14 July 2011

‘Austrians’ on the gumfields

Guest post by Dr Rebecca Foley

[The following is a companion piece to my earlier article on petitions regarding the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum – Ed.]

When examining the petitions presented to the 11th Parliament (1890-93) we noticed a number of petitions asking for something to be done about an ‘invasion’ of ‘Austrians’ on the gumfields north of Auckland. The Austrians referred to in the petitions were actually ethnically Croatians, often called Dalmatians, from the Adriatic coast of Illyria. While the petitions focus on the ‘Austrian’ question, the wider gum industry was already under examination by the Government through the establishment of a Commission in June 1893 to examine the state of the gumfields.

Gumdigger 1901 (ATL)
Gumdigger, c.1901
(via Alexander Turnbull Library)

The Gum Trade

Trade in kauri gum – used primarily in the manufacture of varnish – was well established by the late 1850s, and trade continued to grow throughout the 1890s, with prices for the gum rising apace. The majority of the gumdiggers were British citizens (which included New Zealand-born colonists), with over 1000 Maori, approximately 500 ‘Austrians’, and 345 ‘other’ foreigners, making up a total of nearly 6000 diggers.[1]

The Petitions

In mid-1893 concerns surrounding the gumfields north of Auckland began to surface in Parliament through a number of petitions presented to the House. The petitions concerned an alleged ‘invasion’ of Austrians onto the gumfields and asked for either legislation or some other measure of protection against this influx. ‘Austrians’ did not occupy a highly valued social place in the gumfields, and were generally treated with suspicion by other gumdiggers due to their hard work.[2]

The table below outlines the relevant petitions regarding Austrians on the gumfields.

Date (all 1893)
Main Petitioner
No. of signatures
22 June
Herbert Wilson
27 June
Charles Hardy
27 June
William Hedley
28 June
P A Sanvig
29 June
William Wallnutt
22 August
A J Wilber
13 September
J Morehouse

The Morehouse petition appears to have been the result of an organised public campaign. The Northern Advocate[3] reported that an Elected Gumdiggers’ Executive Committee was established on 22 July 1893 to send petitions to Parliament arguing against the influx of ‘Austrian’ aliens on the gumfields, and against the ‘truck system’, whereby gumdiggers were pledged to sell to one storeowner only.[4] Once the petitions were presented to Parliament the committee of gumdiggers refocused its energies on the general election due at the end of 1893.[5]

Jackson Palmer, the MP for Waitemata, presented all the petitions to the House. All were sent to the Public Petitions committee, which produced a number of reports on the issue. On the Hardy and Hedley petitions the 13 July report from the committee recommended that the petitions be referred to the Government for consideration. For all of the other petitions, which received reports dating from 7 July to 29 September, the committee made no recommendation due to the Gum and Gumfields Bill being before the House, dealing with the topic of the petitions.

The Gum and Gumfields Bill

The bill, introduced by Mr Palmer on 30 June 1893, dealt with a broad range of issues, such as the state of the roads north of Auckland, whether gumdiggers should pay for licenses to dig, whether newly landed foreigners should be able to become gumdiggers, and the contribution of the gum industry to reducing demand for public charity. It also proposed restrictions on working in New Zealand: a man had to be resident in an area for 12 months before being able to work there, and set a tax on working of one shilling for British subjects, or £5 for foreigners.

The issue of roads in the North was contentious. While other parts of New Zealand had roads paid for by revenue gained from the sale of land, in the North little land revenue was raised due to Māori opposition. Then a law change saw all unsold land become the property of the State and proceeds from sales return to the Government. No land revenue meant no roads.[6] The roads in the North were undeniably terrible, with part of the blame said to lie with gumdiggers who used the roads for transporting their gum to sales points. Associated with the state of the roads was the argument that unless the roads were improved settlers would not travel north of Auckland, thereby undermining the development of the region.[7]

