A major industry
By the 1860s, exporting kauri gum was an established industry. From 1870 to 1920, digging gum was a major source of income for Māori and settlers in Northland. In the 1890s some 20,000 people were involved in the gum industry – 7,000 of them working full time.
Dalmatians were one of New Zealand’s few non-British immigrant groups in the 19th century. Around 1885, the first Dalmatians headed for the gumfields (where they were often referred to as ‘Austrians’). Others soon followed. Dalmatians often banded together to dig over an area, while British diggers were more likely to work alone or in pairs. Māori got on especially well with Dalmatians, and many Northland residents today have both Māori and Dalmatian ancestry.
Men, women and children
Most gum diggers were male, but in some places the women and children – especially Māori – also dug for gum. Many diggers were single men, who lived two or three to a hut. Others lived on the gumfields with their wives and families. One couple were Elisabeth and James Reed, whose son Alfred wrote about the gumfields in his 1948 book The gumdigger: the story of kauri gum.
If it weren’t for your gumboots…
Gum digging was dirty, muddy work, and diggers working in swamps typically wore long rubber boots. New Zealanders call these gumboots – not because the boots were used on the gumfields, but because they were made from gum or rubber.
Some gumlands still had kauri trees, but most did not – they were places where kauri had previously grown over many thousands of years. Most gumlands were low-lying hills and flats covered in mānuka, or swamps.
In 1898, the Kauri Gum Industry Act created kauri gum reserves – areas of government-owned land that could only be worked by British, Māori or naturalised New Zealanders. The law was passed after a commission of enquiry, set up because of British diggers’ complaints that Dalmatians were sending their earnings back home. However, private lands could still be worked by anyone who had an arrangement with the landowner.
A hard life
Gum digging, especially in the swamps, was hard labour, and as diggers got older they looked around for other work. Also, by the late 1890s gum was becoming harder to find. Many diggers, in the words of one shopkeeper, ‘could not make tucker’ – they were not earning enough to pay for their food and stores.
The amount of gum found varied from day to day. Typically it was not more than a digger could carry in their pack. These were grain sacks with home-made straps for each shoulder – much like a tramper’s backpack.
Diggers dreamed of finding enough gum to buy a small plot of land. In 1898 one gum buyer noted, ‘[T]he life of a gum-digger is wretched, and one of the last a man would take to.’ 1
The money tree
On a track leading towards North Cape stands a lonely pōhutukawa tree. It is known as the gum diggers’ money tree. Around 1900, workers from the nearby gumfields would leave coins in the bark for good luck as they travelled to the Pārengarenga gum store. The tree is also significant to local Māori tribes.
At day’s end diggers would weave their way through the mānuka back to their shacks. These varied in design, but were all built from whatever was to hand. In forested areas, dwellings had high, pitched roofs thatched with nīkau or raupō fronds, and chimneys of ponga logs or corrugated iron. In open areas without timber, whares (houses) made from sod and sacking were popular. Sacking was lashed to a frame of mānuka, with a tent fly over the top to make it waterproof. The floor was beaten earth, and bunks consisted of sacking nailed to mānuka frames.
Names and places
One Whangārei street is called Gumdigger Place, honouring Northland’s early labourers. The Coromandel Range has a Gumdigger Gully and Gumdigger Stream, and among the sand dunes of Ninety Mile Beach there is a hill called Austria (‘Austrians’ was the name given to Dalmatians in the late 1800s). Babylon, north of Dargaville, was named for the many tongues that were spoken there. A bronze statue of a gum digger was erected in Dargaville in 1996.