[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 11th October, 1879.]
Having been in Port Nicholson before the arrival of the settlers, I have put together the following notes on the physical aspect of the place, and the condition of the native inhabitants at that time.
In September, 1839, when I arrived here in the `Tory,' with the expedition to select a fitting site for the New Zealand Company's first settlement, no ship had been in the harbour for a considerable time, probably three or four years. The place lay out of the track of whaling ships, and there was but little flax-trading to be done at it. Large, and for a time prosperous, whaling-stations existed at Port Underwood, Tory Channel, and Kapiti. The tide running past the heads on into those harbours, whale-ships lay at anchor there, with their boats in readiness, and nume-
rous shore-parties watched throughout the winter months for whales that, coming inshore during the breeding season, were entangled or swept by the tide into the bays, where they could be attacked with advantage, and when killed, towed, with the aid of the flood or ebb tide, alongside the ship or under sheers of the shore establishment. At Port Nicholson heads, the tide was not so strong as to draw in the “fish,” as they were termed, and as a consequence the place was unfrequented, and remained with its people in a more primitive condition than any of the surrounding harbours.
The forest was more undisturbed. Along the eastern shore, from the mouth of the Hutt River to outside of Ward Island, the forest was uninterrupted, and the trees overhung the water, giving shelter to great numbers of wild fowl.
About Kaiwhara, Ngahauranga, and the Korokoro, the earthquakes had not then raised the coast, and caused the beach, now occupied by the railway, to appear, and there, also, the trees overhung the water, leaving only at the ebb of the tide a space sufficient for a pathway.
The indigenous birds had been entirely unmolested, save when the Maori snared them in his furtive and noiseless manner. I remember, especially, the enormous number of waterfowl frequenting the shallows at the mouth of the Hutt River. Cormorants, ducks, teal, oyster-catchers, plovers, sand-pipers, curlew, and red-legged waders, were there in pairs, detachments, and masses, and so tame that it was slaughter, rather than sport, to shoot them.
At the beach at the head of Evans Bay, there were, beside ordinary waterfowl, flocks of Paradise ducks (Casarca variegata). In the low fern and sandy shores of Island and Lyall Bays the indigenous quail, now disappeared, would rise almost at one's foot with its shrill, startling whistle, while along the rocks the slate-coloured cranes (Ardea-sacra), two and two, were to be seen making erratic darts after shrimps, or patiently waiting for a passing fish.
The forest was then teeming with birds. Of twelve or fourteen species of small birds that were then to be seen in every wood, only the tui, the fly-catcher, and the wren, with the sand-lark, in the open, are now common, while the robin, the bell-bird, the titmouse, the thrush, the popokatea, the tiraweke, and the riroriro, are rarely seen or have entirely passed away.
Of the larger birds, the kokako, or crow, the rail, pukeko, pigeon, kaka, and huia, were numerous in their respective localities or feeding-grounds. Of a night might be heard the booming, or “drum,” of the bittern (Botaurus pœciloptilus). The weka (Ocydromus earli), now common about the Hutt Valley, was then so scarce, that for more than three months our naturalist
was unable to obtain one, alive or dead, or even to see a skin. I think this singular alteration in the bird's numbers has been noticed in Southland. This bird, although not at all shy, is very pugnacious, and can defend its young from either the rat or the cat, hence, probably, its singular increase.
The huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was then to be found in the ranges between Wainuiomata and Palliser Bay. Dr. Dieffenbach, the naturalist, was anxious to obtain some, and I accompanied him, making sketches, to the high range that overlooks Palliser Bay. The natives are very fond of the feathers of this handsome, dark, velvetty bird, with its yellow wattles and white-tipped tail, and two boys readily went with us as guides. There was no occasion to take much food into the bush in those days—the gun supplied game enough—and though the month was September, one blanket was considered sufficient bedding for the open-air bivouac.
We struck in from near Lowry Bay, and reached the source of the Orongo stream before night. There was no path whatever. We shot some kakas and snared a kokako, but saw no huias. We made a good fire as night approached. The natives were awfully afraid of the Wairarapa people, against whom they had lately fought, and while we slept with our feet near the fire, they sat crouched, with our guns in their hands, listening to detect any possibly approaching footsteps, for they were on the debateable land of the two tribes.
The only sound worth noticing was the beautiful melody, towards morning, of the bell-birds. Thousands of these were singing together, and, probably by some auricular delusion, the sound seemed to arrange itself into scales, like peals of bells running down octaves. As the sun rose this music ceased altogether. From the top of the range we had a fine view of Palliser Bay and the Wairarapa Lakes. On our way homeward the natives suddenly stopped; they heard in the distance the peculiar cry of the huia. Imitating this, and adding a peculiar croak of their own, which they said was very attractive, our guides soon brought two birds—a male and female—within shooting distance. We abstained from firing for a moment, admiring the elegant movements of these birds as they leaped from tree to tree, peering inquisitively at us, and gradually coming nearer. We now fired with light charges, and brought each a bird down. Our natives were annoyed at our “griffinism.” They had intended, by a further allurement of a peculiar gutteral croak, to have brought the birds so near as to capture them with a common slip-knot at the end of a stick—a process which we saw subsequently performed with entire success. As we descended the spur near the mouth of the Hutt River, a whale and its calf were tumbling about between Lowry Bay and Somes' Island. They were “finbacks,” and of no commercial value.
