Story: Donald, Alexander Bell

Page 1: Biography

Donald, Alexander Bell

1842–1922

Seaman, sailmaker, merchant, ship owner

This biography, written by W. A. Laxon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Alexander Bell Donald was born in Inverkeithing, Fife, Scotland, on 18 August 1842, the son of John Donald and his wife, Agnes Bell. Brought up in a busy trading port, Alex soon decided to go to sea. At the age of 12 he shipped as a cabin boy. After about seven years at sea, Donald jumped ship in Dunedin, New Zealand, to head for the gold diggings at Gabriels Gully. Fortune did not come his way, and by 1870 he was in Auckland where, after working with an undertaker, he set up business as a sailmaker in Queen Street. Around 1878, as his enterprise prospered, he expanded into ships' chandlery and was soon dealing with the owners and masters of the many small sailing ships that crowded Auckland harbour.

At Auckland on 2 April 1874 Alexander Donald married Charlotte Wright, the sister of his landlady. They had met when he rowed out to the incoming migrant ship to assist her ashore. The couple were to have six children.

In 1875 Donald had his first cargo-carrying vessel built, the 61-ton schooner Agnes Donald, named after his mother. Following the withdrawal in 1879 of Owen and Graham from the Pacific islands produce trade, Donald seized his opportunity and soon took the leading position. Around this time he was joined in partnership by Charles Edenborough. Over the next 30 years the firm of Donald and Edenborough bought about 15 ships for the trades from Auckland to Rarotonga, Samoa and Tahiti.

All inward cargo had to be picked and loaded to reach the Auckland markets at its peak. A newly arrived island schooner at the Auckland wharves, its deck piled high with sweet-smelling tropical fruit, had great appeal, yet the trade was fraught with hazards. With transport dependent on small sailing ships with no refrigeration, a storm or contrary winds could make the difference between profit and disaster. Donald was unwilling to leave the timing to the judgement of others and often travelled on his vessels, supervising the buying and selling.

In July 1881 Charles Edenborough and his wife, Grace, were among the survivors on board the firm's Ovalau when it was wrecked at Huahine in the Society Islands. Three of the firm's ships were cast ashore when a tropical cyclone struck the exposed anchorage at Rarotonga on 17 December 1883. Two of them, the recently built Makea Ariki and Agnes Bell, were total losses and six crew members died; but the older Atlantic was eventually salvaged and returned to service, only to be wrecked again in the same place in January 1888. Insurance for island traders could be obtained only at prohibitive cost, so the total burden of the losses fell on the partners.

Nevertheless, they inaugurated a steamer service. After a mail contract was obtained with the New Zealand government for a two-monthly service from Dunedin and Auckland to Tonga, Samoa, Rarotonga and Tahiti, in April 1885 the 779-ton Janet Nicoll was chartered to test its viability. The success of the steamer service led to the purchase of the 628-ton Richmond in June 1887, and in 1889 the 130-ton Little Agnes was launched by her namesake, Donald's only daughter, to provide tender services at Rarotonga. The sailing ships were thereafter confined to the interisland services, except for the occasional return to Auckland for a refit.

Donald and Edenborough became involved in political developments in the eastern Pacific area. The firm's agent in Rarotonga, Richard Exham, was the British consul there, and was charged by the New Zealand government with responsibility for the proclamation of a British protectorate over the southern Cook Islands in 1888. Charles Edenborough was at the centre of an incident at Apia in 1889 at the height of tension between Britain, Germany and the United States over control of the Samoan group. The Richmond was accused by the German naval commander of supplying arms to the Samoans, and only the intervention of the commander of HMS Royalist secured her release.

The increasing prosperity of the business enabled Donald to build a substantial home at O'Rorke Street, Auckland, and to assume complete ownership of the business when Edenborough retired in the mid 1890s. The firm was incorporated as A. B. Donald Limited. The prospect of stepped-up competition from the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand brought about the disposal of both the Richmond and Donald's interest in the direct New Zealand shipping service in December 1896. Thereafter, the firm's New Zealand activities were confined to dealing with importers of produce; the ship owning was based in the islands.

By the early twentieth century Donald's sons were playing an increasing part in the business. James was responsible for the Auckland end and Alec for the Tahitian enterprise, which traded under the name of Les établissements Donald. Alexander Donald retired in about 1907 and returned to the United Kingdom. He made one final visit to New Zealand in 1920 and died at his English home in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, on 7 March 1922, survived by his wife, Charlotte, five sons and a daughter. His legacy was one of Auckland's major Pacific island trading companies, which his sons expanded to take a leading role in the region.

How to cite this page:

W. A. Laxon. 'Donald, Alexander Bell', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3d11/donald-alexander-bell (accessed 23 October 2019)