Dunedin: Founding a New World City

Dunedin: Founding a New World City

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Dunedin: Founding A New World City is concerned with the early European settlers of Dunedin – who they were, why they came, how they survived and mostly thrived – and with the decisions they made that continue to profoundly effect the appearance and personality of the city nearly a century and three-quarters later. It is a story of the longest and a part of the last great colonial migration, of an attempt to found a narrow religious community, of physical hardships in a strange land, of law-abiding working folk and street-brawling community leaders, and of the occasional circus from out of town. Ultimately, it is a story of the building of the foundations of a city that successive generations of its citizens would be proud to call home.

From: Dunedin: Founding a New World City, by Ian Dougherty


The Best Laid Schemes

OTEPOTI – the Maori name for the site of the future town of Dunedin at the end of the Otago Harbour – had witnessed about six centuries of human history before the systematic European settlement that began in 1848. During the first wave of migration to New Zealand, Maori from East Polynesia settled in the Dunedin district from about the middle of the 13th century. They favoured the sheltered bays around the harbour entrance, although Maori families lived in an extended settlement from what became the Exchange to the mouth of the Leith until at least 1785.1 The Dunedin site continued to serve as a landing place for canoes, on a gravel beach at the mouth of a creek local Maori called Toitu, which formed a channel among the tidal sand and mud flats. Otepoti was also a source of birds and eels, and a place to run European-introduced pigs away from the harbour-entrance villages and introduced potato crops.2

Men on board the British exploration vessel, Endeavour, captained by James Cook, were the first Europeans to sight the Dunedin coast, on 25 February 1770. Cook named Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula after one of his former naval bosses, and wrote that the shore to the north of the cape seemed to form two or three bays in which there appeared to be anchorage and shelter, but the wind was against him finding the harbour entrance. Cook noted too ‘a remarkable Saddle hill laying near the shore’ to the south, which became known as the landmark Saddle Hill.3

Cook’s references to the presence of whales and seals helped entice the next lot of Europeans – whalers, sealers and traders – who visited the harbour from about 1806. A brief period of commerce and co-habitation between Maori and Europeans shattered in 1810. The theft of a knife, red shirt and some other items by a Maori chief who went aboard a sealing ship anchored in the harbour occasioned ‘a long, rolling feud’ lasting more than a decade that included the burning of a village inside the harbour entrance, and the deaths of 41 Europeans and 25 Maori along the Otago coast.4

It was not until 1826 that the first Europeans are known to have ventured up ‘the river’ – as the natural harbour channel was called – and land at the end of the long, narrow harbour. Two vessels, the Rosanna and the Lambton, brought a party of intending British colonists to New Zealand and put into the harbour on their way up the east coast. Thomas Shepherd and Richard Bell from the Rosanna took a boat and examined the harbour ‘to its utmost extent’. First impressions were favourable. According to Shepherd, who kept a journal of the expedition, ‘It is probable this situation will be made a desirable Settlement at some future period as there are plenty of Flax Timber for Building firewood &c and plenty of fish and good land.’5

Permanent European occupation of the Dunedin district began in 1831, when three brothers – Edward, George and Joseph Weller – established a whaling and trading station on the harbour’s eastern shore, at what became known as Wellers Rock. The population of the Weller settlement was more than 100 by the late 1830s. By the mid-1840s, whaling was in decline and the station abandoned, although a few former whalers and others stayed on, some making and selling grog.6

The arrival of Europeans had a devastating effect on the resident Maori population of the Dunedin district, which was ravaged by measles, muskets and malaise. In the early 1830s, there were probably 1000 or more Maori living in the district, and possibly as many as 3000, most residing inside the eastern harbour, north and south of Wellers Rock. By the time the first shipload of European settlers arrived in March 1848, there were only about 285 Maori in the district, 111 of whom were living near Wellers Rock, most in the village local Maori pronounced as Otago. The name was later deprived of its southern dialect pronunciation and standardised as Otakou for the village, although Otago prevailed for the name of the harbour, peninsula and province.7

Whalers from the Wellers’ station were the first Europeans to live, albeit temporarily, at the Dunedin town site. Parties of four or five whalers spent three or four weeks in the autumn, usually camped in a hut in the gully between what became High and Rattray streets, shooting a winter’s supply of pork, butchered, salted and stored in casks. The pig-hunters’ hut remained long after the settlers landed in 1848. Two runaway sailors also took up temporary abode in a hut by the Toitu mouth, hunting pigs and supplying them to whalers until one runaway died and the other left soon after.8

