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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XI. — The Site of the Colony

page 100

Chapter XI.
The Site of the Colony.

In earlier days on these same native hills
A prosperous forest grew, where bellbirds brake
With joyous song the stillness of the dawn.
Here on the eastern shore wild-raging waves
Persistent beat with fierce but futile force
Against the vast vibrating bluffs that stand
A sure defence for fair Dunedin's bay.

Pending the definite sanction of a location for the new settlement, nothing of importance could be done towards getting the party under way. Months passed without any word as to the result of Governor Fitzroy's decision as to the most suitable site for the Scotch colony. As we have seen, there was an element of vagueness in the terms of the agreement between the Colonial Office on the subject, and Fitzroy was in correspondence with Downing Street on the point at issue. Mails were painfully slow in those days. Even the directors of the New Zealand Company were unaware for some time of the cause of the delay in the choice of a site.

The situation was complicated by Rennie's dealings with Lord Stanley, and the suggestion of the latter that a site might be obtained near Auckland, the Government providing the land, and the New Zealand Company expending £50,000 for colonising purposes in connection with such a scheme. This would tend to centralise the development in the North Island, and strengthen the capital which had been established by Hobson. "The project never materialised. The Company sent Mr F. Dillon Bell to select lands at Auckland, but Governor Fitzroy objected to certain selections made by him in the town. The whole question was then referred back to England, while the page 101Company refrained from spending any money at Auckland. By the agreement of 1847 the Company gave up all the lands it claimed to have selected at Auckland."1

Burns strongly favoured the Port Cooper site up to the time of the publication of Tuckett's opinion in the latter part of 1844. His letter to Cargill, dated April 29, gives a glowing account of the country which we know as the Canterbury Plains. Incidentally we come upon the first glimpse of the southern region in his correspondence, and the first mention of Otago, all quoted from William Deans's letter to his father—

On the other side of the (Banks) Peninsula clown as far as Wikowiti (sic), where a Sydney merchant2has 150 or 200 head of cattle, 1000 sheep, 40 or 50 mares, besides a stallion, near to Port Otago, likewise marked on the chart, a distance of about 150 miles along the coast, the country is very fine, and near to the sea coast perfectly level; in fact, it is estimated that within the distance I have mentioned there is not less than 700,000 to 900,000 acres of perfectly level land, with groves of trees here and there sufficient for house building and firewood. The remainder, with little exception, can be employed without any previous clearing, and it is covered Math luxuriant grass; in fact, in many places too luxuriant, because it is inclined to be coarse. However, it is astonishing how soon the feeding it with cattle and sheep improves its quality. I am the more induced to send you this, as a paragraph in some of the newspapers states that Lord Stanley offered Rennie a block of land near Auckland, which he declined.

In a later letter, Burns stated that a site in the North Island would not be attractive to him, as its population would probably be too mixed to allow of its being a Scottish and Presbyterian settlement.

With the increasingly grave turn of events in connection with the undertaking the possibility of the abandonment of the whole scheme recurred with added force. His page 102own position became growingly difficult with every rebuff to the enterprise in which he had staked his all. The leaders of the Free Church urged him to give up the thought of going to New Zealand; and some of the influential congregations were seeking after his services. He had reason to be anxious about the means of a livelihood for himself and his family. He had sacrificed his stipend as a beneficiary under the Sustentation Fund of the Free Church; and he had nothing from the New Zealand Company but a vague promise of compensation for his labours on behalf of the New Edinburgh colony, which appeared to be receding into the dim distance. Should he not withdraw from this colonial venture and accept a call from one of the home congregations? That was the question which confronted him again and again; but somehow he could not free himself from the conviction that the hand of Providence was in this appointment, and that he must do his utmost to see it through. Meanwhile, he accepted a temporary appointment in Maybole charge, only 10 miles away from New Prestwick, during the absence of the Rev. Andrew Thomson, the minister, whose weak state of health necessitated a voyage to the West Indies.