On another occasion I accompanied a party of natives into the hills, near Belmont, to spear pigeons. The spears are about twelve feet long, and very slender—not more than half an inch in diameter at thickest part. They have to be held near the point, and, on a journey, trailed behind, until wanted for immediate use. The pigeons are probably feeding in low trees, or are about water-holes, and are scarcely frightened at the approach of the hunter, who quietly steals under them, sometimes even ascending the lower branches of the tree the bird occupies. The spear is then quietly directed amongst the foliage towards the breast of the bird, which takes little notice of the operation. When the point is within half a yard, a sudden thrust is made, and the bird is transfixed. The point of the weapon is of bone, and barbed. This bone is hung securely by a lanyard at its base to the spear-head, but when ready for use is lashed with thin thread alongside the wood. The wounded bird flutters with such force as would break the spear were the whole rigid, but as arranged, the thread breaks, and the bird on the barbed bone falls the length of the lanyard, where its strugglings do not affect the spear, and it is easily taken by the fowler's left hand. This mode of capturing birds, very soon after our arrival, went out of vogue. The spears were exceedingly difficult to make, and the few that were finished were eagerly bought by the whites as curiosities.
Our ship lay to the northward of Somes' Island, and frequent trips were made of an early morning to haul the fishing-net in Lowry Bay. Large trees there overhung the beach, making it a delightful camping-place. We were always successful with the net, taking large quantities of kahawai, moki, and flounders.
From this bay the course by boat into the Hutt River, and up the branches into which it divides, was most interesting and picturesque. A pa stood at the mouth of the river on the eastern side, with large warcanoes drawn up on the beach, while at the hill-foot were tall stages, from which hung great quantities of fish in the process of sun-drying. Here the natives came out and hailed the boat's crew to land, for ashore it was high festival. Their canoes had come in, the night before, from Island Bay, loaded with “koura,” or cray-fish, which were at the moment cooking in the “hangi,” or Maori stone-oven, with pumpkins, cabbage, and potatoes.
The natives here were exceedingly apprehensive of an attack on the part of the Wairarapa tribe, who, if so disposed, could steal down the wooded hills and appear in the cultivations amongst the scattered working parties. Only two years previously bloody fights had taken place in the Wairarapa Valley, and though peace was ostensibly made with the tribe, reprisals from persons or families that had lost relatives might be dreaded. Thus
the men always had loaded fire-arms by them, and the “waka taua,” or war-canoe, was always ready for an expedition.
From the pa we pulled up the Waiwhetu River, which there had lofty pine trees on its banks. The various bends were very beautiful and secluded, and seemed to be the home of the grey duck and teal, and numerous other wild fowl. Here and there, on the bank, was a patch of cultivation, and the luxuriant growth of potatoes, taros, and kumeras, indicated the richness of the soil. As seen from the ship, or the hills, a lofty pine wood appeared to occupy the whole breadth and length of the Hutt Valley, broken only by the stream and its stony margin. This wood commenced about a mile from the sea, the intervening space being a sandy flat and a flax marsh. About the Lower Hutt and the Taita, it required a good axe-man to clear in a day a space large enough to pitch a tent upon. The cultivations of the natives were nearly all on the hill-sides, and chiefly about what is now the Pitone railroad station.
The path to the West Coast led up the hill from the west end of Pitone beach, and was very steep and difficult. There was one fine view-spot on the summit, and the track descended to the Porirua valley at what is now Mr. Earp's farm. There was then no path from Ngahauranga or Kaiwhara, but a war-track existed from Belmont to Pahautanui.
The site of the City of Wellington was, in 1839, covered at the Te Aro end with high fern and tupakihi, save about the upper part of Willis Street and Polhill's Gully, where there were high pine trees, partly felled for native cultivations. Wellington Terrace was timbered chiefly with high manuka, some of the trees forty feet high. Thorndon Flat, about Mulgrave and Pipitea Streets, was fern-covered, but with high trees towards the Tinakori Road. The native cultivations were along what is now Hawkestone Street, Tinakori Road, and the base of Tinakori hill, the sides and summit of which were densely timbered, the rata, with its crimson flowers, being conspicuous.
The native villages were—first, Pakuao, with two or three families, at Dr. Featherston's; Tiakiwai, where Mr. Izard lives, with three or four families; Pipitea, from Mr. Charles Johnston's to Moore Street, with about fifty natives; Kumutoto, Lindsay's to James', twenty natives; and Te Aro pa with sixty natives.
From Mr. James' to the Court House the beach was so narrow as barely to afford room for passage at high-water, between the sea and the cottages that were built close under the hill, or on sites dug out of its foot. Where the Bank of New Zealand stands there was a short reef of rocks, at the foot of “Windy Point.” The site of the present cricket ground was a deep morass, arranged by the surveyors for a dock reserve; after the earthquake of 1848 raised the land, generally, about the harbour, it became drainable.
The land-slips on the Orongo range, to the eastward of Port Nicholson, were not existing in 1839; they are said, and I believe correctly, to have been caused by the great earthquake of 1848. This was thirty-one years ago, and vegetable growth has not yet concealed the clay and sandstone that was then laid bare. As there were no such slips anywhere about Port Nicholson in 1839, it is, I think, a fair deduction that no shake of equal severity had occurred for at least thirty-one years prior to that date. In exploring the country, and whilst encamped on various parts of the Hutt Valley, I had opportunities of remarking the freshets of that river, and am of opinion that they did not rise so fast, or prove nearly so destructive to the banks, as during the last ten or twelve years.