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Marlborough Sounds; it Silent Bays and Settlers

Whatever route the traveller takes into Marlborough - overland by mountain pass or coastal highway, or by sea through the Sounds - the joumey is spectacular.

But the northem approach is the most familiar to visitors. For many the submerged valleys of the sounds, their luminous waters lapping against the vessel as it glides towards Picton, is their first introduction to the South Island.

But Marlborough is more than a gateway south; it is as rich and complex a region as any in the the country. Its mountains, valleys and labyrinthine waterways give some northerners the feeling they need know no more of South Island than this, and year after year Marlborough is their journeys end.

Marlborough is often seen as being one with Nelson, sharing the top of the South Island. Both regions certainly share New Zealand's sunniest location, and Marlborough's first pakeha were men of means who chafed at the confines of proletarian and impoverished Nelson.

But pastoralism and politics led to divisions between the two regions early in the country's post-European history, and the rugged terrain between them has since confirmed the identity of each.


For the first Polynesian arrivals the bays, inlets and islands of Marlborough must have been a paradise, since the sea was central to their livelihood. Inland, the densely forested valleys were home to numerous species of birds.

There were ducks in the wetlands, and great numbers of moa were hunted until they were no more. The region also had a climate well-suited to the cultivation of the Maoris' staple vegetable, the kumara.

What more they made of their environment, what folktales they told, is largely lost. Ancient midden, moa bones and shells, and greenstone worked into weapons and ornaments, have survived, but the break with the pre-European past is otherwise almost total.

The terrain was always bitterly contested, and most of the local legend was extinguished when muskets of Te Rauparaha's army sounded along the seaboard.

He was the last in a line of northern raiders, and the most obliterating. Marlborough Maoris went the same way as the moa. What little we know of them, apart from archaeological evidence, comes from the journals of Captain James Cook and his fellow explorers.

It was here the great navigator found a haven in the stormy southern seas. On January 15, 1770, he reached the South Island, anchoring in a 'very snug cove' - today known as Ship Cove - which would become the base for his Pacific exploration.

His first visit lasted three weeks. Cook described the precipitous hills covered with growth as 'one intire forest'. More poetically, botanist Joseph Banks recorded: 'This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ... their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable sound imaginable.'

The local Maoris traded dried fish and wild celery for Cook's nails and English cloth. They amiably showed the newcomers human bones, the remains of a recent feast, 'and to shew us that they had eat the flesh they bit and naw'd the bone and draw'd it thro' their mouth and this in such a manner as plainly shew'd that the flesh was to them a dainty bit’.

To hoist the Union Jack, Cook climbed high and looked out for the first time on the gusty waters which today bear his name: Cook Strait. He claimed the South Island for King George Ill, named Queen Charlotte Sound, and toasted Her Majesty's health with wine - the empty bottle being promptly claimed as a receptacle by a Maori onlooker.

Between 1770 and 1774 Cook spent a total of four months here resting and refreshing his men. He gave the Maori potato to plant and released pigs and goats so that the country would in time 'be stocked with these animals'.

Marlborough was the part of New Zealand Cook knew best and loved most; his reports were so vivid that for decades literate English people thought of New Zealand in terms of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Later explorers on the New Zealand coast, the Russian Bellingshausen, and the Frenchman Dumom d'Urville, would also find Marlborough's waters a haven. So did the whalers.

In 1827 English mariner John Guard, having wrenched his vessel clear of cliffs during a storm, found himself in these guiet waters observing whales close inshore.

He founded the first substantial European settlements in the South Island (at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel, and later at Port Underwood). The whaling industry he began on Marlborough's coast thrived until the nineteen-sixties.

Other rough communities of whalers followed. Some pioneers took Maori wives, but they did not always escape the attentions of raiding Maori from north and south during the unruly eighteen¬thirties.

Marlborough's unwholesome reputation rivalled that of Kororareka in the Bay of Islands. The first missionary to arrive was not made especially welcome. He was told to keep his 'bloody Sundays' to himself.

When Port Underwood, for a time the busiest whaling base in the Pacific, was finally tamed, and the lawless locals persuaded of the virtues of holy matrimony, the inventive man of the cloth used brass curtain rings at wedding ceremonies, at which he simultaneously baptised the many children of those unions.

