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Historical Records of New Zealand

Report on New Zealand Flax, by R. Williams (Ropemaker)

Report on New Zealand Flax, by R. Williams (Ropemaker).

R. Williams.

Representation of the New Zealand hemp up to 1814 after my going there, and intended to be continued up to this time, which would be very interesting.

The anext papers will prove the facts of this statement.

[No date.]

[The report is without date, is not directed, and not signed. It is, most probably, an English copy of the ropemaker’s statement.]

Sir—I cannot give you a just idea of the hemp plant of New Zealand without going to great lengths by way of explaining the page 458 several trifling attempts that have been made use of to introduce it to public attention and service, and the reason why those attempts have not been carried into effect.

The flax of New Zealand, more properly called hemp, has been an object of attention from the most early knowledge of that island. Governors Phillips and King were at much labour and expense and made great efforts to bring it to perfection at Norfolk Island, but the best mechanics in Europe have failed in their attempts to manufacture it at any moderate labour and expence, and all further attempts deemed useless for several years; the above-mentioned hemp requiring a different process of manufacturing to any before known or practised on hemp or flax in any part of the world.

In 1810 Mr. Lord sent an expedition with an able artist at the head of it with a great assurance of bringing it to perfection, but the vessels returned for the want of method of manufacturing it, and the only profit of the expedition was a few musters of the natives’ dressing, whose method is too tedious to supply a large demand, and even what they could supply would not answer the purpose of British manufacture which has been well determined in England. Thus Mr. Lord gave up any further attempts.

I being bred from my infancy to the manufacturing of hemp and flax, and having as a flax-dresser and rope-maker performed those branches in several parts of the globe and made use of materials unknown in England, I determined in the same year to try some method with the New Zealand hemp, and was successful, and my next endeavours were to perform it by a speedy and simple method, and at such expence as would admit the exportation of the hemp to the British market. My means were very limited, and circumstances embarrassed, but well knowing the encouragement held out by the British Government for procuring hemp at this time, I persevered in the pursuit, and had the satisfaction to surmount all obstacles and satisfy myself that the hemp may be brought to use at less labour and expence than any hemp in the world. I then conceived my labour would meet with encouragement by the Governors, and knowing that hemp was an article of importance to the British Government at home and this colony in distress for cordage, and knowing myself capable of introducing a system of relief, I represented it to the Governor by memorial (No. 1), accompanied with samples of hemp and cordage in different stages of manufacture, but the Governor did not pay much attention to it, telling me he did not understand it. I then informed Mr. Lord what I was able to perform. Mr. Lord proposed an engagement, but not with such encouragement as I conceived myself entitled to. I declined it and represented the business to Messrs. Hook, Birnie, Blaxcell, and others, but my page 459 proposals were coolly received, the business having met with many miscarriages, but they did not induce me to decline my pursuits, and having a few of the plants in the country, I continued to improve my methods and gain experience, and produced such samples that convinced the public that something might be done. Mr. Lord again made proposals, but we could not come to terms to my satisfaction for want of capital.

