Notes on New Zealand (1892)/Chapter 3

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Mining and Minerals.


Agriculture by no means covers the extent of the productiveness of New Zealand. Vast mineral wealth of almost every description lies beneath the surface, and in this direction, perhaps, less after all has been done towards developing the resources of the country than in others.

Gold was found at a comparatively early period; coal and other minerals have since been discovered in great abundance, but no adequate idea of their extent can be at present obtained. It is perfectly clear, however, that all that has so far been done in the way of mining of any sort in New Zealand has gone to show the very remunerative nature of this industry, and how wide the fields for its development are throughout the islands. Here again, by reason of her healthy climate, New Zealand possesses great advantages over most other mining countries. Mining of every description, in comparatively unknown countries, is generally associated in the minds of most of us with untold ships, fevers and agues, hunger and thirst, extremes of heat and cold, but, when compared with the conditions to be met with in South Africa and the greater portion of Australia, difficulties of this description interfere but little with the miner in New Zealand.




In discussing the subject of the minerals of New Zealand in detail let us begin with gold, the most interesting, the most fascinating, and, from a certain point of view, the most important of all.

The histories of the separate gold districts or fields are, of necessity, very similar. A few adventurous emigrants, or perhaps one by himself, would stumble across a pocket or a reef of gold. Considerable wealth became theirs almost in a moment, and they seldom concealed it for long. But this success, too easily earned, raised the wildest expectations in the minds of all who heard of it, fatal to a reasonable appreciation of the most apparent obstacles. The man who became infected with the gold fever allowed no considerations of prudence or fitness to stand in his way. Such men came from all quarters of the globe and joined in the mad rush for gold, and disappointment was the fate of nearly all. The misdirected enthusiasm of the crowd soon exhausted the few pockets already discovered, and then spent itself aimlessly in prodding the earth in various directions until its means of subsistence were exhausted. The inevitable reaction set in, and, for a time, numbers of these would-be diggers hung around the seaport settlements disconsolate. But soon necessity started them on other pursuits, and, as farm labourers, and in some cases as land proprietors on their own account, the majority of them found employment more steady and remunerative, though perhaps less romantic and exciting than what they had originally sought. Thus it was that agriculture became the primary occupation of the Colonist, and the epidemic of the gold mania gradually died out, to recur, however, again and again in less violent forms up to the present day.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the decay of this original enthusiasm by no means implied the non-existence of the precious object which had evoked it. It was on the contrary wholly due, firstly, to the unfitness and want of preparation of the motley crowd of those who started out in the wild pursuit and to the disgust inspired by the failure to realize the exaggerated hopes of which they had dreamed, a failure brought about by this unfitness; and, secondly, to the disasters which befell so many of those who actually had met with success in the subsequent follies which success too often induced. But the gold is there still, only the search for it is conducted, except on the occasions of the wild rushes which still occur, in less extravagant fashion, and, indeed, in most cases on fixed and well-considered principles.

By far the greater part of the gold mining of New Zealand at the present day is carried on by companies. In order to pave the way to a proper comprehension of the subject it will be necessary first to give a brief explanation of a few of the technical terms in use amongst the diggers, and also of some of the most important laws affecting gold mining.

Before anyone is allowed to dig for gold, or rather before he can exercise the exclusive right to dig in any piece of land in which he has reason to believe gold may be found and to take legal possession of the gold so obtained, he must first procure a "miner's right." This is a concession granted by the agent of the Government on payment of a small fee, and gives the digger the necessary powers over any piece of land, forty feet square, that he may select to "peg out." Pegging out means planting pegs at the four corners of the piece of ground.

The Government reserves to itself this power of granting licenses to dig over all the land in New Zealand; not only over what belongs to itself, but also over what belongs to private owners; thus the owner of a sheep farm who discovers gold upon his land is not allowed to dig for it and take possession of it without first coming to certain special arrangements with the Government. Without entering too far into the technicalities of the question it will suffice to say that the obtaining of a miner's right or simple license to dig is the method in vogue amongst the ordinary miners working on their own account. Having obtained this license the digger will proceed to peg out his claim in any spot he may select. He must then commence at once to work it, and must work it for a certain time each day. If he neglects working it for a single week day it is open to any other man in possession of a miner's right to come and "jump" it; that is to say if A. pegs out a claim, but neglects to work it in the prescribed manner, B., possessing a miner's right, comes and usurps his place, evicts A., and proceeds to work it on his own account. If A. possesses a bad claim he is pretty safe; if a good one he has to be "mighty sharp." Any number of claims can be pegged out by the possessor of a miner's right, but if he or his representatives fail to work any one of them it is forfeited to the first comer in the manner above described. A frequent method is for a number of miners to become partners, and make common property of their claims; they are thus in a better position to defend them, and should some lots turn out unfortunate they are probably compensated for by others.

