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New Zealand Revisited

Chapter IV — Journey To Christchurch

page 45

Chapter IV
Journey To Christchurch

Nothing could exceed the kindness and hospitality with which the Commissioner representing the British Government was received by the Government of New Zealand. There is a department of this latter Government called the Tourist Department, which is established for the purpose of giving advice and assistance to all visitors to New Zealand, especially to those who come for the purpose of deer-stalking or trout-fishing, and to those who desire to explore the majestic scenery of the Southern Alps. The British Commissioner was put by the Government into the hands of this department, and every conceivable arrangement was made for his comfort in the various journeys by land and sea.

On arrival at Onehunga we found an immense crowd of people going to Christchurch, as the mail steamer was the last boat that would bring them there in time for the opening of the Exhibition. The journey from Auckland to Wellington, as far as New Plymouth, the chief town of the district of Taranaki, has still to be made in a coasting steamer, and the shallowness of the Manukau bar, and the narrowness of the harbour at New Plymouth restrict the coasting steamers to a small tonnage. Immense consternation in Onehunga and Auckland was caused forty-four years before page 46by the news that H.M.S. Orpheus had struck on the bar and gone to pieces with the loss of all hands. She had sailed from Sydney with imperfect charts, and seemed to have been unaware that the bar was a shifting one. A seaman who was being brought back as a prisoner was said to have warned the captain in vain. A boat was sent off to Onehunga to seek help, and the boat's crew were the sole survivors. Long before help arrived the ship had been broken to pieces by the surf.

The voyage is made at night, and is little more comfortable than it was fifty years ago. The landing used to be effected through heavy surf upon the black sand of the seashore just below the town. This sand is composed of a very fine hæmatite iron ore, which many projectors have made vain efforts to utilise commercially, and out of which a small quantity of what is known as "Taranaki steel" is made, used chiefly for surgical instruments, which require a particularly fine and cutting edge. The traveller is now saved all risk of being drenched in the sea by the unceasing rollers and heavy surf. A little harbour has been contrived behind some rocks which lie off the shore two miles south of New Plymouth, and the steamer runs alongside a narrow wharf at which the passengers and their baggage are transferred to a railway train.

In 1863 I had spent a week at New Plymouth, after being expelled from the Waikato, and before page 47the renewal of the war at Taranaki began. I was directed by the New Zealand Government to go and report to Sir George Grey personally the incidents that had taken place at Te Awamutu and the declarations and temper of the Waikato natives and especially of Rewi and the Ngatimaniapoto tribe. General Cameron, at that time the Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty's forces in New Zealand, had become so alarmed at the report of Rewi Maniapoto's doings in Waikato, that, although he had but just returned from Taranaki to Auckland, under the impression that all was quiet and that all chance of a war was over, he went back to Taranaki in the same steamer which conveyed Mr. Dillon Bell, the native Minister, and myself. He got quite vexed with us for saying that Rewi would really carry out his threats. He said the natives would talk for a month, and then only kill some old woman or child.

Both Sir George Grey, the Governor, and Mr. Domett, the Prime Minister of the colony, were at that time at Taranaki, and the condition of affairs was known by them to be critical: after a suspension of military operations that had lasted for two years, the British Government had taken military occupation of a tract of land called Tataraimaka, some few miles from New Plymouth, which the Maories had seized during the Taranaki War, though it was undisputed Crown property, and which they alleged that they held as a material page 48guarantee for the restoration of the disputed land at Waitara. The Maories had made no resistance to the occupation of the land by the troops, as it was rumoured that the Government intended to restore Waitara, and they were waiting to see whether this would actually take place.

The first news we heard on landing at New Plymouth was that the Maories had the night before laid an ambuscade on the seashore between New Plymouth and Tataraimaka, with the intention of shooting down the Governor, Sir George Grey, or any of the officers or soldiers passing to and fro along the shore between Tataraimaka and the town, but, for some reason which has never been discovered, the ambuscade had broken up without carrying out their intention—no harm was therefore done on that occasion. The report was brought in by a friendly native, who had stationed himself at the New Plymouth end of the road along the shore to warn passengers, and who came into town as soon as the war-party broke up: I heard him tell his tale to Mr. Dillon Bell.

Sir George Grey professed an entire disbelief in the truth of the report, and no steps were taken to ascertain whether any such ambush had been laid, or what was the temper and intentions of the hostile tribes. There were at that time no hotels in New Plymouth. The Prime Minister, Mr. Domett, was living in a little lodging-house in which Mr. Bell and I also found quarters, and Sir page 49George Grey and his suite were accommodated in a tinsmith's shop a little further up the street, from which the wares had been ejected to make way for the Governor, his Secretary and aides-de-camp.

During the week I spent there it rained almost incessantly. The country seemed very beautiful and fertile, notwithstanding the ravages of the war; excellent beef, butter and cream seemed plentiful, at least they made their appearance in great profusion at our lodgings. It was a healthy, hungry place, people always eating, and never satisfied.

The great glory of New Plymouth is the beautiful Mount Egmont, which rises abruptly out of the sea, and has a pointed conical summit covered with everlasting snow. This mountain summit, however, only came out of the clouds twice during my visit in 1863, and was quite invisible in 1906.

