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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 1981

Exploration and the Development of Nelson's Early Map1

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Exploration and the Development of Nelson's Early Map1

(J. D. Overton did research for his thesis for a Master of Arts degree in Geography on the early exploration of Nelson. He has sent us this article based on his research. A copy of the full thesis is in the Provincial Museum Library and may be consulted by interested readers. We are grateful to Mr Overton who is now studying for a doctorate at Cambridge University.)

When calling to mind the early exploration of the Nelson region, thoughts of of heroic actions spring easily to mind. The courageous feats of Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy and James Mackay have captured our imaginations and, to a large extent, dominated much of the writing about the exploration of Nelson. However, despite the valuable work that was done by these men in ascertaining the nature of the region's geography, more complete knowledge about the physical landscape of the interior was gradually built up by a virtual myriad of journeys – journeys undertaken by a large number of different explorers, for differing durations and for differing reasons. It was men like Thomas Salisbury, Henry Handyside, J. G. Knyvett, James Burnett, Joseph Ward, Isaac Coates, William Bishop and many, many more, including gold prospectors, farmers, coal miners and government agents, who all helped piece together the topographical jig-saw of the Province of Nelson.

In my own research into the exploration of Nelson2 – the area being broadly defined by the old Nelson-Canterbury Provincial boundary and including the Province of Marlborough – I found that when wider perspectives were adopted, looking at the large number of small scale journeys as well as the more outstanding, it was possible to extract some general conclusions about the process of exploration in general and the exploration of Nelson in particular. One area of concern that was examined focussed on the question: what areas within the region were of interest to explorers at what periods and for what reasons?

In summarizing the journeys of exploration that took place in Nelson during the period 1841–1865 (from the beginning of European colonisation to a time when most of the region had been topographically explored), it was found that there were distinct "phases" or periods when exploring activity was more intense than others. Furthermore, these phases could be related to economic conditions within the region. Briefly these phases were as follows:

1.1841–1844: a period of very active exploration when the new colony was struggling for survival and engaged in a search for land to provide rural sections for purchasers under the New Zealand Company scheme.
2.1845–1848: a time when, after the traumatic experiences of the Wairau Affray and the suspension of the Company's activities, economic

1 I wish to thank Dr Eric Pawson and Dr Geoff Rice of Canterbury University for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

2 J. D. Overton, The Process of Exploration: Nelson 1841–1865 (Unpublished geography M. A. thesis, University of Canterbury, 1978.)

page 14depression brought a relative lull in exploration. A small number of journeys were undertaken however, and amongst these were the notable expeditions of Heaphy, Brunner and Fox.
3.1849–1852: an increase in exploration following the opening of the Wairau Valley for European settlement. The subsequent very rapid development for pastoralism created an almost insatiable demand for suitable grazing land and also stimulated the search for stock routes between the Wairau and the newly settled Canterbury Province to the south.
4.1853–1858: a time when relatively few explorers ventured into Nelson's back country as there was little need for further searches for land, stock routes, etc., as the economy grew apace.
5.1859–1865: possibly the most intensive period in the exploration of Nelson when a large number of different explorers looked for new areas of agricultural land, minerals and communication routes. A contributing factor at this time was the separation of the Province of Marlborough in 1859. As a result of this, Nelson's administrators and businessmen supported and encouraged explorers in their search for new sources of wealth within the contracted Province.

In each of these periods, new areas were explored and more knowledge was gained about the interior. This gradual coverage of the region by explorers, resulting in fewer and fewer areas of unexplored territory, can be described in terms of a developing "map". These "maps" were not always drawn at the time and they can be more accurately thought of as existing as "mental maps" in the minds of contemporaries, summarizing those areas about which some information, however sketchy, had been gained by explorers.

The series of maps below attempt to indicate the pattern of these varied mental maps and show how the gaps of unexplored territory – terrae incognitae – were gradually filled in over the period. They were derived from both actual contemporary maps and details given in explorer's reports. They are not intended to show precise locations of explored areas but rather to demonstrate overall patterns of the spread of geographical knowledge. The southern boundary of the maps is taken arbitrarily as the former Nelson-Canterbury Provincial boundary (from the Hurunui River to the Grey-Arnold Rivers).

In 1841 the coastline of the South Island was relatively well-known to Europeans, although maps and charts were not always accurate. Behind these littoral margins, however, very little was known. Information from the records of maritime explorers, like D'Urville, from sealers and from local Maoris was patched together to form sketchy images of some locations, but the new settlers in Nelson in 1842 were faced with the daunting task of having to explore all the rugged and inhospitable country that comprised the hinterland of the colony. Indeed, the New Zealand Company's Agent in Nelson was well aware of this problem and he employed a large number of surveyor/explorers to find out more about the nature of the region's landscape.

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The map for 1844 shows that much had been achieved by early explorers. The Tasman Bay, Golden Bay and Wairau lowlands had been discovered and surveys begun. In addition, attempts were made to link these valuable areas by way of inland communication routes, principally the Tophouse-Wairau route. The search for land was uppermost in the minds of explorers at this time because there was insufficient land in the immediate vicinity of Tasman Bay to meet the needs of the New Zealand Company scheme as it had been hurriedly set up. The only exceptions to this initial pattern of exploring in the northern lowlands and valleys were the uncertain route of William Heaphy to the south (from Canterbury) and the anchorage at the Buller mouth by Thoms, a sealer. In general then, areas closest to the Nelson Settlement were explored first. Accessibility was the main factor controlling where explorers went.

