from England, in October 1899, King Togia, who would be the last king on Niue, wrote to the governor of Fiji and the British High Commissioner of the Pacific to remind them of the original petition. Although the wish for British colonial status was granted in 1900, Niue was soon annexed to New Zealand, in return for New Zealand loyalty and support in the Boer War. Many Niueans protested becoming part of New Zealand, particularly to being administered under the Cook Islands’ group because the two colonies had no historical ties. On the 29th of September 1903, a New Zealand administrative group was established specifically for Niue in response to Niue’s frustration. Niuean life under New Zealand rule was riddled with disease, poverty, and highly restrictive laws whose resistance by Niueans was seen as “criminal acts” and led to record-setting levels of per capita criminal charges. The first fifty years of New Zealand control saw very few improvements for Niue as the island was virtually ignored by their colonial power. The interaction that did exist under colonial rule was generally regimented and belittling.

Of course, all through this there was resistance to colonial rule by the people of Niue. Dick Scott’s book tries to bring this resistance back into focus. We should see the death of Hector Larsen as part of the resistance to colonial rule. Scott argues:

The condescending treatment of Niueans by Larsen and the New Zealand power structure was provocation for the murder. During 1940-41, 1,483 criminal charges were brought against Niueans. Before his murder, Larsen had 1,256 people convicted of crimes in 1950 alone.

 This is remarkable as the population of punishable age at the time was approximately 2,000 people. Crimes included breaking curfews, breaking prohibition, swearing, playing poker, having yeast (for brewing), and holding hands. Houses could be raided with no warning, and bushes and bedrooms were monitored for anyone breaking the immorality laws.

 Tamaeli, one of the men who killed Mr. Larsen, stated that one of the reasons he did was because prisoners got the same food as fowls.

Scott quotes a line from John Puhiatau Pule’s novel The Shark that Ate the Sun: “All three say they did Niue a favour by getting rid of a tyrant … There is also talk of getting rid of some hafa-kasi Niueans who are on the side of the judge’s decision. I say that any slave who kills his master does so in legitimate self-defence whatever the circumstances.”

Niuean self-government, when it was offered in 1960, was more to do with New Zealand’s ruling class manoeuvring around the 1960 United Nations Declaration on Colonialism than to do with any real respect for self-determination. Independence, as it was proposed, would have left Niue in a difficult financial situation, and with migration to New Zealand and its labour markets cut off. It’s no surprise then that the first decision an independent Niue came to was that they did not want this kind of independence.

In the post-war period New Zealand was setting itself up for new kinds of dominance and control.

Imperialism belittled and oppressed Niuean language and culture. Until 1956, the Bible was the only book (for adults or children) in Vagahau Niue. In the 1940s Niueans were prevented from joining the Federation of Labour or taking part in the life of the New Zealand union movement.


New Zealand imperialism brought great ecological destruction to the Pacific.

Paul Wolffram’s film Te Eitei: The Banaban Story tells one particularly tragic story:

At the beginning of the 20th century, outsiders searching for phosphate discovered that ocean island was made of almost entirely phosphate on a coral base. On the third of May, 1900, Albert Ellis a New Zealander working for the British Phosphate Commission, secured 999-year lease from a man who he believed was the king of the Banabans. Phosphate mining began soon after and many Banabans were thrust into a world of wage labor. In the early years, the phosphate was dug out by hand and transported to ships waiting outside of the reef. But as production grew, so did the amount of machinery on the island. There seem to be an endless demand for the rich fertilizer from the emerging agricultural nations of Australia and New Zealand.

 Rock phosphate ships with their cargos from Nauru and ocean islands, cobalt to superphosphate, which when spread upon the sterile land, will stir it to new life. Without it, all would be useless.

 Capitalist farming in New Zealand drew on resources from the Pacific, at great expense to the environment. Elenoa Areito is interviewed in Wolffram’s film:

 Many parts of Australia and New Zealand that were not previously thought fertile enough to support agricultural production were made economically viable as a direct result of Banaban phosphate.

 Three years and more in places, the job goes on, farming the fresh-driven pastures and continuing to supply them with phosphates, but without phosphates, without the magic trace element of cobalt, the land would die and the stock with it.

 Some of our elders foresaw the destruction that would follow, but there’s too little chance against the will of the phosphate company which was backed by governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. As time passed and mining escalated, it became obvious to many Banabans where it would lead. Eventually, an agreement was reached between the produced phosphate commission and the Banaban people that would see every ship that carried away phosphate returned with trees to replant and a hold of soil from soil from Australia or New Zealand, but the promise was never fulfilled. Each year, mining increased and bigger machines arrived to dig deeper into the island. Our once quiet island was overtaken by these giant machines and each year, more of the precious vegetation was destroyed to make way for the increasing demands for phosphate. This tiny island in the pacific only seven kilometers in circumference became on the of the largest producers of phosphate to Australia and New Zealand for over 40 years. It’s a strange irony that the phosphate that created our land over thousands of years through bird droppings, salt and sand would eventually lead to its destruction.

