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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER XV. — The Flax Trade, 1813 and 1814

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The Flax Trade, 1813 and 1814.

FROM the date of the discovery of the Campbell and Macquarie Islands to the end of 1812, Foveaux Strait and the land adjacent appear to have been deserted. No imports are quoted in the Sydney Customs, and no vessels are recorded as sealing on their shores. All shipping and trade for that period was directed to the rich lands in the far south. For a revival of interest in the mainland, we are indebted to an attempt made by the Sydney merchants to develop the flax trade of the islands.

The flax plant, as a subject of trade, had been suggested at the inauguration of the settlement of New South Wales. Phillip was impressed with its use for the manufacture of cordage and canvas, two great wants in the new settlement, and asked for assistance to teach the residents of Norfolk Island the best method of treating the green leaf. In 1791, King suggested that a New Zealand native should be procured, and this was done by kidnapping two Maoris and bringing them to Norfolk Island, where they remained for a short time and were finally restored to their own country in the latter part of 1793. None of the official schemes produced any satisfactory result.

In 1810 the first attempt by private enterprise to develop a trade was made under the direction of Lord, Williams and Thompson, when the brig Experiment was sent to New Zealand with a strong party under William Leith. This expedition, as has already been noticed, resulted in failure, and the party returned with only a small supply of native dressed material which cost the promoters about £2,000.

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In Sydney, at this time, was a ropemaker named Robert Williams, whose premises were situated in Castlereagh Street. He had come out to the colony as a prisoner, but his trade stood him in good stead and enabled him in due course to set up in business on his own account. Williams had long directed his attention to the working up of New Zealand flax, and was satisfied that he had solved the secret of its manufacture on commercial lines. After the failure of Lord's expedition Williams approached that gentleman on the subject, but without any results. Later on, negotiations were opened with Mr. Birnie, representing a number of merchants and others interested in the trade, and finally it was decided to send an expedition across to the southern portion of the South Island. Leave was granted for the expedition to proceed and it sailed. The leader of the party was Mr. James Gordon, and with him as leading man, R. Jones. Robert Williams accompanied the expedition, which left Sydney on 19th April, 1813.

On the return of the Perseverance to Sydney, Williams gave a report upon the trip and the prospects of the trade, dated September, 1813, which is to be found among the papers in the Chief Secretary's Office, Sydney. What is appropriate to our narrative is here reproduced:

In the Brig Perseverance September 1813.


“I having been brought up from infancy to the manufacturing of hemp and flax, and having as a Flax dresser and Ropemaker performed those branches in several parts of the globe and made use of materials unknown in England, I determined to try some method with the New Zealand hemp and having found it possible to manufacture it, and my next endeavours were to perform it by a speedy and simple system, and such expense as would admit the exportation of it to a British market, my means were very limited and circumstances embarassed, but well knowing the encouragement held out by the British Government for procuring hemp, at this time I persevered in the pursuit and have the satisfaction to surmount all obstacles and page 193 satisfy myself that the hemp may be brought to use at less labour and expense than any hemp in the world.

“I then conceived my labour would meet with encouragement by the Governor. Knowing that hemp was an article of importance to the British Government at Home, and this colony in distress of cordage, and knowing myself capable of introducing a system of relief, represented it to the Governor by memorial accompanied by samples of hemp and cordage in different stages of manufactory, 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 considered myself entitled to, and I declined it, and represented the business to Messrs. Hook, Birnie, Blaxwell and others, but my proposals were cooly received the business having met with so many miscarriages, but this did not prevent me to decline my pursuits, and having a few of the plants in the country I continued to improve my method and gain experience and producing 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.

