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In this edited extract from the newly published The Face of Nature: An environmental history of the Otago Peninsula, Jonathan West explores what people and place have made of each other from the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers to the end of the 19th century.
Otago Peninsula is a small finger of land poking out from the South Island's east coast into the Pacific Ocean.
A place of great natural diversity and celebrated scenic beauty, it has a human history of equally exceptional depth and variety.
The peninsula's outward face juts forth to confront the rolling Pacific swells and wild southwest winds, which have smashed its lava tongues into cliffs and gouged out bays and estuaries from its softer rocks. The aspect it turns towards land is sunny and comparatively calm and encloses Otago Harbour and the city of Dunedin. Where the raw outer coast attracts wildlife, the hills and bays of the inner harbour are home to quiet suburbs and small villages.
Stand atop any one of the peninsula's volcanic cones and the drama of the contrast is breathtaking: a chain of hills folding into hills fringed by high cliffs, deep estuaries and white sandy beaches. Little wonder, perhaps, that the peninsula has been at the centre of life in Otago for most of human history here.
Otago Peninsula has always been among the places in Otago most important to Maori: they have lived there longest, and fought over it most bitterly. They shared it willingly with whalers and then reluctantly agreed to split it with the British. The peninsula in the later 19th century was transformed from forest into one large dairy farm that fed a booming Dunedin city, and was home to many of its leading citizens, including the extraordinary entrepreneur and politician William Larnach. In the 21st century it has become the core of Dunedin's ecotourism industry and the city's claim as the wildlife capital of New Zealand. Otago Peninsula is again the heart of Otago.
The peninsula's enduring significance stems from the fact that it has attracted and held a succession of the forces that have been central to shaping human expansion into the third of the globe that is the Pacific Ocean. Here, natural forces combine with the forces of human history - the entanglements of empire, booming settler capitalism, the quest for national identity and an honourable home - to shape Otago, New Zealand, the wider Pacific, and even the entire earth.
New Zealand has long been seen as a Gondwanan ark - a place apart, cast adrift about 80 million years ago, which explains the peculiarity of its plants and animals.
Some geologists now claim that New Zealand drowned beneath the sea only some 20 million years ago, meaning that all our plants and animals later crossed the ocean to get here. This claim is still contested. Whether it is wholly or mostly true, we should now see New Zealand in a different way, as "the fly-paper of the Pacific'': animals and plants swirling around the globe on winds and ocean currents bump into New Zealand all the time. Some successfully stick.
The yellow-eyed penguin, which famously still breeds around Otago Peninsula, is a particular example. Saved from extermination by ongoing heroic efforts, along with the royal albatross it is now the backbone of the local economy. In 2009 scientists from Otago and elsewhere overturned what we thought we knew about the yellow-eyed penguin, Megadyptes antipodes. Like most of our other surviving birds, it was believed to be a declining remnant of a once abundant species. It is in fact a very recent newcomer to the Otago Peninsula that arrived from the subantarctic islands only after its predecessor, a newly distinguished sort of penguin, Megadyptes waitaha, was exterminated by early Polynesian settlers - remembered here as Waitaha - within a few hundred years of their arrival in the late 13th century.
In southern Maori tradition, people's exploration of the sea began with a bird's feather, sent out over the ocean to discover whether the sky descended `til it lay upon the water, or whether the sea continued beyond the horizon. Shearwaters and petrels, especially the sooty shearwater - the titi or muttonbird - might have been the most reliable guides to people's great migrations south. Fabulous numbers of the birds flew south in spring over East Polynesia, heading for their breeding grounds in New Zealand; and returned just as predictably each autumn.
Maori tradition tells us that the first people to encounter the Otago coast came south out of the Pacific on the waka (canoe) Uruao, meaning "squall'', and called themselves Te Rapuwai, a name that commemorates how they splashed the water as they swam. These people, who later came to call themselves Waitaha, considered that the peninsula was formed by their atua (god) Kahukura, "the main god of the migrators'', who "separated the good from the bad weather'' and "protected the frail canoes on the heaving waves''.