A staunch ally of the Scottish scheme of colonisation appeared at this juncture, and he became a warm friend of Mr Burns. Dr Andrew Aldcorn, of Oban, was visiting the Presbytery of Ayr on behalf of the Sustentation Fund when he came into close contact with the minister of New Edinburgh. He was a man of independent means as well as a medical practitioner, and he had a thorough knowledge of agriculture and practical affairs. He had already large interests in the colonies, having purchased considerable land near Port Philip, now known as Victoria, to which colony he eventually migrated. At page 103the time of which we write, he was engaged in alleviating the condition of the Highlanders, or crofters, who suffered cruelly by eviction at the hands of the great land owners; and he viewed emigration as the chief mode of providing for their future livelihood. Dr Aldcorn, like Burns, combined the cause of the Free Church with the interests of the Scotch settlement, and during the next three years the two stalwart pleaders were often found side by side. An effort was made to secure a party from the Duke of Sutherland's estates, and to interest the Duke in the proposal. It was suggested that a Gaelicspeaking minister might be found to accompany the expedition. Much correspondence took place between Burns and Aldcorn on the subject, but it does not appear that there was appreciable support for New Edinburgh. Other settlements in Australia and New Zealand received strong contingents from the Highlands.

Meantime, the period of the decline and fall of Mr Rennie had set in. Burns and Cargill were very frank to each other about his shortcomings as the future leader of the Presbyterian colony. His lack of enthusiasm for the religious basis of the enterprise, especially as viewed from the Free Church standpoint, certainly discounted his claims to lead a sectarian colony to the Antipodes. Temperamentally, he does not seem to have possessed the qualifications for making a successful coloniser. The artistic and aristocratic bent of his nature scarcely inclined in the direction of a friendly association with all sorts and conditions of men, including a majority of labourers. The day of autocratic rule in the colonies had long since passed away. That Rennie tended to be autocratic is borne out by the testimony of the spokesmen of the New Zealand Company as well as by the judgments expressed in the letters that passed between Burns page 104and Cargill. The latter contemplated taking a post in India, but was dissuaded from leaving the Scotch enterprise, mainly by the strong pressure of Burns, who writes on September 22, rejoicing that Cargill will be at least three months in the country:—

Providence counteracts adverse moves "on the other side" threatening to knock all the Christianity out of our New Zealand enterprise. How easy it is for a man who happens to be encumbered with no religion to gloss over with smooth words his own heartlcss "policy," in terms that would be befitting the most absolute autocrat. He condescendingly admits that it gave him no surprise that you and I should have our Free Church leanings, and then adds—But I never led you to suppose that I would countenance such a pestilent propensity. That should be enough for such subordinate, inconsiderable persons as you. True, you are both Free Churchmen, and have lately made sacrifices that you might be at liberty to maintain your own fantastic principles. It is to be Presbyterianism in general. It is "my policy." No matter what the Company mean by Presbyterianism, they are Englishmen, and, not understanding such an abstruse matter themselves, they trust me to interpret and explain it, and afterwards to enforce it against all gainsayers. And as for Captain Cargill and Mr Burns, they are such fantastic bigots I would not advise you to mind a word they say. And if they don't mend their manners when they go out to the Colony and crouch submissively beneath the rod of my authority, I promise you I will so handle them that they shall ever after remain a warning example to all who shall have the arrogance to question either my wisdom or my power.

Mr Patrick M. Stewart, M.P., took a hand in making the directors of the Company aware of Rennie's unsuitableness for the leadership. He had known Rennie when he worked as a sculptor in Rome. Mr Stewart writes: "His temper is violent and bad, his religion more than doubtful (I fear), and our poor Presbyterian wanderers would indeed be wasted under such a man." Things reached such a pass that Burns felt he could not hold to the connection page 105with the party if Rennie remained at the head of the expedition. But he makes his meaning clear to Cargill:

I will stand by you to fight the battle as long as it is worth fighting. My mind has never wavered on the subject, provided the Presbyterian principles of the scheme are maintained and any reasonable security given for their being followed.

