31 July 2011

Film Festival 2011 roundup

nzff2011-2col-3lines-web copy
It’s been a truncated film festival for me this year. Due to financial constraints and the challenges of flitting between Auckland and Wellington, I’ve only managed to see a handful of films. But it’s been a real treat to see most of them at the mighty Civic in Queen Street. I only visited this venerable institution infrequently when I was a child, but it made a strong impression on me then, as it still must do to young people today. The pair of golden lions flanking the stage, with their red unblinking eyes; the Queen’s box, so tantalisingly close to the performance space; and the brilliant artistry of the starry-skied ceiling, which dims to a rich, deep blue as the film begins and ripples with lights to simulate passing night clouds, scudding over the Oriental splendour of the onion-domed towers. The Civic must surely be one of the world’s great vintage cinemas. To think only a few decades ago the vandals of the Auckland property development class were desperate to raze it and erect some glaring new monstrosity in its place!

Five Six Seven films – not many, but they were good ones.

Mysteries of Lisbon (trailer)
It's rare to find a film these days that justifies an intermission, but this four and a half hour Portuguese historical epic certainly does. It tells a myriad of intertwined stories of 19th century Portuguese life amongst the nobility, with detours in place and time to Venice and revolutionary France. Sticklers might find the emphasis on patient story-telling and gradual reveals frustrating, but personally I relished the chance for the various characters' stories to stretch out and breathe; indeed it became something of a running joke for characters to utter lines like "let me tell you my story right from the beginning". Replete with multiple identities, honour-staked duels, unknown legacies, wronged noblewomen, vengeful suitors, quixotic adventurers and dozens of cast members, Mysteries of Lisbon sprawls most enjoyably on the big screen, and rewards viewers who appreciate cinema on the grand scale. My only complaint pertained to the slightly melodramatic score, which occasionally swelled to intrusive proportions.

13 Assassins (trailer)
There are a few tastes of Takeshi Miike's panache for visceral gore at the start of his samurai epic, 13 Assassins. Evidence of monumental cruelty, the grisly deaths of captives, plus a couple of unflinching ritual suicides all serve to underline the rather obvious point that the Caligula-esque lord who is the target of the film's assassination plot thoroughly deserves everything thrown at him by the titular heroes. After that initial burst of ultra-violence the film is much less unsettling and quickly becomes engrossing, as the hugely outnumbered but plucky team assembles and plans its raid. There are refreshing touches of gruff samurai humour along the way, and the climactic ambush at a deserted mountain village is an extended masterclass of action filmmaking, with jaw-dropping battle scenes and a fittingly thrilling conclusion.

Submarine (trailer)
This utterly charming novel adaptation by first time director Richard Ayoade (who plays the socially challenged Moss in The IT Crowd sitcom) absolutely nails the misfit awkwardness of teenage romance in a hilarious and refreshingly unsentimental black comedy. The casting is perfect, with the young duo winningly portraying teen weirdos experimenting with A Proper Relationship (preferably with no hugging), and the comedic foils of the grown-up actors lavishing every scene with wry humour. Sally Hawkins is as sparky as ever as Oliver's uptight mum; Noah Taylor gives an quality portrayal of his hollowed-out, nerdy dad; and Paddy Considine is laugh-out-loud funny as the spiky-mulleted new age mystic who threatens to break up the family by stealing Oliver's mum away. Oliver's school friends are also reliably entertaining, offering consistently awful personal advice to the sensitive, clueless youth. With its grimy, handheld shots of a grey-skied Welsh industrial town and its deft soundtrack by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, and with too many brilliant moments of bleak comedy to count, Submarine is without a doubt my film of 2011 to date.

The Mill and The Cross (trailer)
This Polish film is something of a curiosity, adding as it does to the increasing number of films about famous paintings. (I recently saw Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching, with Martin Freeman as Rembrandt). In this case, it takes the viewer into the Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 'The Way to Calvary', a crucifixion scene in a fantasy landscape populated by a multitude of contemporary Flemings and their then Spanish overlords. The real joy in the film lies in the simple recreation of everyday life of the various characters in the grand painting. The awe-inspiring wooden workings of the mill, a crowd of rambunctious and misbehaving children, stubborn farmyard animals, and peasants courting and fighting - all this is expertly realised. There's a decent cast too - Rutger Hauer is suitable contemplative as Brueghel, while Michael York and Charlotte Rampling appear as Brueghel's noble patron and a mother of a religious martyr, respectively. But given that the theme of the painting and of the film is the unflinching depiction of the effects of religious intolerance - in this case, that of the Catholic Spanish for their subject Flemings - The Mill & The Cross is hardly light viewing. A grim tone sets in as heretics are persecuted, and one wonders how well it went down in the director's native Poland, where Catholicism is still strong. Still, the one magic moment in which Brueghel raises his hand and the entire crowd scene halts, including the mighty sails of the mill, is an impressive compensation for viewing implacable inhumanity in the name of religious uniformity. Special mention must also go to the New Zealand cloudscapes, which were listed in the end credits. What, Poland doesn't have clouds that are suitably dramatic?

