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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 XXIII. — First Coastal Description, 1823

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First Coastal Description, 1823.

MONSIEUR JULES DE BLOSSEVILLE made good use of the stay of the Coquille at Port Jackson in not only procuring for us from Captain Edwardson the account of the voyage of the Snapper and the essay upon the manners and customs of the inhabitants of the South Island of New Zealand, but also in interviewing the various captains of sealers at Sydney and giving us a descriptive sketch of the conditions surrounding that trade and of the character of the coast line. It shows us what detailed knowledge they possessed of the coast and makes us wonder that while such knowledge was in existence, the charts remained so incomplete. Probably the description given of the class of men engaged in the sealing trade and the absence of the scientist, were responsible for this result. It is not very complimentary to our national vanity, to be indebted to another nation for a record of the doings of our own people in South New Zealand, in the first days of its trade. De Blosseville's information is extracted from the same source as the two preceding chapters and is here given.

The fact that no harbours are described north of Milford Sound and that the eastern coast line is left untouched in a description of the South Island of New Zealand shows what an insignificant portion of the Southern New Zealand trade, up to 1823, centred outside of the limits of Foveaux Strait and the West Coast Sounds.

Island of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu).

“The coast of Ika-Na-Mauwi was one of the weak points in Cook's exploration. The entire island of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu), with the exception of Queen page 331 Charlotte's Sound, shares in Cook's account the same poverty of interest as the Southern Coast. There is nothing of importance till Dusky Bay is reached. This immense labyrinth was the only locality visited and then only with little success. Vancouver went in there afterwards, but added only a few details to those which the first passage of the Englishmen had made known. The Natives, who were hardly ever seen, consist of only a single family not permanently settled in this district, and one can well imagine, that the very slight relations to be had with savages of a very distrustful character would furnish but a few facts for observers. The natural history of the district was alone studied in a fairly efficient manner. The geography of the region leaves much to be desired. That is Cook's own opinion. I do not under-rate the excellent work done, as I am aware of all the various causes, which prevented it being more perfect. My only object now is to indicate the immensity of the task, which still remains to be completed. This task naturally belongs to the people, who by an ambitious desire for possession, have extended their government over these countries and the neighbourhood of the admirable colony of Port Jackson should provide the English with all facilities possible for attaining their end. At the same time it was no liberal ideas but merely the love of gain, which brought the English to these stormy coasts.

“The spirit of discovery and adventure led to the belief, that the hunting of the seals, which frequent these rugged shores would produce large profits. The results came up to the expectations and this mine of wealth, opened up by the colonists of Sydney, and shared only with the Americans, is not yet exhausted. When a ship is fitted out for an expedition of this kind, it is provisioned for the whole duration of the campaign and its crew shares in proportion in the profits. How powerful must be the love of gain, when it can induce men to support the fatigues and privations which fall to the lot of the seal fishers! Having arrived on a shore which appears promising, they embark page 332 in boats, and leaving the ship sometimes for several days, they explore the smallest bays and storm beaten rocks, knowing that where the sea is the most stormy, there will the animals, which they pursue, be the most numerous. The least useful men are left on the ship as a guard. The vessel remains in a safe haven and receives any necessary repairs,—sometimes even it is partially dismantled. Often it is the case, that if the hunt promises to be lucky, a detachment of eight sailors is left on these savage coasts with their arms, a boat, powder and such provisions as are necessary. The ship, which may be considered as a floating metropolis, then goes away to distant islands to establish other temporary colonies, separated at times by several thousand leagues. At the end of several months,—sometimes even a year, and longer still,—the men, who compose these little colonies, with the fruits of their labours, are called for,—that is, when they do not become the victims of a disastrous wreck, of which they know nothing, and which cuts them off from the entire world, but of which they would prefer the danger to the uncertainty which torments them. A long sojourn and continual exploration make them acquainted with the smallest inlets, the most hidden retreats, the full nature of the coast and the prevailing winds. No peculiarity of the region escapes their notice. They become acquainted with the productions of the soil and the animals which it nourishes; even the interior of the country, on whose coasts they have settled, often becomes the goal of their expeditions.

