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Kaipara, or, Experiences of a settler in north New Zealand

Chapter XIX. — The Kauri Gumdigger

page 142

Chapter XIX.
The Kauri Gumdigger.

I am going to commence this chapter by confessing that I find myself in a difficulty. All my endeavours to secure an appointment had proved abortive. I am anxious to stick to fact, and at the same time to interest my reader, but how can it be done, if I simply relate the details of my humdrum life as a country settler!

Three or four chapters back, I rushed off from my narrative into the New Zealand forests, and then apologised, but I can't keep perpetually apologising, and to prevent the reader from closing my book in disgust, I must ask him to hold me excused if I frequently bolt off the even course of my clodhoppery existence into subjects which are more interesting.

I have already briefly described one of North Auckland's greatest industries — the Kauri timber trade—an industry, alas! of destruction, page 143and one whose days are numbered. There is another great industry which also owes its existence to the Kauri, both of the present and of bygones times. I mean the Kauri gum trade. This being the land of the glorious Kauri pine for all ages, of course forms the "Tom Tiddler's" ground of the happy-go-lucky gumdiggers, of whom there are at the present time over ten thousand in the North Auckland district. About £350,000 worth of Kauri gum was exported last year from the province of Auckland, principally to London and America. It is used largely in the manufacture of varnish and lacquers, and as there are no varnish manufactories of any importance in New Zealand, all the gum is sent away.

The three principal exports of the province of Auckland are Kauri gum, gold, and timber, and the export value of the former is greater than the combined values of the gold and timber. The gumdigger therefore plays a most important part in the province of Auckland, as without his assistance its export trade would look very shady, yet he is universally looked down upon by the sober-sided settler, who hardly ever has a good word for him. "He's page 144only a gumdigger," is an expression I have commonly heard used, to imply that the individual indicated was a person of no importance.

The title "Gumdigger" itself may have some-thing to do with the matter. It is not a nice word, and looks too much like "Gravedigger" at first sight. Possibly, too, the sedate settler may not think digging gum so intellectual and high-toned an employment as digging potatoes, fattening pigs, and the other duties which fall to his lot; again, the gumdigger proper is not a landowner; and yet again, he is often addicted to what he terms "going on the spree," and when he has changed his gum into money, to changing the money into strong waters. All these causes, I think, conspire together to lower him in the eyes of the extremely respectable, but ofttimes narrow-minded settler.

I have not the slightest wish to endeavour to defend the gumdigger for the intemperance and careless waste of money that too generally characterises him, but I will say, and say it without fear of contradiction, that he is exposed to far greater temptations than ever beset the settler. He lives an entirely isolated and a fearfully hard life out on the gum-field, and when he comes into a township, which he probably does page 145every two or three months, and converts his gum into money, the temptation "to go on the spree" is great. He is unmarried, and has no particular use for the surplus money after his "tucker" bill is paid, and he spends it recklessly. There are savings-banks, it is true, but no one calls his attention to the fact that by depositing his surplus cash in them it will be making money for him while he is out on the gum-field, and the probability is that he does not know of their existence. The settler has a hundred improvements to make on his land, and has plenty of ways of employing his spare cash. Besides, he is generally surrounded by his family, and has not to endure the horrible isolation in which most of the gumdiggers' time is spent.

Not all gumdiggers, however, waste their substance. Many when they indulge in a holiday, enjoy themselves in a moderate and becoming manner. Not long since I was rowing by the Matakohe Wharf, and saw a stout, thick-set man, whom I knew to be a gumdigger, fishing off its seaward end. His legs were dangling over the edge, his back was resting against one of the mooring posts, in his mouth was a short clay, and by his side stood a bottle of beer and page 146a tumbler. His face wore a look of placid contentment, and he was evidently enjoying himself thoroughly.

Gumdigging is exceptionally hard work, and
A Gumdigger's Holiday.

A Gumdigger's Holiday.

only a man accustomed to manual labour can hope to be successful at it. Some intelligence too and power of observation is required, in order that the digger may not waste time work-page 147ing in unlikely places. When an old Kauri tree dies and falls, its huge roots throw up a mound of earth, and the shape of these mounds indicate to an observing digger the direction in which the trees have fallen, although all signs of the trees themselves have entirely decayed away and disappeared, perhaps thousands of years ago. As the gum generally exudes freely from the Kauri, and collects in the forks where the trunk commences to throw out branches, by stepping sixty or seventy feet from the mound in the right direction, and digging there, gum will probably be found. The mounds themselves also offer good chances, and these are generally first attacked.

A gumdigger's outfit is not an expensive one. It consists of a spade, a gum spear, and a piece of sacking made into a bag and strapped on his back with pieces of flax.

The gum spear is a four-sided rod of steel, about four feet long, and pointed at one end. It looks very like a fencing foil, with a handle like a spade stuck in the end of it, instead of a hilt. If the field is a new one, or has been but little worked, this instrument is brought into use, and with it the gumdigger probes the ground in different directions, until he strikes a page 148piece of gum, which, if at all experienced, he can tell at once from a stone, root, or other substance. He then digs it up, puts it in the bag, and recommences spearing. An old observing hand generally does a good deal less spearing than a new chum, but a good deal more putting in the bag. When a field has been dug over two or three times, as most of them have been now, the big lumps have nearly all been removed, and the method then adopted is to dig in the most likely places, on the chance of turning up gum with the earth. Here the observing digger again gets the pull, for instead of digging a patch right out as many do, he digs a spitful here and a spitful there, and generally manages to turn up gum.

