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Settlers and Pioneers

11 — Taranaki Settlement

page 84

Taranaki Settlement

No British colony planted in a new country had a more courageous, determined, and industrious set of pioneers than the men and women of Devon and Cornwall and other South of England counties who peopled the province of Taranaki in the young forties, and, under many difficulties, established a beautiful group of farming settlements close to the seaward flanks of Egmont. There were many families whose descendants bear with pride names of high honour in the annals of New Zealand. There were makers of the nation there, the Atkinsons and Richmonds, the Smiths and Hursthouses, the Messengers, Northcrofts, Bayleys, Carringtons, and Ardens, and many another who very literally cut out their homes from the wilds. It was not only the obstacles of wild Nature they had to conquer in this forest-tangled land. The Maori was at first a friend but was forced into hostility when land disputes began. The Maori, for all his early amicable dealings with the New Plymouth page 85pioneers, soon realised that the shiploads of English settlers and the demand for more land for settlement would in the end prevail, and the Land League was formed to dam back the pakeha flood.

Natural leaders emerged from the few hundreds of bushmen and ploughmen and bullock-drivers; men already well schooled in the toil of settlement, familiar with the forest and its tracks, and quick to adapt themselves to the conditions of guerilla fighting. One of these leaders was young Harry Albert Atkinson, farmer and bushman, a man of yeoman family, strong of frame, eager and sometimes fiery of temperament, fearless yet cautious where caution was needed; determined and masterful. He drove his bullock-team down the Devon Road in New Plymouth often enough; he eagerly led his company of Rifle Volunteers along that route to the front; he led the country as Premier just as confidendy.

The earliest homes of the bush setders were huts built of the material at hand—saplings and fern trees and nikau palm thatch, and the first cultivation was done with the spade. Gradually, once the newcomers got a rainproof roof over their heads, timber was felled, the tree trunks were cross-cut and slabs were split for building huts. The next stage was the saw-pit, where logs were sawn into boards. So, presendy, neat cottages of weatherboards and shingled roofs replaced the primitive thatch and slab whares. Cattle and horses were imported from page 86other parts of the colony or from Sydney; land was ploughed, and wheat, potatoes, and other crops were soon produced in plenty.

The pioneer farmers were capable soldiers when the need for fighting came. There was good material there; none better. The settlers were not regular troops fighting because it was their paid calling. There was no glory in the strife for them. They were peace-loving men, forced into war by the exigencies of settlement or by unwise government policy; and they took up the rifle to defend their homes and the cultivations they had made, or to fight for more land.

The spirit of danger was in the air on the border country of Taranaki as it was in South Waikato, long after the wars had ended. There were frequent alarms among the farmer families in the scattered settlements, and among the bushmen engaged in felling and pit-sawing timber and at the steam-power mills that superseded the saw-pits. The border country was expected to be the scene of fighting again quite ten years after the Hauhau war had been brought to a close, and so the frontier came to be studded with fortified places for defence.

The Maoris did not build any more strongholds; if it came to fighting, the bush would now be their best shelter. The forts were of various designs, according to the military skill of the builders and the local conditions. Some were timber stockades, with page 87trenches inside, and outside the palisading of split tree-trunks and slabs. Other posts were of earthwork, with thick parapets made of alternate layers of sod and fern. The mixture of fern—pulled, up always, not cut, in order to pack the roots in too—was a method learned from the Maoris. It gave a binding that kept the earthwork from crumbling. Often, a a timber watch-tower was built inside the little fort; this was the practice in the Taranaki plains, where it was necessary to keep a wide look-out over the land.

A redoubt on the edge of the forest at Ketemarae was an example of the numerous forts which were built by the bushmen and settlers as a rallying place in case of attack. It was built in 1879 in a new bush clearing, where the town of Normanby now stands, on the railway line. It has been demolished long ago, like most of the other historic places in Taranaki. (The spot where it stood is the present site of the soldiers' monument in the Normanby Domain.) The original name of the district is Ketemarae, a famous name in Maori tradition and war history. The first pioneer of the place, the late Mr James Robson, of Stratford and New Plymouth, was a stalwart Northumbrian who had been on the Otago gold-diggings before he became a sawmiller and farmer. He went into this Ketemarae bush ahead of all other settlers and started a steam-power mill. Taranaki was at that time (1879) in a condition of 'nerves', like so many much older countries to-day. page 88Rumours of another war set all the country drilling and entrenching and hauling timber for stockades. Mr Robson presently had many bullock-wagon teams carting his newly sawn timber to Hawera, to Waimate, and a dozen other places, for settlers' houses and Armed Constabulary forts.

Then warnings reached the sawmiller, who had at first not troubled about his own defence, that some of the young warriors of Parihaka and Pungarehu and thereabouts in the Maori country to the west were likely to raid Ketemarae. The sawmill, with its valuable engine, might be destroyed. The mill men and bushfellers were all armed with rifles, and they kept guard in turns at night. An old Maori warrior named Katene, who had been a famous fighter in his day, came in with a friendly message, a strong hint that the white settlers had better build a pa for safety and sleep in it at night. His advice was acted upon promptly. Ketemarae was the ragged edge of the great forest extending without a break to the shoulders of Mount Egmont, and it was obviously a place of danger. An officer of the Constabulary was sent to plan the work and direct the building, and all the man strength of the district set to with pick and shovel.

Soon they had this redoubt completed, with a timber barracks inside. The entrance was by a drawbridge over the trench; this plank bridge could be hauled up on the inner side at night, when it page break
The Vanished Forest

The Vanished Forest

page 89formed the door of the fort. A rough watch-tower, an elevated platform reached by a ladder, was built in the interior of the work; and an armed look-out was kept there all day. At the height of the alarms Robson had his mill engine hauled out of the shed and drawn up by a bullock team to a safer place near the redoubt. There it was under the eyes and rifles of the litde garrison.

It was many months before the tension quite relaxed; there was drilling everywhere, and South Taranaki was an armed camp. But the sawmilling work must go on; so must grass-seed sowing in the newly-cut country. The tree-fellers took their rifles with, them as regularly as they took their food and tea-billy when they went out to their daily bush work. It was nearly the end of 1881 before all was serene again on the frontier.

There was a land grievance of the Maoris behind all these alarms and wild stories of renewed war. The Maoris under Te Whiti, the great patriot leader at Parihaka, are now admitted to have been in the right. It was their last and unavailing protest against the confiscation of their best lands by the Government. But we need not trouble about that in the present story.

The sight of the pioneer homes in the north Taranaki bush appealed many years ago with peculiar page 90force and interest to an American writer, who said of one of the Government's new farm-settlements which he visited on the border of the Taranaki and King Country forests:

'The gardens, the galvanised-iron tin houses, the wooden chimneys built outside, the doorways filled with groups of children growing within, and the flowers and vines without, make a landscape which may have too many sharp edges, and colours too incongruous to delight the eye of the landscape artist, but it is a picture any statesman might be proud to sign his name to. Every home here is an adventure, the goal of a Pilgrim's Progress.'