Whatever prospects the kauri business appeared to offer to Maori and Pakeha in the early years of this nation we call New Zealand, they were swept away it the brutal reality of colonial commerce and the “cost of progress”. Maori may have believed they were laying the foundations for a long, sustainable economic and cultural relationship with Pakeha, but they were not aware how destructive the power of the technology they were welcoming was. Had they known how the timber trade had already stripped most of Europe of millions of hectares of oak forest, they may have been more circumspect about encouraging interest in their own special trees. Nor would they have embraced the idea of forestry so readily had they known it was a tool with which Pakeha would destroy Maori’s existing environment and recreate it to suit themselves.

Maori may have valued the kauri forest as an especially spiritual place, but the experience of the great eighteenth century rangatira-leaders, Hongi Hika, Titore, Patuone and Moetara provided evidence that a change to the kauri elements of Maori cosmology could bring nothing but benefit to them. There are also examples of similar changes to Maori culture where migration and environmental challenges had demanded adaptation prior to European contact, so a revision of kauri’s mana to better fit with the demands of Pakeha commerce was realistic.

Maori however failed to recognise one of the key differences between timber and the hospitality and gardening economies they had developed to supply the fringe of Pakeha commerce that rubbed against their coasts. While selling supplies to visiting ships and artifacts to interested Europeans were economically sound and easily managed in an environment of transient aliens, the timber business demanded settlement and foreign investment. It was one thing to encourage settlement by one pet Pakeha who could facilitate the trading prospects of a hapu, but, as with the Treaty they signed in 1840, Maori did not suspect that this was an all or nothing deal and that a few resident Pakeha would quickly turn into an engulfing wave of settlement. In many ways, kauri business facilitated the creation of New Zealand as much as the official documentation of the Treaty of Waitangi, about which it is pertinent to note that the prominent kauri trading rangatira, Tamati Waka Nene of Hokianga gave the pivotal speech in its support on the Resident’s lawn at Waitangi. Aotearoa and Maori were already well on the path to cultural and economic annexation in 1831, with kauri a key in facilitating the transformation of frontier Aotearoa into colony New Zealand.

It is hard to believe Maori had any notion that Pakeha intention was not simply to utilise the bush, but to destroy it. Before 1840 some of those involved in timber who were aware of Europe’s track record with forests were already questioning how long the kauri resource would survive, and that without active conservation efforts the bush would be gone in no time. It was kauri’s potential strategic value to Britain that raised the first possibility of kauri conservation, not from any sense of the environmental value, but for imperial pride. Conservation of areas of forest was proposed by Captain William Symonds, surveyor of the Royal Navy and a member of the New Zealand Association in March 1840, when the process of treaty signing was still under way. He recommended that areas of kauri forest containing trees that were suitable for spars be set aside for the Navy by the new colonial government.

In response the Colonial Office made a decision that would have deeply concerned Maori, if anybody had bothered to tell them about it. Under the names of civil servants, Torrens and Villiers from the office of Colonial Land Emigration, the Colonial Office’s official reply came on 7th January 1841. Its intention and reasoning were clear, “We cannot…recommend…any reservation should be made…Crown Reserves of land in a new colony are impediments to the progress of settlement and hurtful to the interests of settlers.”

Whatever the tradable value of timber, native forest was, in the minds of the next wave of Pakeha settlers, “waste land” and a principal aim of felling timber, if not the principal aim, was to wipe out the forests and replace them with ‘productive’ pasture. And it was an idea that took a long time to die, as there was no government organisation in support of forestry until 1919, by which time most of the kauri bush had been felled. In 1900 it was estimated a mere 300,000 hectares of kauri bush remained of the 1.2 million hectares thriving in 1800, but the focus on destruction had hardly changed. While debating the New Zealand Forests Bill in the House of Representatives in 1874 William Buckland, MP for Franklin declared, that the province of Nelson would achieve prosperity, “..by the destruction of its forests so that its waste lands may become fitted for settlement.”



But before wholesale destruction could begin, there was business to be done.
Early traders quickly expanded their milling operations around the coast, developing small settlements of millers and carpenters to process the timber that Maori was bringing in from the bush. By 1832 the pattern was established up and down the peninsula of felling kauri for dispersal by sea. Maori, initially on behalf of their various hapu, worked the bush and brought out the logs to milling stations and shipping points, where Pakeha further processed the timber and took it to market.

Water was critical in bursting the logs from the bush through the ingenuity of driving dams and creeks, for powering saw mills, and for transporting the logs and cut timber from the bush to either mills or market. Northland’s deeply incised peninsula was the ideal geography for the water based kauri industry, the huge logs bobbing in the Pacific with just their broad backs visible a sad footnote to the ancient brotherhood of kauri and whale.

The relationships cultivated by traders with Maori up and down the coast survived for just over a decade, but gradually hapu/trader relationships were replaced by Maori working the bush for wages, soon to be joined by Pakeha crew who between them established the character of the kauri bushmen, the hard blokes from the backblocks who lived rough while they took on the bush in its toughest state. Redefined hunter gatherers or the shock troops of progress, bushmen have become an indelible part of New Zealand’s masculine self image: slow talking, hard working strong men bonded through mateship and operating on the fringe of authority in dangerous environments. They nurtured an ethos of violence to the land that would prove a benefit when it was later applied to war in the national interest.

