Māori knew the South Island mountain passes and rivers from their trips to collect pounamu (greenstone). Early prospectors had Māori guides. When Māori realised the worth that Europeans placed on gold, some joined the rushes. In 1858 there were 600 Māori men working the Collingwood fields alongside 1,300 Europeans. It was Māori prospectors who revealed the promise of the West Coast when they showed a Collingwood shopkeeper their gold. He recognised the coarse gold as different, and after questioning they led him to the Arahura River.
Māori were less common on the Otago fields. Even so, Māori Point on the Shotover River takes its name from Daniel Erihana and Hākaraia Haeroa’s 1863 find. When their dog was swept away and Daniel swam after it, he chanced upon gold on a shingle bar and, so the story goes, gold dust in the dog’s coat. Before nightfall the two men had recovered 300 ounces (8.5 kilograms) of coarse gold from the rock crevices.
Cast into the river
Māori traditionally placed no worth on gold – pounamu (greenstone) was their valuable mineral. In the early 1800s an Otago whaler named Palmer was told by a Māori chief that the yellow metal of the watch-seals of white men could also be found on the beaches of the Clutha River. And about 1852, upon seeing a sample of Tasmanian gold, another Māori said he had once picked up a potato-sized nugget from the banks of the Clutha, and had thrown it into the river.
On Coromandel Peninsula, Māori resisted attempts to open up their lands to gold mining in the 1860s, but little could stand between Europeans and gold. In 1935 Hōri Wātene of the Ngāti Tamaterā tribe, testifying at a commission of inquiry into the Ōhinemuri goldfield, described gold as a curse because it had heightened European interest in their lands.
The Otago provincial government encouraged miners, mainly from the Guangdong province in southern China, to come to New Zealand to replace the Europeans who had deserted the Otago fields by 1866 for new rushes on the West Coast. The Chinese intended to earn wealth for their families and eventually return to China.
Their mining methods were unique – they meticulously worked over an area and left very little gold behind, whereas most European miners were more haphazard. The Chinese preferred previously mined areas as there was known gold there, and they knew that much gold was lost in the washing up.
After finding gold in Otago and Southland, many Chinese miners were attracted to the West Coast. At Īnangahua’s alluvial gold workings they made up an estimated 40% (715) of the population in 1882, but numbers dwindled in the depression of the 1880s. Their celebration of Chinese New Year with fireworks added interest to the goldfields. Superstition kept some Chinese men out of tunnels. At locales such as Greenstone Creek on the West Coast, when constructing water races they cut deep clefts in the cliffs to avoid tunnelling.
Their appearance, dress, language and use of opium set the Chinese miners apart as different. They lived in their own settlements, and some owned shops supplying their countrymen. The population reached about 5,000 in the 1881. Prejudice saw a poll tax introduced in 1881 to discourage immigration. Most hoped to earn enough gold to return home, but many died in New Zealand. Some were disinterred to be buried at home, but the remains of 499 Chinese miners (including Charles Sew Hoy) instead had a sea-burial when their ship, the Ventnor, sank off the Hokianga coast in 1902.
A New Zealand movie, Illustrious energy (1988), depicts the Chinese gold miners of Central Otago, whose settlements have been restored and rebuilt in places such as Arrowtown.