A digger’s legacy
150 years ago, they came seeking gold and found a fresh start in an uncompromising land. For many of the West Coast’s pioneers it was a regrettably short stay, while others would endure for generations
A carpet of undulating stratocumulus languishes against the Southern Alps. To my left, the chiselled hulk of Aoraki/Mt Cook—the cloud piercer—stands head and shoulders above the snow-laden peaks around it.
Peering through the window of an Air New Zealand Beechcraft flying west from Christchurch, I’ve been taking in views of ravines and braided river valleys, following bridle trails and passes that once snaked their way through the mountainous spine that separates what was once the eastern and western parts of the province of Canterbury.
I’m searching for pathways the prospectors took as they journeyed across the Main Divide on their quest to find fortune on the goldfields of the West Coast. I, too, am on a pilgrimage of my own, tracing family roots to the Coast. Roots that were laid down at the beginnings of one of the last great gold rushes of the 19th century, in a harbour town claimed at the time to be “the most rising place on Earth”.
Our plane begins to descend and we’re momentarily engulfed in the cloud before flying into open skies as the pilot makes a long arc over the ocean to line up the Hokitika Airport runway.
It wasn’t always such an effortless journey to get here. By December 20, 1864, when the 123-ton paddle-steamer Nelson, captained by Samuel Leech, slipped across an unusually calm Hokitika River bar, explorers had already made their way along this swathe of thickly forested coastline in search of payable minerals. In the mid-1840s, Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy led arduous expeditions to the area from Nelson, followed next by the surveyor John Rochfort and the geologist Julius von Haast in the 1850s.
South Island Māori, too, had ventured here and established a settlement, or mahinga kai, named Okatika. They grew plantations of taro in the area’s extensive wetlands, which were teeming with a bountiful supply of birdlife, eels and whitebait.
Okatika means ‘a place to retreat from’, or ‘from which to return’, perhaps a reference to the drowning of several Ngāi Tahu chiefs while crossing the Hokitika River, which forced the remainder of their raiding party to retreat. Today’s promoters prefer the former, more commercially alluring translation.
However, the Grey and Buller rivers to the north feature more navigable entrances, and consequently saw Europeans returning to lay out settlements beside their fast-flowing waters. Aside from the praise of a lone explorer, Richard Sherrin, there was little to suggest Hokitika might one day also bloom.
“So fine a river,” wrote Sherrin in The Press, “its volume equal to the Grey and the Taramakau. The finest timber I have seen anywhere on the coast will be found on the Hokitika. White pine, rimu and miro grow in magnificent proportions. Land, I believe, for agricultural purposes, when once cleared, will there be found that cannot be surpassed.”
As a result of his recommendations, The Press went so far as to claim that a town at its mouth would one day become the “capital of the West Coast, if not the Middle Island”.
By May 1863, provincial authorities in Christchurch—eager to expand their empire across the alps—sent an emissary, government agent Charles Townsend, outfitted with a prefabricated hut, aboard the schooner Crest of a Wave in search of Richard Sherrin’s Arcadian landscape. But a mile of churning surf and no visible harbour opening deterred the schooner’s skipper from cresting those waves and the government’s depot was installed back at the Grey. It proved an unfortunate choice for Townsend, who would later lose his life in a shipwreck on the Grey River bar.
Meanwhile, few among Canterbury’s aristocracy were keen to see a goldfield opened within their province, considering them sinks of iniquity, filled by a dangerous horde of the rough and half-civilised. Their fellow Otago run-holders, they surmised, had come to regret sponsoring a goldfield, and had suffered the consequences of an unchecked army of diggers alighting on the landscape, disturbing the pastoral peace. Dunedin merchants, on the other hand, had amassed great wealth supplying the succession of gold seekers who poured through the port on their way to make their fortunes across the plains of Central Otago.
Despite the dire forecast, prospectors from the Nelson and Collingwood goldfields (whose own provincial authorities eagerly excised the associated royalties from gold) had already made forays along the Coast from the fledgling village of Westport, grubstaked by the storekeeper Reuben Waite. Due to a drop in the yield on southern fields, diggers from as far away as Otago began making their way northwards across the alpine passes, or by sea aboard coastal traders.
