The Lineage Of The Kauri

Long before the first brown man set foot on our shore, great kauri forests had successively sprung up and vanished, leaving no trace save some buried timber and a Golconda of fossil gum - that hidden treasure which, in the fullness of time, in the sweat of their face, was liberated by a few generations of hardy diggers.

The lineage of the kauri, however, is reckoned not by thousands, but by millions - many millions - of years. Today the evidence of these earlier, almost mythical forests of the Tertiary and Msozoic forests is seen in occasional fragments of flint-like gum concealed in limestone or a coal-seam. At Hikurangi, near Whangarei, kauri gum has been discovered in limestone at a depth of 300 feet. it has been found in coalfields as widely separated as the Lower Waikato in the north and the mouth of the Clutha River and elsewhere in the south. Dr. J. R. Hosking, Department of Scientific Research wrote: "An examination of the resin found associated with the coal at Coal Creek (near Roxburgh), left no doubt as to its identity with kauri resin." Although the essential oil had almost disappeared, sufficient was left, he said, to identify the smell so typical of kauri resin. The existence of a Tertiary kauri forest was placed "beyond all reasonable doubt."

What caused the extinction of these great primeval forests in the southern parts of New Zealand? In 1947 I put this question to Dr. W. R. B. Oliver, then Director of the Canterbury Museum. He replied that, at the period when these great kauri forests flourished, in the Tertian era, prior to the ice age, the New Zealand climate was much warmer than at present, and they are unable to withstand the onset of a colder clime. In May 1956 the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research announced that, by the radio-carbon method of woodtesting, "the laboratory's work had included the oldest specimen so far dated anywhere in the world. This was a piece of kauri wood from One Tree Point, Ruakaka, near Whangarei, which proved to be 34,600 years old. The specimen was tested twice with the same result." According to a geologic survey in Auckland, kauri forests throve in the neighbourhood of Otara 60,000 years ago. hence it would appear that the northern forests withstood and survived the ice age.

The kauri (Agathis australis to the botanist) has claims to distinction other than its antiquity, and presents us with some apparently insoluble problems. Now growing naturally nowhere in the world but in the constricted northern portion of the northernmost province of our small country, why, in the course of thousands of years has it not, by wind-driven and bird-carried seed, gradually made its way southward? Climate, the obvious reason, is not the answer, because seedling kauri will grow and thrive in any part of New Zealand. A kauri at Glen Leith, Dunedin, was planted nearly a century ago by Bishop; Nevill, and stalwart kauris may be seen in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. Some years ago Mr Alex Thomson planted a stand of about a hundred kauris at North Taieri near Dunedin. A vigorous young kauri in my own garden, planted as a seedling about thirty years ago, has attained a girth of about 18 inches and a height of over 25 feet, and though not growing so rapidly as in the north, is as healthy as any tree in the Waipoua Forest.

Ages ago, in the depths of the twilit northern forests, great kauris lifted up their heads, singly and in groups; their symmetrical, smooth grey trunks stood like massive pillars in Nature's cathedral. some had a girth of 60 feet and more and rose upwards of a hundred feet to the first limb before spreading their great canopy of branches and foliage head and shoulders above the lesser trees. What caused these forests to perish rather than renew themselves century after century in perpetuity, as appears to be the case with other indigenous forests - as we hope it will be with Waipoua? there will be a return to this subject in the chapter discussing the gumfields which succeeded these kauri forests.

Kauri Gum And The Pre-European Maori

The kauri was the unchallenged King of the Forest in the economy of the northern pre-European Maori. From its massive bole he fashioned a great war canoe, and discovered useful purposes for its resin, both raw and fossil. In its semi liquid state, oozing from the tree, it was used as chewing gum. "They pass it from one to another," wrote the missionary William Yate in 1835, "till it has gone the round of the whole party, when it is carefully rolled up in a clean leaf and reserved till some future opportunity." J. S. Polack (1840) tells us that when chewed it acquired the consistency of india-rubber. According to Captain Gilbert Mair, fossil gum was used for the same purpose in early European days. "The old gum was kept in boiling water till quite plastic; then juice, procured from the milk of the puwha (native thistle), was mixed with it to make it soft and elastic for masticating."