The next period, illustrated by the map for 1848, was a time when a relatively small number of large-scale journeys took place. Heaphy antd Brunner's epic travels ventured great distances from the settlement. What influenced these men to travel such long distances from Nelson and in such a direction? Although one can only guess the motives for Heaphy and Brunner's expeditions (perhaps evidenced by references in their journals to the need for agricultural land) it is likely that they were drawn to the south and west (rather than, say, the south-east) by three factors. Firstly, they were guided by Maoris, notably Brunner's guide Kehu, who had knowledge of the greenstone country of the West Coast and routes to it. Secondly, they were influenced by certain illusions – held by many settlers and developed through the combination of vague Maori reports and fertile imaginations – that there existed a great inland plain to the south-west of Nelson. Finally, the rebuttal to settlement in the east, following the Wairau Affray, led to a shift in ambitions to the west. It seems to have been the mixture of Maori geographical knowledge and European images of mythical plains that drew explorers away from the more accessible and valuable, but unavailable, areas during the period. The above journeys entered many many new areas onto Nelson's "map", even though their paths were confined to relatively narrow coastal and valley courses. Vast tracts remained unexplored.

The map for 1852 demonstrates one of the most marked regional concentrations of exploration. With the opening of the Wairau, the boom in extensive sheep farming and the founding of the Canterbury Settlement, explorers had the firm objectives of the search for good grazing land and inland communications between both Nelson and the Wairau and Canterbury. There was a dramatic shift in emphasis from the west to the east as much of the eastern regions, apart from the main mountain ranges were explored. In contrast, large areas of the west remained unvisited Unlike the previous period when explorers were drawn to the west by their Maori guides and their own imaginations, the shift to the east after 1848 was occasioned by the pragmatic necessities of sheep grazing and sheep droving. The tussock grasslands of the east were a much more likely field for enterprise than the inhospitable, afforested west.

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In the following period from 1853 to 1858, exploration was of a more "piecemeal" nature and, unlike previous periods, there was no distinct directional tendency. Some areas, like the upper reaches of the Aorere, Takaka, Wairau and Clarence Rivers were of vital importance in stimulating exploration in country adjoining Tasman and Golden Bays, including some areas that had been topographically explored previously. This scattered pattern added a relatively small amount of new territory to the colonists' geographical knowledge, though, importantly, their knowledge of already explored areas became more detailed with the spread of settlement and mineral prospecting. The overall imbalance of explored east and unexplored west persisted, although the remaining unexplored land was beginning to be fragmented into smaller, less imposing, blocks.

The final and most intensive phase or exploration from 1859 to 1865 virtually completed Nelson's geographical map. A heavy concentration on the West Coast and southern districts was apparenet, indicating a conscious and concerted effort by explorers and government administrators to examine the remaining and most distant areas of terrae incognitae in the region. Explorers were stimulated by gold discoveries, the political separation of the Province of Marlborough, and the need to communicate with the potentially prosperous areas on the West Coast (after the discovery of gold and areas of lowland).

This burst of exploration resulted in an almost complete fragmentation of formerly unexplored territory, especially in the south and west, into isolated pockets. These remaining "blanks" were generally mountainous; their nature and extent having been recognised in the course of observation from nearby travelled areas. Thus, while "unknown" tracts remained, the Provinces of Nelson and Marlborough could be described as almost fully topographically explored by 1865. All its main plains, valleys and ranges had been mapped and its inhabitants had a good appreciation of the nature of the physical environment.

The development of this "map" of Nelson sheds light on certain interesting aspects of the process of exploration. The importance of examining the role of the small-scale explorer has already been mentioned but, in addition, this need to move away from a focus on only the "heroic" characters towards the large number of less eminent, but nonetheless notable, participants, is paralleled by the need to examine why rather than how all these men withstood the difficulties that exploration involved. The development of early Nelson and the role of exploration in this development needs to be studied as a whole.1 Thus instead of examining factors like the curiosity, the spirit of adventure or the restlessness of individual exploreres, less romantic considerations like the search for land, minerals or routes as related to the vicissitudes of Nelson's economy seem to offer the best clues to understanding why exploration took place. We should be less concerned with merely the interesting or curious and more with the broad, interacting, total picture to better explain events in the past. In a similar vein, when asking why

1 Alan Everitt, Ways and Means in Local History, London, 1971.

page 17explorers went where they did, it is necessary to study what they and others believed existed in unexplored areas and how their information was obtained. Here, the role of the Maori in Nelson's early history requires much closer attention. Finally, although the development of Nelson's topographical map has been traced above, it is important to note that exploration and the information that was gathered was strongly related to what was being looked for in the first place. Exploration could be botanical and geological as well as geographical and while areas may have been traversed by explorers looking for land or passes, the mineral potential of those areas would have remained undetermined. Thus our "map" of 1865 required further attention before the region could be regarded as "fully explored". The exploration of Nelson, if not solely in a topographical sense, therefore continued beyond 1865 and does so even today.
The Developing Map of Nelson 1840 – 1865

The Developing Map of Nelson 1840 – 1865

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