“The seal fishing industry deserves separate consideration, and the only reason, why I touched on this subject, was that I wished to show with what care and in what detail the fishers explore the shores they visit. Did they possess the zeal and the knowledge which are necessary to ensure exactitude, the maps which they might draw would be of great value, because they would then be complete on every point. But as they are pressed for time and have none to spare for exact methods, the details which they supply, can hardly be considered suitable for the filling in page 333 of the rough outline which Cook has left us. His principal definitions will therefore be preserved, and any new discoveries inserted in their proper place, until such time as a scientific navigator can verify and co-ordinate the whole.

“The seal fishery is not the only speculation which has attracted vessels to these shores. Many have simply put in to one of the harbours for water, and others have collected cargoes of pine timber and flax (Phormium tenax) which grows here in abundance. It was to collect this useful plant, that the sloop Snapper, was despatched in 1822–3, by the Sydney government. Captain Edwardson, the commander, lent me his journals, from which I have compiled the account of his voyage, which will be found at the end of this narrative. I have thought it undesirable to omit any of his hydrographical and meteorological data. It is certain that sailors at least would have had reason to complain had I acted otherwise. The island of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu) has certainly been much more carefully explored than that of Ika-na-Mauwi (Te Ika-na-Maui). Nevertheless it is much less known. It is only in quite recent maps that the supposed Banks Isle is shown to be joined to the mainland by a sandy isthmus, that Stewart Island is separated from the main island by Foveaux Strait and that Ports Pegasus, Facile and Mason are duly marked.

“These corrections are due to the English vessel Pegasus, but the existence of Milford Sound, Chalky Bay, Preservation Inlet, Macquarie Harbour and Snapper and Williams Harbours is only known to a small number of persons.

“The Southern New Zealanders have only occupied the two extremities of their island and a few points on the eastern side. The west coast of the island is but one long solitude, with a forbidding sky, frequent tempests, and impenetrable forests. The height and rugged nature of the mountains, combined with the constant humidity of the soil are local circumstances which have impeded the development of the population. Two other powerful reasons must page 334 be added, the barbarous habits of the natives and the lack of animals and useful vegetables, which have not long been introduced amongst them. These islanders possess well built canoes, notwithstanding which they never travel far away from their settlements, and unlike the natives of the North Island, they have supplied no information as to their coasts to the Europeans. They have only given a little information as to the interior of their island whence they sometimes penetrate. When engaged in these laborious journeys, they travel generally about ten miles a day through the woods, stop for sleep at sunset and only set out again an hour after sunrise. From these travellers it has been learned that an active volcano exists about 120 miles, or twelve days' journey to the north of Foveaux Strait, and that not far from there is to be found the greenstone, or Poenammou, which is so precious to these islanders that the search for it can alone attract them so far from their homes. This district has become a general meeting place for all the natives, even for those of the North Island; the object of the journey is sufficient to make them surmount every obstacle.

“I shall now proceed to set down certain information, which is all the more reliable in that it originates from Europeans alone. From the data so obligingly furnished me by Captains Edwardson, Charlton and other English seamen I will describe those harbours of the southern coast, which are not to be found on any maps, afterwards giving certain information which has appeared of interest to me on the general character of the island. I shall commence by Milford Sound which has been recently discovered.

Milford Sound.—This harbour, which is situated on the west coast, may be marked (on the map) according to the position of the southern headland at its entrance which is to be found in 44° 35′ southern latitude. At about five miles towards the south may be observed an opening, which appears to lead into a harbour, and which might cause a dangerous mistake were the weather hazy. Great care must therefore be exhibited when the wind blows from page break page break
Chalky Bay (de Blosseville's Sketch of).

Chalky Bay (de Blosseville's Sketch of).

page 335 the offing. In front of the entrance to Milford Harbour is a rock, which has the appearance of a ship under sail. As it stands about five miles from the harbour, it is an excellent guide; the channel to the south of this rock is the best, the northern passage being dangerous. A mile past the southern headland is a little island close to a projecting point of the land. Keeping close in to this island, a southern direction should then be taken, anchoring in the most suitable position. The depth varies from 10 to 5 fathoms. No inhabitants are to be found on this part of the island. In the forests spars of excellent quantity, large enough to serve as top masts for ships of the first class, are to be found in abundance. Enormous mountain ranges covered with perpetual snows can be seen in the interior.