In the middle of October the issue was decided against Rennie, the New Zealand Company dispensing with his services. Great was the relief of Burns that his colleague Cargill was likely to lead the expedition. Rennie appealed for remuneration for the loss of his expectation of future employment. A scathing article appeared in the New Zealand Journal in reply to this appeal, under the date of November 8. It accuses Rennie of presumption and lack of loyalty to the Company. "He had been working for the Government, not for the Company which he had only been misleading. Mr Rennie appears to consider himself as grandfather-general to the Scotch people. How they will laugh at the assumption! … We could give another reason of which Mr Rennie must be perfectly conscious; but we forbear for the present." This was a hint, doubtless, as to the controversy revealed in the correspondence of which brief extracts have been given above. A third indictment is that Mr Rennie had attacked "the eligibility of the intended site of the Colony," showing himself to be an adept in "the art of damning with faint praise," in regard to the suitability of Otago for the settlement.

As we take leave of Mr Rennie, a tribute is due to one who did so much for the Scotch Colony as originator and patron, as well as agent and publicist. His work at the beginning of the enterprise probably no one else could have done so well. But by temperament and training he page 106was not fitted to take the field in colonial service, particularly in command of a Presbyterian Free Kirk class settlement. He was versatile and individualistic, a man of the world, a law to himself, an advocate rather than an administrator. He was plainly out of sympathy with those to whom he found himself committed as leaders of the movement. He was lacking in tact and the power to bear the yoke. If he had been maintained in office as leader of the party, it is well-nigh impossible to conceive of the successful establishment and progress of the Scotch settlement as we know it in its actual history and achievement. It is true that he sought for comprehensiveness and a kind of catholicity, deeply tinged with secular interests. He claimed to be working against sectarianism and on behalf of harmony. Burns and Cargill made the same claim from an entirely different point of view, and with the goal of a simple and solid kind of unity in the colonising party. From the standpoint of a class settlement there can be no doubt as to the rights and wrongs of the struggle. If Wakefield's notion of a class settlement was a practicable scheme, and if the Free Kirk was justified in taking it up and fostering it, then the views of Burns and Cargill were sound and logical. Rennie was a freelance, out of harmony with the contingent and its marching orders. It is gratifying to know that Mr Rennie received an appointment in 1847 from the Colonial Office which was much more suited to his character and abilities as Governor of the Falkland Islands. Mr Rennie died in London in 1860.

In the middle of October Burns had word of the probable selection of Otakou, or Otago, as the site of the Scottish colony. He was disappointed that Port Cooper had been passed over, after he had built so many fancies page 107and expectations upon it. But second thoughts brought him a measure of comfort. He writes:—

From Mr John Deans's account it would appear that on the Port Cooper plains wood and water, two indispensables, are not so plentiful, so that without supposing anything like bad faith on the part of the authorities in New Zealand there may be an honest preference given to Otago, because with a good harbour, land, and climate there is also in that place an abundance of both wood and water. There is also said to be a Scotch colony there already, and, further, a tribe of 1200 Natives.3

Apart from the closing erroneous sentence, Burns's estimate of the reason for the preference of Otago over Port Cooper was a shrewd one, as it was in agreement with Tuckett's own opinion. The full reports of the expedition of the Deborah had not yet arrived in Britain. These at length appeared in February, 1845. Burns, Aldcorn, and Cargill were busily engaged in preparing a circular and looking out for likely men to form a strong Free Church Committee for the furtherance of the scheme. In his letter dated February 14 Burns states that he has received from Mr Deans a copy of the Wellington Spectator of August 14, giving a detailed account of the exploratory expedition under Tuckett. He now rejoices in the choice of the new site. It should help, he thinks, in raising the first party. He refers to various points in favour of Otago—water communication, climate, the width of the Island, the presence of coal, white fish, flax, pastures, wood, and water. All of these, he says, with a burst of enthusiasm, must be stressed in the prospectus. page 108He will circulate the pamphlet among friends of the Free Church, following it up with a visit.

I am much gratified by what you say as to the nomenclature of our Colony; it seems to be in the direction of good taste. Let the settlement be called Qtago, the town Dunedin, the river Matou, and not Molyneux, and so forth, keeping to Native names; and let us begin ourselves in this way at the starting in all our advertisements. I suppose we cannot discard New Edinburgh altogether at first. If we can, I would by all means do it. I like Otago. New Edinburgh always puts me in mind of Rennie (poor man, he must be a mortified wight).

