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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

A Flurry of Maps

A Flurry of Maps

The colony had just experienced two decades of massive immigration. The 1860s gold rushes had doubled the population and the 1870s ‘Vogel’ immigration drive had practically doubled it again. So the country was full of relative newcomers, for whom one great attraction had been the promise of easy access to land. In moving to meet this land hunger the government had, particularly since the early 1870s, produced a flurry of maps. We will glance through these maps, and other contemporary sources of information, to see what they had been telling the folk who moved to become Kaponga settlers.

From the late 1860s Taranaki maps tended to carry two strong-messages. They demonstrated the government's concern to open up routeways through the province, and by sketching in the bush line they emphasised the large areas of the bush land, attractive to the more impecunious settler. They told South Islanders of a frontier rich in opportunities for both wage labour and access to reasonably priced land, a message increasingly pertinent in the later 1870s as the alluvial gold fields continued to peter out, and the Vogel development projects, pursued most vigorously in the south, came to an end. So a moderate flow of migration developed from the south, to the railway works moving south from New Plymouth and north from Wanganui and to the land they were opening up.

As depression developed in the late 1870s the government slashed its development projects, except in Taranaki, where it discerned the best opportunities of maintaining land sales income and meeting the land hunger. Its decision to occupy the Walmate Plains and challenge Te Whiti of Parihaka led to accelerating work on the Taranaki railway and the sending of the surveyors onto the plains, which in turn focused the colony's attention on this district as the current prime frontier of opportunity. The page 30 first survey parties crossed the Waingongoro on 29 July 1878 and by 17 August the Wanganui Herald's Hawera correspondent was writing that ‘numbers of capitalists from Canterbury and Otago are looking over this district with a view of being purchasers’.

Our main concern is not of course with these capitalists, whose real interest will have been in the coastal open country. Evidence of strong working-class interest is provided by the shortlived activities of the Waimate Plains Co-operative Land Company, which flourished among Christchurch labourers for a few months from late 1879, as a response to rising unemployment. Its offer to take over the plains from the government included an undertaking to settle 8000 souls in the area, to assume responsibility for its defence, and to do all the necessary public works.1 The government rebuffed the land company but its publicity may well have started the process that took several of our Kaponga pioneers to their bush sections. As they mulled over this and other publicity, many potential working-class immigrants will have been weighing up the opportunities against the dangers of the Maori threat. Mainly comparatively recent arrivals in the colony, with a limited knowledge of its history and commonly with a complete ignorance of the existence of a Treaty of Waitangi, they will probably have seen the government's plans mainly as a further step in the inevitable advance of western civilisation, for the ultimate benefit of all concerned. Any among them wanting light on Maori grievances and the government's proposals to meet them may have been helped by the maps drawn for the West Coast Commission, set up in January 1880 to look into the matter. These showed that the Maori villages were associated with the bush line, and that it was proposed to create a ‘Continuous Reserve’ of Maori land, embracing these villages in a strip consisting of both open country and bush. Land was also to be set aside for the two prominent south Taranaki chiefs who had been working for peaceful coexistence with the Pakeha, Manaia and Hone Pihama, and their people.

The most important publicity enlightening Kaponga's coming settlers and the most significant maps helping them envisage the lie of the land arose from the work of the surveyors and the government's advertising of its results. The main land sales, extending from October 1880 to September 1882, were given massive publicity. ‘I never saw land, either at Home or anywhere else, more extensively advertised,’ Edward Godsal, an Otakeho settler, told a parliamentary committee in 1887.2 The main sales were repeatedly advertised in the New Zealand Gazette, with the advice that lithographed plans were to be seen at any land office in the colony. To reach ordinary citizens the government also advertised extensively in the press, and sent copies of its ‘colored lithographic plans’ to the newspaper offices.3 ‘We have received a plan of the sections on the Waimate Plains, shortly to be offered for sale by auction, and anyone wishing to inspect the plan can see it by calling at our office,’ the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier of 24 September 1880 advised at the beginning of an editorial on the topic. Besides page 31 such editorials the colony's press carried news items on the sales, and Hawera land agent Thomas Foy advertised in the Star that he was available ‘to execute COMMISSIONS for intending PURCHASERS unable to attend the sale’.