“Between Milford Sound and Dusky Bay there are several little bays or inlets, which deserve the attention of navigators, but I do not possess sufficiently exact information to attempt their description.

“Dusky Bay.—I have no details of importance to add to the information given by Cook and Vancouver. I only know that Facile Harbour and Luncheon Cove are preferred by the numerous ships, which are attracted to the bay by the seal fishery and that these animals frequent by preference Five Finger Point, Green Island and Iron Island.

Chalky Bay.—To the south of the West Cape is to be found the entrance to Chalky Bay, in the middle of which stands Chalky Island, from which the name of the Bay is derived. This island, which was noticed by Cook on his second voyage, resembles the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England and is formed of rocks of a whitish colour. The chart, which accompanies this narrative, renders a detailed description unnecessary, but it may be useful to state that the safest passage, by which to enter, is that on the south, leaving on the starboard side the table rock, which projects a few yards above the water. The bay, which extends in a north-westerly direction, is exposed to the winds from this quarter. They blow with great page 336 violence and vessels might find themselves in some danger although there is good anchor-hold and the shores are very steep. The best anchorages in all weathers are the northern and southern harbours; the first is especially preferable, for a vessel in distress it is a veritable basin. Rivulets and cascades afford easy watering but no river flows into this bay, which is as much frequented by the whalers as Dusky Bay.

Preservation Bay.—This bay lies directly to the south of Chalky Bay. It is also deep but much less safe. Ships rarely anchor there and I have only marked it on the map from a carelessly drawn sketch-chart. I trust that the inaccuracies of this rough chart may be corrected. The South West coast of Poenammou is so cut up by inlets that a canal two or three miles long would establish an inland communication between the three bays, Dusky, Chalky and Preservation, which take up thirteen leagues in all and whose extreme arms almost come together at the same points, forming two great peninsulas.

Windsor River.—This little river, navigable by ships, is all the more remarkable in that no other river is known on this coast. The sea breaks with great violence on the bar when the wind blows from the west.

Port Macquarie (Bluff Harbour).—This harbour, the only one we know of on the south coast, is merely according to Captain Edwardson, an open bay, dangerous and much worse even than that of the same name on the east coast of Australia. It is blocked by sand banks, separated by a narrow channel, and the tides are so strong that a boat manned by five sailors can hardly master the current. The Old Man's Bluff point, at the entrance of the harbour, appears to be incorrectly named, for it slopes downwards and ends in some low lying rocks. I believe that Port Macquarie (Bluff Harbour) is known to many seamen under the name of Massacre Bay, some English sailors having been killed there by the natives, whose provisions they had plundered.

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Port Snapper.—This harbour is reputed to be very good. It lies on the west coast of Rouabouki Island which is also known as Green Island and Goulburn Island.

Stewart Island—Port Williams.—The seal fishers all praise this harbour which is situated on the north coast of Stewart Island; it appears to be well sheltered. Its depth is from 8 to 10 fathoms with a sandy bottom.

“On the banks of a fresh water creek extends a great plain covered with fine trees, of the pine species, which are of excellent quality. Although the ground is swampy it produces no flax (Phormium tenax).

“Stewart Island possesses several other harbours which are not well known. To those which bear the name of Pegasus, Cod Fish Harbour, Mason Harbour, and Easy Harbour I shall not refer as I have found them all marked on a good map by Nozie, published in 1820. This same map has supplied me with the latitudes, which I have copied in preference to those of Captain Edwardson, whose authority did not seem to me to be sufficiently reliable to warrant the alteration of definitions already adopted by geographers. All the longitudes are based upon that of Cape West as to which the observations of Cook and Vancouver are in agreement. I believe that the chart, which accompanies this account, will rectify many errors, but I am far from believing it to be exempt from inaccuracies, in spite of the trouble I have taken to co-ordinate the data that I had at my disposal. On this chart two Solander Islands Will be noticed, separated by a narrow channel which Captain Edwardson says he saw when passing between these islands and the Middle Island.

