The acclimatisation affair (or how we learned not to underestimate the power of the possum)

The first feeling that strikes everyone on coming to New Zealand is its intense want of animal life. Mountains, plains, rivers, - mere features without a soul; for you can hardly dignify the miserable ground lark, the wailing weka, or the ghoul-like eel with such a title.

- Lyttelton Times 18/02/1864: 5

When I first read the above quote, taken from a letter to the editor of the Lyttelton Times in 1864, I will admit to doing a double take. Then, to a sense of outrage and a strange urge to defend the ‘soulless’ landscape and wildlife of New Zealand from this 150 year old attack on its very being (despite the author of that sentence being unable to hear – or, I suspect, care about – my opinion). It’s such an odd, jarring statement to read about a country that now considers its natural landscape and native wildlife to be a source of pride, a country that places its mountains and plains and rivers at the heart of its national identity. Yet, this sentiment and others like it formed the impetus for one of the most influential colonial endeavours of the 19th century, one that irrevocably changed the land in which we live – to an extent that most of us don't fully realise.

The wailing weka and the ghoul-like eel. Just not good enough, apparently. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It went by the name of ‘acclimatisation’ and consisted of the deliberate introduction of “beasts, birds, fishes, and vegetable productions, of such species as may be acclimatised with probable advantage to this province and to the colony” (Lyttelton Times 8/03/1864: 2). In New Zealand, and the rest of the British colonial world, the acclimatisation movement was largely driven by ‘Acclimatisation Societies’, who made it their mission to improve the plant and animal life of the lands they had chosen to settle. Basically, they imported a bunch of animals into the country from all over the world in a venture that seems to have been part scientific curiosity[1], part hunger[2], part boredom[3] and part an apparently inescapable need to rectify the “remarkable deficiency” of local wildlife.

There is perhaps no country in the world the natural zoology of which supplies so little to the subsistence or enjoyment of its inhabitants, as New Zealand. Of game there is almost none; quail, formerly plentiful, have nearly disappeared; pigeons and kakas are to be found only in the woods; ducks, eels and wild pigs complete the list. And if there are so few useful animals, those which add to the grace and enjoyment of life are scarcer still; of singing birds there are but the tui tui and the bell bird; neither of them ever heard, except in the neighbourhood of the forests…If, however, we turn from land to water, the inducements to engage in this enterprise are greater still. Our great snow rivers are absolutely without fish…At present, such rivers as the Waimakariri, the Rakaia or the Rangitata are worse than useless, obstructing travelling without assisting navigation.

- Press 17/08/1861: 1 (emphasis mine)

The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society was first formed in 1864, modelled on the example of the London society, which aimed to introduce animals from the colonies into England, and the Victorian society, which aimed to introduce English and other colonial animals into Australia. Societies already existed in Auckland and Otago and the Canterbury branch followed in their footsteps, with the same stated intention of improving the fauna of the new colony (Lyttelton Times 8/03/1864: 2).

Excerpts from a letter about a proposed Acclimatisation Society in Canterbury.

Early supporters and members included some of the more well-known names of the early settlement, including Edward Wakefield, Sir John Cracroft Wilson, William Guise Brittan, Joseph Brittan, W. L. Travers, William Rolleston, William Sefton Moorhouse and John Edward Fitzgerald. Some of these men had already made their own individual efforts to introduce new species to New Zealand. William Guise Brittan had imported several ‘English singing birds’, as had John Watts-Russell. Sir John Cracroft Wilson had apparently made “an attempt…on a scale of oriental magnificence to introduce the game from the North of India” (Press 17/08/1861: 1). While their stated intention included the practical provision of food for the colony, their emphasis seems to have largely been on the aesthetic and sporting (i.e. hunting and fishing) advantages of acclimatisation.

