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Nelson Historical and Travel Information

To know Nelson is to know New Zealand. Creation choreographed this northernmost reach of the South Island most of the country's native ingredients, and then lit it lavishly with sun.

The region's medley of mountain and sea mediates between the north and south of New Zealand. Its warm, sandy seaboard is typically North Island, but its mountains and rivers belong unmistakably to the South Island.

Subtropical vegetation meets alpine species as most of the northern trees and ferns give way to the southern beech forest. The human story echoes nature's.

Northern and Southern Maori fought over this fertile and productive region. It changed hands often until armed northern tribes won.

When Europeans began settling here, there were no Maori left who could truthfully call Nelson their tribal earth. Today the region's seventy thousand people, though distinctly of the South Island, look more to the North Island.

High ranges behind Nelson make the remainder of the South Island seem remote, whereas the North Island is only two or three dozen kilometres away.

The region's mild climate makes it a popular retirement place for people of both islands. In recent years, craft workers have come from all parts of New Zealand and from overseas.

Newcomers have felt their freedom here and many have made the region a refuge from conventional livelihoods. The arts thrive; bookshops and galleries reflect a literate and creative community.

Its environmentally sensitive citizens have preserved both the natural and the human character of the region.

On the same latitude as Wellington but without the capital's worrying winds, Nelson shares the country's sunniest location with neighboring Marlborough.

This bright and gently watered climate ripens grapes, apples and hops; and subtropical species such as kiwifruit, avocado, feijoa and tamarillo.

The city of Nelson is one of New Zealand's oldest and most delightful townscapes. Dominated by its cathedral it retains the air of a Victorian village.

By contrast, this relatively small region also contains great tracts of wilderness, including two national parks and perhaps the country's most impressive forest park.

The first possessors of the region, according to Maori tradition, were the Waitaha and Rapuwai tribes, probably descendants of earlier moa-hunting Maori.

Archaeological evidence indicates that they may have lived in coastal settlements of two to five hundred people. They made fine stone-age tools from rich deposits of argillite.

In the classic Maori era, interest shifted to a different mineral. Pounamu - South Island greenstone or New Zealand jade - was the equivalent of gold, diamonds and platinum to the stone-age Maori.

Because of its strategic location on coastal and overland tracks to the rivers and valleys of the west coast (where greenstone was most abundant), the Nelson region was savagely contested. The Ngati Mamoe from the north were the first to conquer it.

The Waitaha and Rapuwai tribes vanished into the mists of Southland and Otago. Later, the Ngati Mamoe (later known as 'the lost tribe') suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Ngai Tahu and disappeared for ever in Fiordland's forests.

In their turn the Ngai Tahu were driven south by the Rangitane and Ngati Apa of the lower North Island.

Finally came Te Rauparaha's fierce Ngati Toa. The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first outsider to experience the ferocity of Nelson's inhabitants.

In 1642 his two tiny storm-battered ships “Heemskerck” and Zeehaen” sailed into what is now Golden Bay. Tasman's small craft were met by Maori canoes and four Dutch sailors were slain.

Dutch guns retaliated, powerfully expressing disillusion with the discovered land, and the distressed Tasman fled. The South Island had a new and melancholy name: Murderers' Bay.

Nearly-one hundred and thirty years later, Captain James Cook found no Maori who knew about the incident. The tribe encountered by Tasman had become a small fugitive band in the South Island interior.

When Te Rauparaha and his Taranaki allies raided Nelson's shores in the eighteen-twenties, slaughter, slavery and cannibal ovens left the region largely depopulated.

Later when white faces became familiar in-New Zealand's south, Te Rauparaha sold off land in Tasman Bay and Golden Bay to the New Zealand Company before officials had even inspected it.

For the equivalent of less than one thousand pounds, paid in goods like blankets, axes, flour, tobacco, guns and gunpowder, more than eighty thousand hectares fell into European hands. Upon inspection, those lands were recognised as an ideal site for the first organised British settlement in the South Island.

In 1841 an advance party under Captain Arthur Wakefield arrived to survey for a town site and to reconcile the local Maori, with more gifts, to Te Rauparaha's sale of choice land from under their feet.