Page One: Inside the New York Times (trailer)
Print media junkies will enjoy the chance to peek behind the scenes at the venerable New York Times. The documentary offers an intriguing glimpse at the practicalities of responding to the major stories of the day, and in particular the Wikileaks-related material that dominated the headlines when the film was being made. The plight of traditional print media in an era of rapidly declining advertising revenue and burgeoning competition from online rivals with lower cost structures is a predominant theme, and it's by no means certain if the NYT can survive, even if its demise would be a tragedy for serious news reporting. Ultimately, Page One doesn't provide any answers to this looming problem. Rather, it offers up a snapshot view of the business of modern news-gathering, perhaps as it nears the end of its lifetime. The film certainly shines when telling the story of its gravel-voiced narrator, the formerly hard-living David Carr, who is awash with pithy quotes and if given a trilby and a Remington manual typewriter would fit right into any of the newsroom scenes in His Girl Friday.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? (trailer)
This film is a love story to one man's vision of architecture, and while I agree that Sir Norman Foster has produced brilliant and innovative buildings that will stand the test of time, surely a depiction of a career of such stature could have benefited from at least a few critical voices. He failed to win a few tenders - why? Has he made any duds in his long career? Is he a good employer? These are the sorts of questions a film like this should ask, to avoid being labelled a hagiography. And ultimately viewers don't learn an awful lot from the Foster interviews peppering the film, aside from the fact that he's very creative, very driven and seemingly rather nice. But despite this, it's still a fascinating film, and it's at its very best when gliding, swooping and tracking through Foster's dream buildings that adorn some of the world's greatest cities, because these are indisputably impressive works of art.

Le Havre (trailer)
The story of the down-on-his-luck shoe-shine man, his hospitalised wife, and the runaway West African migrant boy is certainly charming, and the community spirit that sees the working-class locals rally around to help the boy evade capture by the police is appealing. A whimsical French fantasy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre is boosted by moments of playful humour, such as a lovely scene in which a dastardly police inspector surveys a suspicious bar-room whilst brandishing a freshly-bought pineapple. However, many of the scenes are rather implausible and the staging is occasionally stilted and unnaturalistic.

25 July 2011

Campbell Island and the transit of Venus

Perseverance Harbour from coast watchers' cave, Campbell Island, 1955 or 1956. Photo:  Philip George Poppleton, via National Library / Alexander Turnbull Library.

The transit of Venus

On a cloudy early summer’s day in December 1874 a major scientific expedition to the sub-Antarctic waters of the South Pacific ended in ignominious failure. The lengthy preparations, the cost of mounting the expedition, months of sailing time to the sub-Antarctic seas, and the expectations of the expedition crew were all dashed by the intransigence of the notorious Campbell Island weather. Ian S. Kerr, in his comprehensive 1976 survey, Campbell Island: A history, explains just how much effort was put in to ensure everything was ‘just right’ for the observation of the transit of Venus, in a preliminary visit by the French naval vessel, the Vire:
The rest of September [1874] was occupied in unloading the Vire, building the camp, and even a stone jetty some 20 metres out into the bay. The buildings, including most of the housings for the scientific equipment, were prefabricated, and consisted of the main living quarters, 12 m by 5 m; kitchen, 3 m by 2 m; workshop and forge; darkroom; a small storeroom and housings for the transit telescopes, magnetic equipment, chronometers and tide gauge. There was even a pigsty and sheep-pen. Unfortunately some of the equipment had been damaged in transit but the technicians were able to repair most of it. [p.39]
The transit of Venus was worth all that effort, because accurate measurements of the hugely rare event allowed mathematicians to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The 1874 transit was also important because of the long interval since the last occurrence. Venusian transits, in which the planet crosses the face of the Sun and is visible from parts of the Earth’s surface, are according to Wikipedia, ‘among the rarest of predictable astronomical phenomena. They occur in a pattern that repeats every 243 years, with pairs of transits eight years apart separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years’. The 1874 transit was the next step in a process of scientific discovery that had been closely identified with James Cook’s first South Pacific journey in 1769, when he observed the transit from Hawaii. By the time of the next transit in December 1882 the distances involved could be confidently stated; by the time the next one finally rolled around in 2004 the event was more of a historical curiosity than a scientific imperative.