crazy menu image

It is worth noting – in fact, important to note – that the acclimatisation societies of New Zealand weren’t the first to introduce new animals into New Zealand. Sealers, whalers, missionaries and early European visitors to the country brought with them chicken and pigs and sheep and other animals for food and companionship. Sir George Grey, the early governor of the colony, had his own collection of exotic birds and other creatures that he had imported into the country. And, of course, long before all of this, Māori had brought kiore (the Pacific rat), kurī (dog), kūmara and the ‘Polynesian suite’ of cultigens with them when they first arrived on these shores. For as long as humans have been moving around the world, they’ve been modifying the fauna and flora of the places they visit. The thing about the acclimatisation societies, though, that I think is worth emphasising, is that they were part of an organised, concerted and deliberate effort to change – to improve – the ecology of the country. It wasn’t just a hobby or a side effect of human migration. It was a bonafide movement.

Here in New Zealand, the species they introduced (and must take the blame for) include a selection of birds, fish, mammals, rodents and other creatures (bees!) - many of them now considered pests. Many of them were considered pests within a one or two decades of their introduction, to be honest. Some of them were creatures you might not have thought of as imported species, such as Ligurian bees (from Italy), bumble bees (sometimes referred to as ‘humble bees’) and lobsters. The article I found on lobsters begins with the sentence “Mr Purvis, chief engineer of the Iconic, has succeeded in bringing nine lobsters alive out of twelve” (Star 19/10/1892: 3). Well done, Mr Purvis, well done.

Ligurian bees and a picture of Patrick Stewart in a lobster costume (barely relevant, yet hilarious). Images: Wikimedia Commons and Twitter.

Birds seem to have been a particular area of interest and focus, which seems odd for an ecosystem already constructed around avian life. As well as game birds, like pheasants, quail, ducks and geese, there was an effort to introduce singing birds (clearly, Joseph Banks’ deafening dawn chorus of 1770 had lost its voice by the 1860s) and, to be honest, as many birds as they damn well could. Interestingly, the introduction of birds wasn’t a one-way street: there’s at least one account in 1872 of a shipment of 1000 tui, wax-eyes and parroquets from New Zealand to England (and a return shipment of English birds to this country).

Some of the birds introduced to New Zealand included the chukor (an Indian game bird), the magpie (thanks Australia, thanks a lot), the laughing jackass (amusingly mentioned in the papers as the Australian jackass), Virginian quail, Canadian geese, Teneriffe grouse, chickens from Kansas, swans, sparrows and German owls. The German owls are possibly my favourite, because the acclimatisation of German owls in the 19th century had turned into the GERMAN OWL MENACE by the 1930s (and yes, the caps are entirely necessary). So much so that the Canterbury association was indignant when the papers suggested that they were responsible for releasing more owls into the wild. A close second would have been the “peculiarly inoffensive” emu named Jack, who terrorised horses by trying to fraternise with them all the way back in 1865.


There was also a strong emphasis on the introduction of fish, especially trout and salmon, into the otherwise “useless” rivers of the Canterbury plains. Millions of fish were “liberated” into the streams and rivers of the district , born from ova shipped into Lyttelton from all over the world and raised in purpose-built fish ponds in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We excavated the site of the fish-ponds a while back, but there was nothing left of what was once the gateway for Canterbury’s freshwater fish populations (the Otago ones do still exist, though, and have been the subject of some cool archaeological projects over the last few years).

A survey plan of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society grounds in 1913, including the fish ponds.

As well as the birds and the fishes, however, there were the beasts. Let us not forget the beasts. Possums and rabbits and deer, oh my. Polecats, even. There appear to have been wildly differing levels of success with mammals and rodents. Some, like the kangaroo or the “game from the north of India” attempted by Cracroft Wilson, weren’t hugely successful. Others, like rabbits (described as ‘evil’ as early as the 1870s), possums, hares, deer and, of course, sheep, took to New Zealand in a flash. Most of them were imported as game, rather than food (with a couple of obvious exceptions). Yes, that’s right. We have so many possums and rabbits because it seemed like a fun idea at the time.


