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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XVIII — Gold-Diggers and Gum-Diggers

page 227

Chapter XVIII
Gold-Diggers and Gum-Diggers

Fortune, they say, flies from us: she but wheels
Like the fleet sea-bird round the fowler's skiff,
Lost in the mist one moment, and the next
Brushing the white sail with a whiter wing
As if to court the aim. Experience watches,
And has her on the turn.

When the Waitara war broke out the White population did not number more than seventy-five thousand. When Te Kooti was chased into the King Country it had grown to nearly four times that total, in the face of debt, doubt, and the paralysing effects of war. A great ally of settlement had come upon the scene. In 1861 profitable gold-fields were discovered in Otago. The little Free Church colony, which in thirteen years had scarcely increased to that number of thousands, was thunderstruck at the news. For years there had been rumours of gold in the river beds and amongst the mountains of the South Island. From 1857 to 1860 about £150,000 had been won in Nelson. In 1858 a certain Asiatic, Edward Peters, known to his familiars as Black Pete, who had somehow wandered from his native Bombay through Australia to Otago, had struck gold there; and in March 1861 there was a rush to a short-lived gold-field at the Lindis, another spot in that province. But it was not until the winter of that year that the prospector, Gabriel Read, found in a gully at Tuapeka the indubitable signs of a good alluvial field. Digging with a butcher's knife, he collected in ten hours nearly five-and-twenty pounds' worth of the yellow metal. Then he sunk hole after hole for some distance, finding gold in all. Unlike most discoverers, Read made no attempt to keep his fortune to himself, but wrote page 228 frankly of it to Sir John Richardson, the superintendent of the province. For this he was ultimately paid the not extravagant reward of £1,000. The good Presbyterians of Dunedin hardly knew in what spirit to receive the tidings. But some of them did not hesitate to test the field. Very soberly, almost in sad solemnity, they set to work there, and the result solved all doubts. Half Dunedin rushed to Tuapeka. At one of the country kirks the congregation was reduced to the minister and precentor. The news went across the seas. Diggers from Australia and elsewhere poured in by the thousand. Before many months the province's population had doubled, and the prayerful and painful era of caution, the day of small things, was whisked away in a whirl of Victorian enterprise. For the next few years the history of Otago became a series of rushes. Economically, no doubt, “rush” is the proper word to apply to the old stampedes to colonial goldfields. But in New Zealand, at any rate, the physical methods of progression thither were laborious in the extreme. The would-be miner tramped slowly and painfully along, carrying as much in the way of provisions and tools as his back would bear. Lucky was the man who had a horse to ride, or the rudest cart to drive in. When, as time went on, gold was found high up the streams amongst the ice-cold rivers and bleak tussock-covered mountains of the interior, the hardships endured by the gold-seekers were often very great. The country was treeless and wind-swept. Sheep roamed over the tussocks, but of other provisions there were none. Hungry diggers were thankful to pay half-a-crown for enough flour to fill a tin pannikin; £120 a ton was charged for carting goods from Dunedin. Not only did fuel fetch siege prices, but £5 would be paid for an old gin-case, for the boards of a dray, or any few pieces of wood out of which a miner's “cradle” could be patched up. The miners did not exactly make light of these obstacles, for, of the thousands who poured into the province after the first discoveries, large numbers fled from the snow and starvation of the winters, when the swollen rivers rose, and covered up the rich drift on the beaches under their banks. But enough remained to carry on the work of prospecting, and the finds were rich enough to lure new-comers. In the year 1863 the export of page 229 gold from Otago rose to more than two millions sterling. Extraordinary patches were found in the sands and drift of the mountain torrents. It is recorded of one party that, when crossing a river, their dog was swept away by the current on to a small rocky point. A digger went to rescue it, and never was humanity more promptly rewarded, for from the sands by the rock he unearthed more than £1,000 worth of gold before nightfall. Some of the more fortunate prospectors had their footsteps dogged by watchful bands bent on sharing their good luck. One of them, however, named Fox, managed to elude this espionage for some time, and it was the Government geologist—Sir James Hector—who, while on a scientific journey, discovered him and some forty companions quietly working in a lonely valley.