W. R. Wade, who arrived in New Zealand in 1834, tells us that fossil gum was collected in baskets where it lay scattered on the ground, and was burnt in the kumara plantations to kill the caterpillar. It was, however, in the art of tattooing that the ancient Maori found one of the most interesting uses for kauri gum. Tattooing (te moko), as it was practised by the pre-European Maori, was not performed by puncturing the skin as in the case of the paieha, but by literally carving the symmetrically artistic pattern through the skin with a sharp bone chisel - an agonisingly painful process. While the cuts were still open, a pigment was introduced into the lacerated flesh. this preparation, termed "lamp;-black" by Captain Mair, was, he says, made by burning kauri gum beneath sheets of green bark. It was the resultant pigment mixed with oil, or the fat of the native dog, which produced the "fast" blue-black or greenish colouring of the moko - the pride of the warrior chief. 

Pakeha Encounters Kauai Gum

Captain Cook was the first European to see and handle kauri gum. On 16 November 1769 he entered in his Journal: "In speaking of Mercury Bay I had forgot to mention that the Mangrove trees found there produce a resinous substance very much like Resin. . . . We found it, at first, in small lumps upon the Sea Beach, afterwards found it sticking to the Mangrove Trees, and by that means found out from whence it came." The gum referred to by Captain Cook had, of course, been carried into the mangrove swamp by forest creeks. In the following month, December 1769, the French navigator, De Surville, took his ship, Saint Jean Baptiste, into Doubtless Bay, which he named Lauriston Bay, unaware that Cook had seen it from the Endeavour, and named it, a few days previously. De Surville's supercargo, M. Momeron, kept a journal which was discovered in Paris in 1910 by the New Zealand historian the Hon. Robert McNab. "On the seashore," wrote Momeron, "is found a transparent gum brought there by the sea. It shows, while burning, a bright flame, and emits a rather sweet odour."

A further reference to kauri gum was made by Momeron's shipmate, de Pottier de l'Horne, first lieutenant on the St Jean Baptiste: "One finds on these coasts, amongst the seaweed which the tide leaves behind, some pieces of resin or bitumen, nearly round in shape, of a yellowish colour, transparent, friable, light, inflammable, of a much sweeter scent than that of the resin, but somewhat similar. This stuff, which seems to me remarkable, and worthy of the notice of the naturalist, seems to belong to the amber family." As amber is the fossilised product of long extinct northern European pine forests, l'Horne made a very good guess. I is rarely, of course, that kauri gum, in its natural state, is found "nearly round" in shape. that discovvered by l'Horne had been subjected to the movement of the tides as they carried it to and fro on the bed of the ocean and eventually cast it open upon the shore. A few miles northward of Doubtless Bay, on the sandy ocean beach of the Houhora Peninsula, I have picked up smooth, waterworn pieces of gum thrown up by the sea, and have been told that, after an easterly storm, large quantities can be gathered. It may be that the remains of ancient submerged forests lie at the bottom of the ocean, or alternatively, or as an added cause, during untold years gum has been carried down to the sea by neighbouring creeks.

There is a passing reference to kauri gum by Captain du Clesmeur, who succeeded to the command of the ill-fated French expedition of 1772, after the violent death of the unfortunate Marion du Fresne and several members of his company. Du Clesmeur describes the felling of kauri spars to replace those destroyed by storms. The tree, he writes, "produces a gum or resin which gives forth a very pleasant odour when it is burnt." Nearly half a century later, on Friday, 22 October 1819, the pioneer missionary Samuel Marsden became the first European to identify the origin of fossilised gum. Journeying in the neighbourhood of Ohaeawai - where three-quarters of a century later my father pitched his tent on the gumfield - Marsden set this down in his Journal: "It appears as if there had been a wood of pines, which is now all burnt, not so much as one tree remaining. There is here and there the root of a pine which has been burnt into the surface of the ground, and pieces of resin which have come from the pine tree, are lying on the ground in all directions." About a quarter of a century later, after waiting immemorial years for the arrival of the white man, this product of the kauri was being sent overseas to manufacturers to be transformed and distributed to the four corners of the earth in the service of man.