And when I say ‘in a flash’, it’s almost an understatement. Some of their greatest successes very quickly became their greatest headaches. By 1876, the New Zealand government had to pass the Rabbit Nuisance Act in response to the success of that species. By 1882, societies were recommending that hares be killed all year round rather than just during specific seasons. By 1898 they were suggesting that people could do so without a license. By the turn of the century there were suggestions for some measure of governmental control over the power of societies and individuals to import “animals or birds that might become nuisances to the community” (Press 23/05/1894: 5) and by the mid-20th century it was generally acknowledged that many of these introduced species had done irreparable damage to the native and other introduced species of New Zealand. Let’s not forget the German Owl Menace, everybody. At the same time, despite the increasing awareness of the problems of introduced species evident among acclimatisation societies as the decades progressed, they didn’t stop doing it, even importing other species to deal with problematic ones (why hello, stoats and ferrets).

I find the whole notion of acclimatisation societies quite weird to wrap my head around, to be honest. Especially in light of the biosecurity that is now so much a part of New Zealand life. Yet, the effects of their work are everywhere. If we look at it from an archaeological perspective the efforts of these societies are present in every assemblage of animal bones we excavate from 19th century sites in Christchurch - chicken, duck, sheep, cow, pig, horse, turkey, cat, rat, goose or dog, they’re all there.


We don’t even blink at them most of the time, because we’re so used – so ‘acclimatised’ – to having these species around. They’re a part of our normal, a statement that says as much about how much the Acclimatisation Society of Canterbury (and its brethren throughout the country) changed and constructed our present day world as anything else I’ve written here.  Because 150 years ago, like the settlers who brought them here, these animals were very much strangers in a foreign land. And their impact, like the impact of the colonial settlement itself (and all colonial settlements), has changed this land forever, for better or for worse. You be the judge.

Jessie Garland

[1] “Hmm, I wonder if these ones will survive?”

[2] “They wanted practically to benefit the country by increasing the food of the people, and a plant or an animal that would not thrive on the ordinary conditions of English life and cultivation was of no use to them” (Lyttlelton Times 4/12/1861: 4).

[3] “What ho, old chap, where’s all the fish and game at?”

Majestical mountains

In the beginning there was no Te Wai Pounamu or Aotearoa. The waters of Kiwa rolled over the place now occupied by the South Island, the North Island and Stewart Island. No sign of land existed. Before Raki (the Sky Father) wedded Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother), each of them already had children by other unions. After the marriage, some of the Sky Children came down to greet their father’s new wife and some even married Earth Daughters.

Among the celestial visitors were four sons of Raki who were named Aoraki (Cloud in the Sky), Rakiroa (Long Raki), Rakirua (Raki the Second), and Rārakiroa (Long Unbroken Line). They came down in a canoe which was known as Te Waka o Aoraki. They cruised around Papatūānuku who lay as one body in a huge continent known as Hawaiiki.

Then, keen to explore, the voyagers set out to sea, but no matter how far they travelled, they could not find land. They decided to return to their celestial home but the karakia (incantation) which should have lifted the waka (canoe) back to the heavens failed and their craft ran aground on a hidden reef, turning to stone and earth in the process.

The waka listed and settled with the west side much higher out of the water than the east. Thus the whole waka formed the South Island, hence the name: Te Waka o Aoraki. Aoraki and his brothers clambered on to the high side and were turned to stone. They are still there today. Aoraki is the mountain known to Pākehā as Mount Cook, and his brothers are the next highest peaks near him. The form of the island as it now is owes much to the subsequent deeds of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, who took on the job of shaping the land to make it fit for human habitation.

Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1988: Schedule 80: Tōpuni for Aoraki/Mt Cook


Welcome to Aoraki Mt/Cook, a place of breath-taking beauty and – as with any landscape – many layers of human history, the imprint of which is present in both tangible and intangible ways.