In August the gumfields topic was first raised in the House by Robert Thompson (member for Marsden)[8], who asked the new Premier, Richard Seddon[9], whether the Government intended to introduce a bill dealing with control of the gumfields and the raising of road maintenance revenue.[10] Mr Thompson had recently been in Whangarei and was no doubt pressed by his constituents on this matter.[11] The Premier’s reply outlines that the report from the Commission, established to examine the gumfields issues, would decide whether any legislation was to be introduced to the House.[12]

The Commission was made up of three men: J Giles, as Chairman, J C Firth and Gerhard Mueller (Commissioner of Crown Lands), with the terms of reference to inquire into and report on the state of the Kauri-gum fields north of the city of Auckland.[13]

At the second reading of the Gum and Gumfields bill the first mention of the influx of Austrians was made in Parliament, when Palmer stated that unless something was done the ‘gum-diggers who could hardly now make a living, would be driven out’. It was believed that the massive numbers of Austrians rumoured to be heading towards the gumfields would take away employment for New Zealanders and leave them to the vagaries of public charity.[14]

The Commission at this stage was ‘at considerable expense’ taking evidence, and debate on the bill was adjourned for a fortnight to allow the report to reach the House to influence its deliberations.[15] From reports in the Northern Advocate it appears the commissioners travelled to many small settlements including Dargaville, Ohaeawai, Kohukohu, Kawakawa, Hikurangi and the larger town of Whangarei.[16]
When the debate resumed in the House, opposition to the exclusion of foreigners from the gumfields was lead by Captain William Russell Russell, the doubly-named MP for Hawkes Bay. Captain Russell opposed distinctions made on the basis of race, and was concerned that distinctions of this type would prevent settlers from any other country than England coming to New Zealand.[17]

Another MP, Richard Taylor (representing the City of Christchurch) raised the issue of the truck system. This was a system whereby gumdiggers were ‘imported’ to New Zealand and were required to sell their gum to only one buyer. He believed that this would lead to the ruination of the people of the colony as the imported contractors were paid less, and were pledged to sell gum to those who imported them.[18] However, the Commission found that the ‘trucking’ system’s use was not at all as widespread as rumours indicated.

Messrs William Buckland (MP for Manukau) and Robert Thompson opposed the idea of a tax on the gumdiggers. Mr Thompson, clearly with one eye on the upcoming election, stated that ‘there was no class of working-men more deserving of the sympathy of the House than the gumdiggers were’. He went on to argue ‘there were no class who were more respectable, who were better conducted, or who gave the authorities less trouble than those working on the gumfields’.[19]

Finally the Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission report was presented to both Houses of Parliament in late August.

The Commission’s report

The Commissioners heard from 157 witnesses involved in the gum industry. It appears that this had become a little tiresome:
In thus casting about for evidence, it has been a necessary consequence that we have sometimes tried to elicit information where none of any value could be obtained; that a great many things have been said which perhaps were hardly worth saying; and a great many more which were only worth saying once have been many times repeated.[20]
This rather candid admission can perhaps be related to by Parliamentarians of this age who also, at times, have to sit through hours of hearing of evidence on various bills, inquiries and petitions.

Apart from examining issues such as how long the gum industry would continue and the viability of a tax on gum diggers, the Commissioners would have also noticed the state of the roads in Northland including one particular episode reported in the Northern Advocate. As the Commissioners travelled from Kawakawa to Hikurangi in a horse-drawn coach, bad weather set in. Part of the road flooded and the commissioners were ‘soon standing in the vehicle up to their knees in water, and all their luggage and papers were afloat’.[21] Luckily all was put right, although the reports taken by the Commissioners were soaked through, but not destroyed. Later, on the same journey, three of the horses got bogged down in a swamp and ‘Mr J C Firth, who affects to take a great interest in roads, was induced to speak his mind with considerable warmth’. Finally, after 10 hours travelling, the trio reached their destination, with the newspaper report concluding that ‘the Gum Commissioners had a practical lesson that should be of assistance to them in framing their report’.