Foveaux Strait.—All the navigators who have visited Foveaux Strait have been struck by the resemblance it offers to Bass Strait and this similarity has seemed to them to be almost as exact in detail as in general outlines. Indeed, Solander Island is situated, very nearly, in the same position as King Island, at the western entrance of the Strait. The chain of the Rouabouki (Ruapuke) Islands represents that of the Fourneaux Islands, the land is, in page 338 both instances, lofty on the southern side and low on the northern side, where the mountains are distant from the shore; Raggedy Point resembles West Cape, and Port Macquarie recalls Port Phillip and Western Harbour. Finally, if it is desired to extend this comparison to Tasmania and Stewart Island, Port Dalrymple may be represented by Port Williams, and Entrecastreaux Channel replaced by Port Pegasus. The spectacle of isolation presented by two of the great promontories which face the South Pole has attracted the attention of scientists. To the valuable observations of these gentlemen may be added a new fact rendered more curious by a detailed comparison and more intelligible by reference to the map. The currents are much stronger in Foveaux Strait than in Bass Strait and the tides are also very different. Whirlpools are frequently to be met with and the position is one of great peril, when the direction of the waves is contrary to that of the wind. The most dangerous passage is between the centre island and the mainland; it would be most imprudent to attempt it in a light wind or at nightfall. The flow and the ebb rush through alternatively during the course of a tide, from all points of the horizon, with a speed of sometimes as much as from 5 to 6 miles. The water rises 10 feet and at new and full moon there is high tide at three in the afternoon. The triangular rocks which are visible at low water add to the danger.

“The winds most to be feared in these latitudes blow from south west to west by north west. They prevail in the months of December, January and February, and are sometimes replaced by squalls from the east. Should a vessel be caught by one of these squalls in the Strait, it must get out of the Strait and gain the offing to the west with all possible speed.

“Without going into details as to the remarkable fertiltiy of the North Island and as to the products of every description, which it can supply, I have indicated how prodigal Nature has been in its favours to this region. I might even have contended that this superiority of page 339 natural advantages could not be challenged by any of the numerous islands of Oceaniea or any part of Australia. If, however, a glance be cast upon the South Island, which is separated from its northern neighbour by a strait of only a few miles in width, there is nothing to be seen but the picture of a complete upheaval. Its surface is covered by enormous masses of mountains which, after raising to the sky their naked peaks whose barrenness is often hidden by snow, become clothed, towards their base, by a rich vendure and descend to the sea with suddenness and rapidity. No river can make its bed between their sides, so close are they together; the accumulated waters form rapid torrents, or else they burst forth, and leaping over every obstacle, fall to the sea in cascade after cascade. Those only, who have seen these wild landscapes and these scenes of disorder, which are caused by the action of subterranean fire, can possibly describe them, but even a rough glance at the map will furnish the observer with one curious fact, relating to hydrography and this fact again shows the most striking contrast, which exists between the two islands.

“In the place of the splendid rivers of the North Island which bear to the numerous harbours the tribute of their waters, or which themselves form at their mouths bays as spacious as secure, in the South Island there are only vast gulfs, whose numerous arms conduct the waters of the ocean into the interior of the land. The traveller, who penetrates to the inland extremity of these deep inlets, only finds a few scanty rivulets, at every moment he meets with the same disappointment that he encounters on the coasts of Australia. All the bays of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu) terminate indeed in the same manner as do the bays and gulfs of this curious continent and I would cite, in support of this fact, to which there is no exception, Queen Charlotte Sound, Admiralty Bay, Milford Sound, Dusky, Chalky and Preservation Bays, and finally Port Pegasus. I am even inclined to think that Blind Bay, Dark Bay (La Baie Sombre) and Cloudy Bay were they more carefully examined would still further strengthen this statement.

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“Fine trees, useful for all maritime purposes, flax in abundance and numerous seals whose furs are very valuable—these are the resources that Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu) has to offer. At one time they attracted the attention of an industrious people (the Americans) but it appears that the project of establishing a factory (for the fur trade) has been abandoned for political reasons. The study of these limited advantages, as well as the existence of certain favourable situations and of several districts suitable for agriculture, may soften the gloomy colours of the picture I have endeavoured to draw, but it is none the less, taken as a whole, completely true. If some day these lands are colonised by Europeans the South Island will only be a branch of the North, unless some valuable mines concealed in its ranges and already talked of by the natives give the island an importance later on, which it is at present impossible to foresee.”