German author Judith Schalansky sets the scene on Campbell Island on the day of the transit:
On 8 December 1874 the sky clouds over; that night the weather is unsettled and it is misty. There is a 60 per cent likelihood of being able to view the start of the transit of Venus here, and a 30 per cent chance of seeing the end: so Captain Jacquemart calculated when he spent nearly the whole of the previous December on the island. Based on his findings, the Academie des Sciences decided to send an expedition here to view the transit. Sponsored by the government, the expensively equipped party leaves Marseille on 21 June, led by Anatole Bouquet de la Grye of the naval Hydrographic Office. When Campbell Island finally appears out of the mist on 9 September, the men's first impression is of a sad place: a barren, treeless land with a plateau of straggly yellow bushes in the north and oddly shaped peaks in the south; the fjord of Perseverance Harbour in the middle. On the morning of 9 December, the wind blows from the north-west, bringing scattered showers until ten o'clock. The sky remains a solid grey until the warmth of the sun lightens the mist a little and its white disc finally appears behind the thick veil. Five minutes before Venus is to make its transit, the wind dies down. Bouquet de la Grye peeps through the eyepiece of the telescope at noon and cheers when he sees a dark patch at the edge of the sun: faint and jagged. It is Venus. Then a great cloud hides this rare event for more than a quarter of an hour. When it is gone, Venus is already covering half the sun. The outline of the planet is now quite distinct, entirely free of refraction of light or a halo. But this moment of clarity lasts no more than twenty seconds. Then it is all over. Banks of fog roll in, making it impossible to see the sun again. When it clears hours later, Venus has long since disappeared into the sky.

-Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands ('Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will'), Hamburg, 2009 (English translation 2010).
Half a year from departure to the day of the transit: half a year and many francs wasted, and still a long journey home ahead of the vessel and its disappointed crew. 

Undoubtedly dejected, Captain Jacquemart and his shipmates in the Vire returned with the scientific party to the port of Dunedin to recuperate and resupply before their journey back to their home port in New Caledonia. The Otago Daily Times of 31 December 1874, the day after the ship arrived in port, relates the tale:
The FRWSS Vire, Captain Jacquemart, has returned once more to her old quarters, and brings with her the observation party that had been established at Campbell Island, to watch the transit of Venus. We were sorry to hear that, as was the case nearly throughout New Zealand, the weather at Campbell Island on the memorable 9th was decidedly hostile to the observers. At the early part of the day the sun shone fitfully, but as noon approached he became obscured by clouds and thick mist, and during the remainder of the day shewed but once, and that for a few seconds only, just as Venus had crossed the edge of his disc inwards. One distance was then taken, but of the remainder of the transit nothing was seen. The Vire remained at Campbell Island until the 27th, then left with the intention of calling at the Auckland Islands, but strong N.W. weather coming on, the idea was abandoned, and she made straight for this port and arrived yesterday morning. She will remain here until after the New Year a week or so.
Despite the disappointment, Ian Kerr believed that the Vire expedition did make a valuable contribution to better understanding of Campbell Island itself:
The time at Campbell was not wasted however, for the expedition, as we have seen, was well equipped to carry out general scientific work. M. Filhol published a comprehensive account of his studies which, he said, were directed to finding alliances between New Zealand and Campbell Island fauna to suggest the greater extent of New Zealand in former times. His final conclusion seems to have been that Campbell Island had never been connected to a continental mass […]

[In] Filhol’s account we find an interesting description of his first impressions and experiences on landing. The low vegetation covering the ground was at first delightfully soft to the feet. Moss yellowed all the old branches of the scrub and twined round the young shoots. It seemed, to start with, that one could stride over the ground with ease, but soon one was hindered by the network of stems and roots, then moss clung to the boots, and, after a few paces, one had to sit down and rest. Even sitting down soon became uncomfortable because, in spite of the steepness of the slope, the vegetation held a great quantity of water.