In its report for the year ended 31 March 1883 the Crown Lands Department looked back on its campaign with satisfaction:

The settlement of the Waimate Plains is a good illustration of the advantages of first preparing the country by opening of roads through it, and then offering it for selection in sections on the settlement conditions of deferred payment, residence, and cultivation, alternating with sections obtainable on immediate payments. In October, 188[0], the first block of 8,500 acres was opened for sale; about one-third of the intervening sections were on deferred payment; a few days after they were allotted the remaining sections were offered for cash. Every few months since block after block has been submitted for selection and sale on the same principle, and up to 31st March last 360 sections, of an area of 24,328 acres, has been sold on deferred payment … For cash there has been sold an area of 46,954 acres …; of town and suburban lands, 526 acres …; or a total of 71,808 acres … It is worthy of note that of the 360 selectors on deferred payment only eleven have forfeited … The roading of the land has been kept in advance of the sales … 4

The report then gave statistics on the progress of settlement provided by Crown Lands Ranger G.F. Robinson. The rural settlers had erected 122 dwellings for their population of 650. There were a further 460 people in Manaia township and the village settlements of Okaiawa and Otakeho, with 94 dwellings and 30 commercial and public buildings. Also:

An area of 17,500 acres has been fenced into paddocks, and upwards of 5,000 acres of the bush behind the Continuous Reserve felled and grassed. In travelling over the Waimate Plains and seeing the numerous homesteads which enliven the view, the clumps of young trees already showing up at a few of the homesteads, the numerous enclosures, the cattle and the sheep, the flour mill at Manaia, and the wonderful progress of that place, the intersection of the back bush by a complete network of cleared road-lines, and settlers' clearings in progress everywhere through it, one can scarcely realize that only some two years ago there was none of this, and where these beautiful farms, the pride of their possessors, now add improvement to improvement day by day the wild pig roamed by the hundred in undisputed possession.5

Let us now move back and see all this from the viewpoint of the Kaponga pioneers' developing understanding of their new world. The earlier land sales were dominated by open-country land, which was avidly snapped up. The bush sections were surveyed a little later, put forward more slowly, and less keenly sought after. So the bush pioneers were aware that page 32 they were moving in to begin the last of three bands of settlement between the coast and the mountain. Along the coast were the more affluent settlers making rapid progress on their new farms, next came the Continuous Reserve with its string of Maori villages, and beyond this up to the foot of the mountain were their own reaches of bush. They will have come to their purchase with a knowledge of Taranaki that varied from a few days to many years, but even for the Taranaki-born this land had till recently lain beyond the pale. The first worthwhile information on the farming potential of this land will have been that gained by the surveyors and will have reached the public in various ways, formal and informal, as surveying and sales proceeded. We are therefore fortunate that in his Reminiscences of a Taranaki Surveyor W.H. Skinner records the work over a significant portion of our district. Under the heading ‘Virgin Country of Great Promise’ he describes his work over 1881–82, first laying off the land west of the Waingongoro River, as far as Hastings Road, and then (pp. 4950):

from the Skeet road to Mt Egmont Reserve, including also the area on the upper Manaia road between the Rowan and Palmer roads to the Forest Reserve. This was the most promising area of forest country that I had encountered in Taranaki … This was also a pleasant district to work in. It was easy country to lay down traverse lines, and for swagging; mobs of wild cattle in good condition were plentiful and provided us with ample fresh meat; and other supplies were readily obtained via the Mountain road. Taking it all in all, it was the most satisfactory bush country survey we experienced in Taranaki.