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One of the interesting features of kauri gum is its almost bewildering diversity of size, colour, quality, and degree of opacity or transparence. Lumps of gum weighing half a hundredweight or more have on rare occasions been found, but in general, on the ranges and flats the size varied from an occasional nugget weighing a few pounds down to "nuts" the size of an acorn or smaller. In the peat swamps, however, while large pieces were not uncommon, much of the gum would be smaller still, known as chips. In colour, gum varies from pure white, through shades of amber and reddish tints, to brown and black. the best quality of gum, usually found on the ranges, and in particular on the Coromandel Penensula, was hard and bright. The poorest qualities - soft, black, chalky, and "sugary" gum were usually found in the depths of swamps. Those who have only seen kauri gum in carved and polished collections would not recognise it as such when dug out of the ground. rough and shapeless, coated with dirt, its surface was obscured by a film of reddish-brown protective "rust" which, with the dirt, had to be scraped off.

I have not seen any discussion upon the causes which led to so great a variety in the colour of the superior kinds of fossil gum. Mr. H. T. Parry, Auckland, tells a story which may possibly throw some light upon the formation of transparent gum. some Dalmations, he says, buried pieces of good ordinary or clouded gum below their camp fire, and on digging it up some considerable time after, found it to be transparent, having apparently been transmitted by long continued moderate heat. I have in a small way tested this myself. some twenty years ago, in farthest north, I found a small piece of gum, a part of which, above ground, had evidently been exposed to the sun for many years. this portion was almost transparent, while that below the surface was quite dull; as an experiment. I placed this small piece of gum on my window-sill where it has been constantly exposed to the sun, and the whole piece is now semi-transparent.

Kauri Gum Collectors

Kauri gum may be seen in great variety in several public collections, such as those in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Dominion Museum at Wellington, at Whangurei and, perhaps best of all in the Otamatea County Museum, Matakohe, Northland - each gathered with tireless perseverance from numerous sources, and each unique of its kind.

At Auckland in the 1890s I knew H. A. Nelson, dealer in antiques and collector of kauri gum. His collection, an accumulation of many years, was probably the most extensive ever brought together. It comprised 2,000 polished pieces, and in 1908 the New Zealand Government sent it to London for exhibition, insuring it for 7,000 pounds. In 1914 it was displayed at an Auckland exhibition, after which apparently lay untouched for nearly thirty years. Mr Neilsen died in 1953, and in the following year, after ineffective enquiries overseas and in New Zealand, the collection was sold at auction on behalf of the beneficiaries. The outcome was sensational; the auctioneer was unable to obtain a starting bid of 500 pounds, and Mr G. Creamer, 79-year-old retired landscape gardener, probably to his own astonishment, found himself the owner of this fabulous collection for 175 pounds. "I did not buy it," he said, "they gave it to me." I happened to be in Auckland soon after, and called upon Mr Creamer, who kindly showed me the only case he had at that time opened; others were strewn about the house, and he told me he didn't know what he was going to do with them. It would be interesting to know what became of this amazing collection. One might guess that it found its way into numerous antique shops, and that by sales to tourists, much of it was distributed all over the world.

The highest quality of transparent gum was always very scarce, and for single pieces no larger than a man's fist as much as 25 pounds has been paid. the Mitchelson collection, presented to the Auckland Museum about 1914, was said to be then valued at 2,000 pounds. A gumdigger, sitting in his tent or whare, would often do a bit of carving at night, on wet days, or on Sundays. The favourite subjects were hearts, crosses and anchors, and some showe4d great initiative and skill. Carving required infinite patience as well as skill; one careless movement of the knife might ruin a bit of work which had occupied many hours. Polishing became an exercise in patience; emery paper followed by progressively finer grades of sandpaper, were used for this, the final gloss being given by a kerosene rag or, as Mate Kokoch told the New Zealand Herald, with the palm of the hand.