During the whole time of my stay in New Plymouth in 1863, while peace or war were in reality trembling in the balance the Governor and his Ministers were engaged in a paper controversy as to whether the British Government, represented by Sir George Grey, or the Colonial Government, represented by Messrs. Domett and Bell, should take the responsibility of surrendering Waitara to the Maories, both parties being in complete accord as to the justice of the surrender. I was actively employed as a secretary in the preparation of the numerous memoranda written page 50on the colonial side in the controversy. Both parties agreed that the original sale of Waitara to Governor Browne had been invalid for want of the consent of Wi Kingi and his tribe, but each alleged that it was for the other to take the responsibility of publicly declaring this, and restoring the land.

An incident occurred at Taranaki which is worth relating as an illustration of the extraordinary power of personal persuasion possessed by Sir George Grey. A soldier had been sentenced to death for murder, and was waiting for execution at Auckland. The question of a reprieve was discussed by the Colonial Ministers in my presence, and they concluded that there was no ground for interfering with the course of law; my youthful opinion, so far as it was worth anything, concurred with theirs. Then I was turned out of the room, because the Governor arrived to hold a Cabinet Council, at which the soldier's case was, with other matters, to be discussed. I took a walk along the main road, while excluded from the lodgings, and on turning home again, met almost immediately the Governor, who had apparently disposed of the council in a few minutes. He turned me back to walk with him, and said that both his ministers had, after a short conversation, entirely agreed with his views about the poor soldier. "Yes," I replied, "there was no ground for reprieve." "Oh, no," said the Governor, "on the contrary, they both advised me to remit the sentence of page 51death, of which I was very glad, as I had all along thought the case not one for execution, and should have exercised my own independent power of reprieve if necessary."

The controversy about Waitara was still going on when I left New Plymouth to take the relics of the establishments driven out by Rewi to the Kawau, by Sir George Grey's orders. The day I departed, a fresh ambuscade was laid between New Plymouth and Tataraimaka by the Maories, just one week after the former one that had been discredited; and the following morning, exactly one month after the military occupation of Tataraimaka, two officers and seven men, marching along the sea-beach towards the town, were shot down. It was in this way the Taranaki War, which was soon to be a war of races, was re-commenced.

The journey from New Plymouth to Wellington took about twelve hours in a train, which left at a very early hour, carrying the mail-bags which had accompanied us all the way from San Francisco. The railway runs northwards almost as far as the famous Waitara river, and then turns to the south round the back of Mount Egmont, through what was forty years ago a dense and impassible forest. The spectacle from the railway was very interesting: the whole of this country is now fertile and well cultivated, chiefly occupied by dairy farms, and exhibits the greatest outward signs of wealth and prosperity.

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It was, however, sad to see how its beauty was disfigured by the stumps of blackened trees, which stood up out of the green grass below as memorials of the great forest which the dairy farms had displaced, nor was there any sign of the preservation of any parts of the forest, or any systematic replacing of trees, which might become a source of national profit.

The conversion of ancient forests, or "bush" as the settlers call it, into cultivated land, is part of the economical policy by which the New Zealand Government promotes the increase of wealth and prosperity in the country. The plan is to parcel out these unoccupied lands in suitable farms for bona fide settlers, to give every encouragement in the power of Government to those who will occupy these lands and convert the forest into dairy farms. The first difficulty is the clearing of the land, which demands a great amount of labour not immediately remunerative. The Government in suitable cases will even hire the intending occupier at good wages to perform the task, and pay the wages out of public revenue. The more valuable timber is first felled and the rest of the bush is then set on fire, which produces the black stumps so great an eyesore in the land. On the ashes of the burnt forest English grasses are sown, which come up most luxuriantly and soon afford a pasture for sheep and cattle. The Government then offers the farm to the man who has cleared it, page 53at a rent which represents the annual "prairie" value of the land, together with a remunerative rate of interest on the sum advanced in wages for clearing it, the cost of grass seed and of sheep and cattle to stock it, and any other expense the Government has incurred. But all this is done under conditions which require the occupant to be a bona fide settler, and not a land speculator. Most of the holders of these farms are exceedingly prosperous. The amount of beef, mutton, butter and wool produced by them is rapidly on the increase, and though none of them will become millionaires, they are able to lead prosperous and healthy lives, and are bringing up strong and vigorous children, who will form the New Zealand nation of the next generation. As the train approaches Wellington the older settlements are reached, which exhibit the same sort of evidence of agricultural and pastoral wealth.

On arrival at Wellington we were taken in charge by officers of the Tourist Department, who were on the look-out for us; they conveyed us on board the steamer which was on the point of departure for Port Lyttelton, and was only waiting for the mail. Mr. Fowlds, the Minister of Education and Health, who was on board the steamer took us under his care. After a calm passage in the comfort of a larger steamer, and a short railway journey from Port Lyttelton to Christchurch, we found ourselves established in the United Service Hotel, where rooms had been page 54taken for us by the New Zealand Government. The Governor, Lord Plunket, and Lady Plunket, were staying in the same hotel, and many distinguished official visitors from New Zealand, Australia and Canada.