The drawings and illustrations in Filhol’s report included a map of Campbell Island which resulted from a survey by the naval officers. This chart has been the basis of all subsequent British Admiralty charts of the island. [p.40-1]

Campbell Island

The 112 square kilometres of Campbell Island are a bleak and remote afterthought of New Zealand’s territorial claims. At 52 degrees 32 minutes South it is 500 kilometres to the south of Stewart Island. At the same latitude in the northern hemisphere lie the temperate European cities of Amsterdam and Berlin, but Campbell Island’s climate is drastically different: it is assailed by constant rain, seldom sees the sun and is regularly lashed by foul winds unimpeded by any land mass. The island was unpopulated and unvisited before its discovery in January 1810 by the Sydney sealer Frederick Hasselborough – obviously a sensible captain in at least some respects, because his was a summertime visit. The island was named in honour of Campbell & Co., the Sydney owners of the vessel Hasselborough sailed in, and the island’s largest inlet, the 5 kilometre-long fissure in the former volcanic cone, is named Perseverance Harbour in honour of the brig. 

The discovery coincided with the uncontrolled exploitation inflicted on New Zealand seal colonies by European sealers, which by about 1810 were severely depleted. Sealers swiftly moved on to hunt remaining colonies in the far south, basing themselves on Campbell Island and the similarly isolated and bleak Macquarie Island, to harvest skins for wealthy markets.

Hasselborough’s discovery of Campbell Island also marked out the island as a dangerous place. For generations in early New Zealand drowning was known as ‘the New Zealand death’ – it was so prevalent – and Campbell was no different. In November 1810 Hasselborough and two others including a woman said to be of Norfolk Island origin, Elizabeth Farr, drowned when a small boat capsized in the harbour. The captain was said to be encumbered when he entered the bitterly cold water, which proved to be deadly:
The weather being somewhat cold, Mr Hasselbourgh had very heavily cloathed himself, and wore a thick Flushing boat cloak, together with a pair of strong high water-boots, the weight of which must have baffled every personal exertion when necessary to his preservation. [Sydney Gazette, 12 January 1811, quoted in Kerr, p.13]
Aside from scientific expeditions, sealing and whaling off and on during the 19th century, from 1896 until 1931 Campbell Island was a rather marginal sheep station, which often struggled to break even.  During World War II the island housed a coast-watching and meteorological station. While no German or Japanese vessels were sighted during the war, the weather station proved particularly useful, and was later augmented by a wide range of scientific equipment, including apparatus to experiment with the ionosphere. One noteworthy event at the station was in January 1965, at the height of the Cold War, when Perseverance Harbour was visited by the Soviet ‘marine research ship’ Gnevny. The station personnel, still presumably all male, were particularly enchanted by the presence of the wife of the ship’s chief scientist, Dr Solyanik; Svetlana Solyanik was particularly beautiful and a former Russian movie star. In later years it became clear that the Soviet Union’s interest in the deep southern waters was far from scientific: rather, Soviet ships were pillaging many thousands of whales every year in complete disregard for international conservation agreements. Researchers Phil Clapham and Yulia Ivashchenko note in a Marine Fisheries Review paper that  ‘the Soviet Union had been plundering the world’s whale populations with abandon since 1947. By the time that the illegal catches finally ended in 1973, the Soviets had killed probably over 200,000 more whales than they had officially reported’.

The manned weather station remained open until 1995, when it was replaced by an automatic station. The island is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and is now only visited sporadically by research and conservation teams.

See also:

50 Degrees South – Videos: Weather report 10.12.10 / Storm 18.01.11

20 July 2011

The wave on the shore, and the sun on the height

Exploring Mull, Iona and Oban in the west of Scotland

Last month I was lucky enough to spend the best part of a week exploring the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, with friends. Fiona, who until recently lived in Edinburgh, was already planning to travel to Mull with her friend Hilary, and they both kindly invited me along for the trip, knowing that I was very keen to explore another part of Scotland and see the isles once more. My only other trip to the area was in 1997, when I relished the beautiful scenery on the Isle of Skye for two fantastic days. I was looking forward to a new Scottish adventure, particularly as we were staying in the much-admired fishing town of Tobermory, and because it would be possible to pay a visit to the historic sites on little Iona, an island with a rich heritage located just off the western coast of Mull.