The gold-fields of Otago had scarcely reached the zenith of their prosperity before equally rich finds were reported from the west coast of the Canterbury province. From the year 1860 it was known that gold existed there, but the difficulties of exploring a strip of broken surf-beaten coast, cut off from settled districts by range upon range of Alps, and itself made up of precipitous hills, and valleys covered with densest jungle and cloven by the gorges of bitterly cold and impassable torrents, were exceptionally great. More than one of the Government officers sent there to explore were either swept away by some torrent or came back half-crippled by hunger and rheumatism. One surveyor who stuck to his work for months in the soaking, cheerless bush, existing on birds, bush-rats, and roots, was thought a hero, and with cause. Even Maori dreaded parts of this wilderness, and believed it to be the abode of dragons and a lost tribe of their own race. They valued it chiefly as the home of their much-prized jade or greenstone. Searching for this, a party of them, early in 1864, found gold. Later on in the same year a certain Albert Hunt also found paying gold on the Greenstone creek. Hunt was afterwards denounced as an impostor, and had to fly for his life from a mob of enraged and disappointed gold-seekers; but the gold was there nevertheless. In 1865 the stream which had been pouring into Otago was diverted to the new fields in Westland, and in parties or singly, in the face of almost incredible natural difficulties, page 230 adventurous men worked their way to every point of the west coast. In a few months 30,000 diggers were searching its beaches and valleys with such results that it seemed astonishing that the gold could have lain unseen so long. Many lost their lives, drowned in the rivers or starved to death in the dripping bush. The price of provisions at times went to fabulous heights, as much as £150 being paid for a ton of flour and a shilling apiece for candles. What did prices matter to men who were getting from 1 oz. to 1 lb. weight of gold-dust a day, or who could stagger the gold-buyers sent to their camps by the bankers by pouring out washed gold by the pannikin? So rich was the wash-dirt in many of the valleys, and the black sand on many of the sea-beaches, that for years £8 to £10 a week was regarded as only a fair living wage. In 1866 the west coast exported gold to the value of £2,140,000.

On a strip of sand-bank between the dank bush and the bar-bound mouth of the Hokitika river a mushroom city sprang up, starting into a bustling life of cheerful rashness and great expectations. In 1864 a few tents were pitched on the place; in 1865 one of the largest towns in New Zealand was to be seen. Wood and canvas were the building materials —the wood unseasoned pine, smelling fresh and resinous at first, anon shrinking, warping, and entailing cracked walls, creaking doors, and rattling window-sashes. Every second building was a grog-shanty, where liquor, more or less fiery, was retailed at a shilling a glass, and the traveller might hire a blanket and a soft plank on the floor for three shillings a night. Under a rainfall of more than 100 inches a year, tracks became sloughs before they could be turned into streets and roads. All the rivers on the coast were bar-bound. Food and supplies came by sea, and many were the coasting-craft which broke their backs crossing the bars or which ended their working-life on shoals. Yet when hundreds of adventurers were willing to pay £5 apiece for the twelve hours' passage from Nelson, high rates of insurance did not deter ship-owners. River floods joined the surf in making difficulties. Eligible town sections bought at speculative prices were sometimes washed out to sea, and a river now runs over the first site of the prosperous town of Westport.

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It was striking to note how quickly things settled down into a very tolerable kind of rough order. Among the diggers themselves there was little crime or even violence. It is true that a Greymouth storekeeper when asked “How's trade?” concisely pictured a temporary stagnation by gloomily remarking, “There ain't bin a fight for a week!” But an occasional bout of fisticuffs, and a good deal of drinking and gambling, were about the worst sins of the gold-seekers. Anyone who objected to be saluted as “mate!” or who was crazy enough to dream of wearing a long black coat or a tall black hat, would find life harassing at the diggings. But, at any rate, in New Zealand diggers did not use revolvers with the playful frequency of the Californians of Mr. Bret Harte. Nor did they shoe the horse of their first Member of Parliament with gold, or do a variety of the odd things done in Australian gold-fields. They laughed heartily when the Canterbury Provincial Government sent over the Alps an escort of strapping mounted policemen, armed to the teeth, to carry away gold securely in a bullet-proof cart. They preferred to send their gold away in peaceful coasting steamers. When, in 1867, one or two Irish rows were dignified with the title of Fenian Riots, and a company of militia was sent down from its more serious Maori work in the North Island to restore order in Hokitika, they encountered nothing more dangerous than a hospitality too lavish even for their powers of absorption. One gang of bushrangers, and one only, ever disturbed the coast. The four ruffians who composed it murdered at least six men before they were hunted down. Three were hung; the fourth, who saved his neck by turning Queen's evidence, was not lynched. No one ever has been lynched in New Zealand. For the rest the ordinary police-constable was always able to deal with the sharpers, drunkards, and petty thieves who are among the camp-followers of every army of gold-seekers. So quietly were officials submitted to that sometimes, when a police-magistrate failed to appear in a gold-fields' court through some accident of road or river, his clerk would calmly hear cases and impose fines, or a police-sergeant remand the accused without authority and without resistance. In the staid Westland of a later day it was so impossible to find offenders enough to make a show of filling page 232 the Hokitika prison that the Premier, Mr. Richard Seddon, who sat for Hokitika, was upbraided in Parliament for sinful extravagance in not closing the establishment.

No sooner had the cream been skimmed off the southern gold-fields than yields of almost equal value were reported from the north. The Thames and Coromandel fields in the east of the Auckland province differed from those in the South Island. They were from the outset not alluvial but quartz mines. So rich, however, were some of the Thames mines that the excitement they caused was as great as that roused by the alluvial patches of Otago and Westland. The opening up of the northern fields was retarded throughout the sixties by Maori wars, and the demands of peaceful but hard-fisted Maori landlords. £1 a miner had to be paid to these latter for the right to prospect their country. They delayed the opening of the important Ohinemuri field until 1875. When on March 3rd of that year the Gold-fields' Warden declared Ohinemuri open, the declaration was made to an excited crowd of hundreds of prospectors, who pushed jostling and fighting round the Warden's table for their licences, and then galloped off on horseback across country in a wild race to be first to “peg out” claims. Years before this, however, the shores of the Hauraki Gulf had been systematically worked, and in 1871 the gold export from Auckland had risen to more than £1,100,000.