In January 1864, two Māori prospectors, Ihaia Tainui and Haimona Taukau, discovered excellent yields of payable gold while searching for pounamu along the Hohonu River, a tributary of the Taramakau. Once news got out—thanks to the boosterism of storekeeper Waite—the first real rush on the West Coast was made to the Hohonu, from then on known as Greenstone Creek.
Back in Greymouth, Townsend’s successor, William Horton Revell, realised the find would require government acknowledgement to get the momentum going, so made a speedy overland journey to talk up this discovery. Provincial superintendent Samuel Bealey wasted no time proclaiming West Canterbury’s goldfield open for business, despite one newspaper editor remarking that if it was to be “forced upon Canterbury without the consent and contrary to the expressed desire of the settlers, they must nevertheless submit to fate. And should the natural feelings of discontent swelling up in their prudent bosoms when fortune’s golden favours are thrust into their hands be somewhat hard to subdue, the consolation exists that the gold field has turned up in the remotest corner of the province.”
Diggers on the Coast began heading further southwards in search of new finds. Among them a pair of young storekeepers, Robert Hudson and James Price, crossed Harper’s Pass with a set of packhorses and purchased enough goods at Greymouth to get started trading, before tramping south along the beachfront to the silt-brown Hokitika River.
Here, on October 1, 1864, they erected the town’s first ‘building’ on the river’s north spit, a 12- x 20-foot calico tent. The cost of drawing provisions along the beach from Greymouth—£40 a ton—caused a number of diggers to re-evaluate their earnings and drift back to the north.
Captain Leech was encouraged to walk down from the Grey to inspect the bar. Satisfied it could be safely crossed, he accepted a charter to deliver provisions and passengers to Hokitika aboard the Nelson before Christmas in 1864. That journey, followed two days later by the screw steamer Wallabi, would reduce the freight costs by £25 per ton.
Most of those crowded aboard the Nelson on that inaugural crossing of the Hokitika River bar were the mercantile class, including the enterprising pair of Patrick Comiskey, an Irishman, and his Jewish partner, Michael Cassius, labelled ‘the Rothschild of Hokitika’ after buying up most of the townscape and dividing it into smaller allotments for lease.
Also on board were government agent William Revell and police sergeant Thomas Brougham, who attempted to bring some order to the chaos, laying out two streets 40 feet wide, while squatters began erecting tents and makeshift buildings from raupo among the driftwood-littered sand dunes. Hampered by the dense bush that grew to the water’s edge, Revell’s surveying skills produced a dog-leg in the town’s main street, a crooked mile that bears his name to this day.
With a goldrush in full swing, men were coming and going in all directions, following leads and rumours in their search for the royal metal. The West Coast’s black-sand beaches provided some of the easiest winnings, and during the first year, 3000 or more men were sluicing the gold-laden sand through Long Toms and gold tables along a 50-kilometre stretch of coastline.
Discoveries of rich alluvial deposits beneath the forested beach leads of ancient marine sediment farther inland drew rushes to the Waimea diggings, initially called Six Mile Creek. Several months later, the Kaniere field in the hills behind Hokitika caused a new rush.
Back in town, the provincial government had deemed Hokitika its new administrative centre, aided by a decision to divert the Otira road from Christchurch over a saddle into the Arahura Valley, thereby directing overland traffic into the township’s new centre. Surveying began on a port by harbour officer Fredrick Gibson, and it was officially gazetted on March 8, 1865.
Under the watchful eye of district engineer James Rochfort, a wharf was piled, a customs house built, and a large transit shed erected to handle the 500 tons of cargo landing each week at Gibson’s Quay. Rochfort’s older brother, John, was called in to survey a further 13 streets, laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, but Revell’s original main street was too misaligned to be of any use as his baseline.