Surprisingly, I've no (digital) photographs of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Instead, I offer you the De La Beche Ridge, with the Tasman glacier in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about places Christchurch residents would have holidayed in the past – and still do today. They also happen to be places I’ve been lucky enough to visit while doing work for the Department of Conservation (sometimes people forget that DOC is as much about protecting and preserving our cultural heritage as our natural heritage). These places tell us about the outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities available to Christchurch residents, and about the development of these spheres, because outdoor recreation and tourism weren’t really a particularly big deal when New Zealand was settled by Pākehā.

Let’s start at the beginning (from a human point of view, at least – I’m not getting into the geology). Aoraki/Mount Cook is so significant to Ngāi Tahu it is recognised with Tōpuni status under the Ngai Tahu Settlement Claims Act. For Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki/Mount Cook is the most sacred of their ancestors and is critical to their identity. There are no recorded Māori archaeological sites in the immediate vicinity of the mountain, there are further afield in the Mackenzie country, and these are a tribute to the resources of the area, particularly the stone and the food. Ngāi Tahu’s associations with the area also survive in the names used for landmarks in the area, from the lakes to the mountain itself.

The early European history of the area is a seemingly romantic one, with tales of rugged, intrepid men and women exploring and marvelling at the wilderness, with seemingly endless time to explore, retiring at night to the warmth and conviviality of either the Hermitage or Ball hut (or, later, Malte Brun hut), with the Hermitage in particular renowned for its egalitarian atmosphere (McClure 2004: 79-80). Glorious black and white photographs capture this era.

This was the first Hermitage, built in 1884 and destroyed by floods in 1913. You can still see the building site today and there was an excavation there in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s, I excavated the remains of the Hermitage stables. Unsurprisingly, we found a lot of horseshoes - as well as building remains. The Hermitage, Mount Cook. Ross, Malcolm 1862-1930 :Photographs by Malcolm Ross of New Zealanders in the Great War, Maori, mountaineering, New Zealand scenery, etc. Ref: 1/2-022364-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Ball hut, 1907. Earlier photographs indicate that it was built without a fireplace, or the capacity to capture rainwater. The archaeological remains indicate that the hut expanded a lot before being destroyed by an avalanche in 1925. Image: Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948. Gifford tramping party at Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: 1/2-060503-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

What this romantic vision ignores is the exclusion of Ngāi Tahu from the area and the literal walking on their most sacred ancestor, the disadvantaged position of women in this world (climb and explore they did, but in voluminous skirts or culotte-type garments and they had to battle against the social norms of the day, which frowned on the relationship between women and their male guides) and the fact that tourism in this period was the preserve of the wealthy. The rest of society simply did not have the time or money to travel in this way: initially, the journey from Fairlie to the Hermitage took three days by coach, with the horses having to be changed five times. The wheel ruts from this original dray track survive in parts of the Mackenzie country (and are difficult to photograph!) and are testament to what must have been a bone-shaking journey (and they used pigeons – yes, pigeons! – to send information to the Hermitage about the number of guests on the way). More to the point, however, if the journey took at least three days in each direction, you were going to want to spend a decent amount of time at the destination. And then there was the matter of hiring guides and/or horses, and the cost of the accommodation itself. Nonetheless, what was noteworthy about the Hermitage was that the guides were required to divide their attention equally between regular tourists and serious mountaineers (McClure 2004: 79-80).

This is just possibly the remains of Mannering and Dixon's camp on Ball Flat, to the north of the remains of the first Ball hut, described by Mannering (2000: 72) as their "well-known Ball Glacier camp" and built c.1886. Image: K. Watson.

The government spent a lot on this elite tourist venture, helping to fund the construction of the road from Glentanner station to Aoraki/Mt Cook, financially supporting the operation of the Hermitage and constructing roads, huts and tracks in the area, including Ball hut and Ball track, which ran above the Tasman glacier from the Hooker River to Ball glacier. It was not until the involvement of one Rodolph Wigley, however, that the area became a serious tourist destination.