New Zealand still remains a gold-producing colony, albeit the days of the solitary adventurer working in the wash-dirt of his claim with pick, shovel, and cradle are things of the past. The nomadic digger who called no man master is a steady-going wage-earner now. Company management, trade unions, conciliation cases, and laws against Sunday labour have succeeded the rough, free-and-easy days of glittering possibilities for everybody. The alluvial fields are now systematically worked by hydraulic sluicing companies. They are no longer poor men's diggings. In Otago steam-dredges used successfully to search the river bottoms, and in 1899 a boom in gold-dredging began. By the following year over 200 dredges were working in the rivers of Otago and Southland. Considerable fortunes were made by the few, but thousands of people lost all they put into the industry. To- page 233 day only a dozen dredges are working, and in view of the gradual and general exhaustion of the accessible deposits now taking place, gold-mining is destined soon to take but an unimportant position in the industries of the Dominion.

The gold-digger is found in many parts of the earth; the gum-digger belongs to New Zealand alone. With spade, knife, and gum-spear he has long wandered over certain tracts of the province of Auckland, especially the long, deeply-indented, broken peninsula, which is the northern end of New Zealand. The so-called gum for which he searchesis the turpentine, which, oozing out of the trunk of the kauri pines, hardens into lumps of an amber-like resin. Its many shades of colour darken from white through every kind of yellow and brown to jet. A little is clear, most is clouded. In the early wars, when the English soldiers campaigning against Heké had to spend rainy nights in the bush without tent or fire, they made shift to get light and even warmth by kindling flame with pieces of the kauri-gum, which in those days could be seen lying about on the ground's surface. Still, the chips and scraps which remain when kauri-gum has been cleaned and scraped for market are used in the making of fire-kindlers. But for the resin itself a better use was long ago found—the manufacture of varnish. At the moment when, under Governor Fitzroy, the infant Auckland settlement was at its lowest, a demand for kauri-gum from the United States shone as a gleam of hope to the settlers, while the Maori near the town became too busied in picking up gum to trouble themselves about appeals to join Heké's crusade against the Pakeha. Though the trade seemed to die away so completely that in a book written in 1848 I find it briefly dismissed with the words, “The bubble has burst,” nevertheless it remains to-day in good demand, and has many a time and oft stood Auckland in good stead.

The greater kauri pines show smooth grey trunks of from eight to twelve feet in diameter. Even Mr. Gladstone would have recoiled from these giants, which are laid low, not with axes, but with heavy double saws, worked on scaffolds six feet high erected against the doomed trees. As the British ox, with his short horns and cube-like form, is the result of generations of breeding with a single eye to meat, so that huge candelabrum, the kauri, might be fancied to be the outcome page 234 of thousands of years of experiment in producing the perfection of a timber tree. Its solid column may rise a hundred feet without a branch; its small-leaved, patchy foliage seems almost ludicrously scanty; it is all timber—good wood. It takes perhaps 800 years for the largest pines to come to their best. In 1909 the kauri forests, through wastefulness and merciless cutting and burning, were within measurable distance of disappearing altogether. However, the Government became alarmed at the prospect and took steps to preserve them from total destruction. A State Forest Department has now been called into existence and some useful work has been done. But no effort of man can ever restore to their stately grandeur the primeval forests of New Zealand.1

The resin may be found in tree-forks high above the ground. Climbing to these by ropes, men have taken thence lumps weighing as much as a hundredweight. But most and the best resin is found in the earth, and for the last generation the soul of the North has been probed and turned over in search of it, until whole tracts look as though they had been rooted up by droves of wild swine. In many of these tracts not a pine is standing now. How and when the forests disappeared, whether by fire or otherwise, and how soil so peculiarly sterile could have nourished the finest of trees, are matters always in dispute. There is little but the resin to show the locality of many of the vanished forests. Where they once were the earth is hungry, white, and barren, though dressed in deceptive green by stunted fern and mánuka. In the swamps and ravines, where they may thrust down their steel-pointed flexible spears as much as eight feet, the roaming diggers use that weapon to explore the field. In the hard open country they have to fall back upon the spade. Unlike the gold-seeker, the gum-digger can hope for no great and sudden stroke of fortune. But without anything to pay for house-room, fuel, or water, he can live economically and save a portion of his small earnings, while he can at least fancy that he is his own master. Many of the hunters for gum are Bosnians, Croats, and Dalmatians—good diggers, but often not colonists; for years of work do not attach them to the country, and in many instances they take their savings page 235 home to the great plains of the Save or the fringing islands and warm bays of the Adriatic. Up to the end of 1922 gum valued at £20,000,000 had been shipped out of the country. There has been a decrease in the output during recent years, but a new process has been discovered for separating the debris from the gum, and much of the ground already worked will be subjected to further treatment. Companies have come on the scene to work the ground with machinery. Shafts are sunk and buried strata explored. The primitive men and methods described above are passing away.