Otago Peninsula remained an important home. It was at the core of the contest for the south between the iwi Kati Mamoe, who moved down from the North Island in the 16th century, and Kai Tahu. Hapu (subtribes) of Kai Tahu such as Kati Kuri began to come south about the turn of the 18th century. For the next century they would struggle over the south, beginning and ending with efforts to gain and maintain control over Otago Peninsula.
Once the moa, seals and seabirds, such as the Waitaha penguin, were largely gone, southern Maori relied increasingly on the sea, which came to supply up to three quarters of their animal food. In this context, the yellow-eyed penguins' survival raises a question: Maori had just exterminated one sort of penguin, so why not another? The Polynesians who became Maori, who had exterminated thousands of birds and several animal species as they spread out to colonise the Pacific, perhaps learnt to manage some significant resources.
Lieutenant James Cook described seals and yellow-eyed penguins as he sailed the Endeavour south off the Otago coast in March 1770. He did not land here, but he noted possibilities for a good harbour, the presence of seals and whales, and the fact that inhabitants were few.
Sealers very quickly stripped the shores, and though everyone from Sydney's governors down could see this happening, no-one could successfully challenge the economic logic of plunder: taking everything you could, knowing that rivals would take what you left. Uncontrollable boom-and-bust exploitation has been a recurrent pattern in the history of Otago Peninsula, and New Zealand, and elsewhere in Britain's colonies.
Even a little traffic with Europeans changed Maori life on the peninsula. Maori gained pigs and, most important of all, potatoes - a vegetable that revolutionised their life just as it had done for the Scots and the Irish. Among other benefits, the ability to grow potatoes meant Maori could cluster at the harbours where European trade was most likely. Sealer John Boultbee reported in 1827 that the peninsula settlements were the largest in the south.
Trade with Europeans upset the balance of power in the Maori world. Basing himself strategically about Cook Strait, the Ngati Toa rangatira (chief) Te Rauparaha gained guns first: he demolished Kai Tahu power in Canterbury, and eyed the south.
Maori living on the peninsula soon gained the guns to fight back, getting them from Sydney merchants the Weller Brothers in exchange for the right to establish a shore whaling station at Otakou, near the harbour mouth on the tip of Otago Peninsula.
Maori from the peninsula were then instrumental in fighting off Te Rauparaha, ensuring that he never threatened the far south, Murihiku.
Shore whaling was possible at Otakou because southern right whales followed regular winter migration paths along the east coast and would come into sheltered bays like Otago Harbour to nurse their calves. But whaling, like sealing, did not last long because the whalers exterminated whales so fast: during the 20-year whaling bonanza after 1830, over 40,000 right whales were killed in Australasia.
Otakou was at the heart of the Wellers' empire, which dominated whaling on New Zealand's eastern seaboard in the 1830s. The Wellers' whaling base in Otago Harbour was one of the earliest and for a long time the biggest of such stations, the recourse of men and ships all along the coast.
A new sort of settlement emerged at Otakou, where Maori and whalers mingled. Whalers became entangled with Maori in the trades ubiquitous to such ports: resupplying men wanting food, water and women; refitting ships needing wood, rope and men. Whalers and Maori worked together to send out cargo of the rawest materials - potatoes, pigs, the salted skins of clubbed seals, and the oil and bone of whale.
The character of the settlement remains contentious, and questions linger over how well Maori coped with the potent cocktail of "sugar and tea and rum'' brought by the "Wellerman'', as the whalers' shanty put it - not to mention muskets, measles and missionaries. Regardless, Maori and the newcomers gradually came to a mutual understanding and tacit trust through negotiating all manner of day-to-day exchanges: domestic affairs, sexual contact, dispute resolution and the terms of labour and property rights all had to be managed.
Throughout the 1830s Maori and whalers traded in land, too, and common understandings developed of what was at stake for both parties. This experience stood Maori in good stead when, in 1844, they debated the sale of the Otago Block to the New Zealand Company.