On the old road to Aoraki/Mt Cook. This road, built in partnership by the government of the day and the Mt Cook Road Board in late 1883, remained in use until the mid-late 20th century. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball track, 1907. Image: On the track to Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: PA1-o-186-07. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Scrabbling along the remains of the Ball track today (well, actually, in 2010). Image: I. Hill.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with Wigley and Aoraki Mt Cook: was he the catalyst that drove the development, or was he just the right man at the right time? Or a bit of both? Whatever the case, it is impossible to separate him from the story of Aoraki Mt Cook. Wigley was the man behind the Mt Cook Motor Company, which took over the lease of the (second) Hermitage in 1922, and set about opening up the area to a much broader sector of (Pākehā) society, by reducing costs, improving access and improving facilities. Wigley offered wooden floored tents as a cheaper form of accommodation and set out to offer a range of attractions beyond just the scenery, including golf. One of the key factors underlying Wigley’s success was the increasing popularity of exploring the outdoors, and the increasing availability of leisure time for the middle and working classes, a theme that will be returned to in another of these posts. The other was the motor car, and this underlay one of the key components of Wigley’s vision: the Ball Road.

The fantastic stone work that remains in situ along sections of the Ball Road. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball Road was an ambitious plan to connect the Hermitage to (the second) Ball hut by motor car, enabling less mobile/athletic visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the alpine region, and also to promote the skifield he established on the Ball glacier. Nature, however, had other ideas and today the remains of the road are a testament to the power of Wigley’s vision, and to his ambition to make Aoraki/Mt Cook the site of domestic tourism for the masses. Not for any altruistic reason, one assumes, but very much driven by the profit motive – the two, of course, do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Ball Road, disappearing under collapsing moraine. Image: K. Watson.

By the 1970s, keeping the road open was becoming increasingly difficult and by 1989 it had been closed for good. You can still walk the road today but one day the glacier will claim it for good, if the avalanches don’t get it first. I can’t urge you strongly enough to do so – it’s an easy walk, and a beautiful one. As you walk it, think of all those who have gone before you: Ngāi Tahu; Green, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmass (who, in the first attempt on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, came within 60 m - an amazing feat); Mannering and Dixon; Peter Graham; Freda du Faur; Hillary; and the thousands of others who’ve travelled this route to appreciate the beauty that is Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Ball Road, with the lateral moraine from the Tasman glacier looming above it, perilously close to collapsing into the glacier itself. Image: K. Watson.

Katharine Watson


Mannering, G., 2000. The Hermitage Years of Mannering and Dixon. GM Publication, Geraldine.

McClure, M., 2004. The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand tourism. Auckland University Press, Auckland.

Terra Forma: viewing Christchurch's changing landscape through painting

At the encouragement of one of our resident artists/art historians/cyber archaeologists, Annthalina, I took a visit to the newly-reopened Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery over the weekend.[1] Annthalina knows I love landscapes, both the painty-brushy kind, and the bushy-brushy kind, and sent me out to take special note of the Te Rua O Te Moko exhibition, which displays a work of art for each of the 18 Papatipu Rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. Seeing these works, and other Canterbury landscapes within the museum inspired me to write this post, about how we’ve changed the lay of the land, particularly in terms of its vegetation.

As I said, I love landscapes, and when I’m working I’ll look out across the landscape and my eyes will glaze over as I try and imagine what the land looked like to the ghosts of Ōtautahi/Christchurch past. My eyes also occasionally glaze over when my colleagues begin a tirade about traffic, or the inaccuracy of costumes in period dramas, or ‘architecture crimes’, or frozen yoghurt, or any of the many other foibles of modern life. But I promise, most of the time, I’m thinking about landscapes. Anyway, and luckily, dead dudes put paint to canvas when they were alive, helpfully making my leaps of imagination that much easier.