We are told of a clever sculptor who, in 1916, worked for six months on a carved head which proved to be so lifelike that it frightened away the prospective buyer. In more recent years the owner kept it tucked up in bed - in the guest room! It is fortunate that several comprehensive collections of kauri gum remain in the country, for it would now be virtually impossible to assemble another. Two of the finest, housed in the Otamatea County Museum, may be briefly described.

The J. J. Lord Collection

This remarkable collection, comprising some 700 pieces, displayed in three cases, was presented to the district by Mr. C. K. Lord, son of the collector, James J. Lord as a young man was engaged in farming in the neighbouring district of Maungaturoto. Later he removed to Mount Albert, his headquarters as a buyer of fat cattle, operating in North Auckland. It was while travelling in the course of the business in various parts of Northland that he became interested in collecting specimens of kauri gum. It was his purpose to collect as many varieties as possible, and to preserve them in their natural shapes rather than carving them, though he spent much spare time in cleaning and polishing to enhance their beauty and show their texture. Owing to the natural diversity of shape, however, some of his specimens reveal a remarkable resemblance to animals and other objects. A ve4ry dark piece is an almost perfect image of a horse's hoof; another, of a cloudy, golden colour, resembles the head and neck of a spaniel dog. Some, beautifully clear and polished, are like crystal balls. The variety in colour ranges from all but pure white to gold, amber, brown and jet black. In some rare specimens insects, such as the huhu beetle, may be seen in a perfect state of preservation, having been trapped on semi-liquid gum exuding from the tree, and subsequently buried in further flows. this of course might have happened more frequently, but the captive can only be revealed in transparent specimens. In size the exhibits vary from ab out two feet in length downwards, and though some specimens might appear at a casual glance to be repetitive, closer inspection will reveal individual beauty in each specimen.

The Andrew Rintoul Collection

Andrew Rintoul was a pioneer of the Albertland Settlement, having arrived from Scotland in the Hanover in 1862, at fourteen years of age. He married the daughter of a pioneer Matakohe settler, E. G. Smith, and founded a farm at Huarau, near Maungaturoto. His collection of kauri gum was presented to the Otamatea Kauri and Pioneer Museum by his son Alex; his other son, Ned, was killed in action in World War I. This collection comprised 834 pieces, many of them carved specimens, and represents an almost lifelong quest. He scraped, sandpapered and polished his specimens, an outstanding item being a carved set of replicas of named seashells. Accurately shaped balls of transparent gum, almost as perfectly spherical as a billiard ball, were carved with his knife, and all made true by the feel of the fingers. He carved a set of beads, and used a home-made gimlet for boring the holes.

As in the case of the J. J. Lord collection, there are examples of insects embedded in the fossil gum, caught and imprisoned perhaps thousands of years ago. An outstanding exhibit is a large piece of to-quality gum carved in the form of a cross to Mr. Rintoul's own design. The only artificially "manufacture" exhibit is a large polished ball, made by boiling smaller piece3s and pressing them into a perfect shape. Alex Rintoul says that his father started to build up his collection as a young man, and during his search travelled widely between Auckland and Hokianga. On one occasion he rode to Hokianga and back on what was then "the roadless North" to secure one coveted specimen. On another occasion he went to Auckland to buy a new suit, and on his return - reminiscent of the young man in Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield - confessed that he had swapped the five pounds for a rare acquisition for his collection.

Andrew Rintoul died at the age of sixty-three, and his remarkable collection is his fitting memorial.

A Model Of A Cathedral

It could be said with little fear of contradiction that the most remarkable single example of carved kauri gum is in the collection of Mrs Mabel Hardy, New Plymouth. It is a model of a cathedral, 17.1/2 inches in height. Its most astonishing characteristic is the fact that it is not carved from one piece of gum, but has been constructed from the almost incredible number of 600 separate pieces. It might be wondered how these could possibly have been assembled; it is probable that each piece, after it was carved, was heated, thus enabling it to be attached by adhesion to its neighbouring piece. The craftsman was Mr A. Addis whose task was completed in 1896 in spare time during a period of ten years. It is a privilege to place on permanent record this extraordinary example of unfaltering skilful craftsmanship. (See illustration.)