With the port now in operation, the real influx of miners began arriving—though maritime operations were restricted to vessels less than 100 tons by the shifting depth of the bar. Larger boats rarely risked crossing, preferring to anchor on the unsheltered roadstead, disgorging passengers and freight onto smaller lighters or the paddlewheel steam tugs that also towed in ships under sail, at first for an exorbitant fee. Steam tugs were considered a highly profitable investment, with the PS Bruce regarded as the best claim on the Coast. Land, too, was going for a pretty penny—£1 an inch was offered for a Wharf St property, originally transferred at £10 for the entire site.
Hemmed in by the sea, impenetrable forest and torrential rain, Hokitika was, by popular consent, an unmitigated swamp. Behind the facades of Revell St, which backed onto the sea, slums of tents and shanties sat beside slaughterhouses, stables and piggeries.
Night-soil was tossed in the ocean, mixing with lines of slaughterers’ offal on the shore, causing one correspondent from The Press to write that Hokitika “as a place of purgatory is, to any thinking person, complete”.
Regardless, people kept coming, drawn by the allure of gold. Hokitika went from an unknown river to the fourth-busiest port in the country in little more than a year. By 1867, more overseas vessels berthed there than anywhere else in New Zealand, off-loading some 37,000 people, nearly 44 per cent of whom were new immigrants. It was unequivocally the capital of the West Coast as predicted, its meteoric growth compared to San Francisco, Melbourne and Sydney.
On a return visit to the district, von Haast was shocked by its transformation. “There were jewellers and watchmakers, physicians and barbers, hotels [over 84 on Revell Street itself] and billiard rooms, eating and boarding houses, and trades and professions of all descriptions,” he wrote. “Everywhere the English language would be heard in its principal dialects, as well as German, Italian, Greek, and French, and other tongues. Carts were unloading and loading, sheep and cattle driven to yards; there was shouting and bell-ringing, deafening to the passer-by; criers at every corner of the principal streets, which were filled with people—a scene I had never before witnessed in New Zealand.”
My first evening in Hokitika could not have been more different from the experience of von Haast. By six o’clock, the shops are closed and principal streets in the town centre devoid of life. A chill wind, straight off the alps, nips at exposed flesh and sends the scattered remnants of the day’s cloudbank scurrying across a murky sky. It’s early spring, the tourist season has yet to start rolling, and travellers are hindered by intermittent road closures from rockfalls in Haast Pass.
Turning a corner onto Tancred St, I encounter a lone whitebaiter striding home along the centre line of the road, his scoop-net balanced on a shoulder and an empty 10-litre plastic paint pail clasped in his free hand. I inquire about the day’s catch and the season in general, of which there’s only a fortnight left. “It’s been shit. Too much rain,” he says, without breaking his pace.
Next morning, the town has sprung to life. Stores are open and trading. A coach-load of Chinese tourists disembarks outside the Jade Boulder Gallery, most stopping to take an obligatory snap of the town’s centrepiece clock tower on the roundabout.
I head for the Hokitika Museum, which offers a research service for people seeking to trace their ancestry. It’s located in the town’s original Carnegie Library building, a gift from the Scottish-born US industrial magnate who amassed $230 million in gold bonds. That was before he began giving most of it away in endowments, such as this one to build a library in Hokitika, encouraging others to follow his own lifelong passion for literature.
It appears to have worked. The Diggers’ Story, a booklet published in 1914 for the town’s 50th jubilee—and soon to be reprinted again for the 150th anniversary on December 10, 2014—is filled with tales, reminiscences and first-hand accounts of the pioneering days of the Golden Coast.
In the introduction, Carl Pfaff suggests that “the incidents of the early mining days on the Coast should some day prove a gold mine to the fiction writer who is wise enough to make use of them”. It would be almost a hundred years before a young Canadian-born New Zealand author, Eleanor Catton, did exactly that with her historical crime novel, The Luminaries, set in 1866 gold-rush Hokitika. It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013.
Unlike Catton’s novel, The Diggers’ Story presents only the facts, through the miner’s own voices, telling a tale of hardship and endurance during those early days on the goldfields—floods, famines, shipwrecks, river drownings, horrific injuries, the occasional murder, the damnable weather, and arduous overland journeys on foot.