A land fit for pigs was not the most promising start to the future city of Dunedin, but events on the other side of the world changed all that. In 1840, the British Government proclaimed sovereignty over New Zealand, based on Maori consent in signing the Treaty of Waitangi. Even before the signing, the colonising New Zealand Company, inspired by the ideas of Edward Wakefield, had despatched British settlers to Wellington: in the next two years, the Company also founded the settlements of Nelson and New Plymouth.

Wakefield devised his scheme for ‘systematic colonisation’ while serving a three-year sentence in London’s Newgate Prison for abducting a 15-year-old school girl, whom he conned into marrying him with the story that her father had desperate money troubles and the marriage was the only means of solving them. His brother and co-conspirator, William, served the same sentence. Edward Wakefield shared commonly held concerns about the downside of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, notably unemployment. For him, the solution lay in emigration to the British colonies, not just of the unemployed but of all classes of society, who would live in a planned, concentrated settlement that would replicate the best features of an idyllic pre-industrial society and negate the worse features of a ‘wild frontier society’. The key to Wakefield’s scheme was the setting of a ‘sufficient price’ for land. It was to be set low enough to attract capitalist landowners but high enough to prevent speculation, and to prevent labourers from buying land too soon while offering the hope that, after a few years of working for landowners, they would accumulate enough capital to acquire land themselves.9

Among those attracted to Wakefield’s ideas was a Scots-born sculptor, George Rennie. He had been elected as a Member of Parliament for Ipswich in June 1841 but was declared guilty of bribing voters and lost his seat in May 1842.10 Turning his attention to colonisation, Rennie wrote to the New Zealand Company in July 1842 on behalf of an unidentified body of persons’. He told the Company that he and the people he represented believed there was an urgent need to make immediate preparations for an extensive emigration of ‘the unemployed and destitute masses’ of Britain ‘to the unoccupied lands of the Colonies.’ They saw this as the only way to remove permanently the causes of distress that had spread over the country, to preserve the peace of the country, and to ‘save the institutions of England from being swept away in an uncontrollable rebellion of the stomach.

Rennie then outlined a plan they favoured for the founding of a further settlement in New Zealand, under the auspices of the New Zealand Company, on ‘some eligible site’ on the east coast of the Middle or South Island of New Zealand. Rennie explained that they had chosen the east coast ‘because it presents the very important advantage of having been already examined, and found to comprise an ample extent of fertile land, and to contain several safe and commodious harbours’. Mindful of the lessons to be learned from earlier experimental settlements, and particularly the inadequate advanced preparations made for prospective settlers in South Australia, Rennie proposed that, once the site for the new settlement had been secured, the New Zealand Company send out a preliminary expedition, consisting of surveyors, civil engineers, mechanics, and a few agricultural labourers. On their arrival, the surveyors would lay out the town, and the engineers would construct a landing-place, a wharf, and a road from the wharf to the town centre. At the same time, some of the mechanics would erect in the immediate vicinity of the wharf an extensive range of sheds for the reception of goods, and a spacious dormitory building for the immediate accommodation of the first body of colonists. Some of the mechanics would then be employed in erecting a church and a schoolhouse. Meanwhile, the agricultural labourers would clear and crop an extensive suburban farm, which the Company would stock with the best breeds of cattle and sheep from the Australian colonies. Once all or some of these important operations had been completed, the first body of colonists, consisting of a due proportion of capitalists and labourers, would be despatched.