Day 0:

The first logistical issue was how to get up to Edinburgh to join the others. Flying and the train were both rather pricey, and since speed wasn’t a particular concern I opted for a coach journey instead. This turned out to be something of a master stroke – the Megabus ticket for a nine and a half hour coach journey from London Victoria to Edinburgh was a mere £5.50 on an advance booking fare. It wasn’t the most scenic of voyages (the train has more pleasant views, if you’re heading that way yourself), and the two rest breaks were at the traditionally dispiriting and institutional British motorway services depots at Watford Gap and Scotch Corner. But I had my iPod and a book to read, and at that ticket price I was very pleased.

The only concern, apart from the strange fondness of Scottish planners for single-lane highways with no overtaking bays to pass the seemingly endless queues of slow-moving lorries, was the invariably unpredictable Scottish weather. On the journey north the skies were grey and the temperature dial hovered around 12 degrees. Would this be a Scottish summer holiday trip without the all-important sunshine?

Day 1:

George Square, Glasgow
After catching up with Fiona and meeting travelling companion Hilary for the first time, we had a leisurely start to our journey. We made our way to Edinburgh Waverley station in the heart of the city for the first step of the journey: one of the multitude of trains that ferries passengers between the rival cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. I had a brief ten minute window before our next train to explore George Square next to Glasgow Queen Street station, and made a point of fitting in a Gregg’s cheese and onion pasty from a nearby shop (just like Marilyn Manson). Sure, it’s not authentic Glasgow cuisine like a deep-fried Mars bar or a Munchy Box, but it was certainly deliciously bad for me and it was one of the British culinary treats I was soon to leave behind.

Kilchurn Castle
The two-coach service along the West Highland line to Oban soon departed Glasgow and made its way north out of the city through the grey tower-block suburbs. The journey was to take over three hours, and during the northward run it ran beside chilly grey lochs, huge forestry reserves, and jagged granite peaks, punctuated with stops at increasingly smaller intermediate stations with grand names like Garelochhead, Crianlarich and Falls of Cruachan. Fiona perused her novel while Hilary and I scanned each side of the track for suitable photo opportunities. Every now and then a bird of prey swooped past the train, on the lookout for stray rabbits or mice in the fields. The scenic highlight of the journey was probably the ruins of Kilchurn Castle at the head of Loch Awe, which the West Highland line takes a broad circuit around, affording an impressive view of its crumbling battlements and gaping, glassless windows.

By the time we rolled into the pretty port of Oban, located on a sheltered portion of the Firth of Lorn, the gloomy grey clouds had been dispelled in favour of shining blue skies. We lugged our bags around the crescent harbour to our respective hostels. I had booked afterwards so was staying separately in Corran House, a tidy, worthwhile waterfront ex-B&B by the look of it. Then we met up to get our bearings.

Oban waterfront

After exploring the waterfront we continued northwards along the coast a short way to climb up to the ruins of Dunollie Castle, which sit in ivy-covered splendour on a headland guarding the harbour. Indeed, such was the growth of the vines over the castle keep, it seemed that the vegetation was probably doing a great deal of work to hold the stonework upright.

Dunollie Castle

Dunollie Castle

As the daylight ebbed away we returned to the centre of Oban and hiked up the steep hill overlooking the town to the prominent McCaig’s Tower, a concrete Victorian folly in the form of the Colosseum which was originally intended to serve as a family memorial. Now it’s a grand memento of an eccentric local benefactor, with superb views over the whole town.

McCaig's Tower, Oban

We rounded off our day with a slap-up meal that Enid Blyton would probably have envied (unless it was too working class): golden haddock and chips from the Oban Fish & Chip Shop on George Street, which has received glowing praise from celebrity chef Rick Stein (they quote him as saying it’s the best fish and chips he’s ever had). I have to admit, as we sat at the harbour’s edge and enjoyed our meals while the low-lying sun crept closer to the placid, milky water, in a lifetime with a fairly large amount of fish and chip consumption I struggled to find an example to top Oban’s finest takeaways.

Day 2:

Duart Castle, on the approach to Mull
We spent the morning loafing about in Oban and stocking up on a few supplies for the trip out to the island.  We also paid a visit to the charming little Oban Museum, which was packed with local detail and some interesting background on the town’s role as a seaplane base during World War II. At around midday we departed on the ferry, heading westwards into the grey, flat sea, with Mull our final destination. The fine sight of Duart Castle loomed into view on the port bow (more on which later) and we edged into the pier at the tiny settlement of Craignure, the gateway to the island. We were finally ready to explore Mull.