It is likely that carved gum as carved and polished ornaments bought in antique and jewellers' shops have made tourists acquainted with our unique product, but will have afforded them little knowledge of the industry which many years ago was a major source of prosperity to the city and province of Auckland

Kauri Silk

One of the most beautiful, as well as the most curious products of kauri gum is - of was, known as Kauri Silk. Examples must now be very rare, but can no doubt be seen in some public collections. Its production was an art unpractised for many years, and now almost forgotten. Mr Keith R. Mosheim, Bucklands Beach, who is thoroughly acquainted with the process, and had almost forgotten it himself, tells me that he is unaware of anyone outside his family who undertook this work. he has not only given me a detailed description of the process, but has sent me a beautiful example made quite recently by himself. This example of "kauri silk" is tied with a piece of red ribbon, and all whom I have asked, "What is it?" have described it as a lovely tress of silky blonde hair., Here is Mr Mosheim's description of the process:

"'Kauri Silk', generally in the form of plaited strands representing the long tresses of blonde hair often seen on young girls of the period, appeared during this time. Its evolvement was probably quite accidental, and who first saw possibilities in the process as an artistic achievement, or as a means of making a few shillings, is not known. However, I never did hear of anyone outside of our family, producing these items.

"When a plait was made, often up to five feet long in finished form, it was tied with a ribbon and bow, top and bottom, and coiled in a suitable box, and offered for sale, or entered in any suitable exhibition competitions. I recall prizes from the Auckland Winter Show, which for many years was staged in one of our wharf sheds; my brother being quite successful here.

"To produce a nice specimen it is essential to have a good piece of gum. It would require to weigh about two pounds, so that it could be firmly gripped, and should be pale and clear, and free from ruptures and defects. This seems to be difficult to acquire in these days. The lump must be scraped and cleaned and dried. Imagine now, a typical kitchen of those days, relatively tiny by today's standards, and with a wood range, complete with iron or enamel pots and kettle, and also complete with a certain amount of steam, and a very cosy temperature; this was the scene of operations, with all windows and doors closed to eliminate draughts.

"With an old metal frypan or an old metal plate on the hot range, moved about to get just the right temperature, the lump of gum was pressed on to the plate until the surface melted, and was then slowly drawn out to arm's length or further, and as this was done, the ;melted surface miraculously came away in these beautiful drawn fibres, which were placed on the nearby table. The operation was completed until the required three bundles of strands were produced. These were plaited with a standard three-plait. The conditions of the old-time warm and humid kitchen were very necessary for the success of this process, as the gum fibres when cold are very fragile.

"The novelty of these items must have worn off after a time. A depression came along, then another war, and I had not thought much about it until reading your letter in the N.Z. Herald, so I must thank you really for reminding me once again.

"My out-of-practice effort with the only tiny piece of gum that I had on hand, is forwarded with my compliments. About fifty years have elapsed since my previous efforts, and the piece of gum had some impurities, but no doubt the sample will give an indication. I hope it arrives safely, and if so it should be quite in order for you to pick it up, in a warm room, and extend it." (See illustration.)

This, then, is another example of the kindness and cooperation of many well-wishers, benefiting me by the experience of old-timers, and gathering first-hand information that would be quite unprocurable in a few years. 


Though almost the entire output of kauri gum was used in the manufacture of varnish, and subsequntly of linoleum, it served a few minor purposes, both in earlier and later years. As early as 1834 Edward Markham, walking from Kokianga to Kerikeri, saw lumps of kauri gum, and recorded that it requires so much oil to make it soft so as to be able to pay the bottom of a Boat or to do wht Outside of House with it as to render it nearly useless. This would appear to be the first recorded suggestions of its potential commercial use. In 1848 kauri gum dissolved in "oil of wood" was mixed in paint - presumably for ships - at Hokianga. 