As we all know, Christchurch was built on a swamp, and many recall how that swamp came bubbling forth vengefully from the earth once again in 2011, like the almost-defeated underdog protagonist in the third act of a sports film, yelling “Adrian! Adrian!”. But it can seem hard to get a grasp on that over 160 year old scene while concrete and steel loom over you. The 'Black Maps'  series of survey maps produced by chief surveyor Captain Joseph Thomas in the 1840s and 1850s are an invaluable source of information about the nature of the land and vegetation in Ōtautahi/Christchurch at that time.

Detail of Christchurch ‘Black maps’ of A) Cashmere; B) Linwood; and C) St Albans. “You get a swamp! And you get a swamp! And you get a swamp!” Image: Christchurch area: showing swamps & vegetation cover. Compiled from ‘Black Maps’ 1856. 1963. Christchurch City Libraries.

This beauty of a watercolour was painted by Charles Haubroe in 1855 of a kāinga on the banks of the Horotueka/Cam River in the Kaiapoi area. If you’ll allow me to wax lyrical about it, I might suggest that this work shows the duality and tension between the natural and cultural worlds. The calmness of the river belies the tension between the kāinga on the far bank, with its tidy clearing for some handsome whare (houses) and pātaka (storage platforms), and the dense swampy bush of the near bank, where the raupō and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) give a leafy middle finger to humanity and its green organics recycling bins, content in its soggy supremacy. If you won’t allow me to wax lyrical, there’s literally nothing you can do about it, because from the security of my front room in the past, you cannot possibly wrest my keyboard away from me. So there.

The first Māori settlers started the 700ish year ongoing campaign of terraforming Aotearoa/New Zealand. They brought with them part of what archaeologists often refer to as the ‘Polynesian suite’ of cultigens, including kūmara, taro, uwhi/yam, hue/gourd, tī pore (an imported species of cabbage tree) and aute/paper mulberry (Furey 2006: 10). Once here, further changes to the landscape were made by transplanting some native plants well outside their natural range, due to their value. One such is karaka, native to the far north of the North Island, and brought to the South Island due its value as a food source. The stands of karaka you see around the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are likely the remnants, or very near the original transplantations of these trees by Māori in centuries past, as they don’t naturalise very well (Stowe 2003).[2]

Figure 3. I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as a karaka tree. But do not eat the seed inside, unless it is detoxified. No, for real, though. Don’t eat it. My poems don’t fool around. Image: John Frederick Miller. 1774. The Endeavour botanical illustrations. Natural History Museum.

The character of the Canterbury plains before Pākehā settlement is somewhat poetically captured in an account from 1844 of Dr David Munro's first view of them, having ascended the hills from Rapaki:

looking westward, we had a magnificent view – and immense plain, apparently a dead level, stretched away below our feet…backed by a far remote chain of grand snowy summits. The colour of the plain was a brownish yellow indicating it being covered with dried up grass, and several rivers, with tortuous folds, marked themselves upon its surface by the glitter of their waters. On this immense sea of plain, there appeared to be hardly any timber – one or two isolated groves of gloomy pines were all that we could see...

(Wigram 1916: 7).

The “isolated groves” are of course Riccarton Bush, which still stands today (though reduced in size), and a similar stand in Papanui. What Munro took as unseasonable “dried up grass” in April 1844, was likely just the natural colour of the endemic swamp grasses that covered the plains at the time. Within a few decades of Pākehā settlement, the Christchurch landscape was beginning to change significantly, as more and more species of plants were introduced, and the English countryside was writ small on the New Zealand landscape. Attempts were made (more or less successfully) to tame Christchurch’s waterways. The swamps were turned over for pasture, requiring digging up large amounts of dead swamp wood, and ploughing up the tenacious roots of the huruwhenua/ferns and tutu.