A gold field upon which a number of miners are working, each on his own account, or in partnership with others, is a small community governed by a commissioner, who is supported by a body of mounted police. The post of commissioner is no sinecure. He who holds it must be a man cast in a stern mould. Every new find is the signal for a series of desperate disputes, and the commissioner is called on to decide between the rival claims of a crowd of clamorous diggers upon evidence which is often apparently equally strong in support of several different sides.

Such gold fields, however, are now comparatively rare. With the introduction of capital into the country their place has been largely taken by the system of mining carried on by companies, and although, when a new gold district is first discovered, the rush which immediately takes place creates a mining camp of the old sort, yet a company is speedily formed which buys up the land, enters into special arrangements with the Government, and sets to work in an orderly and regular manner. Before leaving the question of the laws affecting ordinary diggers I may as well mention that no miner's rights are allowed to Chinamen. At one time, however. Chinamen had these rights, but they flocked in such numbers to the gold fields as to threaten to swamp the European population, and their manners also proved so objectionable to the latter that fatal riots frequently took place, the Ballarat stockade and the Turon stockade in Australia being the most serious, and laws were passed against granting to Chinamen licenses to dig for gold, Chinamen, however, are to be found on disused and worked-out gold fields, where they turn over and pick amongst the wash dirt and earth heaps which have already been panned out and abandoned by the legitimate diggers. They do over again all that the diggers have done already, and often make good finds in this way. Chinamen are to be seen hanging around the gold fields ostensibly for the purpose of cultivating vegetables, doing washing, etc., for the diggers, but in reality they are waiting until the latter depart, and they can gather up their leavings.

The practice, however, of re-working an abandoned gold claim is not always confined to the "heathen Chinee." The theory in regard to gold deposits is that the places where they are found were formerly portions of some river bed. The digger who has a claim, and finds the wash dirt, supposed to have been originally deposited by some river, works it so long as it lasts. Very often, however, he comes to a rock, and, believing this to have been the absolute bottom of the original river, abandons the claim. Another digger, however, comes along, and, sounding this rock, finds he can partially remove it or get beneath it, and sometimes discovers below a fresh deposit of wash dirt even more valuable than what had been found above.

The steps which usually lead to the formation of a genuine Company are as follows: Gold is discovered in a certain district. As soon as the fact becomes known all sorts of people—clerks, storekeepers, farmers, business men, loafers and idlers of every description—join in a rush to the spot where it has been found, and these very soon exhaust the supply of nuggets and surface gold. Prospectors arrive upon the scene and examine the ground, and, if they discover quartz gold in addition to the alluvial gold, of which the ordinary diggers are in search, proceed to form a company for working it. Quartz gold cannot be properly worked by ordinary diggers; it requires complicated machinery for crushing, etc., and has to be subjected to various processes for extracting the gold. The Company obtains a special lease of the land from the Government, and takes out special licenses, allots its shares, conveys and erects its machinery, employs its labourers, proceeds to work its mine, and to pay its dividends. These are the lines upon which a Company is generally floated and worked, but, of course, Companies do not always commence in the same way, or work in the same fashion. There is, for instance, the Gillespie Beach Gold Dredging Company. Its object is to dredge the sea at the mouth of the Grey River and bring up the sand and mud, which contain large quantities of gold-dust washed down by the stream.

Bogus Companies are by no means rare. The various devices, however, which have been resorted to with more or less success for entrapping investors would take too long to describe; in the main they consist of false or exaggerated descriptions of the capacity of a newly-discovered mine, supported by ingenious reports from headquarters and samples of rich quartz alleged to have been procured from the mine in question. The inexperienced or ignorant investor who commences dabbling in gold speculations is almost certain to fall a prey to a Company of this sort; but even experienced men, in their haste to get rich, often make mistakes as well. Gold mining and speculation, in fact, is a pursuit like most others, in which skill, experience, and knowledge of the subject are essential to success. It is true that solitary instances are recorded of fresh and inexperienced gold-seekers finding on their first venture and upon their first claim nuggets of exceptional value which men who have been working upon the diggings for years have never found; but these instances are upon the whole no more frequent than similar instances of chance success in other walks of life. When they occur the diggers, who are intensely superstitious and great believers in luck, follow the fortunate miner everywhere he goes, and whenever he pegs out his claim there is a rush to secure the claims nearest his. Again, it sometimes happens that a man, totally unacquainted with the business, buys shares in a new Company, and a few days afterwards finds they have risen to a premium; but for any inexperienced man to go mining or speculating in the hope of meeting with such chances as these is simple folly. As a rule the great majority of those who join in a gold rush are men who, up to that time, have been following widely different pursuits, and the man who invariably comes best out of the enterprise is he who does not abandon his original calling in order to engage in an occupation which he knows nothing about, but who succeeds in setting up the first store or grog shanty upon the gold field. He it is into whose pocket eventually flows the greater portion of all the gold that is found. Before long, if the field prove a rich one, the grog shanty becomes an hotel, and several more are opened, but it is the first which gathers in the dust.