Messrs. Birnie, Hook, and Gordon requested me to make proposals which were agreed upon—viz., to send a vessel with twenty men and other means to perform such manufacture as I should point out if I gave proofs that my method of manufacturing would answer the purpose. If after signing our engagement I produced such proofs of my abilities to perform more than I had proposed that Mr. Birnie wished to commence on a much larger scale than had been proposed, but the question was whether there was a sufficient quantity of hemp plant in being, and such were the proofs I had given on my part that instead of commencing on the small scale proposed Mr. Birnie determined to send a vessel and explore the island, and if the hemp were in sufficient abundance to make choice of a suitable place for establishing our manufactory and return and then to commence on a very extensive scale, and make use of every means that could be applied. This went beyond my engagement to go more than once, and Mr. Birnie proposed my waiting for the vessel’s return, but having made my arrangements for the voyage, and desiring that some information might be acquired, I accompanied the voyage—Mr. Murry, master, with a good crew, Mr. Gordon, and Mr. Jones, to conduct the voyage and to represent what was possible to be done and to what extent. When we sailed I understood we were to coast the west side of the island to the South Cape, where we had been informed there was the greatest abundance of hemp, but whatever induced Mr. Jones to accompany the voyage I am at a loss to know (Mr. Jones was the clerk to Mr. Birnie), for we were not three days at sea when Mr. Jones expressed his regret at going, and heartily wished to fall in with some vessel to take him back, or that the weather might oblige us to return; this was the theme of our voyage for three weeks. Mr. Jones represented the west coast too dangerous to approach, so that the first land we saw was Solander’s Island, in about twenty days. Very fine weather, but variable head winds. We fortunately had very fine weather to take five men off Solander’s Island that had been from four to five years on it, destitute of relief, and hopeless of ever being taken off, and the same night came to anchor in Port Williams, in Foveaux Straits, a very safe and still harbour, land-locked on all sides. The next day came on to rain and blow very hard, but we lay very snug; yet Mr. Jones did not think so, he page 460 said as there was no hemp in Port Williams, and the weather continuing very bad for several days, there was no hope of doing any more, and as the wind was fair for Sydney we had better return. I was then at a loss to know which commanded our expedition; Mr. Gordon seemed very interested in it and would not consent to return. At length the weather clearing up a little Mr. Gordon and myself went on shore to try some experiments on the hemp, where Mr. Gordon had the misfortune to cut his leg very dangerously with the axe, and no boat on shore, and a long way from the brig, it was night before we could get a boat to take us on board. This was a misfortune to our expedition, for the only hope of seconding my exertions was Mr. Gordon, and he was now confined to his cabin. Mr. Murray (now pilot to this port) was well acquainted with this part of the island, and represented the hemp in great abundance on the opposite side the straits on the main, but no knowledge of anchorage for the vessel, and it was determined to cross the straits in the boat, Mr. Jones, Mr. Murray, and five hands in one boat, and Mr. Smith, the second officer, with five hands and myself, in the other, all armed with provisions for several days. We were in pursuit of five objects which are necessary to be combined in one view—viz., abundance of hemp, wood, and water, and means to collect them, and anchorage for the vessel. Favoux Straits is about twenty-five miles over from Port Williams to Port Macquarie, as named by Mr. Jones, the entrance of which was unknown before to be capable of receiving a vessel. I have given a chart* or view of this place as far as my abilities would admit from several very commanding views with the naked eye. The entrance of this harbour was supposed to be a reef of sand banks, but Mr. Murray sounded it from side to side and found plenty of water for vessels of burthen and anchorage inside. We met with a native at the entrance of the bay, who seemed glad to see us, but could get no information from him, having no person to speak his language. We were at a loss to know where to land. The tide ebbing, we grounded several times, and the native seemed so indifferent on the subject. At length we landed, and gave our new companion to understand that we wanted to find his village. He readily made signs to follow him. We left the boats in charge of four hands, and travelled several miles over swampy lands, covered with hemp, in general over the shoes in water—no timber of any kind; Mr. Jones wished to decline going any further; Mr. Murray and myself proceeded till we came to a large bay covered with water; the native informed us it was fordable here. Mr. Jones declined going any further, and returned with the carpennter page 461 to the boat; Mr. Murray, myself, and the rest of the party proceeded, and crossed the bay, which did not exceed knee-deep; hard sandy bottom. We then crossed a ridge of hills and valleys covered with hemp, and on the opposite side found the native’s village, chiefly of women and children, and a few old men. They gave us to undertsand that the men were gone on some expedition for some time, but I was apprehensive they were lying in ambush. We spent the night with them, keeping a watch during it, and they made us as comfortable as they could in their hut. In the morning Mr. Murray and myself examined the source of the bay we crossed the day before, and when we signified our intention of returning the women loaded themselves with large baskets of potatoes and accompanied us to the boat. We found the large bay we had crossed the day before completely dry and covered with paradise ducks, which induced me to name it Duck Bay. The natives took us a shorter cut back, and found Mr. Jones and the boat high and dry. When he found we were so well received by the natives he proposed going to their village the next day, after getting some refreshment. I asked Mr. Jones and Mr. Murray to accompany me in search of a nearer and better way to Duck Bay, which I thought was the case from the notice I took the day before, for though we had seen plenty of