Isolation in the colonial period

Last week we posted on how Otago handled the Influenza epidemic of 1918. This week, as New Zealand moves into lockdown due to Covid-19, Dr. Peter Petchey tells us what isolation meant to the European colonial settlers of NZ.

As we all go into four weeks of social isolation it will be the greatest change to our daily lives that many of us ever seen. But we remain connected by internet, phone, social media, and can still drive to the supermarket. In nineteenth century New Zealand social isolation was something that many had to face for extended periods, with no communications, no supplies, and no medical services. Many small communities and individuals lived in remote places where the only access was by foot along back-country tracks, or for coastal locations by boat when sea conditions were good. And if you got sick or injured, your chances of survival were not good.

The photograph below looks like a few mouldering timbers somewhere in a forest. This is the Jamestown cemetery in remote South Westland, near the shore of Lake McKerrow, where maybe five people are buried, maybe more. No-one knows for certain.

The remains of a wooden fence around a grave at the Jamestown Cemetery. Photo Peter Petchey.

Jamestown was one of those overly-optimistic late nineteenth century attempts to create a new farming community in the wilds of New Zealand. Martins Bay at the mouth of the Hollyford River had been the location of the Maori village of Kotuku (Māori ovens are regularly exposed in the shifting sand dunes of the bay), and was seen as a potential location for a seaport to connect the Otago goldfields with Melbourne. After a false start in 1863 the town site was surveyed in 1870, and the first settlers began to arrive. A party of 22 Novia Scotian immigrants (including children) sailed from Dunedin on the Esther Ann in July 1870, but the schooner was wrecked at the river mouth. All passengers and cargo were saved, but the blow to their morale was increased when they reached the land office to find that the best properties had been taken by land speculators.

An inauspicious start! Reports of the wreck of the Esther Ann were first published in the Dunedin Evening Star and spread around the country (Grey River Argus, Volume IX, Issue 710, 6 August 1870, from Papers Past)

Things never really got much better. The population of Jamestown reached about 50 in 1871, with eight or nine houses, a hotel and the survey office, but its extreme remoteness doomed the settlement. Promised road access never arrived, and sea visits were unreliable as bad weather would make the bar at the mouth of the river impossible to cross: on one occasion it was five months between supply ship visits. Throughout the whole winter of 1871 the expected supply steamer failed to arrive, and the settlers became desperate as their supplies dwindled and they fossicked the bush for food and ate seal meat. Eventually William Henry Homer made an arduous ten day overland trek to Queenstown to raise the alarm.

William Henry Homer writes in the Otago Witness of the isolation of settlers in Jamestown (Martins Bay) and the dangers this poses. Otago Witness, Issue 1090, 19 October 1872. Accessed via Papers Past

The settlers began to leave, and by 1884 only five families remained, none at the surveyed town site. The last of the original 1870 settlers, the Webb family, left in 1896. Of William Webb’s seven children, five died at Martins Bay: two from poisoning, two soon after birth, and 14 year old William from influenza on the eve of the family’s departure. The Webb children are buried in the Jamestown Cemetery. How many more people are buried within the cemetery is unknown: certainly there were numerous deaths in the general area. Alice McKenzie records that a child called Beckham died in 1875, but was buried outside the surveyed cemetery, and the site is now lost. Similarly, when John Robertson died in 1882 he was buried near his house rather in the cemetery, as that was too far away to carry the body for the few people present. When Andrew Williamson and six others were drowned at Big Bay in 1877, the bodies were buried above high tide mark there.

Little remains at Jamestown now to remind us of the human tragedy of the place: a few piles of bricks and stones mark where the chimneys of the settlers’ cottages stood, a dead apple tree is rapidly rotting and will soon disappear, and the cemetery has no markers apart from the last fragments of a post and rail fence. The most enduring evidence of the failed scheme are the freehold town sections there, where a few modern holiday houses have been built. While still remote, the Hollyford Track now passes the town site, and there is an airstrip near the river mouth.

A few stones in a clearing in the West Coast forest: all that remains of a settler family’s cottage of the 1870s. Photo: Peter Petchey.

So while we settle down for four weeks of social isolation, remember the Jamestown settlers of the 1870s and their months of isolation with no communications, no supplies, and no social media.

Peter Petchey, 24th March 2020

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