These gold rushes, however, now occur but seldom, and, indeed, the word "gold" seems to have lost much of its old power to awaken the enthusiasm of the Colonist. Three main causes have been and are still in operation to produce this result.

Firstly, gold fields are bought up and monopolized by Companies which, with their machinery and improved methods of working, have taken the place of the private digger with his pickaxe, and the private digger has become the employé of the Company. Secondly, the gold seeker arriving from abroad with the intention of commencing the search on his own account finds in New Zealand towns civilization and society much resembling what he has already been used to, and not a comparatively wild country such as he probably expected. These attractions tend to divert him from his original intention. If he be a labourer he soon finds employment in his old line; if he has any money he soon loses it, for sharpers abound, and "townies" (so-called because they introduce themselves as having come from the same town in the old country) are always on the look out for "new chums." Thus the intending digger drifts into other channels, and unless there should happen to be a "rush" just about the time of his arrival he probably never reaches the gold fields. Thirdly, the demand for labour in other spheres is now so great and the prospect of earning good wages in other directions so certain, that the number of those whom want of employment sends to the diggings is now exceedingly small.

The districts in New Zealand in which gold has so far been discovered are somewhat scattered; but mining operations are at present principally carried on in the South Island. On the eastern side of the Southern Alps, which form, as it were, the backbone of this island, no trace of gold has been as yet discovered, but immediately on crossing over to the western side of this ridge of mountains the "colour" of the precious metal is visible. The principal mining districts are Reefton, north of the Grey River; the Green-Stone diggings on the Taramakau River, and the Otago gold fields on the Clutha or Molyneux River south of Dunedin.

In the North Island mining is carried on in the district around the Thames River in Auckland. Wonderful reports have also come of gold to be found in the "King Country," or Maori district north of Auckland.

There are considerable tracts of mountainous country on the west coast of New Zealand in which there is every reason for believing that gold exists in abundance, but which have not as yet been prospected.

Many failures have been recorded of those who have embarked upon the search for gold in the Colonies; many stories of their acts of folly are told. From their experience certain suggestions may be derived which I will here take the opportunity, once for all, of offering to those, who, attracted by the prospects of adventure and wealth, may desire to seek their fortunes in a new country. It matters little whether their fancy prompts them to visit New Zealand or some other colony, or whether they propose to obtain their gold by digging or by other methods, the few words of advice which I now venture to proffer to the inexperienced explorer will be equally applicable.

We will suppose that a man is about to set out from England or some other country for the Colonies who has little or no practical acquaintance with the pursuit he hopes to follow when he gets there. Such is frequently the case, for men are continually arriving, who, having failed at home, hope in a vague and indefinite way to make their fortunes abroad; nor does this hope by any means prove a delusion to a man who follows a wise and patient course. In the first place let him economize in every particular, in his outfit, in his passage and travelling expenses, in the luxuries which he allows himself on the journey, let him endeavour, in short, to have as much money in hand as he possibly can on his arrival in the Colony. In regard to the outfit the temptation is, for those who have any money, to encumber themselves with a number of articles which are only in the way in travelling and of very little use on arrival. Clothes of a strong texture and an easy fit, good flannel shirts, and high water tight boots are what are necessary, the last especially being expensive in the Colonies. On the voyage out the emigrant may pick up a good deal, but, on the other hand, by injudicious openness he may lose quite as much. If he has money he had better not mention it even to the most companionable fellow voyager. Let him hear impartially the advice which he receives, which will generally be of a conflicting character.

On his arrival in the Colony let him place what capital he possesses in one of the principal banks, reserving only what is necessary for his daily expenditure for a few weeks, which expenditure can be conducted, at any rate in New Zealand, on very economical lines, provided only he avoids drink and keeps clear of bar rooms.

