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Early Wellington

Chapter I. The Emigrants Depart From Gravesend

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Chapter I. The Emigrants Depart From Gravesend.

“Adieu! Adieu! My native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell a while to him and Thee
My native land—Good night.”


In the ship “Birman,” leaving Gravesend about a year after the despatch of the New Zealand Company's first chartered expeditionary ship “Tory” (which is dealt with later in this book) we find a typical example of an emigrant ship, and of the conditions under which intending settlers lived during their lengthy journey to a strange country.

From a letter published in 1848 (No. 257, Vol. 9 of Chamber's Journal) and kindly loaned to the writer by Mr. M. Murton, of Napier, is taken the following arresting sketch of the sailing of the “Birman.”

“The black and lofty hulk of a three-master ship of 800 tons register was lying in the river off Gravesend, waiting for the captain. Its destination was New Zealand, with a small stock of merchandise and 200 emigrants on board.

The scene on deck, to inexperienced landsmen's eyes, was one of inextricable confusion. A heavy shower had fallen about half an hour before; the decks, filthy with mud and mire, brought on board by visitors and lagging emigrants, were crowded and blocked up in all directions with stores of every description, mingled in indescribable disorder, amidst coils of rope and cable links, chairs, spare poles and timber, casks, boxes, bales and packages soddened with rain. Invisible, but imprisoned pigs were mingling their squeals and grunts in testimony of their disapproval, while a few others, either not yet housed, or broken loose, took their chances with the human population, and grunted amongst the cordage for the few vegetables scattered about. Near the entry to the first cabin stood a couple of immense hencoops, cruelly crammed with live occupants, whose ragged and ruffled heads, projecting through the rails, gave token of unusual contact with rough weather and rougher usage.

Aloft in the rigging hung whole quarters of oxen newly slain, and the occasional bleating of sheep, stowed away in some undiscoverable recess, gave proof of the praiseworthy determination to stick to fresh provisions as long as it was possible to do so. Though a sparkling rain was still falling, the deck was populated with emigrants and parties of friends about to be sundered in a few brief moments, many of them probably for ever.

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Some were buoyant with hope, and enjoyed the anticipation of employment, and plenty, to which it was too evident they were strangers. Others were downcast and cut a sorry figure to appear courageous; some were weeping bitterly; some were joking with uproarious but forced merriment; some made their way, as well as they could, towards the open hatchway, over piles of packages and through parties of miserable leave-takers, and got down the ladder into the huge belly of the ship.

A few candles glimmered here and there through its enormous length; but the darkness was too great to distinguish anything in the immediate vicinity of the hatchway.

As vision grew accustomed to gloom, we saw scenes of disorder greater than on deck above.

Every kind of receptacle, box, basket, bundle and cask of all shapes and sizes, were scattered on the floor, and amongst them lounged or squatted, as best they could, more than a hundred people of various callings, ages, and of both sexes.

Some had tramped it for miles and were resting in the oblivion of sleep, in spite of the din of voices and the lumbering of heavy articles about and around them.

Others had just arrived, and were busily engaged in the vain attempt to find vacant spaces whereon to settle themselves and their provisions and goods.

Some clamouring to be shown their berths, while others complained of the locality allotted them, far from the hatchway, and in almost total darkness. Crowds of little children who could scarcely walk, tottered about amongst the lumber, prattling and pleased with the novelty; aged men and women sat calm and still amidst the hubbub, waiting for their turn to be disposed of. A grandmother of a large party of self-exiles bound to the Antipodes, sat on a small bundle sucking the end of an empty dudeen; close by sat a pretty and interesting young girl upon a blue, spotless trunk, writing a letter, an upturned cask her table, her inkstand a tea-cup.

Her tears fell faster upon the paper than the words from her pen; which at intervals she laid down to wring her hands and hide her anguished head in her handkerchief.

“Come, old girl,” said a bystander at length, “let me finish it for you; I'll tell our friends how merry we all are”—and he took the pen from her hand and assisted her tenderly up the ladder for a mouthful of fresh air. He then sat down and completed the epistle.

A small recess, about six and a half feet in width and height, formed the whole accommodation for each family for the next four or five months, clean and comfortable as expectations warranted.

Circumstances prevented better accommodation. Having inspected domestic arrangements and deposited their contributions to the marine larder, some pushed aside the curtains that enclosed their compartment, and went for a tour of inspection.

The sun was now shining brightly down the hatchway; some of the lumber was now stored away; many were on deck, but the place was still crowded, and it was a job to make way through groups busy in packing and arranging.

Some of the berths situated far away from the light of day, and visible only by the gleam of a dull candle suspended in a horn lantern, seemed too awfully dismal.

Between the berths, on each side of the vessel, piles of merchandise and ballast, page 10 reaching almost breast high, extended nearly the entire length of the interior.

Around the light of a single lantern suspended from a crossbeam, were congregated about a dozen middle-aged men of the class of small tradesmen, singing—“When passing through the waters deep, I ask in faith His promised aid.”

The confused and incessant noises were above and around them as the oldest of the band raised his hand and solemnly said, “Let us pray.”

As his peroration progressed, the perspiration streamed down his channelled features and literally dropped upon his clothes.

It was a scene such as a Rembrandt might have embodied in a glorious picture.

