X marks the spot

Charlie Douglas original treasure maps of the West Coast were lost for decades

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Archives New Zealand

Multicoloured and four metres long, Charlie Douglas’ grand map stretches the length of a room, documenting in exquisite detail the landscape between Okarito and Big Bay, from the mountains to the forested valleys to the treacherous rivers and the wild sea.

They were places the man known as “Mr Explorer Douglas” knew intimately. Starting in the late 1860s, Douglas had spent decades surveying South Westland for a government pittance, often alone: climbing the peaks to take bearings, waiting out the endless rain in a small bat-wing tent, surviving on his stores of rice and whisky—and the eels, kākāpō and kiwi he caught in the bush.

Douglas is an iconic figure of pioneer New Zealand, but the 120-year-old map has been almost as reclusive as the man himself, going missing and being rediscovered several times.

Douglas made his masterpiece in 1896, when he was in his 50s and unwell (though he would return to exploring in later years). He spent that winter holed up in Hokitika, pouring out his knowledge of the landscape and geology, circling in red the areas he believed might contain gold and other minerals: “I think his boss, G.J. Roberts, thought, ‘Charlie’s worn out by now, we’ll give him a job in the office,’” says Simon Nathan, a GNS emeritus scientist and writer who has made a study of the map and its twin, which is ‘just’ two metres long, and likely made later, encompassing the area from Hokitika to Okarito.

“It was a ponderous undertaking for one man,” wrote Douglas, in a letter to his friend A.P. Harper. “It took me two months to arrange my old tracings and collect fieldbooks &c before commencing. It is now finished, but is sealed up either till I die or finish overhauling the numberless reefs & lodes I know of & which are marked down in the map. There is a prospecting boom on at present, and I am not quite so green as to show the public my discoveries, till I find out if they are any good.”

He was overly optimistic. During the Depression, the maps were dug out, and men were sent out to the spots Douglas had identified as having mineral potential, but they contained little or no gold.

One of Douglas’ discoveries, however, would play a role in New Zealand’s war effort a few years later. With two red lines on the map near Lake Paringa, the explorer recorded the presence of mica. The material was used in radio transmitters, and the world supply came from Czechoslovakia. Once the Nazis invaded, the allies scrambled to find alternative sources, and in 1941, the geologist Harold Wellman was sent to South Westland to look for it. He examined Douglas’ map when he passed through Hokitika—it led directly to a belt of mica that was mined for the duration of the war.

In the 1950s, when John Pascoe researched his definitive biography of Douglas, he was unable to find the maps, and believed they had been lost. In fact, they’d ended up at Geological Survey, first in Greymouth (where Nathan recalls consulting them) and then at the head office in Lower Hutt. In 1970, a geologist brought them along to a talk Pascoe gave on Douglas in Wellington. Pascoe was astonished, and insisted they be handed over to the National Archives, where they were imperfectly catalogued, and disappeared for another four decades.

“I was told the maps were kept in a canvas bag, and it was so big it could never be fitted in the shelves, so it was tucked away on top of a cupboard,” says Nathan.

In 2004, in response to an enquiry, an archivist spent days searching the stacks until he found them in a vault at the bottom of the building. Now, finally, Charlie Douglas’ magnum opus can be seen by anyone—the maps have been digitised and can be downloaded from the archives website. Life-size copies are currently on display until March 2017 at the National Library’s “Unfolding the Map” exhibition in Wellington.

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