Rennie next set out a detailed ‘mode of proceeding’ for this yet to be selected site on the other side of the world. It covered the selection of land by the New Zealand Company, the division of the land into sections, the purchase price of the sections, and the distribution of the proceeds. Rennie did not refer to any preferred ethnicity or religion for the settlers. The New Zealand Company replied that it was ‘willing to entertain generally the proposal’.11

Among those attracted to the scheme put forward by Rennie were two fellow Scots: an Edinburgh-born London banker, William Cargill; and a retired naval captain, Wentworth Croke. The trio, who sought privileged places within the settlement, put their names to a modified mode of proceeding submitted to the New Zealand Company in May 1843. Mindful that the majority of New Zealand Company emigrants had been from England, they told the Company that, ‘the proposed Colony should be made peculiarly eligible for Scottish Emigrants of all the various classes which constitute society, – that it should be a New Zealand settlement for Scotland’; provision should be made for religious and educational purposes in connection with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; and the whole emigration fund from the sale of lands ‘should be employed in promoting the emigration of persons from the labouring class from Scotland only.’ They added that, ‘It is not an exclusive colony that we propose, but only a special one’, and that ‘the proverbial disposition of our countrymen to stick together and help each other, is a quality which deserves to be indulged and fostered as one of the most potent instruments of Colonization.’ The trio also informed the Company that using the large New Zealand Company team of surveyors already working in the colony would avoid the expense and delay of a preliminary expedition. Rennie later boldly asserted, ‘and we will found a new Edinburgh at the antipodes that shall one day rival the old.’ Wakefield and the New Zealand Company were sold on the modified plan. Wakefield supported the proposed Scots-Presbyterian ‘class settlement’, and the later English-Church of England (Anglican) class settlement in Canterbury, because he felt that religious cohesion was the missing ingredient in what to him were the disappointing Wellington and Nelson settlements.12

Ironically, the ‘disruption’ of religious cohesion within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland changed the nature of the proposed settlement, and led to Rennie’s demise. In May 1843, the same month as the trio put their modified plan to the New Zealand Company, about a third of the Church of Scotland’s ministers and lay members abandoned their kirks or churches and manses and established the Free Church of Scotland. The breakaway church was headed by a theologian, Thomas Chalmers, after whom the port settlement of Koputai was re-named Port Chalmers following his death in 1847. The dramatic departure was the culmination of a long simmering disagreement between ‘evangelicals’ and ‘moderates’ over the respective roles of church and state. Chalmers and the evangelicals wanted the church to become a national institution that imposed ‘godly order’, not just on church members, but on everyone. Big city post-industrial problems would be solved through small-scale industries in small communities in which employers knew their employees, and through parishes divided into smaller ‘proportions’ in which church officeholders were responsible for the moral and physical wellbeing of their inhabitants. The occasion of the walkout was a particular conflict over patronage: whether the local laird or, as the dissenters argued, the local congregation should have the final say in the appointment of a new minister. The breakaway ministers included Thomas Burns, who gave up his church, manse and stipend in the prosperous rural parish of Monkton.

Wakefield’s ideas of effectively trying to recreate pre-industrial society tied in with those of Chalmers and the Free Church of Scotland evangelicals. Cargill, who became a member of the Free Church, Burns and a doctor and Free Church leader, Andrew Aldcorn, saw Rennie’s scheme as an opportunity to establish not just a Scots Presbyterian settlement but a more exclusive Free Church theocracy. Burns, who was appointed the settlement’s first minister, wanted all churches, ministers, schools and teachers and all religious and educational endowments to be Free Church. Rennie, who was not a Free Church member, disagreed, because the plan put to the New Zealand Company was that provision should be made for religious and educational purposes in connection with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and because it might hurt future land sales. Rennie also supported the separation of secular and religious instruction for children.13 Rennie was squeezed out by Burns, Cargill, Aldcorn and the scheme’s other Free Church supporters. He abandoned plans to emigrate to the new settlement and, in 1847, went off to another far-flung corner of the British Empire, to become the governor of the Falkland Islands. He died in London in 1860 without ever seeing his promised land. Croke also decided not to join the settlement.

The scheme’s Free Church supporters pressed on with their plans for an exclusive Free Church settlement. In May 1845, they formed the Lay Association of Members of the Free Church of Scotland, also later called the Otago Association. They received the cautious blessing of the Free Church’s General Assembly.14 In September 1845, the Lay Association and the New Zealand Company agreed that the Association would take responsibility for promoting the settlement and finding buyers for the land, while the Company would assist in matters such as surveys and emigration. Priority of choice for the first land sales would be determined by ballot held in London prior to departure, but with the actual choice made in the settlement after the arrival of the colonists.

