Author: Jacob Hill
First, it was California.
Then, it was Victoria.
Then it was Aotearoa – that is, New Zealand.
Turns out that the Pacific borderlands were brimming with gold. Yet New Zealand’s Goldrush is seldom mentioned in the great Goldrushes of the mid-1800s. Why is that? And how important was it to the development of New Zealand?
LAND OF THE LONG WHITE CLOUD
New Zealand was the last major landmass on Earth to be populated by humans. Polynesian sailors left from a mysterious land called “Hawaiki” (probably somewhere near the Cook Islands – NOT to be confused with Hawaii) and settled on the island less than 800 years ago. The fact they survived thousands of kilometres across the Pacific Ocean in canoes is a testament to their sailing abilities, and they quickly spread across the Islands – North, South, and Stewart.
Just like with Australia, a Dutchman found New Zealand long before Captain Cook discovered it – Abel Tasman sailed down the west side in 1642 and was attacked in Golden Bay. Captain Cook stepped foot in present-day Gisborne in 1769 and while the initial contact with local Māori was confrontational, the relationship quickly improved. Cook would come back two other times (1773 and 1777), introducing food like potato, cabbage, pig and chicken to New Zealand, which became incredibly important to the Māori diet.
If Australia was considered remote in the Enlightenment Era, then New Zealand was the edge of the universe. After Cook’s visit, very few Europeans travelled to this cold, mountainous land populated by tattooed warriors. Even with colonisation ramping up, it was typically explorers, missionaries, runaway convicts from Van Diemen’s Land and sealers/whalers who came. Settling in New Zealand was rare until the 1830s.
But as fierce as the Māori can be, they were becoming used to European visitors. In fact, there some of the Europeans ended up staying permanently with the Māori. They would marry into Māori society, adopt their customs and speak their language (te reo Māori). Unsurprisingly, visitors who joined the Māori were valued by Māori and Europeans alike as an intermediary for negotiations and trading.
By the way, just like the term “Aboriginal Australian,” The Māori didn’t call themselves that until after Europeans started to arrive. They identified most strongly with their whanau (family), then their hapū (a clan made of multiple families), then with their iwi (extended tribe comprised of many hapū). “Māori” just means “ordinary/normal” in te reo Māori. It was used to distinguish the new people from the ‘ordinary’ people – the “Māori”. The new people were called “Pākehā”, whose meaning is uncertain (but it’s suggested it means “pale, imaginary beings”).
But despite the initially friendly relations, the Māori population declined steeply from 1800-1840. There are two main reasons for this. First, the Settlers unwittingly brought disease that the Māori had no resistance against, as was the case in the Americas and Australia. The second reason was guns. The early traders introduced guns that would massacre thousands of Māori. But here’s the twist: It wasn’t the Europeans committing genocide.
See, the Māori happily adopted guns because they were fantastic killing machines. Māori engaged in intertribal (and even intratribal) warfare all the time (the concept of utu, or ‘reciprocity’, could keep Māori locked in war for generations if they weren’t careful). From 1818, the Māori could kill each other much more efficiently…a bit too efficiently. This devastating period is now termed “The Musket Wars”.
While the Māori waged war amongst themselves, the first permanent Pākehā settlement was founded: Russell, on the northern tip of North Island. By now, British Settlers had been flooding Australasia, and New Zealand, which was technically part of New South Wales, had plenty of land that was ripe for the taking…Except that the Māori were already there, and they were willing to defend it.
Some Settlers bought land, but many tried to cheat or expropriate the Māori, thinking they’d be pushovers. In reality, the Māori weren’t having it and called upon British officials to negotiate. Some Māori appealed to King William IV himself, demanding that if British People were going to come to New Zealand, then they should be lawful and fair in their dealings with Māori. The British Government was open to negotiation.
The English and Māori were also motivated by a common fear: The French. The French had arrived in Akaroa in 1838 with plans to colonise the country. The Māori feared a hostile takeover, and the British wouldn’t dare cede possible territory to their mortal enemies (New Zealand was technically part of New South Wales since 1788, but the British didn’t actually have the means to defend the claim if the French rapidly settled the islands).
And so, The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6, 1840. The Treaty was taken all over New Zealand and was signed by more than 500 Māori Chiefs throughout the year. The Treaty is the founding document of New Zealand and established it as a colony in its own right under British Law.
The French officially founded Akaroa in August 1840 and were about to declare South Island to be a French Colony. The British must have taken great delight in informing them of the Treaty of Waitangi and that the Māori agreed to be governed by the British.
Of the 82,000 people in New Zealand, 80,000 were Māori. Despite this, many of the rights guaranteed to the Māori were ignored by rapacious settlers. The Māori in turn also ignored the British rights. Plus, there are still debates over whether the te reo Māori translation is accurately translated at all and the Māori were misled. Regardless, relations were becoming uncivil.
The New Zealand Wars began in 1843 when Europeans with a false property deed attempted to clear Māori off their land in Wairau, South Island. Twenty-two Europeans and six Māori were killed. After that, three decades of protracted warfare took place across North Island. Some Māori iwi sided with Britain, but most of them were in opposition.
At first, Britain had a difficult time combating the Māori warriors, who had an entire culture around warfare, intimate knowledge of the land, access to guns and significantly outnumbered the British. However, the British were reinforced from other colonies, including the soldiers who enforced the law in Ballarat before the Eureka Stockade, and the waves of Settlers stacked the deck against the Māori. Plus, the British finally cracked the Māori defensive strategy and would eventually quash the rebellion, confiscating lots of land in the process.