The technology of the bushman was remarkably primitive. The axes and saws that had replaced Maori adzes by the mid 1840s would remain virtually unchanged until the arrival of chain saws in the 1930’s, so axe and muscle were the foundation of kauri culture for its duration. Transport saw the only real technological advances in the bush sector of the business, with Maori early on establishing the use of driving dams which would become a feature of bush work over the next two generations. Bullocks, horses, sled ways, rail and steam all made advances in the extremely fraught task of extraction, but whatever the equipment it was never easy, especially with a full sized, mobile kauri log.

Initially Maori found and felled the trees and they generally shared in the profits of the various Pakeha ventures, which must have been satisfying to those rangatira who had decided to get involved when Pakeha were rare, and to those early settlers who thought that a viable nation could be built in partnership with Maori. Those were years of promise, and in 1845, when 24% of the new colony’s export receipts were from kauri shipments, some to the Royal Navy’s Sydney squadron, there was reason to hope for a bright future for kauri.

But it was never going to last. Not only was the Sydney squadron a minnow of material demand, New Zealand was too far from the major Royal Naval dockyards to ever play a big role in supplying spars. Instead kauri was used for a long and sustained tradition of New Zealand ship and boat building, transport for the emerging nation and a salient feature of what historian, James Belich calls the ‘progress industry’. The development of a new nation, he argues, is as much the substance of its economy as are purely commercial activities like exporting wool and gold. He contends that this ‘progress’ cannot be separated from the ultimate success of the settlement venture and may in fact be more important than the economics of export to that success.

Belich says that this progress industry, “…had two prominent components. The first was public works, most notably those that attacked distance: roads, bridges, railways, postal and telegraph communications, and port facilities. The second was organised immigration itself: the founding of instant townships and the government assistance and encouragement of the subsequent immigration.”

These were exactly the areas where timber, and initially kauri, was the material of progress. While kauri was exported to Sydney and Melbourne, China and Britain, as well as the United States West Coast, it was the madcap settlement of New Zealand itself that gave the milling industry its energy while also initiating the logic of destruction that would virtually wipe out the bush. In the change from being the high status material of naval power into a commodity timber for progress, kauri was used for everything from bridge-building to fine furniture, stipping it of its mana and any residue of spirituality it had maintained. Kauri the noble timber became colonial plastic.

The settlement explosion delivered a staggering increase in population between 1850, the beginning of the kauri commodity boom, and 1930, when it finally came to an end. In 1851 there were hardly 100,000 people in New Zealand, but twenty years later the population had trebled, and by 1881 had broken the half million mark when 534,030 were living here. In 1901 that had climbed to 815,862, busting through the million with the census of 1911, and by 1931 was on the verge of 1.5 million.

The raw numbers hardly give an inkling of the scale of timber industry needed to support this growth, as new settlers needed new houses, which in turn required furnishing. New houses became new towns, requiring new transport systems, ships and carts and ultimately, railway networks. Initially the available wood was kauri, not just because kauri was light, strong, resilient and relatively easy to work, but because the system of felling and milling kauri was already in place when the boom began, and while the trees were there to fell, so the bushmen went after them.

Up until the mid 1860s, all the timber milled in New Zealand was pit sawn into planks, hard physical work made even more demanding by the scale of the logs they were working with. Labouring full time, it took two men six weeks to saw enough timber to build a small colonial house and between 1858 and 1864, 15,284 such houses were built. That is 3,527 man years of pit sawing in just 6 years, or a labour force of at least 600 pit sawyers to keep up with domestic house building, making pit sawyers one of the most valued occupations of the time. By 1906 there were 3,331 men ( and one woman) in the ‘forestry industry’, plus 31,715 in construction and repair, almost exclusively working with timber, 17% of the total workforce.

As well as houses, there were also exports of sawed plank to New South Wales, Britain and China and there was timber for official buildings, ships and wagons for transport, railway sleepers for which kauri served tolerably well, paving boards, roofing shingles and packaging that included boxes of every imaginable type as well as barrels. By the decade of the seventies odourless, tasteless kauri was also finding a niche in the brewing business as the ideal material for fermentation vessels in traditional breweries, and kauri can still be found today in some old breweries where a complex, natural brewing environment is valued. As late as 1950, British brewer Whitbread declared its preference for kauri fermentation tanks.

And while on the subject of beer, the building of hotels was also a major use of kauri during the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1840 and 1894, 1,719 hotels were built, all serving beer wine and spirits to passing customers and ‘guests of the house’. This peak year of hotel ownership coincided with the peak of the kauri timber trade, which had its heyday in the 1890s. In 1906 production was at it highest, with 443,000 cubic metres of timber milled, but by 1930 this had fallen to just 23.600 cubic metres and with a mere 5,000 hectares of kauri bush left the kauri age was effectively over.

