Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 6, October 1966

JOURNALS OF D. McCASKILL, 20.11.1864 to 16.5.1866

Report thereon by: A.M.ISDALE, B.A.

The two volumes of the Journals of D. McGaskill are particularly valuable, although they cover from 1864 to 1866 only, because they contain references to a very early period of settlement in the Thames Valley.

According to Miss Elsie Thorp, "The earliest settlers on the Thames River were the McCaskills." This was in a letter to me dated 24.8.1951. She asked if I had got in touch with any of the descendants. While I knew that the descendants of the original Thorp family who came to Paeroa in 1942 had diaries, I did not at that time expect I would ever see any such manuscript material from the McCaskills, who purchased land in several areas "around the Thames," including Hikutaia, in 1839. "The Thames" used to mean all Hauraki, and even further.

A letter of 24.12.64 to Mrs. Nell Climie of Paeroa, from National Archives states that "On 23 November, 1839, L.A. McCaskill purchased from Hura Moana and others land" (as above) "on behalf of himself and A. McCaskill, S. McDonald Martin, A Martin, Q. McAlister and C.J. Campbell." The Hikutaia purchase alone comprised 8,000 acres.

In 1839-40 there was a land purchasing boom, until the Treaty of Waitangi enabled a more effective type of British control than hitherto to put a stop to the speculation of the "Land Sharks." Some few of the purchasers, however, like the McCaskills and Thorps, were genuine settlers, and got to work on their newly acquired properties, living amicably among the Maoris.

"In a statement dated 1st July, 1843, L.A. McCaskill said he had expended about £3,000 in erecting a sawmill and other buildings and making improvements. He had resided at Hikutaia since his purchase of the land." (Archives letter of 24.12.64).

This was in defence of his land, as by that time the largely speculative purchases prior to the Treaty of Waitangi were under severe Government scrutiny. The genuine settlers, and particularly those of before the 1839-40 boom, received the most favourable treatment. The McCaskills at first received fairly generous allowances, but in later years their holdings were much cut down. That process was accentuated by the Maoris disputing the original sales.

This change of attitude came about for several reasons. One was that the Maoris had come to realise that they were not merely giving settlers, who were considered very desirable people to have in the 1840s, rights to the use of given portions of tribal land, but absolute ownership "for ever." There was also much resentment at the way in which the Government, following the Treaty of Waitangi, allowed no one but itself to buy land from the Maoris, D. McCaskill develops this theme at some length. What the Maoris objected to was that the Government was too slow and paid well below the ruling price. Mr. McCaskill was particularly bitter about the way so much of this cheaply acquired land was sold to "Land Sharks" for a small price in big blocks. Instead of being made available in small parcels for genuine settlers. Having worked very hard as a genuine settler, he devotes many vitriolic pages to this theme. As the speculators did not soil their hands, but made much money, while hard working settlers like himself had to leave their lands during the Maori Wars and experienced hardship and poverty, his bitterness is understandable. Especially when such speculators and the war profiteers looked down on him with contempt, as one of the lower orders of society. Some of them he had known as of little account in the times when he was independent on his hard-worked land.

A recurrent, indeed a principal theme in his two Journals, is the matter of compensation for his war losses. This was promised, but towards the end of his Journals we find he had lost this owing to a technicality.

D. McCaskill appears to have arrived in the Thames Valley after some years in the U.S.A. about 1848-49, as he said in 1865 he had come there about l6 or 17 years before. He apparently acquired one of the McCaskill group interests in the Hikutaia area by purchase, and settled on it.

He worked hard, particularly at draining many acres of swamp, and by the outset of the Waikato War (1863) had built up a substantial farm, with its hedges and ditches, a good stock of cattle, crops of wheat valued at £40 per annum and enough production of potatoes, vegetables, milk, butter etc. to feed seven people. They were himself, his wife, three sons and two daughters.

All this he had to leave on account of war, though he afterwards queried the wisdom of having done so on the strength of mere rumours about Maori killings and reported threats.

"The proprietors of the house in which I lived, being older colonists than I am by many years, and being good Maori linguists, insisted on my going...Not a sheep was taken from my neighbours or a cow or calf...Soon afterwards the Thames was declared blockaded." When he requested permission to send flour, tea, tobacco to his station, Whitaker refused to see him. He did not like Whitaker after that, and repeatedly made that plain in the Journals.

Also the transport of his cattle, which he had to take by sea to sell in Auckland, was delayed by Navy interference, so he lost one or two. On arriving in Auckland, he rented a house for his family, and was given a Government job with Customs. He later lost this, possibly on account of his outspokenness. This was evidenced not only in conversation, in his Journals and in communications to friends abroad of as much as 450 pages, but also in the local newspapers. Exposure of Government mismanagement or misdoings is hardly likely to be popular with its members, and McCaskill writes: "I am now threatened with the irresistible weight of the Assembly's rage, unless I cease to expose the disgraceful actions of our Colonial Officialdom."

