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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.


Natives Prove Born Cultivators—Poverty Bay's Exports in 1830's—Amusing Evidence Given in England—“Slaves Used to Grow Crops”—Development of Native Lands—East Coast Enterprise.

Poverty Bay had become a large trading base some years before the first of the Dominion's cities was founded. When the demand for dressed flax began to dwindle in the middle 1830's, the natives turned their attention more seriously to the cultivation of maize as well as of potatoes, and to the breeding of more pigs for export. Commercial relations between pakeha and native had, by then, developed to an appreciable extent.

That the natives of the East Coast were born cultivators was noted by Cook, Banks and Solander in 1769, when the Endeavour was at Tolaga Bay. These distinguished visitors were impressed not only by the methodical manner in which the plantations were laid out, but also by the high degree of tidiness with which they were tended. “Tillage, weaving and the rest of the arts of peace,” Banks says, “are best known and most practised in the north-east districts of New Zealand.” Cook, in a supporting statement, suggests that the East Coast natives excelled as agriculturists “owing to the necessity that they are under of cultivating or running the risque of starving.”

The most elaborate description of the native plantations at Tolaga Bay comes from Banks's pen:

“Their plantations,” he says, “were now hardly finished, but so well was the ground till'd that I have seldom seen, even in the grounds of Curious people, Land better broken up. In them were planted sweet Potatoes, Cocos and some one of the Cucumber kind…. The sweet Potatoes were planted on small hills, some in rows and others in quincunx, and all laid out most regularly in line. The Cocos were planted on flat land and had not yet appear'd above ground. The Cucumbers were set in small hollows or ditches, much as in England. These plantations were from one to two to 8 or 10 acres each. In the Bay, there might be 150 or 200 acres in cultivation, though we did not see 100 people in all. Each distinct Patch was fenced in, generally with reeds placed one by another so that scarce a mouse could creep through.”

Whilst the Adventure was at Tolaga Bay in November, 1773, William Bayly, the astronomer, went a few miles into the country with the surgeon and inspected some small plantations. Describing the methods employed to break in the land, he says: “… They first set fire to the Wood and then cut it off about knee high. Then they turn the earth and cleanse it with sticks, which serve page 125 them instead of spades…. I saw Wood pigeons, Parroquets, Grey Parrots, Poey birds and Quails, and a vast variety of singing birds, but no Animal great or small, or any Fruit trees of any kind whatsoever.”

Polack, who first visited the East Coast districts in 1835, was greatly impressed by the fertility of the soil. In New Zealand: Travels and Adventures, Vol. 1, p. 257, he says:

“The country around Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay is formed of alluvial soil. These places, which contain the most fertile land that may be imagined, lie useless among the natives, apprehensive as they are of meeting with an enemy before they can finish the labours of planting and, if they have succeeded in planting, are fearful of being deprived of the fruits of their toil.”

In The Tasmanian Journal of Science (1842), Colenso is equally laudatory with reference to the excellence of the natives' work as cultivators.

“The taro plantations at Te Kawakawa [Te Araroa, E.C.] were,” he says, “in nice condition and looked very neat, the plants being set out in quincunx order and the ground strewn with white sand, with which the large pendulous dark green and shield-shaped leaves of the young plants beautifully contrasted. Small screens, formed of the branches of manuka, to shelter the young plants from the violence of the northerly and easterly winds intersected the ground in every direction. Of the taro plant, the natives possess two kinds—taro maori and taro hora, neither indigenous, and only the former introduced by the present race.”

As an article of food for themselves, and as a trading commodity, pigs were held in high esteem by the natives. Wi Pere (Gisborne N.L. Court minute book, No. 26) says that, in the early days, pig breeding was an important work. Some members of each tribe were selected for the task of feeding the animals. If any pigs strayed, the owners would not go secretly after them on to land belonging to others, but would notify the occupiers, and both parties would search for the wanderers.