04 October 2011

Gold has been all-in-all to us

Hokitika 1867
Hokitika, 1867 (Via Alexander Turnbull Library)

New Zealand author Charlotte Randall’s fifth novel, Hokitika Town, is set on the West Coast of the South Island in 1865, during the boom years of the gold rushes that brought a motley collection of colonists from all over the world to the wild and wet ribbon of habitable land that is still isolated and largely untamed to this day.

The book’s protagonist, a young Maori boy making his way in European settler society, is called by many names: Halfie, Harvey, Thumbsucker, Pipsqueak, Bedwetter and Cocoa.  His narration, naive and curious but also fiercely independent and loyal, is a real treat, as Randall portrays his growing confidence with English and the ways in which he makes himself an intrinsic part of the town’s life and local dramas. Here’s Halfie, early on in the tale, discussing his place in the West Coast economic food chain as an errand-running  ‘coin boy’:

The gold and the coin got some kind of joinment I not unnerstand. If you find a bit of gold, whitey give you coin, but if you already got coin, whitey give you a bit of gold. They not the same but somehow equal. Not that I ever done this swapping, but I seen it. Sometimes I get tired tryna figure it all out. I go for a sleep in the sun on the river bank. When I wake up fresh, that’s when I like to go to Hokitika town. I go down the street with all them hotels. All them young whitey girls stand in the doorways in their pantalons. They call out, ‘What yer staring at, little boy?’ and pull up their long skirts to show their pantalons. If I do what they want, let my tongue hang out, act like a dog that want a big drink, the girls laugh and throw a piece of bread. I not unnerstand what’s intresting about seeing them frilly pantalons around whitey girls ankles but I do pretty much anything for their bread.

Hokitika, which during the time in which the story is set was a booming mining service town and the second busiest port in New Zealand, is now a trifling town of around 3,000 that seldom features in national news headlines, aside from during its annual wild food festival. It’s sometimes hard to picture how quickly a thriving, if grimy and somewhat ramshackle and lawless, town sprung out of the narrow West Coast sand.  It was built on the rush for gold, which saw thousands of diggers flock to the Coast from New Zealand and Australia, with ships often having to fight off insistent would-be passengers convinced that by missing out on passage to Hokitika they would be missing out on the richest early claims at the nearby Waimea, Ross and Kaniere goldfields.

A traveller journeying by sea from Nelson to Hokitika on a small sailing vessel in February 1865 at the start of the gold rush left his impressions of the town upon his arrival, quoted in a tome by the prolific popular historian J. Halket Millar:

Okitiki is at present represented by two long lines of buildings which stretch from the wharf, or rather the landing place, forming a street about 40 ft. broad. These buildings are mostly built of calico, and are occupied as stores for the sale of grog and provisions. A few of the Hotels and Bank Agencies are built of wood and iron, with some of the lower kind called shanties as mere tents. Each person is allowed for business purposes an allotment measuring 30 ft. of frontage by 70 ft. in depth […] In the place there was neither law nor order observed further than the arrangement I have mentioned about allotments. Each holder of property has to support his claim by power of his own right hand, and Lord Bounce reigns supreme […]

The sandy flat on which the township is erected is covered over with driftwood that has evidently been brought down by the Okitiki [River] on some great overflow of its bed, and there are many who declare their belief that some day Okitiki shall exist, or cease to exist, at the bottom of a great lagoon of water caused by the flooding of the river. At present there is no limit of firewood to be had where one chooses to pitch a tent […] The place seems to be well enough supplied with stores, as I counted about 40 already erected, and about a dozen more in process of erection.

- Quoted in J. Halket Millar, Westland’s Golden Sixties, Wellington, 1959

A few months later the distinguished traveller Julius Haast expressed his surprise at the speed with which Hokitika had risen up:

The principal street, half a mile long, consisted already of a large numbers of shops, hotels, banks and dwelling-houses, and appeared as a scene of almost indescribable bustle and activity. There were jewellers and watchmakers, physicians and barbers, hotels and billiard-rooms, eating and boarding-houses, and trades and professions of all description […] Carts were unloading and loading, and sheep and cattle driven to the yards; there was shouting and bell-ringing, deafening to the passers-by; criers at every corner of the principal streets which were filled with people – a scene I had never before witnessed in New Zealand.
Hundreds of diggers ‘on the spree’ and loafers were everywhere to be seen, but principally near the spit and on the wharf where work went on with feverish haste. Before arriving at Hokitika, I counted seven vessels at anchor in the roadstead, amongst them a large Melbourne steamer; whilst in the river itself, five steamers and a large number of sailing vessels were discharging their cargoes, reminding us of the life in a European port.

- Quoted in Philip Ross May, The West Coast Gold Rushes, Christchurch, 2nd ed, 1967, p.313-4

May’s comprehensive The West Coast Gold Rushes lists some Hokitika population projections at the peak of the boom years – which must be regarded as speculative due to the transient nature of much of the population at the time and the lack of effective administrative control:


Year Month Pop Source
1865 Apr 2,000 W. Seed
  July 3,000 adults Lyttelton Times, 17.07.1865
  Sept 2,500 Lyttelton Times, 29.09.1865
  Dec 2,000 S. Carkeek
1866 Feb 11-12,000 West Coast Times, 05.02.1866
  Apr 6,000 C. Fraser
  May 8-10,000 W. Wilson
  Dec? 7,000 Southern Provinces Almanac 1866

- May, 1967, p.501-2

The town boasted its own newspapers, including the West Coast Times, which published its first edition in May 1865. A Saturday edition published a few months later on 12 August displays a front page heaving with advertisements for services designed to part diggers from their hard-won gold, including the classy-sounding Mac’s Nonpareil Pie House: ‘Meals at all hours – good beds – wines, spirits, and malt liquors of the best brands’. The Times’ editorial column called for increased spending on the Coast by the Canterbury provincial government, claiming that:

From the Grey River on the North, to where the main range touches the sea on the South, and backward in a wide sweep between those two points to the snow-clad hills, the whole of the country is one vast goldfield, little prospected, comparatively speaking, but rich wherever the miner has been tempted to try his fortune. For very many years the West Canterbury goldfield will be worked with profit, if the science of the geologist and the teachings of practical experience are to be relied on.

- West Coast Times, 12 August 1865

However, this proved to be an empty boast. As the easily-accessible gold was plundered and claims ran dry the diggers largely fled to other goldfields, although some remained to work the new West Coast coal mines or fell the plentiful native timber. But the origins of the West Coast and Hokitika itself were quite distinctive, as May points out:

Among the gold rushes of the mid-nineteenth century, that to the West Coast was unique. Elsewhere pastoralists or agriculturalists had been the pioneers, and settlement had preceded a gold rush. Mission stations and cattle ranches were established in California when the ‘forty-niners burst into the Great Valley. The goldfields of New South Wales and Victoria erupted in what was already a gigantic sheepwalk; squatters had explored and occupied the range and basin country of Otago before the rush of ‘sixty-one. ‘The actual beginning of the Westland was its gold discoveries’, explained the West Coast Times: ‘Gold has been all-in-all to us’.

- May, 1967, p.476

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