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The Historic Ahipara Gumfields

Kauri Gum History Tony Yelash Image Gallery Today
The Kauri Gum Industry

First Exports

    The first kauri gum to be exported was part of the cargo taken back to Australia and England by two early expeditions to the Bay of Islands in 1814 and 1815.

    In the 1830s and 1840s, merchants such as Gilbert Mair and Clendon in the Bay of islands, and Brown and John Logan Campbell in Auckland, were regularly purchasing kauri gum from the local Maoris who had collected it from off the ground. The gum was exchanged for trade goods such as blankets or purchased for about 5 per ton and was exported for use in the manufacture of varnish. Initially the major market was North America but by the late 1840s it was also being sent to England and Europe.

Rapid Growth

    By the 1860s, kauri gum's reputation was well established in the overseas markets and European immigrants were joining the Maoris in collecting gum on the hills of northern New Zealand. As the surface gum became more scarce, spades were used to unearth the "buried treasure". The increasing number of diggers resulted in rapid growth of kauri gum exports from 1000 tons in 1860 to 5000 tons in 1870 and a peak of over 10,000 tons, worth 600, 000, in 1900.    For fifty years from about 1870 to 1920, the kauri gum industry was the major source of income for pioneer settlers north of Auckland. As these would-be farmers struggled to break in the land, many turned to gumdigging in the winter to earn enough money to support their families and pay for their farms' improvements, until better times arrived. By the 1890s there were 20,000 people engaged in gumdigging. Although many of these, such as farmers, women and children, were only part-time diggers, nearly 7000 were full-timers. During periods of economic recession, especially between 1884 and 1895, gumdigging was the only job available in much of Auckland Province, where the unemployed from many walks of life could earn a living if they were prepared to work.

Dalmatians and Kauri Gum Reserves

    About 1885 a small band of immigrant Dalmatians and Croatians arrived on the Northland gumfields. Their hard work and frugal habits enabled them to send money back to their struggling families at home. Through the 1890s more and more of these vigorous young men arrived in New Zealand, until by the 1900s there were nearly 5000 of them on the gumfields. This influx resulted in over-production and the price for gum fell. Local resentment grew over this peaceful invasion by "foreigners" and a strong Gumdiggers Union was formed to lobby the Government for action to check their arrival. Locals argued that the Dalmatians worked hard, sent all their earnings out of the country, paid no tax and then left for home a few years later and New Zealand saw no return for all the kauri gum they had exploited. In addition, many of the pioneer farmers saw their source of winter income threatened, for unlike the British and Maori diggers who were individualists, the Dalmatians worked together in teams and "like locusts" systematically dug over whole areas, stripping them of all their gum and then moving on. The local opposition resulted in a Commission of Enquiry and the passing of the Kauri Gum Industry Act in 1898. At this time about half of the 800,000 acres of gumfields were Crown land and the rest were in Maori or private owner-ship. The Act set aside over 200,000 acres of the richest Crown lands as Kauri Gum Reserves.

    British, Maoris and naturalised New Zealanders could dig on any Crown land (reserved or unreserved) for an annual fee of five shillings, but aliens (including most Dalmatians) were prohibited from digging on the Reserves, but could dig on other Crown land for a fee of l per year. Anybody could arrange to dig on private land.

Gumfields to Farms

    In the 1870s to 1890s, gumdiggers ranged far and wide with fields both north and south of Auckland popular. The most productive and attractive area before the turn of the century was the northern Wairoa swamplands around Dargaville. By the 1900s to 1910s, many of the shallower gumfields were worked out and efforts to convert them into farms began. On some private land, gumdiggers had assisted this conversion, for the owners required them to dig on a face, stack the unearthed wood and leave no holes behind. The land was materially improved and ready for ploughing. On most Crown land and some of the private land however, the gumlands were pockmarked by thousands of gumdiggers' potholes and the annual firing of the scrub had destroyed the humus and surface soil. These lands required a great deal of nursing to make them productive farms. As the gumlands in the south around Auckland were converted to dairy farms, vineyards and orchards, the centre of gumdigging shifted in the 1910s to the Far North around Ahipara and Houhora.

  A Market for Chip Gum

     Up until the 1910s there had been no market for the small kauri gum chips that were present throughout much of the swampy gumland soils and gumdiggers had extracted only the larger pieces. With the advent of linoleum manufacture using less pure kauri gum, a market for chips and dust developed, resulting in dramatic changes in digging and processing techniques on the gumfields. The new market was very timely as most of the larger gum had been extracted and the industry would have collapsed within a few years. By 1920, 60% of exported gum was chips  and dust to be used in linoleum production. The outbreak of World War I almost dealt a death blow to the kauri gum industry. Overseas markets in England and Germany closed and only the glutted American market remained. Gum became unsaleable, so the Government stepped in in 1914 and offered to purchase it from diggers at half the pre-War price, with the promise of paying the rest when the markets returned. This price drop, together with the departure of gumdiggers for War service, resulted in a rapid decline in output. Those left on the gumfields faced hard times, so in 1916 the Government moved into the gumdigging business. It employed diggers on wages, to dig on a face, remove the timber and gum, and leave the Crown land ready for farming. Eventual sale of the gum enabled the project to break even.

Death of an Industry

    At the end of World War 1, the markets returned and the gum industry made a small recovery. Kauri gum nuggets that could be located with a spear had become scarce and the traditional gumdigger virtually disappeared, to be replaced by organised groups of diggers using machinery to recover the vast amounts of chip gum that remained. Many of the more independent gumdiggers left the fields to establish farms or find other jobs and the amount of exported gum steadily declined from the mid 1920s on. Market crises, similar to that during World War 1, also occurred during the Great Depression and World WarII. By the 1930s, even chip gum was running out and the industry was winding down. Its eventual complete collapse was ensured by the development overseas of cheap, synthetic substitutes that could be used in the manufacture of varnish and linoleum. By the early 1950s only a few hundred were employed on the gumfields and most of these were working for wages using mechanical plants to extract gum chips from the last available gumlands. Exports had declined to 300 tons per year by 1953 and now, in the 1980s, no one is employed fulltime in the gum industry and less than one ton is exported annually for very specialised uses.

Kauri Gum History Tony Yelash Image Gallery Today