Not that the timber business had finished, nor the progress industry, which still had thousands of hectares of bush country to turn into ‘productive land’ in 1930. But kauri’s contribution had ended except for a small number of trees that would find their way to northern mills and on to specialised uses in the furnishing and boatbuilding industries, or for the rare brewer’s vat.

It could be claimed that very little of the wholesale destruction of kauri bush did much to advance the cause of New Zealand pastoralism. Apart from scattered pockets of dairying and beef farming Northland has never matched the agricultural powerhouses blasted out of the podocarp bush in Taranaki, Waikato, Hauraki, Southland, Manawatu and Wanganui, so from a twenty first century perspective it could be argued that the loss of so much kauri forest was in vain, apart from a few neo-Gothic churches and the remnants of a fine furniture tradition.

But this would be to miss the point that kauri was not just an excuse to destroy the bush. It was the very substance of settlement, without which the whole venture of settling New Zealand would have been substantially less successful. While wool was forging export trails, kauri was making an export contribution, but a substantially smaller one after an initial burst. From being the dominant item in exports in 1845, kauri was passed in value by wool in 1855, by meat in 1884 and by butter exports in 1892. In 1853 timber (mostly kauri) made up 36% of total export receipts. In 1863 this had fallen to just 1.3%, and although it made a recovery in 1876, to 2.8%, in its ‘big’ production year of 1906 kauri was a mere 8.7% of total exports from New Zealand.



Yet, as Belich makes clear, it was not kauri’s contribution to exports that made it important. What the retrospective export bias of New Zealand economic history may conceal is that the pyramid of industries based on wood was comparable in importance to wool and all its works. Not least of wood’s contribution being the huge shearing sheds and extensive yards that were features of every sheep farm in the country.

But it was urban New Zealand that sucked the kauri bush dry. Cities with suburbs, shops, warehouses: new towns with carts for their streets, fences for their villas, detailed veranda posts and balustrades, panelled ceilings and kitchen sinks. If a wooden home decoration could be made, it could and would be made from kauri – the genial timber that had been accommodating the tools of craftsmen for a thousand years. Of the features that define young New Zealand architecture, the frills of kauri that were spread thick up Victorian and Edwardian villas are the most ubiquitous. Fretwork and woodturning were the popular status symbols of contemporary real estate by the turn of the twentieth century, and have recently been revived as symbols of New Zealand heritage, especially if they are turned out of kauri.

There was another aspect of the kauri business that fitted it perfectly to the settler culture – its potential for capitalism on virtually every scale. Early on kauri was valuable simply because it was one of the very few tradeable items available in New Zealand, and for transports sailing to New South Wales, Hobart and Norfolk Island with fresh consignments of convicts it became an option for filling empty holds for the return journey to Britain. This alone was enough to stimulate interest amongst Sydney’s sharp-as-razor dealers who also had enough adventurous spirit to take on the challenge of New Zealand, especially with a cast iron Navy contract in their pockets.

The first bold incursion in the Hokianga was followed by numerous others, initially with an eye to trade with the home country, but these were soon joined by settlers who quickly recognised the realities of the colonial economy and set about making their fortunes far from the sheep stations and gold fields of early New Zealand. By 1870 there were 150 saw mills in New Zealand, most in the northern half of the North Island. This number swelled to 243 in 1891 at the beginning of kauri’s commercial peak, and in 1906 there were 414 mills to process almost half a million cubic metres of kauri.

In spite of the importance of kauri for export, the vast majority of kauri production was shipped from Auckland to other New Zealand ports. In 1885 40,000 tonnes of kauri were shipped from Auckland mills around New Zealand, of which 37% went to Wellington and Nelson, 30% to Canterbury and 26% to Dunedin. As New Zealand growth accelerated with the increased pace of settlement, so kauri offered entrepreneurs the best opportunity for cashing in on the progress industry.

So kauri fed the commercial engines that ultimately became New Zealand’s large trading companies, such as LD Nathan and Brown and Campbell in Auckland, which ultimately became the giant Lion Nathan group. Sir John Logan Campbell, a founder of Brown and Campbell was one of the earliest businessmen to consider export was important to the new colony, and his first export shipment, in 1844 to England, was based on kauri spars he had purchased in Northland. Kauri also built many impressive individual fortunes and small empires for characters who created fiefdoms around bush and milling communities on the fringes of Auckland and up and down the Northland coast.
While kauri was the stuff of big business in the early days, it also provided an opportunity for undercapitalised individuals to fund their lesser commercial enterprises, especially farms on the newly cleared land that lay barren in the wake of the timber rush.

As Belich writes, Timber milling was the quintessence of the assault on nature – opening up the country, conquering the bush. Removing the enemy was almost the least of it. Logging and milling provided potential farmland and roads to it. It provided markets, cheap building materials and paid work for farmers struggling to establish themselves.

While for a thousand years kauri had been of little material value to Maori, after Waitangi it became the very essence of material success in a fast changing world. While it never really gained a place in the Imperial world centred on London, it played a seminal role in building new mercantile empires and family concerns. Whatever it offered as wood, as an item of trade there was little in new New Zealand to match it. For those who like to consider the vagaries of history, the luck of kauri was telling for the creation of New Zealand. It is not so much a case of where would we be without it, but would we be without it?