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

Poverty Bay's Trade in 1830's

Poverty Bay's Trade in 1830's

Some documentary evidence relating to the extent of native agriculture in Poverty Bay in the 1830's is available. Perhaps, the most interesting is the testimony—much of it fanciful—which Joseph Barrow Montefiore, merchant, of Sydney, gave before a Select Committee of the House of Lords which sat, in 1838, to inquire, inter alia, into conditions in New Zealand. He had, he said, disposed of his trading station in Poverty Bay to a trader [Captain Harris]. His former agent frequently gave credit to the natives, and the debts were invariably honestly discharged. In 1837, his firm in Sydney, “being the agent for parties who are cultivating in Poverty Bay,” had received large quantities of page 126 maize, wheat and potatoes, and had traded also for flax, pork, hogs' lard, whalebone, oil and everything else with which the country abounds—a variety of products which he described as “very valuable and useful.” [The inclusion of wheat in his list was an error; that cereal had not then been introduced.] Correspondence which he produced did, however, show that, in that year, his firm had obtained several thousand bushels of maize from Poverty Bay.

Questioned as to whether he thought the natives were likely to become good agriculturists, Mr. Montefiore said: “Certainly; they cultivate uncommonly well now. They fence in their lands and cultivate with regularity. Their potatoes are cultivated better than those grown by many of the settlers in New South Wales.” Members of the committee appear to have been surprised to learn that maize was, at that early date, among the exports from Poverty Bay, and he was cross-examined as under:

“By whom was the maize which you imported from Poverty Bay cultivated?” Answer: “By the natives.”
“You know that the land on which it was grown was cultivated by the natives?”
“Yes; we are agents for the person who is now carrying on such cultivation. I have no doubt that he possesses a large territory there.” [In strict fact, Harris, at that time, held only the small allotment upon which his trading station at Turanganui stood and the small portion of Opou which originally bore that name.]
“He is an influential man and is settled there?”
“Yes; he consigns to us his shipments of maize, flax, whalebone, etc.”

How it was possible for this trader to get the natives to grow so much maize also puzzled members of the committee. “Does he [the trader] use slaves to cultivate his land?” Mr. Montefiore was asked. His reply was: “No doubt of it; and, from his high connection, he can command as many as he pleases.” [It could not have been known to the witness that, if a trader desired to have a crop grown, he would require only to consult his native protector, who would arrange with his tribe to have the work carried out and would personally supervise operations.]

Continuing to draw upon his vivid imagination, Mr. Montefiore told the committee that the trader had married a chief's daughter, or, perhaps, the daughters of two or three chiefs [Harris did not become a polygamist, as did some of his fellow-traders.] Mr. Montefiore also averred that, when the natives went to war, or had their tumults among themselves, they locked up their trader in a fort and made him a neutral until they had decided their quarrel, when they brought him back to his old station. [During the only serious trouble which occurred in Poverty Bay in the 1830's—the Siege of Kekeparaoa—Harris was present as an honoured spectator on the day on which the pa fell.]

page 127

Comment on the final section of Mr. Montefiore's cross-examination is unnecessary. He was also asked:

“Does he (the trader) find that the can casily get his land cultivated?”
“Yes, to any extent.”
“There is no indisposition on the part of the natives to work for compensation?”
“No; I think not.”
“There would be no necessity to send Europeans to cultivate the land?”
“No; not if they can compel the slaves there to work.”

The first maize planted in the Poverty Bay-East Coast area was probably imported by one of the earliest shore-traders, although, of course, it might have been a gift from a shipmaster. In the early 1830's that cereal was being extensively grown. Salmon (Rovings in the Pacific) says that, in 1840, it was being cultivated even in almost inaccessible spots at [?] Hicks Bay, where there was “an Englishman long resident on the East Coast.” His description of the locality answers to that of Te Araroa. It was “a narrow strip at the foot of perpendicular cliffs, comprising about 800 acres of tableland.” He explains that it was irrigated by means of channels fed from springs on the cliffs. There were, he says, good crops of potatoes, kumaras, taro, maize, melons, pumpkins, cabbage, onions and other vegetables. He saw heavy crops of maize growing in such acclivitous positions that he was quite fatigued in reaching them.

With a friend, Salmon paid a visit to Rangitukia. They ascended a high hill to obtain a view of the Waiapu Valley. Every small hill was found to be under cultivation in some degree. Much of the land had been cropped in potatoes, and ripening maize crops were in abundance. On the highest hill, they met an aged woman who had just ascended with two baskets of potatoes which, it was reckoned, could not have weighed less than 80 lbs. in all. She did not seem to be incommoded by her burden “and commenced her descent with less appearance of fatigue than probably we did.”