One wandering pioneer, Amos Wilby, left Liverpool, England, in 1855, then trudged across the searing continent of Australia from Melbourne to Sydney searching for gold with half a crown in his pocket, before catching a boat to Dunedin. Next, he shouldered his swag and set off for Dunstan, where he earned enough to take a holiday back in Dunedin, holed up all winter in the Robin Hood Hotel, until he heard reports of gold on the West Coast. He left for the Coast on a schooner, which promptly sprang a leak and put in to Lyttelton. Wilby tried an overland approach instead, taking a coach to Springfield, where the road ended, then making his way over the alps in a party of three.
Over the two-week journey, the food they carried became wet and mildewed, and the last few days they ate nothing at all until they reached the Greenstone Creek rush. By then it was completely worked out and the only food left to purchase was salt and potatoes, which they boiled in a bucket. Wilby proclaimed it “the best feed I ever had in my life”.
Within these trials and tribulations is an enviable sense of camaraderie among the diggers, as one after the other nostalgically recalls the youthful exuberance, self-reliance and carefree way of life they experienced for those few brief years. There are, however, few accounts of anyone striking it rich, finding untold wealth—that elusive ‘homeward bounder’.
That is, until I discovered an addendum to The Diggers’ Story, entitled Fount of Gold. Unlike many gold seekers who wound up heavily indebted, departing their claim under cover of darkness via the well-trodden ‘insolvency track’, Patrick Quinn struck it rich on the Waimea diggings during the winter of 1867. Patrick was the brother of my great-great-grandfather John Quinn.
The pair had left County Tipperary, Ireland, in the 1850s as part of the great diaspora during the Irish Potato Famine. They sailed, possibly with an assisted passage, first for the goldfields of Victoria, where John married, settled and had a daughter. Patrick, being two years younger and single, heard the call of a new El Dorado on the Coast and crossed the Tasman as part of an Australian exodus to Māoriland, arriving in Hokitika in 1866.
Both Quinn brothers were experienced gold miners, so when Patrick struck a claim near the Waimea Creek on Piper’s Flat in the autumn of 1867 and formed a party to work it with him, he must have had a clue there was still gold to be won, even though the field had been picked over for the previous 18 months. Taking up their shovels, Patrick’s team sank a deep lead shaft 56 feet down until, on June 24, 1867, they hit a bedrock of gold-bearing sediment. Up to three feet thick, it stretched three claims wide for more than a quarter of a mile to the west.
The ‘golden holes of Quinn’s Terrace’ immediately sparked a new rush of around 1200 diggers to Staffordtown and the Arahura, and older brother John and his family were soon on a boat following them across the sea. Patrick exhausted his claim by the spring. Paying off his party, he sailed back to Australia a very wealthy man in time for the Melbourne Cup Day races. Returning to Hokitika, he met and quickly married a young Irish girl, Annie Houlahan, settling at Stafford along with John and his family.
In Victoria, Melbourne’s establishment watched with alarm as its goldfield population plummeted, trying desperately to check the ‘steamboat rush’ as thousands poured out of the country for the West Coast. In the long run, Victoria benefited handsomely from the trans-Tasman exchange due to the direct sea trade of cargo and bullion, much to the annoyance of the government on the east coast of Canterbury, which missed a good share of its anticipated gold duties.
What New Zealand acquired was a tidal wave of gold seekers, bringing with them a morass of rowdy democracy, according to Stevan Eldred-Grigg, gold rush historian and the author of Diggers, Hatters and Whores.
Dissatisfaction over the high price of miners’ licences incited Victorian diggers to march in protest at Ballarat in the summer of 1854. Things quickly escalated into the Eureka Rebellion, a pitched battle between a thousand diggers and a British regiment.
When the fight ended and the dead had been buried, new laws were enacted to appease the miners, abolishing licences, which were replaced by a miner’s right costing £1 annually, with an export duty placed on the gold. The unexpected windfall in the deal, swiftly passed by Australia’s first digger Parliament, gave every right-holder (so long as he was a British subject) unprecedented political power, with an electoral vote thrown in as well. That edict would send shockwaves through the oak-panelled smoking chambers of gentlemen’s clubs throughout the empire, not least in the neighbouring colony, New Zealand.
