New Zealand’s giant kauri trees (Agathis australis) ooze resin from their bark, leaves and cones. This protects the tree by filling holes and damaged areas. It builds up in the forks of the tree, around the roots and on the ground underneath. Kauri can live for more than 1,000 years, over which time they produce a large amount of resin. Occasionally branches oozing resin drop to the ground, and eventually the tree dies and falls. Over time, the ground where kauri trees grew becomes a litter of wood and gum, which is often gradually buried by soil or drowned in swamps.
Kauri gum is sometimes called copal or – mistakenly – amber. Copal is a general term for resins used to make varnish. Amber is a hard, fossilised resin used to make jewellery, and much of it found in the northern hemisphere is millions of years old. There has been little carbon dating of kauri gum, but most is probably only thousands or tens of thousands of years old. It can accurately be called copal or resin, but in New Zealand it is usually called kauri gum.
Kauri forest once covered most of Northland, but when people arrived in New Zealand much of it had gone. Some believe this could have been due to climate change, volcanic activity, tsunamis or fires. Some Māori traditions tell of the trees being destroyed by the forest god Tāne as he struggled with his parents. Another – more fanciful – theory speculates that the culprits were giant aliens wielding chainsaws.
Kauri gum is found naturally only in New Zealand, because kauri trees are endemic to the country.
Large amounts of gum have only ever been found in the northern North Island, although in the past, when the climate was warmer, kauri grew as far south as Southland. At one time much of Northland was a vast kauri forest, which stretched from coast to coast in places. By the time Polynesians arrived in New Zealand (1250–1300 AD), kauri forests only grew in pockets. The kauri’s current natural range is northwards from around the base of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Māori called kauri gum kāpia, and had many uses for it. They chewed fresh gum from trees, and softened older gum for chewing by soaking it in water and mixing it with the milk of pūwhā (common sow-thistle, Sonchus oleraceus). As gum burns readily, it was used to start fires or bound in flax to make a torch for night-time fishing. Gum was also used for moko (facial tattoos): the black soot from burnt gum was ground into a fine powder, mixed with oil or fat and applied to cuts in the skin.
One historian writes that ‘in the very early days the gum would be hanging down like huge bubbles all over the trees and that they could be knocked down easily. The ground too was covered with gum but its only use was for lighting fires.’ 1
In November 1769, the British explorer James Cook found kauri gum at Mercury Bay in the Coromandel, and mistakenly thought it came from mangroves. In October 1819 the missionary Samuel Marsden noted its correct source as the kauri tree, and in 1842 the explorer Charles Heaphy remarked that he had seen good quality varnish made from kauri gum.
An early consignment of gum was reportedly sent to London in the early 1840s to make fire-kindlers and marine glue. But its real value would be as an ingredient in varnish, which in the 1800s was made from the resins of various trees. Kauri gum was found to be superior to other resins, and by the mid-1840s was exported to manufacturers in London and America. An industry was born. Māori and European settlers set about digging gum from the ground.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
One Whāngārei 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.
The solitary gum digger had few requirements. The most important equipment was a gum spear and spade. The spear was a pointed steel rod fitted with a spade handle, for probing the ground to find gum. Experienced diggers came to know the feel of hitting gum. Diggers often dug up wood by mistake, but a later invention called the ‘joker’ – a wire coil wrapped around the spear tip – allowed them to collect and examine small particles of any object the spear hit.
The spade, known as a Skelton, was a cross between a spade and an axe. Strongly constructed, it had a hand-forged steel blade, steel straps that were riveted to the ash handle and extended halfway up it, and foot treads. The angle of the blade to the handle varied, so diggers could choose one that suited their height and way of working. They often had to cut through stumps, buried wood and living roots, so the blade was regularly sharpened with a file. A hard-working digger went through two or three spades a year.
Most gumfields were open scrubland dominated by mānuka. For those who worked and lived there, the tree they remembered was not kauri – it was mānuka, with its distinctive smell and white flowers.
Diggers also used a bucket and a pīkau (a backpack made from a grain sack) to store the day’s haul. Gum was also kept in Māori flax kete (baskets). Diggers would carry lunch and some tea for a brew-up, in a billy or wrapped in newspaper.
At the end of the day, they headed back to their shacks – but their work was not done. After dinner they cleaned the gum, using a knife to scrape away the outer weathered rind, often encrusted with soil. This tedious task took up many evenings and wet days.
