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Poenamo
Book the Fourth - Chapter XI.
The Capital of Poenamo in 1811.—how we Lived then


To travel away forty years back in one's past life and portray scenes then occurring would not be an easy task unless those scenes had a character peculiarly their own, and stood out in bold relief and marked contrast to the ordinary everyday routine of life.

Forty years ago it is now, and yet how vividly does the dawning year of 1841 and the primitive capital with its handful of people rise before me.

Ah! how many have passed away, and how few remain to me now with whom I acted as the pilgrim fathers of those days! Few indeed are we now; on the fingers of one hand almost can I number them. We are even as so many moss o'ergrown milestones, ancient relics which marked the road for a past generation which has already travelled to the journey's end.

Yes! the wintry snow of age has blanched our heads, proclaiming the many years which lie buried in the past, and that our course has nearly run.

Yet how vividly rises before me the picture as I used to look upon it when, rising from my fern bed, I folded back my tent-door, and smelt the sweet fresh dew-scent in the air, and saw the rippling tide- wave wash the beach.

How calm and dreamy and peaceful was the primitive life, waiting in expectancy—all waiting in expectancy—such a bright future conjured up.

We were all squatting, each in the little spot which fancy had dictated, and the day of rivalry was still in the future; there was no envying of a neighbour's superiority or greater fortune; we were all steeped in a passive equality, all hail fellow well met; we were as one family, with a distinction—and that distinction was only the Red Tape one! But we all smiled benignly on the little airs Red Tape put on in the attempt to enshrine itself in a very milk-and-water exclusiveness; for from the top-sawyer of Red Tape down to the veritable top-sawyer and his mate below in the Government sawpits we all gave each other le beau jour, and had a passing word of kindness to say when we met among the high fern footpaths or at the landing-place at the beach.

It would have been useless for Red Tape to stand on its dignity; we all elbowed each other so intimately and were so isolated that familiarity ceased to breed contempt and happily engendered the feeling of that good-fellowship which arises where any small band of men are thrown together far away from their other fellow-men and their fatherland.

We had our little jokes, and would ask how Red Tape was this morning in Exclusion Bay, for Red Tape had tabooed for itself an Official Bay, known to this day by that name, and did not allow any squatting in it, unless by first obtaining the Surveyor-General's consent. This grand titled functionary had been passed on to us from our nearest sister colony, and was next in importance to our Deputy-Governor, so we christened Official Bay, Exclusion Bay, and it held that name long after the first sale of town lots killed forever the exclusive monopoly.

Then as Commercial Bay was a horribly long name, altogether too high-sounding (except on the Surveyor-General's map) for the pig and potato bartering with the Maories which took place there, and as the only building erected on it of wood which the capital could boast was a small Government store, the bay at once became Store Bay. Where the sawyers were at work retained its legitimate name of Mechanics' Bay; but there was still another bay where sawyers also were at work, and which immediately became known as Waipirau Bay, the Maori word for spirits, alias stinking water, for much rum was consumed there.

I have now given you the distinctive names of the localities of the young capital, which was now making quite a grand show with its increasing tents and huts dotted over these four bays. But it was a handful of houses and a handful of people only, all peeping out at each other from amongst the scrub and six-feet-high fern all around.

My large establishment, representing not only the firm's business premises but the resident partner's place of abode, consisted, as of old, of the historical tent. It had been pitched where a little, trickling thread of water ran past, and I had dug a little well which gave me a plentiful supply, and got hold of an old flour-barrel to put in the hole.

I had also fenced myself off from the gaze of passengers, as the great thoroughfare from Store to Exclusion Bay passed in front of my tent. I had stuck up some poles and clothed them with ti-tree, so that I might have a screen behind which I could carry on all my domestic duties. Don't think I was ashamed to be seen performing these—not a bit of it; I never was, and I look back with pride and pleasure to all I had to go through in those days; it was only that innate modesty of mine which rebelled against being a prominent figure on the scene! I used to get up at sunrise, often before it, and go away foraging for wood, which I brought home from a not far-distant patch of brushwood. When the town became more populous this became exhausted, and then the Waiomu took us to the opposite shore of the harbour, and we brought over a plentiful supply.

At the back of my fence I had rigged up a triangle, from which hung a hook on which to suspend my gipsy pot, and the fireplace was backed round with large blocks of scoria stone to prevent my fence from being burnt down. Here I did my modest cooking to the old oft-told mentioned pork and potatoes—not a sheep or herd of oxen had yet reached the capital, neither butcher nor baker had yet appeared on the field. We all were still our own cooks and hewers of wood and drawers of water, and jolly and well and happy every one of us looked. If there was any slightly careworn trace on any one's face it was only on the Surveyor-General's, for he had survey on the brain and didn't need to cook his own dinner if he only had, he would have been as jolly as the rest of us.

But sometimes my cooking. came to grief; it was not always fair-weather work in this direction, for sometimes such foul weather came that I was hors de combat, and all hors-d'oeuvres became a delusion and a by-word instead of a by-dish.

This would happen when one of the north-easters set in, not only blowing great guns, but raining cats and dogs, when my firewood got soaked, and making a fire outside was impossible.

Then came the tug of war for dinner, and how the dinner came, and what it was, I suppose you would hardly believe unless convinced by the faithful extract from a journal I kept in those days, in which, in half-a-dozen words, I summed up each evening what had happened since the morning.

Now here is an extract bearing date "Friday, first day of January, 1841

The happy New Year came, blowing great guns from the north-east—raining like cats and dogs—postponed breakfast to see if the day would clear up— tried to boil some potatoes for dinner—could not succeed for the rain—commissariat at zero, no cold meat left—had to dine off some of yesterday's cold potatoes—and a drink of water! In the evening half-nipped my eyes out of my head with smoke trying to boil a pannikin of water inside the tent— only half succeeded—had a miserable cup of tea."

Now what do you think of that for a jolly New Year's Day? I wonder whether the entry ought to be put to the credit side of "romance" or debtor side of "reality" of early settling? Very primitive were our ways, as I have already stated. We had parsons without churches and magistrates without courts, but we scrambled through our divinity and our law somehow or other, so that we should be held in esteem as a Christian and properly-behaved people.

For instance, here is an entry of date the 15th May:- To-day saw Mr. - sitting. in front of his whare administering justice under the canopy of heaven."

And of the necessity of this open-air-court administration of justice I had a convincing proof, for here is what is entered on the 31st.—On returning in the evening to my tent, found a drunken man comfortably snoring away on my bed " I suppose I would rather he had been up before the administrator of justice under the canopy of heaven that morning, when perhaps he would have been cared for and not have invaded my tent. As for lying down on my bed, I could forgive him for that, for having stumbled into the tent he saw an empty crockery-crate, and he bundled himself down on the top of it. He could not know that was my bedstead to keep me from the damp ground, but at this date it had become rainy, and I had already grown luxurious and began to have more exalted ideas than time fern bed on the tent- floor!

But though we had the inevitable percentage of indulgers in "waipirau" we had not got the length of having thieves, for more than once I paddled down to the island, just tying up my tent-door and leaving everything to take care of itself; the danger of drunken intruders was left to be looked after by my nearest neighbour. But in giving you these extracts from my journal I have gone in advance of the day on which I intended to bring my personal memoirs to a close, and I must now once more take you back to the first four days of the year 1841 to chronicle the episode with which I shall wind up in the next, my last chapter.


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