The 19th-century gold rushes, writes Eldred-Grigg, were a worldwide phenomenon, sparked by the industrial revolution, the growth of capitalism and the power of steam. They were a reaction to the grinding servitude of Europe’s dark mills of mass production, as a class of navvies, clerks, shepherds and shop-boys, feeling trapped and restless, sought to escape those bonding shackles. Throwing down their tools, they made for the New World with hope in their hearts and cries of independence on their lips.
No other political figure from the goldfields epitomised the digger class more than the pugilistic, portly miner-turned-storekeeper and publican Richard John Seddon. He would rise to become the country’s longest-serving Premier.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning when I pay him a visit at his Arthurstown cottage on the opposite side of the bridge from Kaniere. The river has finally cleared, so whitebaiters are out in their droves, hugging the muddy edges of the riverbank armed with scoop-nets on long-handled poles. They peer fixedly at white spotter-boards in the shallows beside their possies, hoping to catch sight of the silver shimmer of a shoal of the tiny fish swimming over them.
Digger Dick, as he was known throughout his Westland electorate, is expecting my visit. He greets me formally attired in waist coat and tails, complete with silk neck tie, top hat and fob watch on a gold chain. He introduces his pet spaniels, Frodo and Rosie. But this Seddon is an impostor, a century past his use-by date. The man behind the guise is London-born retired psychiatric nurse David Verrall. Verrall’s fascination with the deceased Prime Minister began after he moved to the Coast to take up a position as the rural district nurse at Haast. Settling on the outskirts of Hokitika, Verrall began volunteering at the museum, where he stumbled upon stories about the statesman.
Now an expert on his alter ego, Verrall conducts walking history lessons of Hokitika’s past, while dressed as the town’s father figure. Today, he’s agreed to guide me around the back-country loop road through the sites where the former gold towns of Stafford, Goldsborough and Kumara—only a few kilometres apart—boomed, then busted, while enlightening me with tales about their most famous resident, Liberal Premier ‘King Dick’ Seddon, architect of the welfare state.
The road to Stafford, little more than a car’s girth wide, meanders through bucolic farmland sown over when the mining ceased. There are few indications of the 1866 population explosion in the valley that had 7000 miners working claims scattered over 100 square kilometres. The Lancashire-born Seddon was among them, but he experienced little success and instead set up shop as a storekeeper at Big Dam before returning to Melbourne to wed Louisa Jane Spotswood, whom he’d met while employed in the railway workshops before migrating to New Zealand.
Janie, in her contribution to The Diggers’ Story, recounted arriving in Hokitika in January 1869 aboard the steamer Rangitoto to find the town swelling with close to 50,000 people. Most still lived under canvas. The young bride was transported to the Waimea by horseback over the Cork and Bottle Spur in heavy rain. Arriving at nightfall, she walked the last leg of the journey up the creek with a West Coast lantern—a candle in a bottle. The reception from the miners was one of kindness and the greatest respect, she said, gratifying for a young girl far from home.
It was here, in Stafford, that the Seddons and the Quinns first formed a friendship on what became known as the married man’s diggings. When the Seddons moved to run the Queen’s Hotel at Kumara—where Dick was elected its first mayor—Patrick Quinn was already in the hotel trade. With his goldfield winnings, Patrick had purchased the four establishments at Arahura, closing three to concentrate on the Greyhound Tavern, located on a sharp bend along the old Christchurch Road, close to the river mouth.
When Dick Seddon was elected to the Arahura Road Board, the first of many political appointments, the Quinns no doubt benefited from their support of him. The road running past their tavern was in poor repair; Seddon reallocated funding for its maintenance from the provincial council on the opposite side of the alps. Despite the distance separating them, the two families remained close friends, says Seddon’s son, Tom, in his biography, The Seddons. (Tom’s older brother Dick and Ted Quinn, childhood mates, later served together in campaigns during the Boer War in a contingent called the Rough Riders and again in France during the Great War, where Seddon’s son was killed in action.)
With 18 children between them, nine each, the two pioneering families shared similar ambitions for their descendants. Like others in the district, the Quinns continued their support of Seddon and the Liberal Party, helping him to be elected MP for Hokitika.