hemp, wood, and water, still there would be a difficulty in collecting them. In the afternoon we went and came to a thick brush where I expected to find a passage, but Mr. Jones and Mr. Murray declined attempting it. I proceeded alone and found it a complete barrier of brush and old timber fallen down from old age. On the eve of returning I fell in with an old beaten path that took me through to Duck Bay, where I found a large valley of the best hemp we had seen, and as regularly set as if planted by the hands of man. In the middle of the brush I found an old tent, but fallen with age, and it was visible that the trade from Duck Bay met here, which I considered an object of importance to our undertaking, as a little labour would open a passage from sea to sea in the centre of everything we wanted. I had some difficulty in making my way through the hemp and fern till I came to our first track from Duck’s Bay to Jones Island, where the boat lay, and where I arrived at dusk, and informed Mr. Jones of the success of my journey. Next day our party went to the village. Mr. Jones, the carpenter, and myself went to the new road I had pointed out, as I wished them to give their opinions of what I thought our grand object; but I found our party more in pursuit of other amusements, and they left me and went the old road. We came to the village, and Mr. Murray and myself examined the channel that led to Duck Bay and found it navigable for boats. On our return from Duck Bay the tide was page 462 flowing, and I asked Mr. Jones a second time to go the shortest way through the bush to ascertain the meeting of the tides, and to determine whether this would be a proper place to establish our manufactory. Mr. Jones told me he had enough of it, and that I might go myself, which I did with the carpenter. We met at the beat. Mr. Jones said he would go over to the vessel. In the morning, at daylight, I remonstrated with him that the bay seemed formed by nature to answer all our wishes, though we knew very little of it at present, and our principal object now wanted was a stream of water. He said he would stay no longer, and that we would find that the next time we came, and that we had spent enough time here. In the morning the tide would not allow us to depart till eleven o’clock. I then proposed to take a week round the west side of the bay, towards the Heads. Mr. Jones said he would wait no longer than dinner, being cooked at 10 a.m. I took a biscuit in my pocket, and went by myself, but not knowing what kind of travelling I should meet with, and intending to meet the boat at the Heads, and as I had an opportunity of seeing them about six or seven miles round the bay pass in the boat, I was to fix a signal to be taken on board in case I could not make my way to the Heads. I passed several large tracks of hemp and rivulets of water, but my time would not admit me to examine the source of them. I saw large quantities of hemp all round that side of the bay, and most of it from seven to ten feet long, and excellent soil. I found no difficulty in getting to the Heads, it being ebb tide and hard sandy bottom. I made the Heads about four o’clock, and made a fire on the hill. In this situation I was a little alarmed at not seeing the boat, and this the place where we took the native from the first day. In an hour after the boat arrived, having gone into a bay to look for me. It was then proposed to camp there for the night, and cross over to Port Williams in the morning. The only two men we saw among the natives came with the boat; the rest were gone for more potatoes, but Mr. Jones would not wait their return. At daylight the next morning we launched the boat. The two natives seemed much concerned to part with us. We did not wait the return of their companions with more potatoes, and the two natives bid us a very friendly adieu. We rowed most of the passage, and made the brig in the afternoon, all well. Mr. Murray and myself had a hope of taking the brig over and acquiring more knowledge of Port Macquarie and the neighbourhood round, and Mr. Gordon was of the same opinion, but Mr. Jones over-ruled all, and determined to get under weigh next day for Sydney, which was the case. We cleared the straits that night, and stood along the eastern shore, but scarcely saw it till we made Banks Island, and after standing towards it page 463 from daylight in the morning till one or two in the afternoon, came within four miles of a fine harbour. We saw a large village distinctly. It was intended to go in, but Mr. Jones declined, saying it would be only loosing time. Stood along the land till we opened a large bay. Saw several large smacks. Stood under easy sail till daylight next morning. Found ourselves close in with Table Cape. Run seven or eight miles into the bay, fired a gun. Fires were lighted on shore. Saw the natives. Mr. Jones became timid and about ship again, and stood out of the bay. Mr. Murray having some knowledge of Table Cape stood close round it. Saw large tribes of natives on shore launching their canoes. Hove the vessel to. The natives brought potatoes and mats for trade; a spike nail would buy a hundred weight of potatoes, and a woman offered to sell her little boy, her son, for a tomahawk, but the child crying we would not take him, though the mother would part with him; but I saw no hemp. The natives gave me to understand that they had plenty of that article on shore, and they went for it, but we waited not their return, Mr. Jones thinking it not safe, but made sail along the shore. The canoes continued coming after us, trading as before. The natives in general all along gave me to understand that they had abundance of hemp on shore, which article (I am sorry to say) excited not the least attention of our party, for the grand object of our voyage seemed now totally forgot. We had a fine breeze from the west, and the vessel laid along shore under easy sail and smooth water. We had every opportunity of visiting every mile of the coast, sailing along, and I had no doubt of our being able to have collected some tons of hemp from the natives, which would have turned to good account; but Mr. Jones became impatient of getting home, said it was no use of creeping along shore, and that if we stood off the land we should have a fine breeze that would drive us home. Mr. Murray and Mr. Gordon were of a different opinion, but yet they gave way to him, and we soon felt the effects of a stiff breeze, which drove us to the north and east for several weeks, the vessel making