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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter XXIV. — Clearing The River

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Chapter XXIV.
Clearing The River.

River Thames:—Successful operation.Maori stoppage of River Clearing.Salmon in river.Meeting with opposing Chiefs.Maori Speeches.Old Chief's hostility.An Old Woman's Eel catching.Opposition removed and clearing work resumed.Progress of clearing operations.River Steamer built.Removal of ancient Eel Weirs.Clearing work pushed on.Surveyor shot by Maories.Work again Stopped.Maories threaten to Fire on Steamer.Successful Negotiations.—Work proceeds.Narrowing Channel.Planting river banks with Ten Thousand Willows.River Clearing Completed.

A Week of further labour, with the help of half a ton of dynamite, and 'Te Au-o-Tonga' the 'Terror' was a thing of the past, leaving a clear channel of four feet deep. This formidable barrier to navigation was supposed to have been mainly caused by the great quartz reef, which was discovered some years later, by the Maori, Hone Werehiko, in the Te Aroha mountain, from which it descended to the plain, crossing the river at this point.

I had now cleared the river as far down as the Ngatimaru territory, held by a powerful tribe of Maories of that name. The Chiefs of this tribe sent page 233me word, that they would not permit the river to be cleared through their lands, and ordering me to cease operations, and withdraw my men and steamer. I appointed a meeting with them at the Omahu Pah, where the principal Chiefs resided.

On the day appointed I met them, accompanied by two or three European friends and Hori Parengarenga, a friendly half-caste Ngatihaua Chief. Whilst waiting for the tribe to assemble, I was invited to see some of the fish (Salmon) which I had placed in the river, two years before. We were fortunate enough to see several fish, which the Maories said were my fish, as they had caught one, and that its flesh was red. We had however no means of verifying their report, as the tribe having assembled the talk began.

The Pah was palisaded on all sides, with the usual Maori houses inside, leaving the Marae (an open square) in the centre. On one side, about fifty Maories, old and young, men and women, were squatted, I and my friends being seated on the other.

A young Chief now rose and said,

'Mr. Firth, the word of Ngatimaru is, that you stop snagging, and remove your thunder, your steamer, your boats and your men.'

I replied, I was making the river navigable, that I would remove all the sunken trees, and that when I had finished the work, their canoes could be paddled up and down the river, without being upset on the snags.

Another Chief stood up and said, 'What better are we than our fathers? the river page 234suited them, and it suits us, cease your work. Let the snags remain. Enough.'

I replied, 'You have spoken of the fish. Do you not know that these fish go down to the sea every year, and that they swim rapidly, and that some of them may perhaps run their noses against the snags?'

I knew I had laid myself open to a repartee, which was quickly made in true Maori fashion.

A withered old woman at once rose and said,

'When I want an eel for food, I go to a snag, and find it there. If you take out the snags, what shall I do for my eel? As for your fish, if they run their noses against the snags, why, let them do it. That is their business.'

At this sally, there was a general laugh, in which of course, we all joined.

Tutukai, an aged Chieftain now rose, and walking backwards and forwards in the usual style of a Maori orator said,

'I hate the Europeans and all their ways. The other day a European magistrate came here, and wanted to make a road through our lands. To-day, you come, and want the river. In a little time, you White faces will have all, and the Maories will have neither land nor river. Cease your evil work. I will have none of it. The river is mine, and you shall not remove the snags. The snags were in the river in the days of my ancestors, and you shall not touch them. I hate all your works. The snags belonged to my grandfather, they belonged to my father, they belong to me. They are mine. Cease your works.

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I hate all your European things. I hate all your ways. I hate all the Europeans. I want neither you, nor anything you have brought to this land of Te Ika a Maui (New Zealand). This river is mine. Kati (let it end). Depart.'

By this time, the old Chief had worked himself to a pitch of anger, which might have alarmed a stranger, and which a few years before would have meant mischief. In one bony hand, he brandished a spear, whilst the red shawl he wore round his loins, shook with the fierce excitement, with which his whole body quivered.

The old Chief sank down exhausted. I could not help admiring the fire and passion of the old man, and, if he wished to prevent his nation from dwindling before the face and power of the White man, he was probably right, in desiring to keep the aggressive Englishman out of the river.

Notwithstanding my own devotion to sentiment, I had undertaken the work of clearing the river, and I meant to do it. I said in reply,

'Tutukai, what is that garment you wear round your loins? Is that a Maori or European work? Did your grandfather wear a European Shawl?'

'No,' he grunted.

'Or did your father wear a shawl?'