Figure 4. Digging up swamp wood in Christchurch, 1918. Sometimes there are going to be jokes in here, sometime there’s not. I’m not going to spoonfeed you. Image: Wilson, 1989: 12.

The process of terraforming involved both the clearance of native plants, and their replacement with introduced ones. John Barr Clark Hoyte’s view of Akaroa from the hills shows the first part of this process. Looking out over Akaroa harbour and Onawe peninsula, the view is almost that of tree feller paused in their work, the foreground of stumps the sign of their labour. The rolling slopes of dense yet-to-be-felled forest in the midground and distance though, would likely make most of today’s flannel-clad, hipster-bearded lumbersexuals quake in their boots.

Figure 5. It’s going down, I’m yelling timber. Image: John Barr Clarke Hoyte. 1835. Akaroa Harbour. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 6. Deforestation of Banks Peninsula. Image: Boffa Miskell 2007: 27.

John Gibb’s view of Bottle Lake shows how introduced species gradually changed the look of Canterbury. What looks like poplar trees stand on the far bank, and cattle do whatever cattle do on the near bank (low? I hear they are known to low sometimes).  For some reason that escapes me, someone has introduced white swans to the area, despite the fact that they are aggressive jerks (sorry, I’ve been biased against swans since high school, when one beat me out for second place in a high jump competition). But the largely idyllic English-ish-ish character of the scene is interrupted by an almost imperceptible tuna/eel bursting forth from the water. To me, this little endemic eel gives a bit of kiwi character to an image which is otherwise dominated by introduced species. Delicious, manuka-smoked, kiwi character.

Figure 7. Na na na na na na na, fishing. Image: John Gibb. 1882. Bottle Lake. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 8. Some of the plants for sale at Exeter Nurseries, Papanui Road, in 1875. A.K.A. all of the plants. Even in the 19th century, kiwis referred to things as ‘Choice!’. Image: Star 24/6/1875: 1.

Another of Gibb’s paintings shows Christchurch in all its 19th century pastoral glory. The land is divided up into nice rectangular paddocks, with cattle and sheep, stands of introduced trees, and a bunch of nice green grass. Today we tend to forget that the rolling monochrome green pastures of New Zealand are imported, and that ‘European grass’ was a major selling point in 19th century land transactions.

Figure 9. De-ne-ne, de-ne-ne-ne, de-ne-ne, de-ne-ne-ne. Image: John Gibb. 1886. From the Foot of the Hills. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 10. There was originally a third paddock laid down in Irish grass, but there were some ‘troubles’ and that lot belongs to itself and is no longer for sale. Image: Star 19/8/1869: 3.

These paintings not only look nice, but they provide an invaluable insight into the changing patterns and nature of vegetation in the past in Christchurch. If anybody wants to go back in time, and paint more like them, it would make my job heaps easier. Chur.

Go check out the Christchurch Art Gallery for most of the above landscapes. The Te Rua O Te Moko exhibit only runs until 3 April 2016, but a lot of the other paintings are permanent exhibits.

Tristan Wadsworth


Boffa Miskell. 2007. Banks Peninsula Landscape Study: Final Report. Prepared for Christchurch City Council by Boffa Miskell Ltd.

Furey, L. 2006: Maori gardening: an archaeological perspective. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Press [online]. Available at <>

Stowe, C. J., 2003. The Ecology and Ethnobotany of Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus). Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Otago.

Wigram, H. F., 1916. The story of Christchurch New Zealand. Lyttelton Times Co. Ltd, Christchurch.

Wilson, J., 1989. Swamp to City – a short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board 1875-1989. Te Waihora Press, Christchurch.


[1] Note: this is not a sponsored post, but if the Christchurch Art Gallery would like to send me some priceless landscape paintings out of the goodness of their hearts, I wouldn’t say no.

[2] If you know of any stands of karaka, let me know, as it’s possible there are some that haven’t yet been recorded by archaeologists.