Page 1: Biography
Figueira, Francisco Rodrigues
Kauri gum dealer, gum camp manager, horse breeder
This biography, written by Marianne Simpkins, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Francisco Rodrigues Figueira, popularly known as Don Buck, was an intriguing character of early west Auckland. He was born in Madeira, probably in 1869 or 1870. Nothing is known of his parents, early life or date of arrival in New Zealand; he seems never to have married. Figueira described himself as a viticulturist by profession but is best known for running a gum-diggers' camp on a 250-acre property on the outskirts of Henderson, near Auckland.
Figueira probably established his camp in the 1890s. It became a haven for ne'er-do-wells, incorrigibles, down-and-outs, remittance men and waifs and strays who were often given 12 hours to quit the boundaries of Auckland town. Don Buck's camp, as it became known, was the nearest place to obtain food, shelter and a chance to work. Residents were expected to sell the gum they dug to Figueira, who had a reputation for being tough but fair in his dealings. It was believed that any abuse of his hospitality would bring swift retribution. He carried a gun for his own protection and was fast and accurate with a knife. By 1900 Figueira had an arrangement with the Magistrate's Court in Auckland to employ vagrants who would otherwise have received a short gaol sentence. He collected the workers from the court about once a fortnight.
The first accommodation at the camp was a large bunkhouse with a surrounding ditch and wall. Later the typical gum-digger shanties with turf chimneys and iron or raupo roofs were built; they were rented for a shilling a week. Fruit trees (peaches and pears) grew near the shanties. A herd of goats roamed freely over the hill in the daytime, always returning independently about four o'clock, presumably to be milked. The goats provided meat for the diggers. Figueira also bred horses, and rode a magnificent animal himself.
Francisco Rodrigues Figueira was always immaculately dressed. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, calf-length velvet-trimmed jacket, waistcoat, and high leather boots. His Mediterranean complexion, dark glittering eyes and bristling wax-tipped moustache made him an unforgettable sight. Crowds would gather when he went into Kingsland to buy provisions. He spoke several languages.
Figueira cultivated friendly relations with other settlers in the area. When fire swept through the Waitakere Range, during the building of a local dam, he rode through the area with some of his men to assess the damage and returned with food and clothing for the afflicted, riding over very rough country for many hours to complete the task. He made an effort to keep relationships with neighbours cordial. When camp ruffians robbed a neighbour's son, and whenever diggers encroached without permission on adjoining land, Figueira made apologies. He gave a pony to the daughters of one neighbour. One of his close friends was Jean Marie Paitry, a retired seaman with whom Figueira conversed in French. In spite of his regard for Figueira, Paitry discouraged him from forming too close an association with his daughter.
The types of people attracted to Figueira's camp caused apprehension in some quarters. Women vagrants worked beside the men, and their constant appearances in court caused them to be harshly judged. Riotous drinking disgusted the hard-working farming community. Figueira turned a blind eye to this behaviour although some gum camps forbade alcohol. In November 1912 the mysterious death of a digger in one of the shanties drew public attention to life at the camp. Derogatory remarks about living conditions and the behaviour of occupants reflected badly on the whole area. Figueira is reported to have tried to close down the camp which had become a home to some. It had outlived its usefulness, and the sale and enclosure of much of the surrounding land in west Auckland meant that there was little space available for gum-digging.
From about 1913 or 1914 Figueira suffered from heart disease, and in the last six months of his life, from dropsy. In the weeks before his death he settled his accounts from his hospital bed and arranged his funeral: the coffin was to be extra-large with silver handles, and three carriages were to carry a priest, Figueira's solicitors and the pall-bearers. He died at Severn House, a private hospital in Ponsonby, Auckland, on 5 August 1917. He is remembered in such west Auckland placenames as Don Buck Road, Don Buck Primary School, and Don Buck Corner Reserve.