The gleaming light on the face of the suppliant, partially obscured by the shadow of his raised hand, the deep dense darkness of the background, the dim discovered forms of the distant figures of the group; the statue-like motionless physiognomy of the nearer distances contrasted with the supplicating earnestness of the speaker; all together supplied the materials for a composition such as that monarch of the dark masters delighted to portray.

The morning sun was shining on the hills above Gravesend when the black looking hulk, for so many days an object of curiosity and interest, had disappeared from the river.

Anticipations for a fair wind were not realised; seasickness was prevalent as rough weather was encountered. The nights were most miserable and discouraging, and the majority of the passengers were longing to set foot ashore, and regretting having committed themselves to the hateful sea.

The ship had been driven back twice in attempting to start from the Downs, and the passengers were looking forward with horror to a third attempt which was to be made that night. Their apprehensions were groundless, for after a successful attempt they cleared the Downs next day and proceeded onward on a speedy and a prosperous voyage. The ship arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on the last day of the year, and the passengers who had been tossing for weeks on the billows, were delighted with the place. Soft bread and fresh meat, a luxury, were now to be had, and some were fortunate enough to obtain wine at fourpence and sixpence a bottle, and fine mutton and beef at three-halfpence a pound.

Some desired to finish their journey and stay there, as employment was plentiful, provisions were cheap, but rents were high and the weather was as warm there in December as the English summer.

The passengers had parted with seasickness, and now had voracious appetites. Grog was served up on Christmas Day, and they pleasurably anticipated a print of wine on New Year's Day.

Services were conducted on board by the doctor, who officiated as chaplain. Games were initiated by some of the energetic ones, resulting, in most cases, in the formation of friendships that in after life withstood the trials and vicissitudes of an early colonist's life.”

It is necessary at this stage to refer to the state of the country, which the emigrants were approaching with such conflicting emotions; also to the pioneer ship “Tory” already sent to prepare the way for the proposed Colony.

“For a period of more than fifty years after its discovery by Captain Cook, New Zealand continued to be the scene of unceasing savage warfare, and it was left page 11 in the exclusive occupation of its aboriginal native race.

The first to land in the country was the Christian missionary; by degrees the South Sea whalers gained confidence to frequent its harbours from time to time, and an escaped convict from New South Wales, or a runaway seaman, took refuge on its shores; and for the protection of our countrymen, a ship of war occasionally made its appearance on the coast. But it was not until the great natural advantages of the country, and its political importance, were prominently brought before the public by the New Zealand Association, that the true value of the New Zealand Islands was fully understood.

A society, with Mr. John Ward as its secretary, was formed in connection with the New Zealand Land Company, consisting
Fig. 5—Maori Whare, Pipitea Pa, 1839.

Fig. 5—Maori Whare, Pipitea Pa, 1839.

exclusively of heads of families and others intending to settle permanently in New Zealand on lands purchased by the said Company. The society already numbered among its members a considerable body of gentlemen who were determined to emigrate with their families and property. The committee met daily at the offices of the New Zealand Company, No. 1 Adam Street, Adelphi, and received applications for a free passage to the first and principal settlement, from mechanics, gardeners and agricultural labourers, being married, and not exceeding thirty years of age. The first object of the Company was to induce the Government to erect the New Zealand Islands into a British Colony; but, disappointed in their endeavours, the members themselves fitted out and despatched to New Zealand a preliminary page 12 expedition for the purpose of making purchases of land from the natives, for selecting suitable localities for the sites of settlements, and to prepare for the reception of emigrants on their arrival. They proceeded at once to offer for sale by lottery in England, the right of selection amongst the lands thus anticipated to be acquired by them; and though the country was at that time almost a byword for barbarism—without law or government—and inhabited by a wild and warlike native race; and though officially warned that their proceedings
Fig. 6—Court House of the First Settlement of New Zealand at Pito-one, 1839. (Blown down in 1847.) From a sketch drawn by Wm. Swainson, Esq., F.R.S.

Fig. 6—Court House of the First Settlement of New Zealand at Pito-one, 1839. (Blown down in 1847.) From a sketch drawn by Wm. Swainson, Esq., F.R.S.

could not be sanctioned by Parliament, the New Zealand Company found purchasers in England to the amount of more than £100,000.

Without waiting to hear what locality had been procured by their agent for the site of a settlement, or whether, indeed, he had succeeded in making the purchase of a single acre of land, it sent out several ships filled with emigrants to be located on that spot, wherever it might be, which on their arrival in the country, they might find to have been procured for that purpose.”*

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Fig. 7—Taupo Pa (Plimmerton Beach, 1840). Showing the Maori Pa where Te Rauparaha was captured.

Fig. 7—Taupo Pa (Plimmerton Beach, 1840). Showing the Maori Pa where Te Rauparaha was captured.

Fig. 8—Native Potato Ground, Port Nicholson, 1840. From a Sketch by Captain Stanley, H.M.S. Britomart, in the writer's possession. The ground was cleared by setting fire to the underwood. The Crop, when gathered in, was placed on the raised platform (whata), shown in the foreground, thus securing it from the ravages of the rats, which were numerous.

Fig. 8—Native Potato Ground, Port Nicholson, 1840. From a Sketch by Captain Stanley, H.M.S. Britomart, in the writer's possession. The ground was cleared by setting fire to the underwood. The Crop, when gathered in, was placed on the raised platform (whata), shown in the foreground, thus securing it from the ravages of the rats, which were numerous.

* Swainson's New Zealand, p. 74.