He acquired a boat with his dwindling capital, and tried a fishing venture, which failed, for commercial depression followed the ending of the main campaigns of the Maori Wars, with progressive withdrawal of the Imperial troops which had helped bring boom conditions to Auckland. Fretting in enforced idleness - he and his sons looked for work everywhere, even to attempting to join railway construction gangs - he turned to writing in his Journals.

Though an educated, man, writing with considerable graphic power, normally he preferred other activities than writing. "I would much rather hold the stilts of the plough, or use the axe or bill hook, or the spade, and draw furrows, or fell bush or scrub, or dig trenches and ditches, than wield the pen."

Much of the Journals is taken up with repeated denunciations of land sharks and politicians subserving their interests. It was particularly galling to see, while he was eating out his heart in poverty-stricken exile from the lands where he had worked so hard, that in 1865 and early 1866 prominent men of Auckland were able to go freely into the Thames Valley to lay the foundations of big estates.

These, like the famous J.C. Firth who was then founding his baronial estate at Matamata were anything but popular with the frustrated McCaskill. However, he expressed his esteem of Firth as a person.

His boat had been sold, to help meet mounting debts, and he tried to join one such "land-sharking" party on their ship, but they eluded him, to his chagrin. His lands were mortgaged., his capital all gone, his daughter found a poorly paid job sewing. All around was growing unemployment and starving immigrants cast into a jobless land.

Meanwhile two of his sons, after the vain search for work around Auckland, had gone back to the Thames Valley with his brother and brother-in-law. On 28th March 1866, he resolved "in a few weeks...to remove back to my farm," as a "desperate step...with the conviction that the present peace is merely a hollow truce on both sides".

A few days later he found the expected compensation had been denied. "My poor wife's tears, and woebegone look, is breaking my heart," he wrote on April 12. Also, "I hear my brother is come to town; he and his friends get nothing of the twelve or thirteen thousand they claimed. I get nothing!" He cut down all expenditures to the absolute minimum.

Mr. J. Thorp, who was awarded something was sympathetic, "and offered to be one of my witnesses if there is a new trial granted. In fact, Mr. Thorp cannot understand, any more than I can, why I am allowed no compensation, and he himself gets all or almost all he asks for."

Mr. McCaskill blamed his fierce denunciations of those in power for the difference. However, he later blamed himself for an unintentional legal mis-statement in his claims. "But how am I to get through this Winter?" he wrote on May 11, 1866. "I must just tell my creditors that "they must wait," which advice I received from one of the first merchants of Auckland. "If Summer was come I would run all risks among the natives." The second Journal ends on l6th May 1866, so we have no details of how he hung on through the Winter. However, he got back on to his farm, and was one of the handful of Europeans on the River Thames when the Thames goldfield brought thousands of people from mid 1867. The Upper Thames remained the preserve of the Maoris and original settlers til 1875, when the opening of the Ohinemuri brought diggers there, and newspaper accounts of that time sometimes speak of D. McCaskill.

While eating the scanty bread of exile in Auckland, his thoughts turned nostalgically to the scenes and happenings of the farm he had taken up in the late 1840s.

"So far as my eyes could reach from the top of a hill some 1500 ft. above sea level, it (the flat area of the Thames Valley), appeared to stretch from the Hauraki or Thames gulph on the north to the sea on the south; presenting a sea of vegetation, chiefly Phormium tenax or New Zealand flax; Coopers flag [bullrush or Raupo; Typha genus, probably Typha orientalis - E]; ferns; rushes; with patches of Manuka or Tea Tree; and here and there, chiefly along the banks of the two rivers, masses of heavy timber - chiefly Kahikatea."

"I have travelled through the U.S.A from New York to New Orleans, passing through the Eastern States, and through Tennessee and Kentucky in the interior, without seeing any such extent of land free of heavy timber as is to be seen here on the Thames.

"But all this flat is perfectly useless in its present state, by far the greater part being extremely swampy...easily drained...no rocks or stony ground of any kind to render the operation difficult."

"I myself drained 200 acres of similar land. Now that ground through whose stanks and sloughs I used to wade and swelter waist deep; and into which my cattle were wont to sink until only their heads were to be seen, is perfectly firm; and dry in a day or two after the heaviest rain."

But there were the troubles about land purchases and reductions. "My own brother and two friends bought three pieces of land supposed to be about 10,000 acre's or upwards. I had bought and paid for a piece of land, conveyed to a certain party by a Crown Grant signed by Governor Fitzroy" (1843-45) "which purported to convey 1533 acres...Four or five years afterwards I found the Government recall the grant...discovered for the first time two other men had grants for the self same land." He finally got 600 acres.