Oh the Island of Mull is an isle of delight
With the wave on the shore, and the sun on the height
With the breeze on the hills and the blast on the Bens
And the old green woods, and the old grassy glens
- ‘The Island of Mull’, Dugald Macphail

The bus to our final destination, Tobermory, was awaiting the ferry, and we soon set off on the hour-long dash across the northern arm of the island. The journey took in plenty of rolling Hebridean farmland, passing derelict fishing boats stacked and leaning on the shore, and the tumbled-down ruins of Aros Castle on a headland overlooking the sound. Finally, after a long descent and a brief detour around the upper town, the bus delivered us to the harbourside of Tobermory, our base for the next few days.  The broad curve of the harbour wall is lined with the same multi-coloured shops and houses that have delighted visitors for decades, and as we walked the length of the arc to our accommodation we savoured the sea air and the lively atmosphere. We were staying right on the harbour-front in the town’s YHA, which is housed in a jolly pink dwelling near the fishing wharf. Just beyond the wharf is the spot where a lost Spanish galleon is said to have sunk following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Tobermory at dusk
On our first patrol of the environs we walked up the steep hill to the upper town, which afforded us splendid views over the harbour. On talking to a local nature photographer we also spied our first example of the local wildlife: a church spire afforded a graceful peregrine falcon an excellent vantage point from which to keep an eye on the pigeons fluttering around the town below. Later, down near the marina, we met the town’s one true celebrity: none other than Tobermory Cat, who has his own Facebook page and a loyal internet following.  (There are actually two TCs, a pair of brothers, which helps them to patrol their turf. This basically includes the whole waterfront). There was clearly plenty of history and plenty of Mull to explore in the coming days.
Tobermory Cat
Peregrine falcon

Day 3:

Duart Castle
With a watchful eye on the island weather forecast, the next morning we boarded the speedy but rather expensive bus from Tobermory to Craignure. (I concede that the journey is 21 miles, so it’s not exactly short). Once there, another bus with a cheery driver took us the short journey westward to our destination: the proud edifice of Duart Castle, the ancestral home of Clan McLean. There’s been a castle here since at least the 13th century, and the current upright square keep dates from the 14th century. Its commanding position on the approach to Craignure allowed the castle to control an important channel and access to Mull, while making assault by land or sea difficult. 

Our entry tickets were sold by a distinguished gentleman in a kilt – later I wondered if he was actually the laird. Alas, no photos were permitted inside, but the castle was an intriguing mix of medieval and early 20th century living, with strong touches of family history in every room. The grand hall was particularly impressive, with its grand piano, many-pointed deer heads, and photos from two of the most prominent movies to have been filmed at the castle: When Eight Bells Toll from 1971, featuring a young and clean-cut Anthony Hopkins, and 1989’s Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones. In the beautiful Sea Room the McLeans could keep an eye on the busy sealane in fair weather or foul, and the view from atop the castle battlements on this clear, calm day was quite stunning.

Before we departed we ventured down to the water’s edge to eat our lunch and admire the castle from the seaward flank. The crag on which it’s perched is still as impressive as when the castle was first built, and visitors can easily imagine how difficult it must have been for the McLeans’ enemies to attack.  Indeed, nothing short of a heavy naval bombardment would likely have startled the castle inhabitants.  Nowadays the main inhabitants of the grounds are plenty of nimble swallows, darting hither and yon in search of an insect meal.   

Upon being dropped back in Craignure by the trusty bus driver, we promptly headed out of the hamlet again, this time to the nearby Torosay Castle. To reach it we walked along a pretty forest trail, getting as close as we could manage to a herd of Highland cattle, whose lavish brown fringes tickled their moist noses. Torosay isn’t open at the moment, but you can put in an offer if you feel like buying it to add to your castle collection. So the day we visited the main attraction was the journey back to Craignure on the Isle of Mull (miniature) Railway, a labour of love for the island’s rail fans.  It’s a pleasant 15 minute journey along the shore and through dense woodlands back to Craignure on the tiny train, and it’s still an enjoyable treat even for grown-ups.

Highland cattle

Torosay Castle

Mull miniature railway

We made our way back to Tobermory – becoming old hands at the island’s buses, we were – and settled in for a quiet evening. Tobermory seemed to come alive once the last bus of the day departed, taking with it most of the daytrippers to the ferry. Down at the harbour, where the tide was far out in the bay, the fishermen scraped their hulls. Up in the town people popped into the Co-op for their supplies, and carted beer and snacks for an evening’s entertaining. We did the same, enjoying a meal around the kitchen table in the hostel, and then a few tunes from my iPod upstairs.