My theory is, that by minutely examining the places where gum is turned up, and comparing it with the surrounding ground, the wide-awake ones have discovered something or other—I don't in the least know what—which indicates to them the most likely places to dig. Anyway, it is a fact that some gumdiggers earn their two and three pounds a week, while others working equally hard, if not harder, in the field, can scarcely pay their "tucker" bill.

After the gum has been dug up, it has to be page break
Group of Tree-Gummers under Kauri

Group of Tree-Gummers under Kauri

page break page 151scraped, and this is generally done by the gumdigger before he offers it for sale. If an industrious man, his evenings are usually spent at this tedious work; and the more successful his day's digging, the more scraping lies before him in the evening, and it is considered a good
Gum Scraping.

Gum Scraping.

ten hours' work to scrape a hundredweight of gum. When it is thoroughly scraped, it is easy to see the quality, and it is then sorted into boxes. The rarest kind is quite transparent and resembles lumps of glass; the next in order, is cloudy in places, yellowish looking, and very page 152like amber, though much more brittle; some again is all cloudy, and the commonest sort of all is almost opaque. The clearer it is the higher its value, and the price for the first class, which is used in the manufacture of copal varnishes, ranges from about £70 to £80 a ton, according as the market is over or under stocked.
Very pretty ornaments can be cut with a pen
Gum Scraper's Knife, constructed so that blade can be replaced when worn out.

Gum Scraper's Knife, constructed so that blade can be replaced when worn out.

knife out of Kauri gum, the surface of which may be afterwards easily polished by being rubbed with a piece of flannel soaked in kerosine oil. In most of the gumdiggers' huts (or whares, as they are called), and in settlers' houses in gumdigging districts, are to be found specimens of amateur gum-carving, among which, hearts are by far the most popular subject. I have seen flat hearts with sharp page 153edges, rounded hearts, lob-sided hearts, elongated hearts, and many other varieties of Kauri gum hearts, which, though doubtless greatly admired by the personal friends of the carvers, could not be said to possess any commercial value. The material is too fragile for elaborate and artistic designs to be attempted, and no trade of any extent in Kauri gum carvings is pushed in the colony.

All the gum dug out of the gum-fields of course belonged to Kauri trees of bygone ages, and is sometimes called fossil gum. From the living Kauri, however, gum is constantly exuding, and forming in large lumps in the forks of the branches. To secure this it is necessary to climb the tree; but the barrel being of such huge dimensions, and rising like a pillar for sixty or seventy feet, it cannot be climbed in the ordinary manner. The plan generally adopted, therefore, is to tie a small weight to a long piece of strong twine or fishing-line, and throw the weight over the branches; the end of the thread held below is then slacked out until the weight is lowered within reach, when a rope is tied to the line, and hauled up over the branch and down again the other side. Climbing this rope, the gum-seeker gains a page 154footing on the branch, and with a tomahawk, hacks out the gum and lets it fall to the ground. I have heard of another method of climbing by means of steps cut with a tomahawk in the barrel of a Kauri, but have never seen it done, and should think it an exceedingly dangerous operation. Climbing for gum in the ordinary way with a rope is dangerous work enough, and very often men meet their death when engaged in the occupation. Only a few weeks back the dead body of a native was found in the bush about four miles from here, lying at the foot of a Kauri, the rope dangling from a branch overhead, clearly indicating the manner of his death. Tree gum is not so valuable as the ordinary gum found in the ground, but it can be obtained in much larger lumps, and a good tree climber can make on the average between three and four pounds a week.

The Kauri gum industry cannot be considered as an unmixed blessing to the province of Auckland, inasmuch as it materially helps to keep up the price of labour. If a man cannot get the wages he wants, away he goes to the gum-fields, and although he probably only makes enough to just keep himself page break
Climbing Kauri for Gum.

Climbing Kauri for Gum.

page break page 157alive, still he is his own master, and is always looking forward to doing better. The life he leads when gumdigging is a fearfully lonely one, and he would really be far happier and far better off, if he were working regularly for moderate wages at some factory, with mates around him, and a comfortable cottage to spend his evenings in, when his day's work is over.

The North New Zealand working-man cannot see this at present, however, and until he is forced to see it, the natural industries of the province of Auckland can never be developed.

Take, for instance, the varnish-making industry. Although New Zealand is the only country in the whole world which produces Kauri gum—one of the most important ingredients in varnish—yet it is all sent away in its crude state, for other countries to derive the benefits and profits consequent on its manufacture into varnish.

Before closing the chapter, I must say a word concerning the honesty of gumdiggers. Within a radius of twenty miles from here, there are several hundred men engaged in the occupation, and within that same radius we only possess two rural policemen. In spite of this page 158feeble protection, however, I have never during my residence in the district, heard of a robbery being committed by a gumdigger, although many scarcely earn enough to keep themselves alive.