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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Taranaki, Hawke's Bay & Wellington Provincial Districts]

Earliest White Men

Earliest White Men.

Before the regular settlement of the district by the New Zealand Company, the only white men known to the Maoris were whalers and casual traders, who came to the country for flax. As early as 1809, an expedition was fitted out in Sydney to procure a quantity of “New Zealand flax”—the fibre of the phormuim, a species of lily growing freely in all swampy land. The natives soon learned the value of this trade, and as no machine had then been invented that could strip the fibre as efficiently as the Maoris with their primitive appliances, the prospects of this traffic soon steadily improved. A test of rope made from New Zealand flax at Sydney in 1820—in which the colonial rope proved much superior to English-made rope—greatly enhanced the value of the flax; and in 1830 the Marine Department in England was purchasing all that could be obtained at £45 per ton. Subsequently the traffic fell off, but not before a considerable number of agents and traders had been attracted from Australia to buy and sell flax; and some of these settled down amongst the Maoris, and encountered almost incredible dangers and hardships in their efforts to secure a monopoly of the local flax supply. One Sydney firm had an agent established in so inaccessible a spot as Mokoia Island, in Lake Rotorna; and, in 1832, one Thomas Ralph, agent of Montefiore and Company, of Sydney, was stationed among the Maniapoto, near the Mokau, to buy flax from the Taranaki natives. The adventures of Ralph, as narrated in Brett's “Early History of New Zealand,” form a romantic episode in the country's early records; and the perils and sufferings which these traders endured in pursuit of gain give some idea of the importance attached, even at that stage of the colony's history, to an industry which has since become one of the country's most important resources.

But the majority of the white men who reached the shores of New Zealand before the settlement, were whalers. A great deal has been written about the character and manner of life of these hardy “sons of the sea,” and very little that is novel and original remains to be said. The chapters in the “Early History of New Zealand,” dealing with this element in colonisation, give a good idea of the wild and desperate lives that these men led; the perils which hardened them against the ever-present menace of death, the many vices by which they were stained, and the many virtues by which these were often counterbalanced. Courage and generosity, and a pathetic desire to maintain the dignity of their position as civilised men in the eyes of the savages, often did a great deal to redeem them from the effects of the strife and bloodshed and coarse dissipation, in which a large portion of their lives was passed. But, as a class, they could hardly have failed to produce upon the minds of the Maoris a very limited degree of page 11 of respect for the benefits that civilisation is usually supposed to confer on barbarous races.