Day 4:

Our next day was spent in the vicinity of Tobermory, in part because the weather forecast was poor and we didn’t want to risk being trapped at large in a downpour. So we chose to don our hiking boots and explore some of the walking trails to the south of the town, in an area known as Aros Park. This used to be an imposing estate surrounding Aros House, owned by the Allen family, who made their money from the shipping trade. The Allens owned Aros from 1874 until 1959, but by the end of the family’s tenure at Aros the Forestry Commission had acquired the surrounding land, and soon the house itself was in a dangerous state of disrepair. Sadly, it was demolished by the Army in 1962, and now a carpark, several barbecues and a public lavatory occupy the site on which the grand dwelling once stood.

Fortunately there are numerous trails running through the forests surrounding the old manor house site, winding through forestry land and circling a calm lake replete with spreading lily pads. We took our time to admire the many waterfalls in the park, and in particular the highest one, which roars over a rocky cliff and can now be admired from a safe distance in a smartly-built modern viewing platform. Further from civilisation we encountered an eerie dell of ranked pines in which stood an abandoned stone three-room hut, hard up against a hillock that would have blocked both the easterly gales from the sea and the warmth of the morning sunlight. Here and there we saw red robins darting, and on rare occasions fellow humans. The promised downpour never turned up, but we were glad of the chance to see some of Mull’s flora and fauna at close quarters.


Upon returning to town that afternoon we paid a visit to the excellent little Mull Museum, which details the history of the town and the island. Apart from the expected tales from prehistory and World War Two, my favourite was the story of the Newfoundland three-masted schooner Neptune II, which was blown far off course during a routine overnight passage from St Johns to its home port in Bonavista Bay in November 1929. Instead of a 100-mile journey, the five crew and five passengers were thrown into the mid-Atlantic, and repeated storms forced the vessel further and further eastwards, away from home. In one of the sensational news stories of the year, the Neptune II eventually found a safe harbour in Tobermory in January 1930 after a 3000-mile journey lasting 48 days, with all crew and passengers disembarking safely.
In another historical oddity, Tobermory contains not one but two rarities: Edward VIII red postboxes, erected before the King’s forced abdication in 1936. One is located next to the fishing wharf (pictured) and another is in the upper town. 


We also ventured out to sample some of Tobermory’s nightlife, but probably not in the way you’re expecting. We walked up to the parish church for an evening recital of handbell-ringing from a visiting troupe from Dunkeld. A most enjoyable hour it was too, even if it did seem like we were the youngest people in the audience!

Day 5:

Finally on our fourth day on Mull we took the plunge and committed to the long cross-island journey that would take us to the far western tip of the isle, and thence on to the historic isle of Iona. It entailed getting up early for the 7.30am bus, if that’s any measure of our dedication to the touristic endeavour. This was one of the high points of our Scottish adventure, because Iona is a major drawcard for thousands of visitors every year. Just as Canterbury is famous as the home of English Christianity, because it was there St Augustine founded England’s first abbey in 597, Iona is famed because this small island was home to an evangelising saint, St Columba, who brought Christianity to the north from the 560s until his death in 597. And this task, which was no mean feat in an age of barbarism and paganism, was accomplished a generation before Augustine’s crossing from Europe.

St Columba has many legends attached to his long life. This one’s rather quaint, as related by Otta F. Swire in her 1964 book, The Inner Hebrides and their Legends:
St Columba & the squirrel
He had grown tired and dispirited, as who does not at times? [...] Feeling as he did, he decided to leave Iona for a time and consider in peace and solitude what his future should be. So he took a coracle and set off by himself for Mull, where he landed and wandered into the woods which then covered the island, to meditate and pray... At length he came to a forest pool. On a stone at its edge sat the red squirrel, obviously so busy and preoccupied that she did not even hear the saint's approach. And she was busy in the queerest way. She was dipping her beautiful bushy tail into the pool and then shaking it dry over the grass behind her. St Columba watched for a time, then, coming quietly forward so as not to startle her, he asked what she was doing. 
"I'm trying to empty this pool," said the squirrel. 
"You can never do it like that," exclaimed the saint. "Why, it would take you years and years, longer than you can hope to live" 
"That's true," answered the squirrel, much impressed. Then her lovely little prick ears and her tail began to droop and she said sadly, "I suppose you're right. It's all no good. I've just wasted the summer. I'd better stop" 
She climbed down from her stone and stood thoughtful. Then she suddenly jumped up on it again and began soaking her tail once more, remarking, "Anyhow, I'm making it easier for the next squirrel, if only a little" 
St Columba gathered a large handful of nuts and placed them beside her. Then he returned to his boat and his job. He had had his sign.
In the 6th century AD Celtic Christianity, originating in isolated sects of Irish monks, was one of the few literate influences in the British Isles. St Columba was famed for arriving on Iona, a low sliver of an island just off the coast of Mull, and building a monastery there that stood as a beacon of civilisation for centuries, until constant pillaging by murderous Viking raiders sent the monks packing for Kells in Ireland. (And if you’ve seen the world-famous Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin, then you might be aware that scholars believe it actually originated in Iona, before being moved to Kells by fleeing monks). The monastery fell into disrepair for several centuries after the raids, until it was revived as a centre of pilgrimage in 1200 on order of the King. After the Reformation it fell into hard times once more, and when Samuel Johnson paid a visit in the 1770s the abbey was unroofed and derelict. The effect of the visit upon Johnson, was clearly undimmed by this:  
We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion.  To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible.  Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona! 
- Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775.

