The Long White Cloud
Chapter XIII — The Pastoral Provinces
The Pastoral Provinces
Whose even thread the Fates spin round and full
Out of their choicest and their whitest wool.
THE Company's settlements were no longer confined to the shores of Cook's Straits. In 1846 Earl Grey, formerly Lord Howick, came to the Colonial Office, and set himself to compensate the Company for former official hostility. He secured for it a loan of £250,000, and handed over to it large blocks of land in the South Island, which—less certain reserves—was in process of complete purchase from its handful of Maori owners. The Company, gaining thus a new lease of life, went to work. In 1848 and 1850 that was done, which ought to have been done a decade sooner, and the void spaces of Otago and Canterbury were made the sites of settlements of a quasi-religious kind. The Otago settlement was the outcome of the Scottish Disruption; its pioneers landed in March 1848. They were a band of Free Kirk Presbyterians, appropriately headed by a Captain Cargill, a Peninsular veteran and a descendant of Donald Cargill, and by the Rev. Thomas Burns, a minister of sterling worth, who was a nephew of the poet. In the year 1898 Otago celebrated her jubilee, and the mayor of her chief city, Captain Cargill's son, was the first citizen of a town of nearly 50,000 inhabitants, in energy and beauty well worthy of its name—Dunedin. For years, however, the progress of the young settlement was slow. Purchasers of its land at the “sufficient price”—£2 an acre—were provokingly few, so few indeed that the regulation price had to be reduced. It had no Maori troubles worth speaking of, but the hills that beset its site, rugged and bush-covered, were troublesome to clear and settle; the winter climate is bleaker than that of northern or central New Zealand, page 178 and a good deal of Scottish endurance and toughness was needed before the colonists won their way through to the more fertile and open territory which lay waiting for them, both on their right hand and on their left, in the broad province of Otago. Like General Grant in his last campaign, they had to keep on “pegging away,” and they did. They stood stoutly by their kirk, and gave it a valuable endowment of land. Their leaders felt keenly the difficulty of getting good school teaching for the children, a defect so well repaired later on that the primary schools of Otago became, perhaps, the best in New Zealand, while Dunedin was the seat of the Colony's first university college. They had a gaol, the prisoners of which in early days were sometimes let out for a half-holiday, with the warning from the gaoler, Johnnie Barr, that if they did not come back by eight o'clock they would be locked out for the night.1 The usual dress of the settlers was a blue shirt, moleskin or corduroy trousers, and a slouch hat. Their leader, Captain Cargill, wore always a blue “bonnet” with a crimson knob thereon. They named their harbour Port Chalmers, and a stream, hard by their city, the Water of Leith. The plodding, brave, clannish, and cantankerous little community soon ceased to be altogether Scottish. Indeed, the pioneers, called the Old Identities, seemed almost swamped by the flood of gold-seekers which poured in in the years after 1861. Nevertheless, Otago is still the headquarters of that large and very active element in the population of the Dominion which makes the features and accent of North Britain more familiar to New Zealanders than to most Englishmen.
1 An amusing article might be written on the more primitive gaols of the early settlements. At Wanganui there were no means of confining certain drunken bush-sawyers whose vagaries were a nuisance; so they were fined in timber—so many feet for each orgie—and building material for a prison thus obtained. When it was put up, however, the sawyers had departed, and the empty house of detention became of use as a storehouse for the gaoler's potatoes.
In a violent gale in the Southern Alps one of these wooden “lock-ups” was lifted in air, carried bodily away and deposited in a neighbouring thicket. Its solitary prisoner disappeared in the whirlwind. Believers in his innocence imagined for him a celestial ascent somewhat like that of Elijah. What is certain is that he was never seen again in that locality.
A more comfortable gaol was that made for himself by a high and very ingenious provincial official. Arrested for debt, he proclaimed his own house a district prison, and as visiting Justice committed himself to be detained therein.
1 It was when he was at this work that Dr. Garnett pictures him so vividly —” the sanguine, enthusiastic projector, fertile, inventive creator, his head an arsenal of expedients and every failure pregnant with a remedy, imperious or suasive as suits his turn; terrible in wrath or exuberant in affection; commanding, exhorting, entreating, as like an eminent personage of old he
“With head, hands, wings or feet pursues his way,
And swims, or wades, or sinks, or creeps, or flies.”
On the surface there were certain differences between the Canterbury colonists and those of Otago, which local feeling intensified in a manner always paltry, though sometimes amusing. When the stiff-backed Free-Churchmen who were to colonize Otago gathered on board the emigrant ship which was to take them across the seas, they opened their psalm-books. Their minister, like Burns's cottar, “waled a portion wi' judicious care,” and the Puritans, slowly chanting on, rolled out the appeal to the God of Bethel:—
God of our fathers, be the God
Of their succeeding race!