The organisers also came up with a third and nearly final version of the mode of proceeding. The New Zealand Company was to acquire 144,600 acres of land divided into 2400 properties each of 60 and a quarter acres comprising a quarter acre town section, a 10-acre suburban section and a 50-acre rural section. These were to be appropriated as follows: 2000 properties to private individuals, 200 to the New Zealand Company, 100 to the trustees for religious and educational purposes, and 100 to the trustees for the municipal government. The land price was fixed at £120 10 shillings a property or £2 an acre. The £289,200 from land sales was to be distributed as follows: three-eighths for free and later assisted emigration; two-eighths to be administered by the Company, for surveys and other founding expenses, roads, bridges, and other improvements; two-eighths to the Company for its capital and risk; and one-eighth to be administered by the church and education trustees. The New Zealand Company and the church and education trustees would purchase their properties from their shares of the land sales money but the municipal government would have to pay for its own properties. In laying out the town – which was to cover 600 acres comprising 2400 quarter-acre sections – due provision was to be made for public purposes such as fortifications, public buildings, sites for places of public worship and instruction, baths, wharfs, quays, cemeteries, squares, a park, and other places for health and recreation.15


Chapter One:
The Best Laid Schemes

1 Peter Entwisle, Behold the Moon: The European Occupation of the Dunedin District 1770-1848, Port Daniel Press, Dunedin, revised edition 2010, p 32.

2 Edward Shortland, The Southern Districts of New Zealand: A Journal with Passing Notices of the Customs of Aborigines, Longman Brown Green and Longman, London, 1851, pp 175-6.

3 J. C. (John) Beaglehole, The Journals of Captain Cook: Prepared from the Original Manuscripts by J. C. Beaglehole for the Hakluyt Society 1955-1967, volume one, Penguin, London, 1999, pp 257-60.

4 Entwisle, Behold, pp 24-30, 50-83, 193-6.

5 'Transcript of Extract from Journal of Thomas Shepherd on the "Rosanna"' (1826), MS-0440-006, Hocken Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin. This is a transcript of a part of Shepherd's journal, taken from the original in the State Library New South Wales in Sydney: 'Journal on Board the Brig Rosanna on the Coast of New Zealand by Thomas Shepherd, 1826’, call number A 1966.

6 Entwisle, Behold, pp 109-11, 145-8.

7 Entwisle, Behold,, pp 180-1.

8 Entwisle, Behold, p 145. M. G. T[homson], A Preliminary Page to the History of Otago, [Dunedin, 1886]. Thomas Hocken, Contributions to the Early History of New Zealand: Settlement of Otago, Sampson Low Marston and Company, London, 1898, p 63.

9 Arthur Barron and Alfred Austin, Reports of Cases of Controverted Elections in the Fourteenth Parliament of the United Kingdom, S. Sweet and others, London, 1844, pp 253-63.

10 George Rennie to New Zealand Company, 28 Jul 1842; New Zealand Company to Rennie, 12 Aug 1842, Colonial Gazette, London, 17 Aug 1842, pp 513-15. The letters were also published in the New Zealand Journal, London, 20 Aug 1842, pp 193-4. Expressions of monetary value, distance, area, and temperature have been retained in the currency of the day.

11 Philip Temple, A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields, Auckland University Press. Auckland, 2002, pp 126-35.

12 George Rennie, William Cargill and W. Croke to John Ward, 23 May 1843; Ward to Rennie, Cargill and Croke, 25 May 1843, 'Volume of Correspondence, 1843-1862', MS-0081, 'Captain William Cargill: Papers Relating to the New Zealand Company and the Early Settlement of Otago, 1843-1862', ARC-0391, Hocken Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin. The letters were also published in the New Zealand Journal, 8 Jul 1843, pp 177-8. Rennie's comment was published in the New Zealand Journal, 5 Aug 1843, p 196.

13 Thomas Burns to William Cargill, 2 Oct 1843, 'Letters from Reverend Thomas Burns to Cargill Relating to the Proposed Otago Settlement, 1843-1847', MS-0076, 'Cargill Papers'.

14 Scheme of the Colony of the Free Church at Otago in New Zealand, Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland, Glasgow, 1845, pp 5-6.

15 Otago (New Edinburgh): Arrangements for the Establishment of a Settlement and for the Disposal of the Lands of the New Zealand Company at Otago, Stewart and Murray, London, 1846. See Hocken, Contributions, pp 277-85 for the subsequent changes made to these arrangements.

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