'No,' said he.

'Then,' I replied, 'do you, who hate all European works and things, cast it from you. Throw it into the river, and let it go to sea.'

This reply was received with grunts of approval page 236by the elders of the tribe and with hearty laughter by the younger ones.

The poor old fellow was beaten, and took no further part in the discussion. The Maori loves an argument, and, unlike some of his white brethren, he generally takes a defeat good-humouredly.

Another old Chief rose. 'The river is ours,' he said.

I asked, 'Which part of it?'

He replied, 'That which flows through our lands.'

'Very well then, fence it in. Why should you let the waters flow down to the sea? When you have fenced in your portion of the river, I will fence in mine, which is above you. So that, when you have banked up your waters, I will dam up mine, and where then will be your river?'

He said no more, and drawing his blanket over his head sat down.

One of the young Chiefs now rose and said, 'You are laughing at us. Never mind the old men. They do not understand new things and new ways. Give us fifty pounds, and go on with your work.'

To this practical speech, I replied, 'You ought to give me money for clearing the river, as it will be a great benefit to you.'

'It is you,' he quickly replied, 'who wish to have the snags removed, not we. The river is good enough for us as it is. Therefore you ought to do the work, and pay the money also.'

Seeing Pineha, a Chief of rank amongst the crowd, page 237I said, 'Pineha, do you not remember, that when you and Hemi rowed me down the river in your boat last year, you ran on a snag, and knocked a hole in her bottom, and that if I had not stuffed my handkerchief into the hole, we should have had to swim ashore?'

Pineha said, 'Tenei' (That was so).

'Then,' I replied to the last speaker, 'how can you say that taking away the snags will be of no benefit to you?'

Three or four young fellows now rose in succession, each in Maori fashion, saying the same thing,

'Give us the fifty pounds, and do what you like with the river.'

I saw there was some reason in their request, but I knew well enough, if I consented without any conditions, that I should quickly have been called upon to pay further 'black mail,' by every petty Chief who could say that he had not consented.

So, stepping into the middle of the square, I replied, 'I agree to pay you fifty pounds when the work is done,' and placing five pounds on a mat lying there, I said,

'I give you these five sovereigns as a deposit.'

A young Chief now rose and said, 'Why do you the White Chief of the Upper River, who own all the lands at Matamata, why do you hesitate about fifty pounds? That is nothing to you. Give us the fifty pounds, and give it us now.'

They went on in this strain for an hour more, but page 238I would not consent, for I knew well the consequence of doing so, without a guarantee of good faith, not of those present, which would have been right enough, but of that of absent Chiefs, who I knew would say, that they did not receive any of the money, and had not consented.

It was now late in the day, and I had a long distance to ride, so, stepping again into the middle of the square, where the five pounds lay, I took them up, saying as I did so,

'This river with its five golden eyes has looked at you long enough. You will see them no more.'

And drawing on my glove, by way of avoiding as much as possible, the evil taint of stinking shark and putrid maize, which, though apparently relished by Maories, is not particularly agreeable to Europeans, I shook hands with all the principal people, and departed.

Several young Chiefs accompanied me to the river, urging me to give fifty pounds, and it would be all right. I refused, and accompanied by my friend Hori Parengarenga, we crossed the river to the place where our horses were tied.

Before mounting, I said to Hori, 'Return to the Pah and wait there. When they find they have lost the fifty pounds, they will talk the whole matter over again, and the result will probably be, that all the Chiefs will agree. If they do so, you will suggest that they write a letter to me, to be signed by all the Chiefs interested agreeing to my proposal. Should page 239they do that, take two of the Chiefs with you to Matamata, and I will instruct my son to pay the money to them.'

We then rode off, and Hori returned to the Pah.

As I expected, after some hours' talk, they consented, wrote the letter, got the signatures of the Chiefs interested; in a day or two, went to Matamata and received the money.

After this, I had no further trouble with the Ngatimaru tribe, and the work of clearing the river went on as before.

In twelve months more, Tizard had cleared the river sufficiently to warrant me in building a steamer to run between Stanley and the Port of Auckland.

Having been deputed by the New Zealand Government in war time, to purchase in Australia a light draft and good carrying steamer, suitable for the shallow river Waikato, I had acquired the requisite experience for knowing what I needed.