Beyond the thirteen-kilometre natural breakwater now called the Boulder Bank, Wakefield's party discovered a sheltered sheet of water that was perfect for a harbour. They named it Nelson Haven.

On February I, 1842, the first migrant vessel, th “Fifeshire”, hovered offshore, soon followed by the Mary Ann and later the Lloyds and Lord Auckland.

The ships deposited five hundred settlers. The arrival of the Lloyds, however, was to blight Nelson's beginnings. It carried wives and children of the men of the advance party.

Sixty-five children had perished during the voyage, and the women had been bedded by the captain, surgeon and crewmen.

The official report styled it 'a floating bawdy house'. The word 'Lloyds' soon became a synonym for immorality. Later the citizens of Nelson were seldom to make much of their connection with the first four ships, unlike the descendants of the New Plymouth and Christchurch pioneers.

By mid-1842 there were about two thousand new settlers. Immigration barracks were the first substantial buildings.

At first, religious services were held in the surveyors' messroom. In August, Bishop Selwyn pitched a tent on Church Hill that accommodated two hundred people and took services in Maori and English from dawn to dusk.

By the end of 1842, however, the settlement seemed to be disintegrating. There were too few gentlemen with too little capital.

Those who did have some money often had no knowledge of agriculture and ended up returning to Britain. Men who had been promised employment found no jobs.

Much of the land surveyed by the New Zealand Company was held by speculators in England who had no intention of migrating. What remained was expensive and unpromising, and bankruptcies became common.

Expansion seemed an answer to the pioneers' problems. The ambitious Arthur Wakefield wanted to plant Nelson's flag on Marlborough's grassy Wairau plain, which Te Rauparaha had never sold.

In a swift and lethal clash, twenty-two Nelson settlers were killed, including Wakefield himself. Governor FitzRoy acknowledged the justice of the Maori response and Nelson's humiliated citizens were left licking their wounds.

By the middle of the eighteen-forties Nelson's edible produce consisted mainly of wild pork, pigeon and potatoes.

Tempted by New Zealand Company promises, gritty German settlers arrived to take up land at Upper Moutere. The vineyards and orchards that they established soon demonstrated the horticultural value of Nelson's hinterland.

Pastoralists who could afford the 'sufficient price', fixed by the New Zealand Company to keep land in the hands of an antipodean gentry, acquired mountain acres.

But wealth from wool did little to help Nelson's poor. Later the colony's government obliged the New Zealand Company to reduce its prices, and the settlement's impoverished labourers began to establish themselves on smallholdings.

Thanks to the region's gentle climate, and a great deal of hard labour, Nelson began to prosper at last. In 1858 Queen Victoria decreed that 'the said Town of Nelson shall be a City'.

The character of that city was to be determined more by emancipated labourers than by landed gentry. Gold gave Confidence too.

In 1857 New Zealand's first significant gold strike was made at Golden Bay (as Murderers' Bay has been renamed). Coarse gold, sometimes in nuggets of twO or three ounces, was located by pig hunters in the Aorere Valley, behind present-day Collingwood.

Before long more than two thousand people were working on the goldfield. Collingwood, then called Gibbstown, boomed into life.

Though it was never very rich and most of it was exhausted by 1860, Collingwood's deposits were sufficient to make many settlers masters of their own fate. Finds in neighboring Marlborough - in the Wakamarina Valley, behind Havelock - enriched Nelson merchants.

With gold came greed and crime. In 1866 the most notorious nineteenth-century murders were committed by bush rangers Burgess, Levy, Kelly and Sullivan who preyed on travellers to and from the goldfields on the bridle path under Maungatapu Mountain.

Today Nelson is a city with durable colonial charm. Much of the surrounding region is lushly planted. The first shipment of cold-storage apples was exported in 1911 to London; today Nelson apples are exported all over the world.

Kiwifruit are evident everywhere. All New Zealand's hops are grown here, and half the annual harvest is used for brewing German beer.

Raspberries, boysenberries and strawberries flourish and distinctive wines are produced from Nelson's vineyards. The region's fruit juices are consumed throughout the country and overseas.

Nelson's mountainous back country is productive too. Steep wasteland left behind by logging and burning has been reclothed in pine forest. By the end of the twentieth century pine milling and processing may become Nelson's major industry.

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