The Stimulus of Gold
New Zealand experienced the stimulus of gold first hand in the early 1860s, when alluvial deposits were discovered first in Central Otago and later on the West Coast of what was then the Province of Canterbury. The fields were not large ones, by world standards, but in relation to the resources of the country at that time they were of major importance. It was in this period that New Zealand experienced her most rapid population growth; men swarmed in, many of them from the now languishing Victorian fields, bringing with them capital, energy, and new social and economic outlooks – and incidentally raising the ratios of males to females, and of working population to total population, to very high levels. The total population (exclusive of Maoris) rose from some 98,000 in 1861 to 172,000 in 1864, and exports from £589,000 in 1860 to 3,500,000 in 1863, when gold constituted 70 per cent of the total. In all respects the gold rushes rank as one of the most powerful stimuli the New Zealand economy has ever received; but it was the South Island which reaped nearly all the benefit. The North Island lagged behind, not only because of its lack of rich gold deposits but also because of disputes with the Maoris, which retarded the progress of farming there. The South Island thus achieved during the gold boom a lead in population, in revenue, and in production, which it maintained for about 40 years. Though the more easily won gold was soon exhausted, gold continued to be a staple export until the first decade of the twentieth century, when it constituted 12 per cent of the total. The sharp increase in the revenues of Otago and Canterbury permitted these provinces to undertake the first substantial public works of the country's history, including the founding of the first university and the laying of the first railway lines.