“Messrs. Birnie, Hook and Gordon requested me to make proposals, which were agreed upon, namely to send a vessel with 20 men and other means requisite to perform such manufacture I should point out, if I gave proofs that my method of manufacturing answers the purpose; after signing an engagement I produced such proofs of my abilities to perform more than I had proposed, Mr. Birnie wished to commence on a much larger scale than had been proposed, but the question was, whether there was sufficient quantity of the hemp plant in being, and such were the hopes 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 the most suitable place for establishing our manufactory, and return and then to page 194 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 observing that some information might be acquired I accompanied the voyage Mr. Murray 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 Islands to the South Cape, where we had been informed was the greatest abundance of hemp, but whatever induced Mr. Jones to accompany the voyage I am at a loss to know, 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 to be dangerous to approach so that the first land we saw was Solanders Island, in about 20 days very fine weather, but variable head winds, we fortunately had fine weather to take five men off Solanders 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 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, but Mr. Jones did not think so, he said as there was no hemp in Port Williams and the weather continuing bad for several days, that there was no hope of doing any more and as the wind was fair to Sydney we had better return, but I was at a loss to know which commanded our expedition. Mr. Gordon seemed very interested in our expedition and would not consent, at length the weather clearing up a little Mr. Gordon and I 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 in cutting wood to make a fire and no boat on shore and page 195 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, master of the vessel was well acquainted with this part of the Island, and represented the hemp in great abundance on the opposite side of the straits on the main, but no knowledge of anchorage for the vessel, and it was determined to cross the straits in the boats; Mr. Jones, Mr. Murray and five hands in one, and Mr. Smith 2nd 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, namely abundance of hemp, wood and water, means to collect them, and anchorage for the vessel. Foveaux Straits is about 25 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 having no person to speak his language, we were at a loss where to land and the tide ebbing we grounded several times, and the native seemed 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 marshy land 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 on till we came to a large bay covered with water the natives informed us that it was fordable, Mr. Jones declined proceeding and returned with, the page 196 carpenter to the boats, Mr. Murray myself and the rest of the party crossed the bay which did not exceed knee deep hard sandy bottom, we crossed a ridge of hills and valleys covered with hemp, on the opposite side found the native village, chiefly of women and children and a few old men, they gave us to understand that the men were gone on some expedition for some time but I was apprehensive they were lying in ambush, we spent this night with them keeping a watch during it and they made us as comfortable as they could in their huts. In the morning Mr. Murray and I examined the source of the bay we crossed the day before, and when we signified our intentions of returning, the women loaded themselves with large baskets of potatoes and accompanied us to the boats.

“We found the large bay which we crossed the day before completely dry and covered with paradise ducks which induced me naming it Duck Bay, the natives took us a shorter cut back and found Mr. Jones with the boats 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 refreshments I asked Mr. Jones and Mr. Murray to accompany me in the search of a nearer cut and a better road to Duck Bay, which I thought was the case from the view 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, we 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 by 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 regular set as if planted by man, in the middle of this brush I found an old tent hut fallen with age and it was visible that the tide from Duck Bay met here, which I considered as an object of importance to our undertakings, as a little harbour would open up a passage from sea to sea in the centre of everything we wanted. I had some page 197 difficulty in making my way through the hemp and fern, till I came to our first track from Duck Bay to Jones Island, where the boats lay and where I arrived at dusk. I informed Mr. Jones of the success of my journey, next day our party went to the village, Mr. Jones the carpenter and myself went by the new road, as I wished them to give their opinion of what I thought our grand object, but I found our party more in pursuit of other amusements, we came to the village and Mr. Murray and myself examined the channel that led to Duck Bay and found it navigable from our boats, on our return across Duck Bay the tide was flowing and I asked Mr. Jones to go the shortest way through the brush to ascertain the meeting of the tides and determine whether this would be a proper place to establish our works, Mr. Jones told me that he had enough of it and that I might go myself, which I did with the carpenter through the new passage, and met at the boats, Mr. Jones said he would go over to the vessel in the morning at daylight, I remonstrated with him, that this 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 we must find that next time we came, and that we had spent time enough here; in the morning the tide would not allow us to depart till 11 o'clock. I then proposed to take a walk round the west side of the bay towards the Heads. Mr. Jones said he would wait no longer than dinner being cooked, 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 with the boats at the Heads, and as I had an opportuity of seeing them pass I was to fire 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 7 to 10 feet long and excellent soil, I found no difficulty in getting to the Heads page 198 it being ebb tide and hard sandy bottom, I made the Heads about 4 o'clock and made a fire on the hills, in an hour after the boats arrived, it was then proposed to camp there for the night and cross over to Port Williams in the morning, the only two young men we saw amongst the natives came with the boats, the rest were gone for more potatoes, but Mr. Jones would not wait their return.

“At daylight next morning we launched the boats, the two natives seemed much concerned we did not wait the return of their companions with more potatoes, and bid us a very friendly adieu, 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 overruled 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 from daylight in the morning till one or two in the afternon came within about four miles of a fine harbour, saw a large village distinctly, it was intended to go in but Mr. Jones declined saying it would only be losing time, stood along the land until we opened a large bay saw several large smokes, stood under easy sail till daylight next morning; found ourselves close in with Table Cape, made sail, running 7 or 8 miles into the bay, fired a gun, fires were lighted on shore, saw the natives, about ship again, stood out of the Bay, Mr. Murray having some knowledge of Table Cape stood close round it, saw large tribes of natives on the shores launching their canoes.