This may be a fitting opportunity to refer briefly to the circumstances which led to the purchase of the Otago block from the Maoris, after being duly explored and selected by Mr Tuckett and his party. Every reader should make himself familiar with all the actual reports; for instance, in Hocken's "Early History of New Zealand."4It is only possible here to give the barest outline of the chief events.

The new Governor of New Zealand, Captain Fitzroy, after confirmation of his instructions from the Colonial Office to secure a site for the proposed Scotch settlement, decided to grant authority to the New Zealand Company's agent, Colonel Wakefield, to purchase 150,000 acres at the most suitable locality from the Maoris. Mr J. J. Symonds was appointed to represent the interests of the Government in these transactions. Mr Frederick Tuckett, who had already some good work to his credit in New Zealand, was appointed chief surveyor to the expedition. Mr Tuckett was a Quaker, a man of high principles and strong resolution. He was born near Bristol, in England, in 1807, and studied surveying after a sojourn in the United States. In 1841 he left England to lay out page 109the town of Nelson for the New Zealand Company, after the site had been selected by Captain Wakefield. When appointed to choose the site for the Scottish colony Mr Tuckett stipulated that he should be allowed to make a thorough examination of the country on the eastern and southern coast, and that he should be left free to decide as he thought best.

Accordingly, he chartered the brig Deborah, of 121 tons, under Captain Wing, and sailed from Nelson on March 31, 1844. The principal passengers on board, in addition to Mr Tuckett, were two assistant surveyors, Barnicoat and Davison, Dr (afterwards Sir David) Monro, of Nelson, the Rev. Charles Creed, who was travelling to his mission station under the Wesleyan Church to relieve the Rev. James Watkin, of Waikouaiti, and the Rev. J. F. H. Woehlers, a German missionary to the Maoris, who settled at Ruapuke, an island in Foveaux Strait, on which he laboured for the space of 43 years. Mr J. J. Symonds was picked up at Wellington. Port Cooper (Lyttelton) was first visited, and the country all round was examined by Mr Tuckett, who called upon Messrs William and John Deans at their little homestead on the plains. Before leaving the locality Tuckett decided against Port Cooper as the site on the ground that its harbour was exposed, and was cut off from the interior by high hills, while the plains were marred by much swampy land. The shortage of timber for fuel and building and the lack of running water in some parts of the district were also mentioned in his subsequent report.

The next spot visited was Moeraki, from which place Tuckett and a companion walked to Waikouaiti in three days. Mr Jones had farms at Matanaka and Cherry Farm, on the right bank of the river, from whence the settlement of Waikouaiti extended to Puketeraki. It was page 110one of the old whaling stations which was bought from Messrs Wright and Long, of Sydney, by Mr John Jones, of the same city, in 1838. Under the care of this shrewd proprietor a settlement of about 100 whites and a larger number of Maoris grew up, mostly occupied with whaling, sealing, and farming. It was a rough community, to which, the Rev. James Watkin acted as missionary for four years prior to the arrival of Mr Creed, whom he greeted with the words: "Welcome, brother Creed, to purgatory!" Tuckett sent the Deborah to Otakou Harbour, and undertook the toilsome walk from Puketeraki to Koputai (Port Chalmers), which occupied him two days. We picture him, accompanied by two Maoris, forcing his way through the thick bush and coming in sight of the wooded foreshores of the beautiful loch, on which floated the brig Deborah. It was an eventful day when the romantic loveliness of the scene burst on the view of the man who was to choose the site of a future colony. It was a date which has since become ever memorable, April 25 (Anzac Day).

Tuckett joined the Deborah, after which the small bay is named, as she lay off shore, and took the boat up to the head of the harbour to a small creek. This was the site of the present Dunedin, and was then called Otepoti. From the hills—then much higher than at present—at the junction of Manse and Princes streets, and the old eminence of Bell Hill, where First Church stands, Tuckett looked over the flat and swampy area of South Dunedin, and to the north up to the Water of Leith. Tuckett and Monro, with two Maoris, then made an adventurous trek to the Taieri, finding their way down the river to the whaling station at Taieri Mouth, whence page 111they walked to the Molyneux, or Matou, in three days. The Deborah sailed on to Ruapuke Island, where Mr Woehlers was landed, and Tuckett, after visiting the Bluff and Aparima, where Riverton now stands—a district that impressed him very favourably—crossed over to Stewart Island, where about 70 whites and a similar number of Maoris lived, and thence returned by sea to the Matou. From this river Tuckett, Barnicoat, Wilkinson, and Dr Monro walked back by Kaitangata to Otago Harbour, and boarded the Deborah on June 11. Tuckett had made up his mind that this was the best location for the settlement, and he built a small brick house for his use on the beach at Koputai, or Port Chalmers.

