A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 3

Aspect of Port Lyttelton — Ascent of Hill behind it — View — Christ Church — Yankeeisms — Return to Port Lyttelton and Ship — Phormium Tenax — Visit to a Farm — Moa Bones.

January 27, 1860. — Oh, the heat! the clear transparent atmosphere, and the dust! How shall I describe everything — the little townlet, for I cannot call it town, nestling beneath the bare hills that we had been looking at so longingly all the morning — the scattered wooden boxes of houses, with ragged roods of scrubby ground between them — the tussocks of brown grass — the huge wide-leafed flax, with its now seedy stem, sometimes 15 or 16 feet high, luxuriant and tropical-looking — the healthy clear-complexioned men, shaggy-bearded, rowdy-hatted, and independent, pictures of rude health and strength — the stores, supplying all heterogeneous commodities — the mountains, rising right behind the harbour to a height of over a thousand feet — the varied outline of the harbour now smooth and sleeping. Ah me! pleasant sight and fresh to sea-stricken eyes. The hot air, too, was very welcome after our long chill.

We dined at the table d’hote at the Mitre — so foreign and yet so English — the windows open to the ground, looking upon the lovely harbour. Hither come more of the shaggy clear-complexioned men with the rowdy hats; looked at them with awe and befitting respect. Much grieved to find beer sixpence a glass. This was indeed serious, and was one of the first intimations which we received that we were in a land where money flies like wild-fire.

After dinner I and another commenced the ascent of the hill between port and Christ Church. We had not gone far before we put our knapsacks on the back of the pack-horse that goes over the hill every day (poor pack-horse!). It is indeed an awful pull up that hill; yet we were so anxious to see what was on the other side of it that we scarcely noticed the fatigue: I thought it very beautiful. It is volcanic, brown, and dry; large intervals of crumbling soil, and then a stiff, wiry, uncompromising-looking tussock of the very hardest grass; then perhaps a flax bush, or, as we should have said, a flax plant; then more crumbly, brown, dry soil, mixed with fine but dried grass, and then more tussocks; volcanic rock everywhere cropping out, sometimes red and tolerably soft, sometimes black and abominably hard. There was a great deal, too, of a very uncomfortable prickly shrub, which they call Irishman, and which I do not like the look of at all. There were cattle browsing where they could, but to my eyes it seemed as though they had but poor times of it. So we continued to climb, panting and broiling in the afternoon sun, and much admiring the lovely view beneath. At last we near the top, and look down upon the plain, bounded by the distant Apennines, that run through the middle of the island. Near at hand, at the foot of the hill, we saw a few pretty little box-like houses in trim, pretty little gardens, stacks of corn and fields, a little river with a craft or two lying near a wharf, whilst the nearer country was squared into many-coloured fields. But, after all, the view was rather of the “long stare” description. There was a great extent of country, but very few objects to attract the eye and make it rest any while in any given direction. The mountains wanted outlines; they were not broken up into fine forms like the Carnarvonshire mountains, but were rather a long, blue, lofty, even line, like the Jura from Geneva or the Berwyn from Shrewsbury. The plains, too, were lovely in colouring, but would have been wonderfully improved by an object or two a little nearer than the mountains. I must confess that the view, though undoubtedly fine, rather disappointed me. The one in the direction of the harbour was infinitely superior.

At the bottom of the hill we met the car to Christ Church; it halted some time at a little wooden public-house, and by and by at another, where was a Methodist preacher, who had just been reaping corn for two pounds an acre. He showed me some half-dozen stalks of gigantic size, but most of that along the roadside was thin and poor. Then we reached Christ Church on the little river Avon; it is larger than Lyttelton and more scattered, but not so pretty. Here, too, the men are shaggy, clear-complexioned, brown, and healthy-looking, and wear exceedingly rowdy hats. I put up at Mr. Rowland Davis’s; and as no one during the evening seemed much inclined to talk to me, I listened to the conversation.