“Hove the vessel too, the natives brought potatoes and mats for trade, a spike nail would buy a hundred weight of potatoes, but I saw no hemp, the natives gave me to understand that they had plenty of that article on shore, and went for it, but we waited not for their return, but made sail and stood along the shore; the canoes continued coming off to us trading as before, the natives in general page 199 all along gave me to understand that they had abundance of hemp on shore, which article I'm 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 an easy sail and smooth water, we had every opportunity of visiting every mile of the coast, sailing along, and I have 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 that it was no use creeping along shore, and that if we stood off land we should have a good 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 effect of a stiff breeze which drove us to the N. and E. for several weeks (the vessel making great lee way) we never more saw the land.

“We might have made the North Cape, but all further attempts were declined to come home, we made Port Jackson after a cruise of 12 weeks nearly as wise as we went, had not Port Macquarie fortunately been formed by nature to answer every purpose for a large establishment and though I was 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, but yet it gave me a deal of consolation that I accompanied the voyage, for I found Port Macquarie so well suited in general to answer all our wishes, that I am positive much more might be done than ever was expected to be met with 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 boats to Port Williams, had I not been active in opposition to his inclinations, and the short time I was permitted to stay 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 well satisfied that great means may page 200 be applied to greater advantages. Near the native village is a very high sandy hill commanding a view of low land 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 low lands 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 dependant on them for fish and potatoes, and they would have given him as many as he pleased, but Mr. Murray had never been into Port Macquarie.

“I have no doubt but these natives with proper treatment would be of great service to an hemp establishment they were very poor but I saw great industry in their potatoe 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 upon 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 other could not see, or we saw and thought of things differently, on our departure I had no particular appointment, neither on my return did I attempt to interfere with those that had a right to represent it, a few days after our return I was asked of what I had seen and 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 then informed that they had different accounts from those that ought to have known page 201 them, 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 though we had done what was expected, I understand the business was to be proceeded in; the Phoenix being bound for England Mr. Birnie told me he wished to send a representation of the business to England and requested me to send musters home, but I was very ill prepared for such a request for we had no means for performing my work when we sailed, neither was it intended till we commenced on a large scale; for all parties were fully satisfied my method of manufacturing was practicable and to trifle with it would give others an opportunity who were anxious to act on our principals, under these reasons I declined any experiments at New Zealand except of a few bundles of the raw plants I brought for curiosity and to ascertain what effects 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 being brought to perfection 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 of the important 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 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 a 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 page 202 being led astray in my expectations from my usual pursuits. I was very unwilling of Mr. Birnie's sending those 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 of providing myself with 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 with, when I packed up 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 New Zealand hemp, which from the little information I had heard of its results, I think has been the case, this had always been called a flax, but it is hemp completely which is easily discerned by proper judges of that article, and I now shall procure musters as 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 use, I being now employed furnishing the public with manufactured articles of an excellent quality, which I can perform with less labour than on any hemp in Europe.

“The arrangements which I conceived sufficient of forming the first establishment at Port Macquarie and which are on as small a scale as I could reduce to, are these, boys from 12 to 15 years of age would be equal to men in part of the work, thus with 40 men and boys, I am confident of producing on an average 1 ton of hemp per day including all labour fit for exportation. The machinery on this establishment would not exceed from £80 to £100—the party to be provided with 6 months provisions, and means requisite for building habitations page 203 and store houses, the principal materials growing on the spot. The vessel to remain till our machinery commenced working which may be completed in 6 or 8 weeks from our landing. Two or three boats to be left with the party, and from my present knowledge of Port Macquarie a decked boat of 15 or 20 tons may be well employed, large boilers must be provided (or more proper salt pans) of such dimensions as could readily be removed from one place to another, the sizes from 6 to 8 feet long and 2 deep, would be sufficiently large for this purpose. I am well assured an establishment of one hundred Europeans may be employed in Port Macquarie to much advantage, and 400 with a proportionable increase of means and machinery, exclusive for extending establishments on other parts of the Coast, from which general information is practicable to great extent. I am of opinion the natives would perform the greater part of the labour in collecting the hemp to great advantage. In this statement I have paid great respect to moderation, respecting the produce of the undertaking, and could represent a number of advantages which I have referred for practice should I ever have the opportunity to perform them.

“Exclusive of our furnishing the British market with hemp, this colony and others may be supplied with manufactured cordage and canvas to great advantage, for the cheap production of the hemp would admit these articles to market at a moderate price. For manufacturing the only articles wanted from England would be six sets of hatchets, a few dozens of reeds for weaving duck and canvas (a set of looms complete would be far better and cheaper). Four twine spinners jacks of small sizes and a few dozen of Wheel Bends the whole of which would not exceed £100.