Early into the report the commissioners address the issue of what makes a good settler. They say:
The connexion of the gum-digging industry with the settlement of the country is one of the most important matters affecting the future of the district north of Auckland. The gum-digger generally bears the reputation of not having in him the makings of a settler; and there can be little doubt that in the majority of cases his mode of life encourages a roving disposition, and indisposes him to bind himself down to a spot of earth consisting of a few acres only.[22]
However, it appears that some gumdiggers had become settlers and ‘must be regarded as having done permanent good to the country’. The commissioners also acknowledged that while gumdiggers left the earth no better off where they had been digging, it was unlikely that gumfields would be put to agricultural use anyway.[23]

One of the main evils of the gumfields, according to the commissioners, was the state of the roads, something they had experienced for themselves. This was considered to be ‘entirely the reverse of beneficial to settlement’ and was considered as to ‘render nugatory any prospect for future settlement which the North might otherwise have’.[24]

One of the recommendations of the Commission was to place an export duty of £3 per tonne on Kauri gum exports, with the proceeds from this to go towards roading repairs. This was not a unanimous recommendation as Mr Giles was opposed to it. The roading repairs, it was claimed, would benefit New Zealand as whole as it would allow greater settlement in the northern districts.[25]

The ‘Austrian invasion’ also received attention from the Commission. It had been rumoured that ‘the gumfields were going to be swamped by large numbers of Austrians from Dalmatia’.[26] To date only 514 had arrived, but there were concerns over how many might follow them. This figure is interesting as in the 1891 census the number of Austrians in the entire country was counted at 564. In the northern districts there were a total of 150 Austrians, with 78 in the county of Rodney and 48 in Hobson.[27] An influx of 514 may well have been regarded as alarming at the time, and would have doubled the numbers of Austrians in the country.[28]

However, the Austrians were described in glowing terms in the Commission’s report; they were considered to be ‘honest, industrious, sober and frugal’[29] and said to ‘work longer hours, live more economically, and be content with smaller wages than the average British digger’.[30] Descriptions of this type make it clearer why the Austrians were not well liked on the gumfields, in fact they have been described as occupying a social position not unlike that of the Chinese on the goldfields.[31] To control the rumoured increase in the number of gumdiggers it was suggested that gumdiggers should be required, for a fee, to take out an annual license to dig gum.

Regarding the licensing proposal the commissioners recommended, with Mr Giles again disagreeing, that to limit the number of ‘foreigners’ in the gumfields, the gum digging license should only be given to settlers who had lived in New Zealand for 12 months.[32] The proceeds of the fee were intended to go towards a fund for the relief of the ‘aged and worn-out gum-diggers’.[33] A report from the Northern Advocate suggested it may have been a difficult proposition to get gumdiggers to pay for their licenses. Henry Wilson, a Government Forest Ranger, had recently tried to collect gum licenses from diggers in Puhipuhi – an effort he likened to ‘looking for needles in a haystack’. Whenever the diggers heard he was in the area a message went around and they ‘immediately planted themselves in fern or behind trees’![34]

The Commission’s report was vigorously debated in the pages of the Northern Advocate. The paper condemned the proposed tax on gum, which was expected to go towards paying for roads. It asked why gum diggers should pay a special tax that nobody else was paying and ‘What in the name of thunder has the gumdigger done to merit this harsh treatment’?[35] It went on to say ‘We have heard of such a tax being proposed as a poll-tax on Chinamen to prevent them from coming into the country, but never in the history of Colonial finance has anything so crude, so unjust in the incidence has been proposed to be applied to white men’. Other letters to the editor on the tax on gum noted that ‘The taxation proposed by the Commissioners is so unjust we are not surprised at the general howl and outcry against it’.[36]

Such was the rallying point of the tax on gumdiggers that a weekly newspaper was established for the diggers to ‘protect their interests, and oppose the gum tax!’ This was, unsurprisingly, called the Gumdiggers’ Weekly with eight pages of reading, to which ‘every gumdigger must subscribe’ costing one shilling a month.[37]

Meanwhile in the House on 1 September, Palmer mentioned receiving the Morehouse petition, the largest of the seven presented. He said that should the Government bring a bill before the House on the subject of the influx of Austrians, he would reserve the petition until the bill was before the House, when he would press the petition in support of the legislation. Premier Seddon replied that it was impossible to say when the Commission’s ‘elaborate and … very good’ report would be discussed, and that the Government had not made up its mind on whether to bring legislation before the House.[38]