Such men and women might not be amusing fellow-passengers on a four months' sea-voyage—and, indeed, there is reason to believe that they were not—but settlers made of such stuff were not likely to fail in the hard fight with Nature at the far end of the earth; and they did not fail. The Canterbury Pilgrims, on the other hand, bade farewell to old England by dancing at a ball. In their new home they did not renounce their love of dancing, though their ladies had page 181 sometimes to be driven in a bullock-dray to the door of the ball-room, and stories are told of young gentlemen, enthusiastic waltzers, riding on horseback to the happy scene clad in evening dress and with coat-tails carefully pinned up. But the Canterbury folk did not, on the whole, make worse settlers for not taking themselves quite so seriously as some of their neighbours. The English gentleman has a fund of cheery adaptiveness which often carries him through colonial life abreast of graver competitors. So the settler who built a loaf of station-bread into the earthen wall of his house, alleging that it was the hardest and most durable material he could procure, did not, we may believe, find a sense of humour encumber him in the troubles of a settler's life. For there were troubles. The pastoral provinces were no Dresden-china Arcadia. Nature is very stubborn in the wilderness, even in the happier climes, where she offers, for the most part, merely a passive resistance. An occasional storm or flood was about her only outburst of active opposition in south-eastern New Zealand. Nevertheless, an educated European who finds himself standing in an interminable plain or on a windy hillside where nothing has been done, where he is about to begin that work of reclaiming the desert which has been going on in Europe for thousands of years, and of which the average civilized man is the calm, self-satisfied, unconscious inheritor, finds that he must shift his point of view! The twentieth-century Briton face to face with the conditions of primitive man is a spectacle fine in the general, but often ludicrous or piteous in the particular. The loneliness, the coarseness, the everlasting insistence of the pettiest and most troublesome wants and difficulties, harden and brace many minds, but narrow most and torment some. Wild game, song-birds, fish, forest trees, were but some of the things of which there were few or none round nearly all the young pastoral settlements. Everything was to make. The climate might be healthy and the mountain outlines noble. But nothing but work, and successful work, could reconcile an educated and imaginative man to the monotony of a daily outlook over league after league of stony soil, thinly clothed by pallid, wiry tussocks bending under an eternal, uncompromising wind; where the only living creatures in sight might often be small lizards or a twittering grey bird page 182 miscalled a lark; or where the only sound, save the wind aforesaid, might be the ring of his horse's shoe against a stone, or the bleat of a dull-coated merino, scarcely distinguishable from the dull plain round it. To cure an unfit new-comer, dangerously enamoured of the romance of colonization, few experiences could surpass a week of sheep-driving, where life became a prolonged crawl at the heels of a slow, dusty, greasy-smelling “mob” straggling along at a maximum pace of two miles an hour. If patience and a good collie helped the tyro through that ordeal, such allies were quite too feeble to be of service in the supreme trial of bullock-driving, where a long whip and a vocabulary copious beyond the dreams of Englishmen were the only effective helpers known to man in the management of the clumsy dray and the eight heavy-yoked, lumbering beasts dragging it. Wonderful tales are told of cultivated men in the wilderness, Oxonians disguised as station-cooks, who quoted Virgil over their dish-washing or asked your opinion on a tough passage of Thucydides whilst baking a batch of bread. Most working settlers, as a matter of fact, did well enough if they kept up a running acquaintance with English literature; and station-cooks, as a race, were ever greater at grog than at Greek.
Prior to about 1857 there was little or no intercourse between the various settlements. Steamers and telegraphs had not yet appeared. The answer to a letter sent from Cook's Straits to Auckland might come in seven weeks or might not. It would come in two or three days now. Dispatches were sometimes sent from Wellington to Auckland via Sydney, to save time. In 1850 Sir William Fox and Mr. Justice Chapman took six days to sail across Cook's Straits from Nelson to Wellington, a voyage which now occupies eight hours. They were passengers in the Government brig, a by-word for unsea-worthiness and discomfort. In this vessel the South Island members of the first New Zealand Parliament spent nearly nine weeks in beating up the coast to the scene of their labours in Auckland. Yet the delight with which the coming of steamships in the fifties was hailed was not so much a rejoicing over more regular coastal communication, as joy because the English Mail would come sooner and oftener. How they did wait and watch for the letters and newspapers from Home, page 183 those exiles of the early days! Lucky did they count themselves if they had news ten times a year, and not more than four months old. One of the best of their stories is of a certain lover whose gallant grace was not unworthy a courtier of Queen Elizabeth. One evening this swain, after securing at the post-office his treasured mail budget, was escorting his lady-love home through the muddy, ill-lighted streets of little Christ-church. A light of some sort was needed at an especially miry crossing. The devoted squire did not spread out his cloak, as did Sir Walter Raleigh. He had no cloak to spread. But he deftly made a torch of his unread English letters, and, bending down, lighted the way across the mud. His sacrifice, it is believed, did not go unrewarded.