Negotiations were thereupon commenced with the Natives for the purchase of land. At Koputai, where 150 Maoris held prayer meetings twice a day, the transaction was eventually completed. The principal chiefs, Tuhawaiki, Karetai, and Taiaroa, signed a promise to sell the country from Otakou to the Molyneux, or Matou, with the exception of some Native reserves, for £2400. Owing to quarrels between Mr Symonds and Mr Tuckett and the necessity of formal ratification, the Deborah had to return from Wellington with Colonel Wakefield, Mr Spain, Mr George Clarke, and Mr Symonds on board before the purchase could be finally effected. After a week's tour through the area the officials were thoroughly satisfied with Tuckett's choice. Explanations were made to the Maoris on the beach, and on July 31, 1844, the chiefs, followed by 22 others of the Ngaitahu tribe, signed the bond, conveying 400,000 acres from Taiaroa Head to the Nuggets, and inland, to the representatives of the Government and the New Zealand Company for the colony. Of this area 150,000 acres were to page 112be selected by the Company as agreed upon. Shortly afterwards Colonel Wakefield received word of the impasse which had befallen the Company in the Homeland, and the result was the retardation of activities in connection with the Otago block for some time. Mr Tuckett returned to Wellington, and Mr Davison resided in the little brick house at Port Chalmers as the official agent for the Company.

A few words are necessary to sketch the early history of Otakou Harbour prior to the arrival of Mr Tuckett in 1844. From the time of Cook's discovery of Cape Saunders in 1770, so named after Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, and Saddle Hill, which was descried from the sea, several explorers and seafaring men had entered the narrow channel which gives access to the beautiful sheet of water, over 13 miles long and dotted with capes and islands near Koputai. Captain Herd in 1826, the French commander D'Urville in 1840, Major Bunbury in the same year, Captain W. M. Smith, of the New Zealand Company, in 1842, Dr Shortland, who travelled on foot many miles round the present Dunedin in 1843, and Bishop Selwyn, the great pioneering missionary, who visited the station at the Heads four months before Tuckett's arrival in 1844, were the principal visitors. Although there was no white occupation worth mentioning on the land in the vicinity, that is, between Mr Jones's settlement at Waikouaiti and Willsher and Russell's holding for Mr Jones in the Molyneux district, the harbour was the scene of many visits from whaling and other vessels, and a station which comprised about 30 Europeans existed near page 113the Heads in the 'thirties under the Weller brothers.5 At the store near the Maori Kaik ship's parties could purchase clothing and supplies, including drink, which often played havoc with the health and peacefulness of thewhalers and Natives. From this type of population, consisting mostly of runaway desperadoes, who lived as they chose, from hand to mouth, and the half-castes, who learned idle ways, little could be hoped for as the stock of a virile race of colonists.

Although there was a small settlement near the entrance, the harbour was a solitude, with thick bush on all the lofty slopes right down to the water's edge, undisturbed save for the notes of bell-birds' music.

1 The Colonisation of New Zealand, p. 183, n.

2 Mr John Jones, of Waikouaiti.

3 Burns was in error here. Of the very few white people who then lived at Otakou, or Otago—whalers, storekeepers, and runaway seamen—very few were from Scotland so far as we know. The Andersons and the McKays did not arrive until December 30, 1844. The Maoris had been much thinned out by sickness and other causes. When the land was transferred at Port Chalmers from the Maoris to the white race the number of Natives is given at only 150.

4 Pages 40-61, 202-276.

5 One of the most interesting accounts of the early whalers was given by Mr Wm. I. Haberfield in the Otago Jubilee edition of the Evening Star, March 23, 1898, p. 35.