Later in September, Palmer asked Seddon whether he had received certain resolutions from gumdiggers. The resolutions asked for the imposition of a license-fee instead of an export duty; to grant only British subjects a license, or if an alien they must be naturalised and have lived one year in the colony; and that the Government should do all in its power to protect the gum industry. The resolutions also highlighted what were seen as misleading statements in the Commissioner’s report regarding the average wage of gum-diggers: the average had been set based on summer earnings when winter earnings were much lower.[39] It appears that the gumdiggers had moved from using the petitions process to sending resolutions directly to Government.

Seddon replied that at the stage of the session and the importance of the topic it was impossible for the Government to introduce any legislation to give effect to the recommendations in the Commission’s report. He did think it possible that a general law could be passed to enable the Government to prevent undesirable immigrants from landing in New Zealand in numbers detrimental to the public welfare.[40]

Finally on October 3 the Gum and Gumfields Bill was discharged without further consideration[41] thus ending the debates in the House over the influx of Austrians and the state of the roads north of Auckland.[42] It all appears to have been a false alarm; the invasion of the Austrians was vastly overstated and amounted to no more than some rather inflated rumours.

Political games?

The sudden interest in gumdiggers can be cynically linked to the election due at the end of 1893. The Northern Advocate in August reported that ‘A vast amount of interest was professed to be taken in the generally neglected gumdigger by those who are not usually given to bestowing much consideration upon them’. [43] However, this tone changed by November when the Seddon-led Government was described as ‘the only Government that ever took any interest in the gumdigger’.[44] This may be one reason for the gumdiggers targeting Parliament: they actually felt they would be listened to and action taken. The favourable comment may be linked to the announcement by Seddon that it was the Government’s will to regulate the gum trade to improve the conditions of the gumdiggers, and to set aside land especially for homes for the gumdiggers.[45]

The existence of a gumdiggers committee to specifically present petitions to Parliament is interesting and reflects the political awareness of the gumdiggers at the time. Petitions were obviously seen as an important avenue to influence Parliament and to gain certain protections. Nevertheless there appears to have been no favourable outcome for gumdiggers.

The Government announcement that it was to regulate the gum trade and set aside land for gumdiggers was never acted upon. While some gumdiggers rallied around Houston to vote him in for another Parliament, it appears he did not care to raise the gumdiggers’ concerns again: in the 12th Parliament the issue of the gumdiggers was hardly raised, aside from a few questions to the Government. The Austrian question seemed to have been dropped and the plight of the gumdiggers ignored, despite a serious drop in gum prices. It was reported that a Commissioner had been sent to England, who would inquire into the state of the gum industry and why the prices had dropped.[46] After this report there is no more mention of the gumdiggers until 1896 –another election year when another Austrian invasion scare began.

On 14 July 1896, Mr Houston reported to the House that 120 Austrians had landed in Auckland and were headed to the northern gumfields.[47] He demanded that the gumdiggers be protected from this influx. Seddon replied that what the Government had proposed two to three years ago, that is to restrict the number of diggers on the fields, was in the interests of ‘our own workmen’. He said that legislation would be introduced which would have a restricting effect.[48] This, again, was not acted upon.

[1] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.11. The figure of 6000 diggers is a vast increase from the 1891 census figures, which put the number of male gumdiggers at 2544 and female at 149. In comparison the 1896 census has 3250 male gumdiggers and three women.
[2] New Zealand Historical Atlas, Malcolm McKinnon (Ed.), Auckland, 1997, p.48.
[3] A local paper still in print today.
[4] Northern Advocate, 9 September 1893; 7 October 1893.
[5] The committee actually put forward the suggestion of standing a gumdigger as a candidate to contest the Bay of Islands seat, subject to sufficient support from electors. It was decided to put forward William Fitzpatrick, the Chairperson of the Gumdiggers Executive Committee (Northern Advocate, 7 October 1893). Later however, Fitzpatrick stood aside to allow a Mr Trounson to stand for election, a move that was not entirely approved of by all gumdiggers (see the Northern Advocate, 11 November 1893). Trounson did not win the seat.
[6] For an exposition of this argument see the Northern Advocate, 26 August 1893.
[7] The Northern Advocate, an eight page newspaper ‘with further improvements to follow’ which covered the northern area, had much space dedicated to examining the conditions of the roads and proposing solutions.
[8] The gumdiggers regarded the seats of Marsden, Waitemata and the Bay of Islands as the most important to represent gumdiggers interests in Parliament (Northern Advocate, 11 November 1893).