It is not clear at what period the utility of kauri gum became known to English manufacturers, but it was probably not until after its use had been established in America. there is a story, whether true or apocryphal, that in those early days an experimental consignment of twenty tons of gum was sent to London, and having been pronounced worthless, was thrown overboard into the Thames. John Stallworthy tells us in Early Northern Wairoa (1916) that part of an experimental shipment to London in the 1840s was sold for the manufact6ure of fire-kindlers and an ingredient of marine glue. It was also used as an emulsifier in the manufacture of paint. A London manufacturer said, in later years, that kauri gum "possesses a unique peculiarity of assimilating with oil more rapidly and at an easier temperature than any other gum." Other inferior gums were found in New Caledonia, the Philippines, Madagascar and South America; the only gum comparable with kauri was Zanzibar, which was more costly and available only in small quantities. In the 1850s kauri gum was said to be used for the dressing of "glazed" calico. In 1946, owing to import restrictions and shortage of synthetic substances, it was reported that kauri gum was in use by local manufacturers of wax matches. At one time it was said to have been used in the manufacture of sealing wax and candles.

Reference to the use of gum by the pore-European Maori has been made in a previous chapter.

It will be recalled that the old-time Maori used softened kauri gum for chewing, apparently as a fragrant and flavoured dentifrice! The modern use of kauri gum in dentistry would seem to bring the turn of the wheel full-circle. Skinner and Phillips in the Science of Denial Materials (196)), referring to kauri gum state that "it is most commonly used in combination with stearin, a wax derivative. The stearin gives the compound its thermoplastic property, the kauri resin (or shellac or copal) is added to give hardness and strength to the material once it has cooled down and set."

As a further link with the old-time Maori's oral use of kauri gum there has been a suggestion that it could take the place of amber mouthpieces for smokers!


When it had become established that there was a market for kauri gum, the next step was a diligent search for new supplies, for many potentially rich gumfields provided no trace of surface gum to indicate their whereabouts. It was at this period that the invaluable gumspear was added to the digger's equipment. He soon learned to recognise the likeliest localities by the nature of the ground and its vegetation - usually stunted manuka; and prodding the ground here and there it was not long before gumfield after gumfield was opened up, varying in size from a hundred or two to thousands of acres. Some of these new fields were on Maori land, scene of European privately owned property which had to be leased, or worked on a royalty basis. The largest and the most numerous gumfields, however, were on Crown land, and in these, for many years, diggers had free access.

In all the gumfields north Auckland, scattered here and there from the Lower Waikato and the Coromandel Peninsula to North Cape, covered an area, it was said, of from 1,500,000 to 1,800,00 acres. When to this are added the huge pre-European forested regions, it would appear that one time the greater part of northenmost New Zealand was a vast, almost continuous untrodden kauri forest. The standing bush is now reckoned by by thousands instead of millions of acres, and the all-but forgotten gumfields of yesterday have been superseded by the fertile dairy farms and laden orchards of today. Those gumfields that have vanished, leaving as little trace as the great forests that gave them birth, - what were thy like? It is difficult today for the traveller by car, passing through the pleasant countryside of what is new "the prosperous North," known in the gumfields era as "the poor North" and "the roadless North," to picture these regions as they were seen by the grumdigger and his contemporaries. In 1875 Sir Julius Vogel described them as "land which has been exhausted by kauri forests in past ages, and is now barren and unfit for cultivation." Later observers have represented them as depressing, sterile wildernesses of stunted teatree scrub, rushes and coarse fern, with here and there an uninviting swamp, and intersected, according to the season, by dusty or muddy so-called roads. they are described in a New Zealand novel as "sprawling, undulating waste. Bare and bleak. No flush of green. Stunted manuka was brown. The earth was shrivelled in permanent exhaustion."

to be continued ...

The Gumdiggers
The Story of Kauri Gum by A. H. Reed
Published by A. H. & A. W. Reed
Wellington, New Zealand, 1978

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