His next step must depend upon his own capacities and disposition. If he possesses technical skill in any branch of trade or manufactures he will have very little difficulty in finding remunerative employment at once in New Zealand, and from that point onwards he will only require steadiness, perseverance and a wise use of his money to speedily place him in a prosperous and even affluent position. If, however, he has had no particular technical training, or his abilities are of the literary or journalistic, or some equally valueless description, from a monetary point of view in the Colonies, his plan must be to acquire and to employ as quickly as possible some training which will be of value to him, and this brings us back, after an apparent digression, to the subject of gold mining. We will suppose that he selects gold mining under these circumstances. Let him set out for the mines of the nearest gold company and ask for employment. He must take what wages he can get as a new hand. If an industrious worker he will very soon be in receipt of good earnings. He will probably get employment at the first mines, if not, let him go on to the next. Let him work as an employé therefore on different gold mines for at least twelve months, gaining experience, becoming acquainted with the details of mining, learning how to prospect for gold, and lending a discriminating ear to all that is said, and observing all that is done. At the end of this time he will understand the business, how and where to look for gold, and how to recognize and work it when he sees it, and will also have been earning money and adding to his original capital. He can then, if he choose, take up an independent line, procure the necessary outfit and start prospecting and even company floating on his own account; but whatever course he may adopt in connection with gold mining, provided he has energy, foresight, and sobriety, I will not attempt to suggest any limit to his success.



Upon the subject of coal mining there is no need for me to tender advice to persons going out to New Zealand; it is a subject at least as well understood in England as in the Colonies. To briefly indicate, however, the principal localities in New Zealand in which this mineral is found, and to describe its various qualities, may be useful.

New Zealand resembles England in regard to the abundance of coal to be found there. The seams which are at present worked are very large, in fact, the companies do not see the use of working small ones when larger ones are to be met with. The chief Centres for coal are on the West coast, namely, Westport and Greymouth. The coal from the former district I have already referred to as being a very good burning, black coal, but so extremely hot that it is generally mixed with Greymouth or some other for common use. Greymouth is also a black coal, and very useful for ordinary purposes, and of late years the Brunner coal from the same district has come into the market, and is mixed with Westport for steam production, etc. Good black coal is also found in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, where the Union steamships generally coal when in those latitudes.

These black coals are generally from 18s. to 20s. per ton, according to the distance of transport. There are in the Malvern Hills, about forty miles from Christchurch, large quantities of brown coal, or lignite, which, though it cannot compare with the black coal already mentioned, either for steam production or general usefulness, is found to be very good for household purposes when mixed with a better quality; it will keep alight for a considerable time, but if used for engines it is rather dangerous, on account of the sparks which fly from it, caused by the strong draught. It costs from 12s. to 14s. per ton.

Anthracite coal has also been found in the Rakia Gorge, and probably exists elsewhere, but as there has been no necessity so far to increase the output to any great extent, the coal companies have been satisfied with the mines which they are at present working. It has been calculated, however, that the amount of coal in New Zealand will be quite sufficient for all her wants in the unlimited future, even should her population become as great as that of England.

During the recent great strike throughout the Australasian Colonies coal was brought from Japan. One of the principal tactical mistakes for which the leaders of this strike were responsible was the "calling out" of the colliers.

The colliers have always been in receipt of a much higher rate of wages than is paid in England; they did not even pretend to have a grievance themselves—they were called out to join in the general strike, as it was hoped that thereby the power of the shipowners, the freezing and other companies would be crushed. The effect of this step, however—depriving the community, themselves included, of one of the principal necessaries of life, and largely increasing the number of men out of employment—served only to weaken the powers of the strikers and to bring about the collapse of their movement.




Silver has been found in New Zealand, principally in Stewart Island, but has not been worked to any great extent, partly because of the usual reason, lack of capital, and partly, since gold is to be obtained, and the gold-fields are more advanced, comparatively little attention has been paid to the less precious metal. There are so many branches of industry to be taken up that this one has been somewhat neglected.




Copper and lead are said by prospectors and geologists to exist in this colony, and in no small quantities, but on account of the reasons just mentioned, and of the comparatively small demand so far these metals have not been sought after or worked. Magnesium has also been found. On the coast near New Plymouth iron sand is obtained and worked, and the finest steel is manufactured from it.




To the minerals already mentioned to be found in New Zealand there has lately been added another, by the discovery of petroleum oil springs in the North Island. The value of this discovery will be evident to those who have heard of the similar springs of America, and the proverbial wealth of their proprietors. But as yet these springs have not been utilized in New Zealand to bring the wealth and prosperity in question to the country or to the individual.

How far New Zealand may be rich in other mineral possessions is still a matter of conjecture.