[9]Seddon, who would go on to rule for another 13 years until 1906, had only just taken office on 1 May.

[10] Hansard, 2 August 1893, vol 80, p.361. This is also reported in the Northern Advocate, 5 August, 1893 and shows the surprisingly rapid spread of information by telegram.
[11] See the Northern Advocate, 3 June 1893.
[12] Hansard, 2 August 1893, vol 80, p.361.
[13] The appointment of the members of the commission was not without controversy. In mid-June a meeting of miners and storekeepers in Northland made a respectful protest against the appointment of Gerhard Mueller to the Commission. This was because he was considered to have no comprehensive knowledge of the gum industry and ‘as being of German origin he could not be expected to assist in excluding German or other foreigners from the gumfields’ (Northern Advocate, 10 June 1893). However, Mueller remained on the Commission.
[14] Hansard, 3 August 1893, vol 80, p.436.
[15] Hansard, 3 August 1893, vol 80, p.437.
[16] With a population of 6120 according to the 1891 census (figure which includes Chinese and half-castes).
[17] Hansard, 17 August 1893, vol 81, p.136.
[18] Hansard, 17 August 1893, vol 81, p.137.
[19] Hansard, 17 August 1893, vol 81, p.137-138.
[20] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.1.
[21] Northern Advocate, 5 August 1893.
[22] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.4.
[23] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.4.
[24] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.4.
[25] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.5.
[26] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.6.
[27] 1891 Census, published 1892, Wellington.
[28] It appears however that this never occurred; in the 1896 census there are 881 people from Austria-Hungary (1896 Census, Registrar General’s report, published 1897).
[29] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.7.
[30] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.7.
[31] New Zealand Historical Atlas, Malcolm McKinnon (Ed.), Auckland, 1997, p.48.
[32] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.9.
[33] Kauri-Gum Industry Inquiry Commission, p.9.
[34] Northern Advocate, 12 August 1893.
[35] Northern Advocate, 26 August 1893, see also the 14 October issue for a settler’s view.
[36] Northern Advocate, 14 October 1893.
[37] In fact the Gumdiggers Weekly advocated government control of the gum industry to stabilise the price of gum and to fund roading and care of elderly gum diggers. (From an article reprinted from the Gumdiggers Weekly, in the Northern Advocate, 7 October 1893.) After four months the Gumdiggers Weekly ended up incorporating with the Northern Advocate.
[38] Hansard, 1 September 1893, vol 82, p.203.
[39] Hansard, 13 September 1893, vol 82, p.203.
[40] Hansard, 13 September 1893, vol 82, p.203.
[41] Hansard, 3 October 1893, vol 82, p.926.
[42] However, things did not get any easier for the gumdiggers. Gum prices plunged and there was widespread concern amongst diggers that they would be forced out of work. The Government was asked for assistance, and the issues of roads and rail came up again. It was argued by some gumdiggers that if the roads were better maintained and developed, and the rail line was extended, more gum could be dug for in the further reaches of the gumfields (Northern Advocate, 18 November 1893).
[43] Reported in the Northern Advocate, 19 August 1893, originally printed in the New Zealand Herald (no date available).
[44] Northern Advocate, 25 November 1893.
[45] Northern Advocate, 25 November 1893.
[46] A-J, p.118, Sept 20, 86th volume.
[47] This however, would only increase the number of Austrians (Dalmatians) in the country to 1001, going by the census figures for 1894 taken on the night of 12 April.
[48] A-J, vol. 93, July 14, 1896, pp.144-145.
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