great leeway. We nevermore saw the land any more. We might have made the North Cape, but all further attempts we declined, to come home. We made Port Jackson after a voyage of twelve weeks as wise as we went had not Port Macquarie fortunately formed by nature to answer all the purpose for a large establishment, and though I had been greatly disappointed in not having numerous choices of situations which most likely would have been the case had our means been made good use of, yet it gave me a deal of consolation that I accompanied the voyage, for I found Port Macquarie so well suited to answer all our wishes that I am positive much more might be done than ever was expected page 464 before we sailed from the general information we had received And had I not been there nothing would have been known of it, for Mr. Jones would have returned with the boat to Port Williams had I not acted in opposition to his inclinations, and the short time I was permitted was always in search of such objects I knew requisite for an establishment, and every hour opened important objects in view; and though hurried away with great reluctance, still am satisfied that great means may be applied to great advantages. Near the native village is a very high sandy hill, commanding a view of lowlands as far as the eye could discern, covered with hemp, and I have no doubt it was the case where we travelled, and as far as we could discern there was no timber on the lowlands except in patches, and that very thick brush. The natives here seemed to be only a few families detached from the main. They were remarkably kind to us, though I was informed they had been ill-treated by some Europeans some time before. Mr. Murray had lived in Port Williams many months, and was dependent on them for fish and potatoes, and they would have given him as many as he pleased, but Mr. Murray had never been in Port Macquarie. I have no doubt but these natives, with proper treatment, would be of great service to a hemp establishment. They were very poor, but I saw great industry in their potato gardens, which were kept remarkably clean. Fish and potatoes seemed to be their chief dependence. Had we but spent six days at Port Macquarie instead of three I think many more favourable advantages would have presented themselves, but such were the ideas I had formed of the situation on my departure that I had arranged every point of an establishment, independent of any further discoveries, and had not the least idea but it would have been cheerfully embraced on our return to Sydney, but so strange were the events of this expedition that the principal persons intended for conducting and representing the voyage, one was wounded and could not go on shore and the others seemed inclined to suppress every effort made. On my return I was asked why we had done so little. I then represented Port Macquarie as a suitable place for a large establishment, and by what means I was informed by Mr. Birnie that they had different accounts from Mr. Jones. I then gave such explanations as were requisite and referred it to Mr. Murray and officers of the vessel, whose opinion was nearly as my own, and tho’ we had not done what was expected, I understood the business was to be proceeded in bound for England. Mr. Birnie told me he wished to send a representation of the business to England, and requested me to send some musters home, but I was very ill provided for such a request, for we had no means for performing my work when we sailed; neither was page 465 it intended till we commenced on a large scale, for all parties were fully satisfied my method of manufacturing was practicable, and to help with it would give others an opportunity who were anxious to act on our principles. Under these reasons I declined any experiments in New Zealand except a few stems of the raw plant I brought for curiosity, and to ascertain what effect the voyage would make on them. In this case I told Mr. Birnie I would construct a small machine and clean the plants we had brought, and as I had some hopes and stood in need of assistance from the Governor, I therefore would request him to see it put in practice, which would do away all doubts of the business and secure the merits of my own labour. I completed my machine and presented a memorial to the Governor, a copy of which I have accompanied with this, which will represent my idea, the import value of the New Zealand hemp. His Excellency was pleased to inspect the operation of cleaning and preparing the hemp, and was pleased to express his approbation by a promise of to give it every encouragement in his power to carry it into effect. Mr. Birnie now signified his intentions of postponing all further proceedings in the affair till he had heard from England; his reason for so doing was owing to the representation Mr. Jones had given of it. I now found myself much hurt at this information, having put myself to great expense and trouble, and the only recompense left me was to see others reap the benefit of my labours and exertions, and of sustaining great embarrassments by being led astray in my expectations from my usual pursuits. I was very unwilling of Mr. Birnie’s sending these musters home which he had, being much damaged. They have been brought over in the green leaf and remained several weeks after our arrival, and were only intended to show the operation of the machinery by way of improvement. I informed Mr. Birnie the impropriety of sending them. If I had known when I sailed to New Zealand that it was intended to send samples to England I would have taken care to provide myself with the means to prepare such samples of hemp and cordage as would put them beyond the reach of doubts or prejudice. The musters which were sent were too trifling for inspection, and even the best of them were lost or made away before they were packed up in the case for England, and I then gave it as my opinion that if they were not properly explained at home they would lead judges of hemp astray in their opinion of the New Zealand hemp. This hemp has always been called flax, but it is hemp completely, which is easily discerned by proper judges of that article. And I shall now produce musters that will convey a just idea of the value of them, and represent from my own knowledge and experience by what means and to what extent it may be brought to page 466 use. I being now employed in furnishing the public with manufactured articles of an excellent quality, which I can perform with less labour than on any hemp in England.