Ecological imperialism, in the form of phosphate mining in the Micronesian islands of Banaba and Nauru and bringing it to Aotearoa, was an essential component in New Zealand’s rise to the status of an advanced capitalist society.  Fertiliser, essential to the agriculture at the centre of New Zealand capitalism, came from the exploitation of the Pacific.

At the start of the century deals were struck with the Banaban people to mine for just 50 pounds a year. The intervention by New Zealand capitalist interests distorted Banaban society. Assuming male inheritance and political dominance – as was the case in their own world – colonial rule marginalised female elders from decision making.

Gregory T. Cushman has written an excellent book about this, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific. He writes that the mining interests in Banaba were “raking in profits that would make an oilman jealous: over 1.75 million pounds during its first 13 years of existence, less than 0.1 percent of which made it into the hands of Banabans.”

Cushman argues that,

The conversion of Australia and New Zealand into mirror images of the British Isles and Anglo North America required the systematic destruction of several tropical islands to remake the soils and biota of these southern lands. This is the definitive case of neo-ecological imperialism. Indigenous Banabans found valiantly to protect their human rights to subsistence and property. Their struggle starkly reveals, yet again, the failure of liberal-minded colonizers to maintain the environmental integrity of conquered territories and to protect the life, liberty, and property of subjugated populations.

New Zealand Imperialism Today

New Zealand continues to dominate and exploit the Pacific. Neoliberal ideas and practices are exporeted and enforced. The South Pacific Forum is used to bully nations into following the line set by Australian and New Zealand. Aid – and the threat of withholding it – are used to justify New Zealand meddling in the governance and management of independent sovereign states. Maria Bargh goes so far as to talk about “the sustenance of a process of re-colonisation at a regional Pacific level.” The Asian Development Bank and its process of bilateral donors financing assistance allows direct intervention: the New Zealand state can design ‘restructuring programmes’ in Pacific nations.

The fair trade coalition, GATT Watchdog has been especially critical of donor nations:

The New Zealand Government has long portrayed itself as a friend of the Pacific. That claim needs to be closely examined as it promotes the key features of ‘the New Zealand Experiment’ which has been tried, tested, and has failed to benefit the majority of us. Especially [worrying] is the way in which [New Zealand’s] commitments to Pacific Island nations are being made conditional on the willingness and speed with which governments adopt economic reforms in line with the New Zealand Government’s extremist free market prescriptions.

 A serious economic crisis in 1994 was the catalyst for major reforms in Cook Islands, although the need for public sector reforms had been recognized in the late 1980s. New Zealand, the major donor, was influential in the push for reform and the reform package of 1995, developed with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank, was notable for its extensiveness. Ranging from tax, financial and administrative reform to corporatization and privatization of public enterprises, the government also committed itself to strict fiscal discipline and foreshadowed a move towards cost recovery principles. An initial public service pay cut of 15 per cent was followed by a reduction in the number of government departments from fifty-two to twenty-two. In July 1996 over half the government employees were retrenched and Cook Islands emulated Niue’s earlier achievement of reducing the government payroll by 50 per cent. Since then the reform agenda has been taken even further; among its recent initiatives is a proposal to deregulate its shipping industry. 

The contempt our rulers have for self-determination in the Pacific is shown by a parliamentary committee in 2010 that recommended Niue – on account of its good weather – be turned into a retirement village! After decades of exploitation by New Zealand, the committee had the hypocrisy to state that Niue could never be a sustainable economic entity, and that “the best that can be hoped for is that New Zealand assistance will help the Niue private sector to grow to as large as possible.”


New Zealand is a small country, insignificant in global politics. The imperialist ambitions of our rulers have never been as grandiose as other ones. New Zealand simply does not have the power to try the kinds of moves towards sub-imperialist dominance that Australia’s rulers can, with their current colonial plan to send refugees to Papua New Guinea.

Nevertheless, socialists here need to remember the history of New Zealand’s imperialist past, and to critique its present dominance in the Pacific; controlling aid, imposing neoliberalism and backing ‘humanitarian interventions’ and ‘peacekeeping.’ Global warming, economic crisis and globalisation will all make New Zealand’s role – and the rights of Pacific nations – pressing questions in the years ahead, so this history will stay relevant.

People from Pacific nations will make up a greater part of New Zealand’s working class in the years to come, and are already in the vanguard in union membership and political consciousness. The anti-colonial resistance of people in the Pacific can be a source of inspiration for working-class organisation today.