There were pleasanter memories. He devotes page after page to long descriptions of the flora and fauna through the eyes of a new settler, in a strange land. He faithfully gives both Latin and Maori names, as well as the common names. He remarks on the abundance of shellfish and wild ducks.

Of the Fan Tail he says, "I have often been amused by his apparent antics, but.. there is profit in his eye." "The Kauri is, 'grand monarch' of our woods." "The strangling Thug the Rata has flowers, and makes a handsome bloody appearance from a distance."

He gives a complete description of the making of a Maori house, and of its interior. "I passed two nights in native huts...an irritating scent box."

McCaskill was often rather shocked by the free manner of speech of many of the colonists, and deplored the general profanity in Auckland. Morals apart, he had a great deal of good to say about the Maoris, and considered that the whites were much to blame for the wars.

"That the Maoris...for many years continued to live on most friendly terms with the white man is a matter of fact, and astonishment too...A mere handful of Europeans locate among the cannibals, and are soon by the latter to be possessed of an abundance of those very articles of which they themselves are totally deficient, and these articles are eagerly longed for and coveted, and could have been taken by force "yet the few settlers are unmolested by them, their persons and property respected."

He went on to speak of changes of character over a period of 30 years, due to white influence on the natives for the worse, and "white settlers arriving in greater numbers than the natives ever dreamed of seeing among them," with "innumerable irritations, trivial when taken singly." He praised Sir George Grey. He considered that he stood between the Maoris and those who wished to summarily exterminate them. He instanced his own experiences with the Maoris.

"I say with sincere regrets, the natives of the River Wai Ho (the Thames) were, when I first came among them, much more numerous then than now...and tho', then as now, and more than they now are, in want sometimes of the absolute necessaries of life.... though the house I lived in had no lock to it, and the natives had free ingress and egress at all hours, even when no white man was near or in sight of it, these same natives never meddled with or abstracted any one article, except on two occasions, when a native stole some clothing, and another stole a few shillings and a gun. All the stolen articles were returned, and I verily believe the relations and friends of the rascals would have instantly despatched them, or permitted us to do so had we wished."

"And the life of one of them was saved from the deadly wrath of his enraged Chief, the now abused Taraia of Tararu on the Thames, by...Allan McCaskill, who stepped between the enraged furious Rangatira and the culprit...My Highland blood boils with indignation when I hear the vituperation heaped on our Governor, Sir George Grey, because he is endeavouring to save these poor natives from being exterminated by their (Christian) fellow subjects."

Often as he worked solitary on his farm he was visited by friendly Maoris.

"I was 8 or 10 years in New Zealand before I got my family out here. Often did one, two, six, ten or twenty natives come by me, as I worked or sat alone in the swamp....'Ten a Kohe'....Never did they molest me, unless by taking my spade and trying their own hands at ditching."

There is an interesting entry for 3rd June 1865. "The news has come into town this day that a new gold field has been discovered near my farm on the Thames.... If it is correct it will increase the value of my land tenfold."

On 5th June he adds, "But the gold is only seen by the fabricators of the reports. The public never get a sight of it!"

(NOTE: The Weekly News of Sept. 15 1965, in "A hundred years ago" quotes: "Interest is being re-awakened gradually in the subject of a Thames goldfield and there is little doubt that some effort will be made to obtain leave, at all events, for a few prospecting parties to examine the most promising part of the country." When the Ohinemuri was opened to diggers in 1875, several claimed to be the first discoverers. "Thos. Rawdon said he came from Otago in 1864 and got some gold at Karangahake, selling it in January 1865." Mr. J. Thorp put in a claim for discovery made in 1865. As well as other Europeans, there were also Maori claims.)

In 1865, with South Island booming on gold, Auckland was looking for anything that would "support its sinking fortunes," as McCaskill put it. However, nothing definite came of gold for another two years.

He speaks of the time of extensive Maori cultivations before the wars, when the Thames Valley supplied much produce, particularly to Auckland, and when, long before Firth, "Matamata was considered as being almost the granary of the River Thames." The white settlers also regularly grew wheat. "I have seen as good as heavy crops of wheat, on my own and neighbours' farms, as I saw in all my rambles in America."

It would be a good place to get back to, away from the unemployment and muddy streets of Auckland - even Queen Street he called a quagmire in wet weather. Immediately after the passage about the good wheat crops, at a time when he was in straits to keep his family fed, he wrote:-.."March 10. 1866. In despair I have sent two of my sons up to my farm to look at it and my cattle, now running wild." (He had not been able to take all away.)

That would no doubt open the way for his return with the rest of the family after the crushing blow about the compensation in April, after which it would obviously be useless to hang about Auckland in poverty any longer, whatever the difficulties and possible perils of going back home.