A Narrow Sea - Episode 55
‘New Zealand: an Ulster plantation at Katikati’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
In 1845 The Dublin University Magazine noted that New Zealand was ‘the most recent, remotest, and least civilized of our colonies’. Then in 1858 it observed:
Favoured with a climate that shames that of Australia, and with a soil exuberant in the highest degree… those islands are every year more largely engaging the attention of emigrants.
But it was only after Maori resistance had been ruthlessly crushed in the 1860s that New Zealand became an attractive destination for Irish emigrants.
For long the government there attempted to keep Irish Catholics out, but New Zealand needed settlers. And the colony was desperately short of women. Single Irish women were much more willing to emigrate from their homeland than were English, Scots or Welsh women.
By 1901 Irish Catholics formed just over 14 per cent of New Zealand’s white population and Irish Protestants four and a half per cent. Most of these Irish, Catholic as well as Protestant, had come from Ulster.
Despite their comparatively small number, Ulster Protestants were to make a remarkable contribution to the development of New Zealand. One of these was George Vesey Stewart.
Son of Captain Mervyn Stewart of Martray near Ballygawley, he was directly descended from a seventeenth-century Scottish undertaker in the Plantation of Ulster. Indeed, the way his project in New Zealand was planned and organised had much in common with British colonisation of Ulster in the early 1600s.
Sailing out in 1873, he obtained a grant of 10,000 acres at Katikati by the Bay of Plenty on the east side of North Island. Back in Ulster he launched an energetic campaign to find suitable colonists.
He circulated all the Orange lodges in the province, gave public lectures and wrote promotional literature, describing the climate at Katikati as ‘the finest and most healthy in the world’.
The land, after being surveyed, would be divided into portions of 40 acres and an additional twenty for every child. All had to bring suitable farming equipment, seed and ready money.
The subsidised fare was fixed at £5 each person, except that females aged between 15 and 35 travelled free.
Almost all those who crowded aboard two sailing vessels in Belfast Lough in June 1875 were tenant farmers.
The ships reached Auckland Harbour in September and as the settlers came ashore the Artillery Band played ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’.
That evening the Mayor entertained them at a banquet. Then they transferred to two government steamers and, as they left for the Bay of Plenty the guns at the Armed Constabulary Station thundered out a salute.
At Katikati, the lots for the land portions were drawn by two small boys. There was much to be done. Household goods had to be dragged in across tidal estuaries. The bush was anything up to twelve feet high and there was no road.
But, taking the advice of some local Maoris, the newcomers simply set fire to the bush to prepare the land for planting. Enriched by the potash left by the burned ferns, the yields were spectacular in the first season. One settler, Sandy Turner, wrote back to his relations in Ulster:
I have, without manure, potatoes nine inches long and 3⅟2 inches broad, and half a pound in weight, and oats 7⅟2 feet high…Peas, beans and cabbages will grow all the year round, and melons of all kinds will grow in the fields, which require hot houses at home, and grow to perfection, too, some to the weight of 50 pounds.
‘Better than that’, he added, the settlers would never be brought to a land court for falling behind in rent, ‘for the land will be theirs and their heirs for ever’. Only around a hundred Maoris remained in the area and, Vesey Stewart remarked, ‘they vanish like moths before the blaze of civilisation’.
A couple of years later, however, the fertility which had been provided by burning ferns was almost gone. Henceforth, as in Ulster, they would have to apply fertilisers and plant more suitable grasses.
Soon the restless Vesey Stewart was busy negotiating with the New Zealand government for another block of land. He returned to Ulster in 1877, published a promotional pamphlet in Omagh, and was overwhelmed with applications.
On 20 May 1878, The Lady Jocelyn sailed out of Belfast Lough with 378 passengers. This time Stewart attracted many from the upper ranks of society, including some sons of the gentry and two generals.
The colony struggled during the 1880s when prices for agricultural produce were falling fast. However, after the discovery of gold at nearby Waihi in 1886 the farmers did good business supplying the miners’ townships with supplies.
Vesey Stewart built himself a splendid mansion which he named Mount Stewart and there he set up a farming school for army officers. When a dairy factory was built in 1902 the future prosperity of this Ulster plantation in New Zealand was assured.