The abbey has been the subject of major restoration since the 20th century, and now stands complete, despite the odd bit of scaffolding on the church tower. The abbey can be seen clearly from the shoreline on Mull, at the tiny hamlet of Fionnphort, where you board the busy ferry for the ten minute crossing over to Iona: a rugged, sandy-brown medieval complex, set against low green hills dotted with outbursts of bare grey rock. Pride of place in front of the abbey goes to the imposing St Martin’s Cross, an original eighth century Celtic stone cross with finely carved designs on both sides and a landward side covered in a sprinkling of moss. The cross stands in front of the current medieval abbey, with modern cloisters on the left, a medieval church on the right and a separate but attached shrine to the saint himself located in the centre. Perhaps the best view of the abbey is from the small hummock just in front; there’s a socket for a now-vanished medieval high cross here, and it’s reputed that St Columba had his own humble dwelling on this spot.

Iona Abbey
St Martin's Cross
Hilary had visited Iona once before, so we split up to explore different parts of the island and meet up for the ferry later. Fiona and I headed west along farm lanes until we reached a broad sweeping bay on the sandy western shore of Iona. Here we paused for lunch in the bright Hebridean sunshine and happened to spot a local seal bobbing in the waves, looking for a meal close to shore.

DSC01950 - DSC01953 - SCUL-Smartblend
Iona shore

After a celebratory icecream in Fionnphort, which was barely disrupted by a family of long-horned sheep rambling up the main road past all the parked tourist coaches, we boarded our bus for the long journey back to Tobermory. It had been a particularly successful sojourn.

Back in town, we decided that we’d spent too much of the day sitting down – it was more than two hours by bus each way to Iona – so after dinner al fresco on the pier we donned our boots once more and walked the cliff path northwards round the coast to the lighthouse. Despite clinging mud on the path and vertiginous drops to the shoreline below we emerged at the lighthouse unscathed. It was perfect timing too – we arrived at 8.30pm and the sun was still reasonably high, casting a golden light over the calm, flat ocean. We were able to get a good close look at the lighthouse (which was erected by the famous lighthouse builders, the Stevenson Brothers, in 1857) and a family of nearby oystercatchers, whose distinctive cries were the only sound in that peaceful place. By the time we departed at 9pm the light was still strong, and our half hour walk back to town was lit by a pale but clear light of the setting sun, which reminded me how much I enjoy high latitudes in the warmer months. 

Tobermory lighthouse

Day 6:

Finally it was time to head back to the real world. We had one last morning to enjoy the gentle charms of Tobermory (and the scones from the bakery!).  Just before midday we rolled out of town on the bus for the last time, joining a few of the locals heading to the football club near Craignure to watch a social game. It was another brilliantly clear Scottish day, and we relished the ferry ride back to Oban from the open top deck, photographing the watchful seagulls swooping in the ship’s wake, eagle-eyed for scraps of discarded lunch.


Back in Oban the crowds were out in force for a local fete along the waterfront. Yes, there were bagpipes. The sun was hot and plenty of pale Scottish skin was sizzling. We stocked up with supplies for our long train journey ahead, and rejoined the mainland set. Within an hour of our 4.10pm departure the gleaming sunshine had turned to dank, sweeping rainclouds – perfect timing and perfect train weather when you’ve already seen the route you’re travelling on. Soon we were back in beautiful Edinburgh, our expedition to Mull chalked up as a resounding and memorable success.

Last morning in Tober

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.