By the 1890s, it was getting harder to find gum in the ground. Some diggers began collecting gum from around the base of living trees, and using ropes to climb to the forks where gum was often found.
They also started cutting trees to make them bleed gum. They made V-shaped cuts called ‘taps’ in the trunk, returning months later to get the gum. Collectors used spikes on their boots and two long iron hooks to scale the tall trunks – in much the same way that ice climbers today scale frozen waterfalls with ice axes and crampons. The collectors carried ropes to get back down from the giant trees, which could be up to 50 metres high. It was dangerous work, and lives were lost. One story tells of some loggers finding a rope at the base of a large kauri. They felled the tree, and among the branches found the skeleton of a gum collector who must have climbed the tree and then dropped his rope.
At first, bled gum was seen as a ready new supply, although of poorer quality. However, it was soon clear that the practice was killing trees, and in 1905 it was banned in all state forests.
Storekeepers were the main buyers of kauri gum. They ‘grubstaked’ many diggers – allowed them to buy supplies on credit, on condition that they sold their findings to the storekeeper. Once a week the storekeeper did his rounds, delivering supplies and buying gum.
Gum was laid out at the gum tip – a cleared area, often on a rise so that it received the sun and wind. The gum’s purity was judged, a price was decided and the gum was weighed. Horse-drawn carts and large bullock teams pulled the gum on sleds to the nearest port. It was loaded onto barges, coastal cutters and steamers, and shipped to Auckland. In the wet months, when Northland’s clay roads were boggy, transport costs often increased and supplies became more expensive.
Gum was unloaded at Auckland’s wharves and taken to the major buyers’ warehouses. It was then cleaned again and graded, ready for export. Gum was exported in boxes made from heart kauri, a high-quality timber that was often used to make furniture at the destination.
Early Auckland was built on gum – a fact not always acknowledged. ‘Our gumfields are the Cinderella of our productive wealth,’ opined the 1913 prospectus of the inventors of a machine to clean gum. 1 From 1850 to 1950, gum exports totalled 450,000 tons, and from 1850 to 1900 gum was Auckland’s main export – ahead of gold, wool and kauri timber. Its total worth to the country has been estimated at around $300 million (in 2006 terms).
Few diggers made much money from gum. One reputedly told a visiting government official, ‘I dig the gum, to get the money, to buy the food, to get the energy to dig the gum.’ 2
Gum was graded on its quality. Higher-grade gum was used in varnish, but around 1910, overseas manufacturers began using poorer-grade gum to make linoleum. A market was created for low-grade gum, including small pieces known as gum nuts and chips, and the previously worthless scrapings and dust.
New techniques were needed to recover small gum pieces from soil and swamps. Water-filled drums with screens – called hurdy-gurdies – washed away the soil and left behind the gum and bits of wood. Where large areas were dug over, pipes poured muddy water onto screens and sieves, and men agitated the mixture to wash away the soil. It was muddy, wet work. By the 1920s, new machines – basically larger oil-driven hurdy gurdies, used by teams of men – could process a lot more raw material.
The material that was left after washing – gum, stones, bits of wood and debris – was dried in the sun. Then it was winnowed by throwing it in the air. A breeze carried away the lighter pieces, leaving gum behind. Later, winnowing machines were built, along with machines to separate the gum from worthless material, and to clean it. Gold mining techniques were trialled – in the late 1910s a disused Otago gold dredge worked a swamp near Awanui, but without success.
In the 1930s cheaper synthetics were developed for making varnish and linoleum. The price of gum fell, and by the 1940s it was a sunset industry. In 1985 a processing plant was built at Kaimaumau, north of Awanui, to extract resins and waxes from kauri chips and dust from a peat swamp, but it had technical problems and closed in 1989.
Brown, Michael, and Aleida Spoelstra, eds. The figs and the vines: gumdigging in Kaipara. Dargaville: Academy, 1996.
Hayward, Bruce W. Kauri gum and the gumdiggers : a pictorial history of the kauri gum industry in New Zealand. Auckland: Gordon Ell, Bush Press, 1989.
McNeill, Joanne. ‘Northland’s buried treasure.’ New Zealand Geographic 10 (April–June 1991): 18–45.
Reed, A. H. Farthest north: afoot in Maoriland byways. Wellington: Reed, 1946.
Reed, Alfred. The kauri gumdiggers. 3rd ed. Auckland: Bush Press, 2006.
Wagener, Roy. Gumfields of Aupouri. Kaitaia: R. Wagener, 1977.