One first-rate boon New Zealand colonists had—good health. Out of four thousand people in Canterbury in 1854 but twenty-one were returned as sick or infirm. It almost seemed that but for drink and drowning there need be no deaths. In Taranaki, in the North Island, among three thousand people in 1858–9 there was not a funeral for sixteen months. Crime, too, was pleasantly rare in the settlements. When Governor Grey, in 1850, appointed Mr. Justice Stephen to administer law in Otago, that zealous judge had nothing to do for eighteen months, except to fine defaulting jurors who had been summoned to try cases which did not exist and who neglected to attend to try them. Naturally the settlers complained that he did not earn his £800 a year of salary. His office was abolished, and for seven years the southern colonists did very well without a judge. Great was the shock to the public mind when, in March 1855, a certain Mackenzie, a riever by inheritance doubtless, “lifted” a thousand sheep in a night from the run of a Mr. Rhodes near Timaru, in South Canterbury, and disappeared with them among the Southern Alps. When he was followed and captured, it was found that he had taken refuge in a bleak but useful upland plain, a discovery of his which bears his name to this day. He was set on horseback, with his hands tied, and driven to Christchurch, 150 miles, by captors armed with loaded pistols. That he was a fellow who needed such precautions was shown by three bold dashes for freedom, which he afterwards made when serving a five years' sentence. At the third of these page 184 attempts he was shot at and badly wounded. Ultimately, he was allowed to leave the country.
A sheep-stealer might easily have fallen into temptation in Canterbury at that time. In three years the settlers owned 100,000 sheep; in four more half a million. Somewhat slower, the Otago progress was to 223,000 in ten years.
Neither in Canterbury nor Otago were the plough and the spade found to be the instruments of speediest advance. They were soon eclipsed by the stockwhip, the shears, the sheep-dog, and the wire-fence. Long before the foundation of New Zealand, Macarthur had taught the Australians to acclimatize the merino sheep. Squatters and shepherds from New South Wales and Tasmania were quick to discover that the South Island of New Zealand was a well-nigh ideal land for pastoral enterprise, with a climate where the fleece of a well-bred merino sheep would yield 4 lb. of wool as against 2 ½ lb. in New South Wales. Coming to Canterbury, Otago, and Nelson, they taught the new settlers to look to wool and meat, rather than to oats and wheat, for profit and progress. The Australian coo-ee, the Australian buck-jumping horse, the Australian stock-whip, and wide-awake hat came into New Zealand pastoral life, together with much cunning in dodging land-laws, and a sovereign contempt for small areas. In a few years the whole of the east and centre of the island, except a few insignificant cultivated patches, was leased in great “runs” of from 10,000 to 100,000 acres to grazing tenants. The Australian term “squatter” was applied to and accepted good-humouredly by these. Socially and politically, however, they were the magnates of the Colony; sometimes financially also, but not always. For the price of sheep and wool could go down by leaps and bounds, as well as up; the progeny of the ewes bought for 30s. each in 1862 might have to go at 5s. each in 1868, and greasy wool might fluctuate in value as much as 6d. a lb. Two or three bad years would deliver over the poor squatter as bond-slave to some bank, mortgage company or merchant, to whom he had been paying at least 10 per cent. interest, plus 2 ½ per cent. commission exacted twice a year, on advances. In the end, maybe, his mortgagee stepped in; he and his children saw their homestead, with its garden and clumps of planted page 185 eucalypts, willows, and poplars—an oasis in the grassy wilderness—no more. Sometimes a new squatter reigned in his stead, sometimes for years the mortgagee left the place in charge of a shepherd—a new and dreary form of absentee ownership. Meanwhile, in the earlier years the squatters were merry monarchs, reigning as supreme in the Provincial Councils as in the jockey clubs. They made very wise and excessively severe laws to safeguard their stock from infection, and other laws, by no means so wise, to safeguard their runs from selection, laws which undoubtedly hampered agricultural progress. The peasant cultivator, or “cockatoo” (another Australian word), followed slowly in the sheep-farmer's wake. As late as 1857 there were not fifty thousand acres of land under tillage in the South Island. Even wheat at 10s. a bushel did not tempt much capital into agriculture, though such were the prices of cereals that in 1855 growers talked dismally of the low price of oats—4s. 6d. a bushel. Labour, too, preferred in many cases, and not unnaturally, to earn from 15s. to £1 a day at shearing or harvest-time to entering on the early struggles of the cockatoo. Nevertheless, many workers did save their money and go on the land, and many more would have done so but for that curse of the pioneer working-man—drink.