But the harsh times on the Coast were far from over, poignantly illustrated by the inscription on a tombstone David Verrall points to in the Stafford cemetery, halfway up the side of Scandinavian Hill. It sits atop the dual grave of Seddon’s two daughters, both named Catherine Youd Lindsay, who died in infancy four years apart, aged one and three years old.
A few metres adjacent, in the Catholic section of the cemetery, lying at rest in an unmarked grave, is my great-great-grandfather John Quinn. It’s believed he died aged 43 from lung congestion, a few months after his third son was born in 1877, leaving his wife, Margaret, with seven children to fend for in a squalid miners’ camp on some of the most unforgiving terrain in the country.
Patrick would also leave behind a widow with nine to feed, though better endowed, when he leaped into the freezing Arahura River to save a drowning child one winter’s day in 1891. He caught pneumonia, which took his life. His wife, Annie, on Seddon’s counsel, decided to move the family north to Wellington, as the goldfields economy was on the wane. Margaret, however, remarried and remained in the district, where her three sons continued gold mining.
Perhaps moved by those experiences, but certainly from witnessing those left on the goldfields eking out an existence in abject poverty during their final years, Seddon fought to introduce the Old-age Pensions Act in 1898. It marked the birth of social security in New Zealand, the first country in the British Empire to offer a pension, though modest in its initial payment of £18 per year (at most), and discriminatory in its exclusion of Asiatic peoples. It also positioned Seddon as a popular humanitarian figure throughout the nation.
“The life, the health, the intelligence, and the morals of a nation count for more than riches,” he wrote shortly before his death. “And I would rather have this country free from want and squalor and unemployed than the home of multi-millionaires.”
By the time Seddon penned his last election manifesto with that rousing creed, Hokitika’s golden light was fading.
The provincial government model had been abolished in 1876, largely to end self-interested provincialism and the type of pork-barrel politics Seddon had himself engaged in to get elected. Once the easy gold was won, goldfield populations also fell as swiftly as they had risen.
The adventurous pioneering miners of the 1860s, with their moleskin trousers, slouch hats and colourful crimson scarves and sashes—green the preference of Irishmen—had scattered to the wind. With them went the dance halls, barmaids, camp followers and riotous days when a bare-knuckle bout settled most disputes and the digger’s highest praise bestowed on another was to say, “He is a man,” or, for those character-lacking wasters sent packing from the field, “He was no man.”
Lucky ones may have panned enough to set up as smallholders on the Coast or other districts throughout the colony. Company-run mines, with significantly more capital, started extracting from the deeper leads, first sluicing, then working the riverbeds at Kaniere, Arahura, Taramakau and the Rimu with steam-powered and electric-bucket dredges up until the 1950s. As one old-timer lamented, “the companies and engineers had turned those honourable, enterprising fellows into a labourer, more’s the pity.”
A settler mentality now prevailed across the district as land opened up by mining offered other resources to exploit. The same fine timber Richard Sherrin had described began to be commercially felled and milled, opening up larger tracts of the country to be drained and seeded with rich pastureland.
Today, Hokitika locals talk of the prosperity that comes from white gold. With the same independent spirit as the early diggers, Westland’s farmers have resisted amalgamation with dairy giant Fonterra, going it alone as Westland Milk Products. After 77 years, the Hokitika plant, from its humble beginnings providing cream for butter products and the town’s bottled milk supply, now employs nearly 380 staff processing some 660 million litres of milk from 149,000 West Coast cows, and a further 14,500 cows on 15 farms in Canterbury, mostly for export as powder and infant formula shipped to 50 countries.
On a wall outside the Royal Mail Hotel at Rimu, a sign proudly declares you’re in Monteith’s Country, after the diggers’ favoured ale, but the title is contentious. Others have already laid a claim to the district as Jade Country.
Nephrite, jade, green-stone, pounamu—however you call it—has been the cause of quarrels since it was first discovered in the rivers along the Te Tai Poutini Coast.