The all-engrossing topics seemed to be sheep, horses, dogs, cattle, English grasses, paddocks, bush, and so forth. From about seven o’clock in the evening till about twelve at night I cannot say that I heard much else. These were the exact things I wanted to hear about, and I listened till they had been repeated so many times over that I almost grew tired of the subject, and wished the conversation would turn to something else. A few expressions were not familiar to me. When we should say in England “Certainly not,” it is here “No fear,” or “Don’t You believe it.” When they want to answer in the affirmative they say “It is so,” “It does so.” The word “hum,” too, without pronouncing the u, is in amusing requisition. I perceived that this stood either for assent, or doubt, or wonder, or a general expression of comprehension without compromising the hummer’s own opinion, and indeed for a great many more things than these; in fact, if a man did not want to say anything at all he said “hum hum.” It is a very good expression, and saves much trouble when its familiar use has been acquired. Beyond these trifles I noticed no Yankeeism, and the conversation was English in point of expression. I was rather startled at hearing one gentleman ask another whether he meant to wash this year, and receive the answer “No.” I soon discovered that a person’s sheep are himself. If his sheep are clean, he is clean. He does not wash his sheep before shearing, but he washes; and, most marvellous of all, it is not his sheep which lamb, but he “lambs down” himself.

I have purchased a horse, by name Doctor. I hope he is a homoeopathist. He is in colour bay, distinctly branded P. C. on the near shoulder. I am glad the brand is clear, for, as you well know, all horses are alike to me unless there is some violent distinction in their colour. This horse I bought from — to whom Mr. FitzGerald kindly gave me a letter of introduction. I thought I could not do better than buy from a person of known character, seeing that my own ignorance is so very great upon the subject. I had to give 55 pounds, but, as horses are going, that does not seem much out of the way. He is a good river-horse, and very strong. A horse is an absolute necessity in this settlement; he is your carriage, your coach, and your railway train.

On Friday I went to Port Lyttelton, meeting on the way many of our late fellow-passengers — some despondent, some hopeful; one or two dinnerless and in the dumps when we first encountered them, but dinnered and hopeful when we met them again on our return. We chatted with and encouraged them all, pointing out the general healthy, well-conditioned look of the residents. Went on board. How strangely changed the ship appeared! Sunny, motionless, and quiet; no noisy children, no slatternly, slipshod women rolling about the decks, no slush, no washing of dirty linen in dirtier water. There was the old mate in a clean shirt at last, leaning against the mainmast, and smoking his yard of clay; the butcher close — shaven and clean; the sailors smart, and welcoming us with a smile. It almost looked like going home. Dined in Lyttelton with several of my fellow-passengers, who evidently thought it best to be off with the old love before they were on with the new, i.e. to spend all they brought with them before they set about acquiring a new fortune. Then went and helped Mr. and Mrs. R. to arrange their new house, i.e. R. and I scrubbed the floors of the two rooms they have taken with soap, scrubbing-brushes, flannel, and water, made them respectably clean, and removed his boxes into their proper places.

Saturday. — Rode again to port, and saw my case of saddlery still on board. When riding back the haze obscured the snowy range, and the scenery reminded me much of Cambridgeshire. The distinctive marks which characterise it as not English are the occasional Ti palms, which have a very tropical appearance, and the luxuriance of the Phormium tenax. If you strip a shred of this leaf not thicker than an ordinary piece of string, you will find it hard work to break it, if you succeed in doing so at all without cutting your finger. On the whole, if the road leading from Heathcote Ferry to Christ Church were through an avenue of mulberry trees, and the fields on either side were cultivated with Indian corn and vineyards, and if through these you could catch an occasional glimpse of a distant cathedral of pure white marble, you might well imagine yourself nearing Milan. As it is, the country is a sort of a cross between the plains of Lombardy and the fens of North Cambridgeshire.

At night, a lot of Nelson and Wellington men came to the club. I was amused at dinner by a certain sailor and others, who maintained that the end of the world was likely to arrive shortly; the principal argument appearing to be, that there was no more sheep country to be found in Canterbury. This fact is, I fear, only too true. With this single exception, the conversation was purely horsy and sheepy. The fact is, the races are approaching, and they are the grand annual jubilee of Canterbury.

Next morning, I rode some miles into the country, and visited a farm. Found the inmates (two brothers) at dinner. Cold boiled mutton and bread, and cold tea without milk, poured straight from a huge kettle in which it is made every morning, seem the staple commodities. No potatoes — nothing hot. They had no servant, and no cow. The bread, which was very white, was made by the younger. They showed me, with some little pleasure, some of the improvements they were making, and told me what they meant to do; and I looked at them with great respect. These men were as good gentlemen, in the conventional sense of the word, as any with whom we associate in England — I daresay, de facto, much better than many of them. They showed me some moa bones which they had ploughed up (the moa, as you doubtless know, was an enormous bird, which must have stood some fifteen feet high), also some stone Maori battle-axes. They bought this land two years ago, and assured me that, even though they had not touched it, they could get for it cent per cent upon the price which they then gave.

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