I built the steamer on lines similar to that I had purchased for the Government. As she progressed, every nautical man in Auckland condemned her. Some said she was only fit for a mud barge; others, that she would never steam more than four knots; that she would never get up the river; that if she did get up, she would never get down; that it was not possible she would ever get up or down; and the rest said, she would never cross the Hauraki Gulf. Some of my candid friends laughed at what they termed my 'whim;' others were angry at what they page 240were pleased to call my 'folly.' However I persevered, and the steamer has been running about nine years, a perfect success in all respects, making an average speed of seven knots, and carrying fifty tons on a draft of three feet six inches. I named the steamer the 'Kotuku' (white crane).

Several ancient eel weirs formed by posts across the river were a complete obstruction to steamer navigation, which, after much difficult negotiation with the Maori tribal owners, were allowed to be removed. Their removal was almost as difficult as the negotiation, but with the aid of the steamer's powerful winch the work was finally completed.

I appointed Captain Sullivan, a half-caste, to the command, and a more capable man, I never had in my service. Sullivan took the 'Kotuku' right up to Stanley, with a ton of dynamite aboard, additional and stronger tackle, and above all, a powerful steam winch. With these appliances, he overhauled and removed the snags and rapids still impeding the fairway.

During that summer the work of clearing made rapid progress; Sullivan had got well down towards Te Puke, the former head of the navigation, when one of those unfortunate affairs occurred, which had done so much to retard settlement in the North Island of New Zealand.

A party of Government surveyors were engaged on a survey of some land near the river, claimed by the Ngatihako tribe. A dispute in some way arose, with the result, that the Ngatihako Maories fired upon page 241the surveyors, wounding one of them. Great excitement as usual followed. Large meetings of excited Maories were held at various Kaingas (villages) on the river, and my operations were again stopped, the Ngatihakos threatening to fire upon the 'Kotuku,' if she attempted to pass their settlement on the banks of the river.

On receiving this intelligence, I wrote a letter to the Ngatihako Chief, and despatched the 'Kotuku,' with Mr. Sam Edmonds as my representative, who, by his knowledge of the Maories and their language, and above all, by his well-known probity and straight-forwardness was highly esteemed by the Maories, and in many difficult and even dangerous emergencies, had rendered me the most signal service. The result of the interview was, that the Ngatihako tribe consented to allow the 'Kotuku' to pass up and down the river without molestation, but with the understanding, that no more snagging was to be done for some time.

Soon after this, the Hon. John Bryce assumed the Ministry of Native Affairs, and by his able and determined measures, the Ngatihako malcontents were put down, and ceased to give any further trouble. From this time, I continued my snagging operations with nothing more than natural difficulties to encounter.

At various points, where the river was wider than usual, the sand had formed shallows which were as difficult to deal with, if not so dangerous, as the snags and rapids, so many of which I had successfully removed. At most of these broad shallows, I put down page 242groynes, formed by driving iron pipes six feet apart, with solid iron points, and interlining the pipes with long lengths of flexible Manuka poles, and so narrowed the channels, that I secured a sufficient scour to give the necessary depth for navigation.

I finished the work by planting ten thousand young willow trees along the banks, at all points subject to the wash of the current. These trees have secured the loamy banks, and as time goes on, will greatly add to the beauty of this beautiful river.

In the difficult work of clearing about sixty miles of the river Thames, I was engaged for about seven years, expending on the enterprise, first and last, many thousand pounds. My friends told me that such a work ought to be done by the New Zealand Government, but as I owned large freehold estates on the Upper Thames, which I could not cultivate, unless the river was rendered available for the cheap transit of fertilizers and produce to and from my estates, and moreover, as for many years, I was the only landowner on the upper river, I did not care to follow the Colonial practice, but too common, of asking the Government to do the work, I set about it myself. Through a constant succession of natural and Maori difficulties, by the sturdy help of my faithful servants, I so far succeeded in rendering the river navigable, that not only I, but numbers of small industrious settlers in the great valley, as well as the large gold mining industry since established there, have been provided with cheap direct water transit to the City of Auckland.

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It has always been a great pleasure to me to think that, amidst thousands of dynamite explosions, frequently scattering showers of splintered snags and rocks in every direction, not a man employed in this dangerous work ever received any serious injury. And though, by a long course of depression of trade and agriculture in the Colony, I have been compelled to dispose of my Matamata estates, nothing can deprive me of the pleasure of knowing, if I have not benefited myself, that I have helped to benefit numbers of industrious people, and have helped to render accessible, tens of thousands of acres of land, which only require the expenditure of capital, skill and industry to make the splendid valley of the Thames the pride of New Zealand, and which, when covered with thousands of smiling homesteads, will play no mean part in Making the Nation of New Zealand, that is to be, in the not far off time.