Exclusive of furnishing the British market with hemp, this colony and others may be supplied with cordage and canvass with great advantage, for the cheap production of this hemp would admit of three articles to market at a moderate price for manufacturing. The only articles wanted from England would be six sets of hatchets, a few dozen of reeds for weaving duck and canvass, a set of looms compleat would be far better and cheaper for twine spinners, jacks of small sizes, a few dozen of wheel-bands; the whole of which would not exceed £100.

The following experiments will give a good idea to what extent the hemp may be brought exclusive of its natural productions. I cut from one tuft or stool 80 blades of hemp which did not occupy more than four feet of ground in circumference, and when brought to Sydney seven of these blades produced a pound of nett hemp of 8 ft. long, and the whole of them would have produced the same had they not been damaged in the voyage. The pound of hemp was cleaned in five minutes, in presence of the Governor. One sapor plant transplanted from the Governor’s garden in June, 1813, and cut that time in less than two years, and then I divided into nine slips, the whole of these plants producing young leaves an inch long in seven days. Three of these plants are going to England in the Sydney Packet, I understand, to ascertain the proper age and season for cutting this plant; but I find it may be cut all the year round, with very little difference in the quality of the hemp; and I am positive that before all the hemp in the neighbourhood of Port Macquarie could be gathered and cleared the first cut would be fit for cutting again and produce better hemp. There are several species of the hemp plant, some producing seeds and some not. I have seen those producing seeds 10 feet high, and others not exceeding 3 feet, which produced the finest hemp.

* This chart has not been preserved with the papers.—F.M.B.