One story of pounamu’s origins begins with a kidnapping. A beautiful Bay of Plenty wahine named Waitaiki is captured by the taniwha Poutini. Chased by her husband, Tamaahua, the length of the country, the taniwha refuses to release his captive and instead transforms her into his essence, pounamu, laid to rest forever in the Arahura riverbed.
I’m eager to explore the upper reaches of this river my relations once lived beside. My guide on this hikoi, Jeff Mahuika, knows the sacred river intimately. The awa is as close to an ancestor for him as it gets. Of Ngāti Waewae, he grew up in his father’s village on the banks of the Arahura River.
As a young man, Mahuika roamed the Arahura’s length, camping for days along the riverbank while fossicking for the green pebbles washed downstream in heavy flows. He prefers to do his searching during inclement weather, as overcast skies make spotting the translucent stone easier. After a compulsory karakia, or prayer, we set off on foot under heavy rain.
“The stone will call to you,” says Mahuika after 10 minutes’ walking without success over an exposed riverbed covered with thousands of greenish greywacke boulders. But sure enough, when we pause to take in our surroundings, he spots a piece of inanga pounamu. It has a powdery white husk coating the glacial green flecks, like the juvenile whitebait, or inanga.
As we continue walking, he tells me the story of a Ngāti Wairangi woman called Raureka, one of the original inhabitants of the region, who caused the next major conflict over the stone. Travelling over a pass at the headwaters of the Arahura, she encountered a camp of east coast Ngāi Tahu.
Innocently commenting how blunt their tools appeared, she exhibited the superior edge of her own pounamu adze. Ngāi Tahu laid siege to Te Tai Poutini to capture and control this valuable resource, and gained victory after a series of battles.
Word spread about a durable stone ideal for weapons, implements and adornment. War parties from the North Island were the next to invade, this time armed with muskets. Little resistance was put up to avoid a bloodbath. Interest in the mineral diminished once European materials such as steel took precedence for everyday utensils. Pounamu became more important as a ceremonial gift, until it was discovered by tourists.
At first, pounamu was shipped to Germany and returned as carved souvenirs. Then in the early 1960s, Jeff Mahuika’s uncle, Wally Tainui, was asked by a couple of deer-hunters to help them identify pounamu in the river, spawning local production. When the Haast Pass road was opened, tourist bus operators introduced a regular stop in their schedule, and the number of local jade manufacturers swiftly increased. That early partnership of deer cullers became the Westland Greenstone factory on Tancred St.
As tourist demand grew, helicopters began extracting pounamu from remote regions, the only requirement being a Crown mining licence, the same as for gold. Even then, supply struggled to meet demand, and before long, foreign jade was being imported from British Columbia, China (often already carved with Māori designs) and Siberia, peddled to tourists as genuine New Zealand greenstone.
In 1997, the government returned kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, of all pounamu through the Pounamu Vesting Act back to Ngāi Tahu, who placed an immediate rahui, or ban, on the commercial harvesting of the stone until an accurate assessment of the resource was carried out. This, along with several high-profile court prosecutions for illegal possession of the snowflake variety, tahutahi, as well as a new authentication process certifying indigenous stone, has created the latest tensions around the taniwha’s essence.
In a region where control of natural resources has always raised hackles, the effect of yet another natural asset being legislated out of their control has sections of Hokitika’s community exasperated.
For Māori, pounamu represents a lasting agreement for peace. The concept of a tatu pounamu, or greenstone door, was a metaphorical passageway between two chosen hills. It was closed to all who were waging war, but open to those with peaceful intentions. The durability of pounamu symbolised the enduring nature of the agreement. One can only hope Ngāi Tahu will find a peaceful way forward for the industry through its tatu pounamu.
On my final afternoon I return to the Stafford cemetery, this time alone, to pay my respects to a tipuna, my ancestor, a man I had known very little about until now. There are no family photographs of him, and I can barely imagine the challenges he must have faced on arrival—a young family in tow, breaking in the land, step by step, to get a foothold in that hostile setting.
Gold, forged by the same tectonic forces that produced pounamu, was one drawcard. But like countless other diggers, a fresh start in a new world was more likely the stronger calling. Four generations on, this story is their legacy.