“The following experiments will gave a just idea to what extent this hemp may be brought, exclusive of its natural productions, I cut from one tuft or shoot 80 blades of hemp which did not occupy more than 4 feet of ground in circumference and when brought to Sydney, seven of page 204 these blades. produced a pound of neat hemp of 8 feet long, and the whole of them would have produced the same, had this not been damaged on the voyage, the pound of hemp was cleaned in five minutes in presence of the Governor. One slip or plant transplanted from the Governor's garden in June 1813 was cut three times in less than 2 years and then I divided it into 9 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 endeavoured 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 cleaned the first cut would be fit for cutting again and produce better hemp. There are several species of the hemp plant some producing seed and some not. I have seen those producing seed 10 feet high, and others not exceeding three feet which produce the finest hemp.

Castlereagh St., Sydney,
September 1813.

“P.S.—This is a representation made by me nine years ago, much useful information has been gained since and many representations have been transmitted Home by The Honourable Commissioner of Enquiry and also by His Excellency Governor Macquarie.”

Williams tells of the difference of opinion in the party throughout the trip. The only inkling of the report from the other side is taken from the columns of the press of that day, and as it contains the better description of the Bluff Harbour, and the first description perhaps ever written, it is all the more interesting.

“Crossing the Foveaux Straits, which is about 21 miles, they discovered an excellent harbour, which they gave the name of Port Macquarie, and lies about N.N.E. from Port William. The west entrance of this harbour is high land, and the page 205 entrance is first made by a reef of rocks extending about S.W., with regular soundings between the land on the west and the reef to the eastward of from 12 fathoms gradually diminishing to six fathoms, and from 5 to 4 fathoms at a considerable distance within the harbour, which penetrates into the country in a N.W. direction about six miles. There appears to be two channels, one near to each shore, and in the upper part of the harbour are three islands, with several small rocks and sandbanks. The boats made a landing on the largest of these islands, and gave it the name of Jones's in compliment to a Gentleman of the party. The natives hereabouts are very civil and obliging."1

Williams also reported that the natives had “a field of considerably more than 100 acres” of potatoes which “presented one well cultivated bed, filled with rising crops of various ages some of which were ready for digging, while others had been but newly planted.”2

Though the Bluff Harbour was named Port Macquarie on this visit, Williams' report shows that the existence of some sort of a bay or inlet in the locality was known, but this visit clearly demonstrated the fact that a vessel could enter. This is borne out by Mr. R. Murray, who has already been mentioned as in charge of gangs at Stewart and Macquarie Islands, going straight to the mouth of the Harbour, though he did not know of an anchorage. The mention of ill-treatment of the natives and the “old tent hut fallen with age” would also imply a visit by Europeans. Lastly the great extent of the potatoes grown by the natives points to a trade with sealers and whalers. The name Port Macquarie is to be found in maps published as late as 1841.

When it was evident that no practical results were to follow from the expedition sent out by Birnie; Lord and several other merchants, on 18th June, 1814, called a meeting to establish a joint stock company to develop a flax and timber trade with New Zealand. To this company page 206 the name of the New South Wales-New Zealand Company was given, and in a memorial to Governor Macquarie, dated 3rd October, 1814, its objects were set out.

The Company proposed to purchase two small vessels, and, with about fifty men, including the crews, form an establishment at Port William on Stewart Island. The raw material they intended to bring across Foveaux Strait in one of their vessels. Native labour was to be used as much as possible. If it should be found convenient the Company intended to extend the undertaking and make similar settlements where the conditions were suitable. With this object in view a careful survey of the whole of the South Island was to be made. There was the usual series of protestations that the intention was to act kindly to the natives, to encourage them in manual labour and to teach them the arts and manufactures of civilized life.3

The promoters of the scheme had obtained from the expedition of the previous year the information acquired by it as to the location of the establishment and had entered into negotiations with Williams for his services, the intention being that the latter should proceed to New Zealand to superintend the setting up of an establshment for the preparation of the hemp, and return to Sydney later to undertake the manufacture of cordage and canvas. Although the terms of the negotiations with Williams are on record4 it is not clear whether the agreement was actually completed and Williams employed. The Company afterwards advertised for a number of men for engagement for five years to proceed to New Zealand, asking specially for those acquainted with flax and its manufacture. In due course the brig Trial and the schooner Brothers were equipped and sent to New Zealand, but so far as Southern New Zealand is concerned the promoters did not carry out any part of their scheme, and the first attempt to establish the flax trade in the South met the same fate as did that of 1810 in the North Island. The request for exclusive rights of trade was ultimately refused by the Imperial Authorities.