Following the discovery of gold in 1861, everything changed. The city was awash with gold, and settlers surged to clear the forest and farm the land. For 20 years settlement on the peninsula was carried forward on a wave of tremendous optimism. During this sustained boom the peninsula's major roads were built - much of the work being carried out by prison labour, including that provided by the Taranaki war and Parihaka prisoners.
By the late 1870s, New Zealand was "saturated with debt''. When the Bank of Glasgow, which had funnelled large amounts of British capital to New Zealand, suddenly went bust in 1878, it triggered a chain reaction in bank collapses and bankruptcies. The banks turned off cheap credit to Otago, and growth in the south slowed to a crawl for most of the rest of the century.
Still, peninsula farming continued to consolidate. Led by Larnach, the peninsula's settlers continued making the peninsula into cow country, where dairy farming was "the sole business of the district'', churning out Dunedin's milk and butter.
Meanwhile, however, the Otago settlers shut Maori out: they were not welcome in politics, the economy or society. The small community at Otakou struggled. Their land was fairly poor - where it was not hill, it was mostly sand or swamp - and settlers owned and foreclosed access to their former lands. Perhaps their biggest single obstacle was that settler laws and settler banks refused to lend capital against the value of their property so that, unlike settler farmers, Maori could not rely on credit to develop their land.
The ongoing dissonance in the legal status of Maori and settler land is shown in the fact that peninsula rangatira Hori Kerei (H.K.) Taiaroa eventually had parliament pass the Taiaroa Land Act 1883 to allow him to deal with his land exactly as Europeans did.
Taiaroa, too, knew that property is so important that it forms the heart of law; and as historian William Cronon has observed, this understanding of property makes law "the formal expression of a community's relationship with nature''.
The state was quite prepared to regulate fisheries, but Otago Harbour was the first and worst case of settler overfishing: there, state interventions were generally too little or too late to prevent repeating the boom-and-bust exploitation that had already seen seals and whales exterminated. Oysters vanished, flatfish diminished, and inshore fisheries for the enormous hapuku or groper disappeared. By the end of the 19th century, the peninsula was one of the most intensively and progressively farmed landscapes in New Zealand. In just 50 years the land had been laid bare and the harbour and other inlet fisheries hollowed out. The spate and scope of change was such that New Zealand's leading natural scientist, George Malcolm Thomson - who, at the turn of the 20th century, "knew Dunedin like a book'' - looked out around the city in amazement, reflecting that already most of "the indigenous flora and fauna'' had vanished: "the whole face of Nature is altered''.
Much of the peninsula is [now] a ghost landscape. As archaeologist Angela Middleton puts it, the patterns imposed on the land by the settlers of the 19th century are "strikingly intact and beautifully preserved''.
This is all the more extraordinary as the peninsula immediately abuts Dunedin, one of New Zealand's significant cities.
The peninsula has proved irresistible to scientists, writers, poets and painters searching for an understanding of this part of the world and people's place in it. This is perhaps what drove Colin McCahon to paint the peninsula again and again in his effort to realise what it was that conveyed "something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated''.
Otago historian Eileen Soper wrote of how women, especially, experienced the settlers' world as a "habitat that must be continually altering - the natural demolished in order to give way to the civilized'', and adding that "whether she loved or hated the new land, no pioneer woman could be completely at peace while this process of destruction and reconstruction was taking place''.
Today, the peninsula that was reconstructed in the 19th century is being preserved as a living museum, a relict landscape in which an increasingly urban community works to preserve the remains of its rural history while encouraging a resurgence of indigenous life, most of which has come back to us from the sea.
Perhaps this effort will provide an answer to the question still at issue for New Zealand's settlers: how will we be at peace here?
• The Face of Nature: An environmental history of the Otago Peninsula, by Jonathan West, is published by Otago University Press, $49.95.
• The book is available now and will be officially launched at the University Book Shop on Wednesday, December 6 at 5.30pm.