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The Diary of James Brogden, August 1871 – December 1872

Wellington, New Zealand, Dec 23 1871

page 32
Since writing last I have been over to Picton and from thence to Blenheim in the Middle Island, between which places a survey is being made for a line of Railway. I spent some 8 or 9 days in going and returning, walking over the course of the line. Since my return, I have been engaged in Negociations, and on the estimates and plans for the above, so that I have not much of interest to tell you. Picton is a pretty village, placed in a deep valley with a long lake-like Sound, or area of the Sea just before it. The mountains rise to a height of some 2500 feet and are covered with dense forest, or New Zealand Bush. We stayed at a nice clean little Inn, driving out next day with a singular character for our Coachman whose stories of Maorie manners and customs, and the scenes he had witnessed, shorted the slow travel until we had to get into the actual “Bush”, and among the gigantic trees, - evergreen – but the stillness of the whole is so odd to our eyes, - it seems as if nothing lived within it. Next we came to a perfect swamp and jungle with flax growing in abundance, and for once plenty of wild duck and wild pigs on the hills. We shot some birds on our march, but could only get one or two; one of them was the Bocaco, a large bird about the size of a good black cock and of dark purple plumage. We had also plenty of small green parrots. The whole of the scenery thro’ the swamp is of a topical character, and you could easily imagine, wanting only in the big game, such as tigers and elephants, to resemble India. We met some wild gold page 33 diggers, who lived an idle scampish life, - but these were about all. There is a place called Massacre Hill, just beyond this swamp. It gains its name because in the young days of the Colony the natives from the North Island crossed “Cooks Straits” in their canoes, and intended to plunder and sack the village. The white men armed themselves and resisted; - they however put muskets in the hands of men who did not know how to use them. The natives drove them down to this place, and crossing the stream rushed on them and killed them, eating some parts of the bodies. A monument is raised to their memory. Several muskets were found with the shot put in first and the power [sic: powder] afterwards; and several were loaded to the muzzle. At this point we overlook a large and extensive plain with wandering rivers of large dimensions which often flood the whole. It would be incredible that the rivers can rise so fast and be so dangerous to cross unless the evidences were there to prove the fact, - one river in the Middle Island carrying out more water than the Nile. Nothing seems to withstand the torrent, and the water brings down shingle to such an extent that the river changes its course and rushes over the cultivated lands, carrying all before it, and going away from the bridges leaving them alone as a wonder, - and which suggesting the enquiry. “Why a bridge should have been built on dry land, and the river left without one”.

We saw an extensive breach on one of these Rivers on which the Provincial Govt. had spend from £12,000 to £14,000 to control the waters, but in vain; and suggested plans for protection of banks and reclamation of the Plain for repaying the cost

You may remember that when the first Bishop came here, he saw a stone floating on the water, and When on trying to reach it with the paddle, the paddle slipped away and sank. He remarked “Here is a strange country where the stones swim and the wood sinks”. But so far is this true that we can not able to raft much of page 34 the timber down the steams or from place to place, for it would sink!

We crossed this Swamp in about 5 miles to Blenheim being ferried over the river in a large boat which carried Coach and all. Blenheim is a very small place, and the marvel is why a Railway should be constructed at all for the present traffic.

page 34a

The large plain around this part are covered with the “Phormium Tenax” a plant having a long pointed leaf, from which the New Zealand Flax is manufactured. It grows in a bush-like form, and abounds in all the swamps of New Zealand, and in many situations on the hills. I visited one of the flax mills, and watched the simple process of preparation. The leaf when about 5ft or 6 feet long is cut usually by the Maoris and brought to the Mill in a green state. A boy cuts the bundles and conveys itthe flax to the two men who are feeding the dresser. This machine consists of 2 Rollers 2 ½ in diameter, the upper one fluted and the lower one with a plain surface fixed in a frame of wood, which also contains a larger cylinder of wood, about 14 inches diameter with iron bands or beaters about ¼ in wide placed along the total width of drum, only some 6 inches in width. This drum revolves at the rate of 3000 per minute while the other 2 rollers travel about 200 to 250. – and the operation is for pressing the gum out of the green leaf, the beater bashing away both the gum and the green surface leaving the fibrous matter only. A boy is stationed under each machine to collect the fibre of each leaf as it comes out and to place together the produce of 6 or 7 leaves, which are handed by another boy to 2 [gap — reason: unclear] men who wash it in a stream of water. No time should be lost in getting the produce washed, as the color mainly depends upon this operation. After washing, the fibre is conveyed on a hand cart and spread on a field to dry and bleach. In 2 days if the weather is favorable, it is collected and for scutching, which is accomplished by means of a large drum 6 feet in diameter with wooden arms on which are fastened page 34b ribs of iron, this is caused to make about 200 revolutions per minute, and the whole is enclosed in a box. The men then take a bundle of fibre and holding it at one end, insert it in the machine where the beaters dash from it the [gap — reason: unclear] dried gum and dust, and reversing the fibre subject the whole length to the same process. The flax thus prepared is packed in a press and sent to market. It struck me that a very material saving could be effected in their operation, and also in the machinery employed.

The leaf of the “Phormium Tenax” appears to consist of a woody cell ½ in long, which can be separated by operations conducted in Water. The fibrous material is simply a bundle of fibre cells held together by the peculiar gum which grows on or with the leaf. This gum has the peculiar property of not dissolving in water after once drying. The Maoris take only the inside leaf fibre from about half-way up the leaf to the top. The fibre can always be detected by dipping it in a solution of Hydrochloric Acid, and exposing it to fumes of Ammonia, which give it a bright-red color. When the flax is properly prepared, it is bright in color like silk – indeed it is now used for the making the foundation of silk velvets. Altho’ the “Phormium Tenax” Plant is remarkable for its strength, the fibre will not bear the same strain as our flax plant. It is said to be much improved by the addition of a certain portion of oil among the fibre before it is twisted into rope.

See Page 34 for conclusion

page 34

We spent a day examining the rivers for Bridge Work, had lunch amongst Manuka Bush, a plant or tree like lavender in leaf, and has a pretty white flower with a nice scent. Before we could get at our meal it became a question if it would not fly away altogether. Blue-bottle flies almost blackened the air as we sat, and buzzed about all the while until we retired to smoke our pipes. After this we found ourselves at Picton on our way to Wellington but an inducement of some pig shooting made Llewellyn stay at Picton. I went after a day’s detention at Picton. Meanwhile I took advantage of the day to fish and go out to an island, where we found wild goats. We shot at some, but failed to get them [see 34A]

I have since this been daily engaged with the Government over our Negociations. You will see our arrangement explained in the Paper I send. I leave for Auckland on Tuesday to look over another Railway, and from thence to Napier, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.

Dunny’s holidays begin. It does not seem like Christmas, altho’ the Butchers set out the meat just as at home – but although it is hot.