Captain John Blenkinsopp, a whaler and a swindler with an eye to the future, 'acquired' some twenty-six thousand hectares of Marlborough hinterland by persuading Te Rauparaha to fix his mark on a deed of sale in exchange for a cannon.

When Blenkinsopp died, his widow sold the deed to the New Zealand Company. The document ensured colonisation of the South Island began with a bang. In 1843 the tiny New Zealand Company settlement at Nelson, hardly more than a year old, was in depression and desperate for useful land, since much of the best land thereabouts was owned by absentee London speculators.

It seemed time to make use of Blenkinsopp's fraudulent acquisition. Surveyors pegged out the claimed land. The Maoris protested. Te Rauparaha rightly denied having parted with so much land for a mere cannon.

Nelson mounted an armed party of fifty men to assert British authority. The upshot was massacre. Twenty-two European corpses, including that of the Nelson contingent's leader Captain Arthur Wakefield, testified as to who was master of Marlborough.

No further land grab was attempted in Te Rauparaha's vicinity.

THE PASTORALISTS: Yet the region's open space - especially in the Wairau and Awatere valleys, all the way up to the snowline - remained choice. Within three or four years squatters, coming from Nelson and driving their sheep before them, were again tempting fate - and Te Rauparaha's warriors.

Govemor George Grey stepped in and paid three thousand pounds for a block of land that extended almost to present-day Christchurch. The way was open for occupation on a scale unseen in the South Island. As Australia had already shown, wool-growing was an occupation fit for gentlemen.

A stampede for lucrative runs followed. Dozens of ambitious Nelsonians took up leases ranging from three thousand to thirty-six thousand hectares.

By 1853 about one hundred and thirty thousand sheep were grazing the region; by 1870 there were well over one million.

Marlborough became the seedbed of southern pastoralism. The Wairau and Awatere valleys began supplying the South Island with breeding stock after the settlement of Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

In the eighteen-fifties, up to twenty-four thousand sheep annually were being driven south across mountain passes. Marlborough was the foundation on which the vast estates of the South Island were built.

The pastoralists of Marlborough, technically still governed by the unkempt colonists of Nelson, now thought it time to call their own tune. They wanted growing homesteads and their wealth buttressed by political favours.

In 1858 they pushed for and won independence from Nelson. With a population of barely one thousand and its own provincial legislature, the region was named Marlborough after the fighting Duke and victor of Blenheim, just as Nelson had been named after Britain's greatest naval hero.

Soon after the sheep barons established their realms, a settlement servicing their needs grew inland on the Opawa River. First known as The Beaver, it later became Blenheim.

Further north on Queen Charlotte Sound, Waitohi, now Picton, was founded. Rivalry between the few dozen electors of these two aspirant towns was to bedevil the region for decades.

Blenheim became capital of the province; Picton, after being boosted as a possible national capital, had to be content with being Marlborough's port. But content was a long time coming.

The bitter struggle between so few settlers for a little extra privilege or prestige was the colony's scandal, and one which helped to bring about the demise of provincial government in New Zealand in 1876.

Something of that early rivalry has continued to characterise Marlborough's local politics for more than a century. In the nineteen-eighties the affairs of the Marlborough Harbour Board were by far the nation's most fascinating; more so after the spectacular sinking in 1986 of the large Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov in the sounds with a local pilot on board.

Today Marlborough has a quiet and conservative character, certainly by contrast with the often unconventional neighbouring Nelson. Much of Marlborough still depends on sheep, but its rural perspective is distinctly more democratic and a good deal more populous.

Marginal hill country has been developed as forest, both public and private, with more than fifty per cent in the hands of small growers; the harvest promises hundreds of new jobs.

Lowlands once part of the great sheep runs of last century are now intensively farmed horticultural smallholdings. Once the potential of Marlboroughs climate and soil was recognized in the 1970’s, no time was lost in the production of distinctive and highly exportable wines.

The sea also provides an abundance, and today the quiet waters of the Marlborough sounds are invaded by mussel farms. Salmon farming is another huge growth industry.

For the most part, Marlborough remains the wild landscape of tussock and alpine herbfield, of rivers and soaring mountains that the first pastoralists knew.

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