South Island, in contrast, was peaceful, despite the initial provocation taking place here. While the North was embroiled in War, the South grew, and the colonial government’s relationship with South Island Māori remained civil – there were land purchases and negotiations occurring here while the government was waging war against Māori up north.
THE FIRST CITY?
Dunedin is a major settlement in South Island and the sixth-largest city in New Zealand. It was founded by Scottish Presbyterians in 1848, who chose it because it was hilly like the Scottish capital (Dunedin is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh). It fact, it was too hilly. There was this hill that was proving to be a problem, so they pushed it into the harbour. Yep, they dumped an entire hill into the harbour because it was inconveniencing them.
That’s not often talked about, but what is often spruiked is Dunedin’s claims as New Zealand’s first city. This isn’t even remotely true. The first Pākehā settlement in New Zealand was Russell, founded in the 1830s. Nor is it the longest Pākehā settlement in South Island – that’s Riverton, near the very southern tip of New Zealand.
Dunedin gained city status in 1865 when tens of thousands of people lived there. However, Christchurch became the first “city” in 1856 after only six years and having less than 2,000 people. How? It had an Anglican Cathedral, so according to medieval laws, it was declared a city. Dunedin was thoroughly Presbyterian, so no first-city status!
But you can argue that it was the first city in spirit, the first place in New Zealand that looked like a city with fancy architecture, busy roads and a booming economy. In Seventeen short years. “Mud-edin” was transformed into the richest city in New Zealand. And how did that happen?
Yep, it was gold.
Mining has been a thing in New Zealand ever since humans first arrived. The Māori discovered gold, but they didn’t have use for it so left it alone. Instead, they were interested in greenstone deposits, which are particularly abundant in South Island (South Island has been named Te Waipounamu – the place of greenstone). Greenstone is used extensively in Māori culture, from making jewellery to making weapons to making peace gifts!
Te Waipounamu’s gold would lay untouched until May 1861, when a Tasmanian named Gabriel Read found some near the Tuapeka River in the Otago Region. At the height of goldrush fever and when the Australian goldrushes were petering out, another goldfield to exploit was heavenly, and by year’s end ten thousand people had flocked to Otago, mostly miners and businessmen from ‘across the ditch’ in Australia.
Now that ten thousand Pākehā were looking for the stuff, the Māori in South Island started looking for it too (as North Island Māori were still grappling with the British). They ended up discovering gold near modern-day Westport in the West Coast region, which opened up this previously inaccessible and harsh terrain to settlers and veteran miners.
By 1864 The Otago and West Coast region tripled in population. Dunedin, being the capital of the Otago region, flourished as it became incredibly rich. Many of the Goldrush-era buildings are still standing and are a source of pride. One in particular is the Dunedin Railway Station, which claims to be the most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, but I doubt that’s true at all. Still a great building – looks like gingerbread! And Otago University, New Zealand’s oldest university, was also established with the money made from the Goldrush.
Many significant South Island towns were founded during the gold rush. Many of them are still places for the brave and adventurous among us, including Greymouth, Hokitika, Wanaka and Queenstown. Oh, Queenstown: You’re like that one friend who I know is a bad influence yet somehow you always convince me to do something dumb. I love you all the same!
The mining booms weren’t all positive, however – the sensitive New Zealand environment was devastated. Many creeks and lakes turned to sludge due to pollution or were drained for sluicing (using water under high pressure to cut through rock). Dredging removed 700,000 tons of soil per year, which destroyed prime agricultural land. Soil erosion worsened, further impacting the environment. It’s been quipped that £36,000 worth of soil was destroyed over £5,000 worth of gold.
This isn’t to mention the mass introduction of species into New Zealand. While there were species like kurī (Polynesian dogs that went extinct in the 1860s), Polynesian rats, pigs and chickens introduced earlier, other mammals came during the goldrush era and after, including rabbits, cats, horses, goats, deer, possums, wallabies and hedgehogs. These guys destroy the New Zealand environment, which hadn’t evolved to accommodate them since New Zealand split from Gondwana before mammals reached it. New Zealand’s only native mammals are bats and sea-based ones like dolphins, seals and whales.
But there is an interesting thing to note about the New Zealand Goldrush: It was quite peaceful. This seems strange given the unrest and bloodshed that occurred in Australia and California (and, of course, North Island). But the explanation is quite simple.
California used to belong to Mexico, but the US annexed it in 1848 after smashing Mexico in war. It was a culturally disjointed place under military rule. When gold was discovered in 1849, this heightened the already acute tensions in the politically unstable territory.
Victoria was more culturally homogenous, but the confusion and frustration around economic rights, political rights and punitive legislation led to frequent protest and violence, including The Eureka Stockade.
In contrast, the laws surrounding gold in New Zealand were passed before gold was discovered in South Island, so less had to be figured out on the go. Furthermore, the miners in New Zealand were typically veterans, some having worked in California, Victoria and New South Wales before arriving in New Zealand. They had a good understanding of geology, mining practices and how to live in rugged conditions. Plus, they knew how to navigate a goldrush society, so comparatively few disputes came up.
THE LAST RUSH?
But then, as was always the case in the Pacific Goldrushes, the alluvial gold (gold that is easily found on the surface) ran dry, and large-scale operations were the only paths forward. The Otago/West Coast Goldrushes were the last of the great Pacific Goldrushes of the mid-19th century. More major goldrushes were to occur in Yukon/Nome, South Africa, Chile and Western Australia, but they wouldn’t occur until the 1880s-1900s. By then, there were few California 49ers left.
A new generation was to make these places rich in the pursuit of a shiny metal.
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