The Colony's chief export now came to be wool. The wool-growers looked upon their industry as the backbone of the country. So, at any rate, for many years it was. But then the system of huge pastoral leases meant the exclusion of population from the soil. A dozen shepherds and labourers were enough for the largest run during most of the year. Only when the sheep had to be mustered and dipped or shorn were a band of wandering workmen called in. The work done, they tramped off to undertake the next station, or to drink their wages at the nearest public-house.
The endowed churches, the great pastoral leases, high-priced land (in Canterbury), and the absence of Maori troubles, were the peculiar features of the southern settlements of New Zealand. These new communities, while adding greatly to the strength and value of the Colony as a whole, brought their own special difficulties to its rulers. With rare exceptions the settlers came from England and Scotland, not from Aus- page 186 tralia, and were therefore quite unused to despotic government. Having no Maori tribes in overwhelming force at their doors, they saw no reason why they should not at once be trusted with self-government. They therefore threw themselves heartily into the agitation for a free constitution, which by this time was in full swing in Wellington amongst the old settlers of the New Zealand Company. Moreover, in this, for the first time in the history of the Colony, the settlers were in accord with the Colonial Office. As early as 1846, Earl Grey had sent out the draft of a constitution the details of which need not detain us, inasmuch as it never came to the birth. Sir George Grey refused to proclaim it, and succeeded in postponing the coming-in of free institutions for six years. For many reasons he was probably right, if only because the Maori still much outnumbered the Whites; yet under Earl Grey's proposed constitution they would have been entirely governed by the White minority. Warlike and intelligent, and with a full share of self-esteem, they were not a race likely to put up with such an indignity. But Governor Grey's action, though justifiable, brought him into collision with the southern settlers. Godley, with questionable discretion, flung himself into the constitutional controversy.
Grey was successful in inducing the Maori to sell a fair amount of their surplus land. During the last years of his rule and the four or five years after he went, some millions of acres were bought in the North Island. This, following on the purchase of the whole of the South Island, had opened the way for real progress. The huge estate thus gained by the Crown brought to the front new phases of the eternal land problem. The question had to be faced as to what were to be the terms under which this land was to be sold and leased to the settlers. Up to 1852 the settlers everywhere, except in Auckland, had to deal, not with the Crown, but with the New Zealand Company. But in 1852 the Company was wound up, and its species of overlordship finally extinguished. By an English Act of Parliament its debt to the Imperial Government was forgiven. The Colony was ordered to pay it £263,000 in satisfaction of its land lien. This was commuted in the end for £200,000 cash, very grudgingly paid out of the first loan raised by a New Zealand Parliament. Thereafter page 187 the Company, with its high aims, its blunders, its grievances, and its achievements, vanishes from the story of New Zealand.
In the Church settlements of the south the Wakefield system came into full operation under favourable conditions. Three pounds an acre were at the outset charged for land. One pound went to the churches and their schools. This system of endowment Grey set himself to stop, when the Company's fall gave him the opportunity, and he did so at the cost of embittering his relations with the southerners, relations already none too pleasant. For the rest, Canterbury continued within its original special area to sell land at £2 an acre. When Canterbury was made a province this area was enlarged by the inclusion of a tract in which land had been sold cheaply, and in which certain large estates had consequently been formed. Otherwise land has never been cheap in Canterbury. The Wakefield system has been adhered to there, has been tried under favourable conditions, and on the whole, at any rate up to the year 1871, could not be called a failure. As long as the value of land to speculators was little or nothing above the “sufficient price,” things did not go so badly. The process of free selection at a uniform price of £2 an acre had amongst other merits the great advantage of entire simplicity. A great deal of good settlement went on under it, and ample funds were provided for the construction of roads, bridges, and other public works.
Meantime, Grey was called upon to devise some general system of land laws for the rest of the Colony. The result was the famous land regulations of 1853, a code destined to have lasting and mischievous effects upon the future of the country. Its main feature was the reduction of the price of land to ten shillings an acre. Had this been accompanied by stringent limitations as to the amount to be purchased by any one man, the result might have been good enough. But it was not; nor did those who ruled after Grey think fit to impose any such check until immense areas of the country had been bought by pastoral tenants and thus permanently locked up against close settlement. Some of the Provincial governments, too, were just as blind. Grey's friends vehemently maintain that it was not he, but those who afterwards administered his regulations, who were responsible for this page 188 evil. They point out that it was not until after his departure that the great purchases began. Possibly enough Sir George never dreamt that his regulations would bring about the bad results they did. More than that one can hardly say. In drawing them up his strong antipathy to the New Zealand Company and its system of a high price for land doubtless obscured his judgment. His own defence on the point, as printed in his life by Rees, is virtually no defence at all. It is likely enough that had he retained the control of affairs after 1853 he would have imposed safeguards. He is not the only statesman whose laws have effects not calculated by their maker.