Many of our pioneers will have found the newspapers a great help in picturing their new world. The Taranaki Herald (19/11/80) carried a particularly useful contribution for intending purchasers by ‘Traveller’, an anonymous north Taranaki writer who had inspected the district while choosing a section on which to settle himself. Our bush settlers would have been encouraged by his opinion that ‘altogether I believe the bush district behind Waimate will be more valuable in the future than the open part’. He was, though, impressed with the quality of the land over the greater part of the plains, but commented on the south-east and west winds ‘which sweep over the plains in a pitiless bitter manner’. From the Waingongoro as far as Oeo he found the land covered with fern and tutu, with patches of clover all through the fern, some of them nearly 50 acres in extent. Up towards the Continuous Reserve he found large areas of clean cocksfoot from which the Maori had harvested a good amount of seed in past years. Beyond Oeo, and particularly towards Opunake, he found a marked change in soil and vegetation, with the soil becoming more sandy and gravelly, and, unlike on the stretch from Oeo to Hawera, large areas of flax. Around Opunake, he reported, ‘the surface soil rests on a strata of—what is called there—iron-stone, a reddish, rusty-looking stone, which turns up in large blocks and lumps’. What he was noticing here were differences arising from the page 33 district's volcanic past. As we will see, this past had also left significant differences within the Kaponga district. Our settlers will have been most concerned with his comments on the bush:

The greater portion of the bush land is lightly timbered, so much so that most of the sawn timber and fencing for Waimate must come from the bush along the Mountain Road … But for bush settlers, who prefer making their living by clearing and cultivating their land, to using the timber upon it, I fancy the bush land behind Waimate will exactly suit them, as the bush generally is very open, the wild cattle and pigs having destroyed a large portion of the undergrowth…. The trees generally are small, if we except the ratas and mahoes … Pines are few and far between, there being little more than enough for the settlers' own wants in the way of building materials and fencing…. Altogether, I think the man with only a small capital would do much better on the Waimate bush land than on the Waimate open land, as he would easily clear his land, and would have firewood, fencing, and shelter whilst doing so. He could also fill up his spare time (and his larder) by having an occasional hunt after wild cattle and pigs, both of which are in great abundance.

‘Traveller’ was not impressed with Hursthouse's Line (i.e. Opunake Road), which he thought ‘will probably be the main inland road for the bush settlers on a larger portion of this district’. As yet it was ‘of a very temporary nature, being only sufficient to answer as a pack track to supply survey parties, &c’. He found that it rose rapidly from Stratford to the Waingongoro River, after which it continued at about the same level for several miles. It was cleared about 15 feet wide, wound about in the most perplexing manner, and crossed the many gullies and streams on temporary bridges of fern-tree and saplings, bridges just wide enough for a packhorse. Nor did he have high hopes for the place it led to—Opunake—or think much of its prospects as a port. When the wind blew from the south-east or the south-west the bay became ‘one extent of broken water, and utterly unsafe for any vessel to enter or stay there’.

‘Traveller’ was in effect making a survey in space on which to base predictions for the coming years in time. He was right about some things. The bush sections were certainly to prove a fine investment for many a man of small means, largely for the reasons he gave. Opunake certainly was to prove a poor bet as a port. On other matters he was partly right. The timber harvest of these stretches of bush was certainly to be a limited one, but it proved much better than his estimate. Clearing the bush was not unduly difficult, but it proved a harder task and took longer to complete than one would infer from either his comments or those in the government's optimistic advertising. On some matters he was quite astray. He misread the government's intentions for the Continuous Reserve, seeing it as ‘compelling future settlers on the bush land … to travel through a belt of bush about two miles wide before reaching their land’. In fact the reserve was not page 34 really to be ‘continuous’ at all, but was broken up by stretches sold to settlers, and from 1883 on even much that remained as ‘native land’ passed into settler hands on long-term leases. His assumption that Hursthouse's Line would be the main inland road for a large portion of the bush was also to prove quite wrong.