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Notes by Jean-Baptiste Comte about the South Island

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, July 2008

The author refers to this document in his letter of 14 May 1842 (Doc 155), saying he has given ‘a little note to Father Forest[1] about the South Island.’

Bay of Islands, 8 May 1842

Notes about the island Te Wai Pounamu[2]
Banks Peninsula is crammed everywhere with irregular and strange-looking mountains. Flat land is found only at the heads of the bays. The bays are very numerous, but quite open. Akaroa, which the natives call Wakaroa,[3] is the main one. It is large, well sheltered and heavily forested. Water is abundant there. Then follow in the second rank Pigeon Bay which is also well forested, Port- Levy[4] and Port Cooper[5] which are almost free of forest and without cultivable land. The peninsula is covered with abundant grass everywhere, so it will provide feed for numerous flocks, the roughness of its surface very much increases its surface area. It seems that earthquakes are frequent. I have observed three of them. They were only slight. Although the temperature may be quite variable, and in the same day you can sometimes go from great heat to real cold, health does not suffer from it. The southwest wind is the prevailing one in winter. It is very strong, cold and rainy. Then it covers the summits of the mountains with snow. The east or northeast wind prevails in summer. It is also very strong. On the south side of the peninsula there are three whaling stations. They are owned by Englishmen. Apart from those, several whaling ships, mainly French, come for the whale fishery on the other side of the peninsula and in its environs. Last year there were about ten French ships. Generally they each took six to seven hundred barrels of oil. The season begins in the month of May and lasts three or four months. The whales are usually killed a bit out at sea, and are brought in and flensed in the bays if the weather is not good. The whales off these coasts are small compared to those in the seas off China. The finest yield 100 barrels of oil.
The peninsula is part of the mainland which lacks harbours on its east coast. Export of produce will be a bit difficult. It will only be able to be done through Port Cooper which is shut off from the mainland by a chain of mountains. The main chain of mountains, which runs from north to south in the interior, creates two parts of the island, leaving on each side, east and west, a fine stretch of land[6] quite flat and watered in several places by a lot of streams. The natives say that it is covered with fine trees.[7] The west coast is not yet well known; people say it has fine bays, but they are too deep to be able to anchor on the bottom, and too high and sheer. The interior of the island is not inhabited and seems to never have been. The natives, who today live near the south of the east coast, were driven there some years ago by the wars waged on them by a formidable chief named Te Rauparaha.[8] He is still living and lives on an island in Cook Strait. The tribes whom he has exterminated and driven out used to live some miles away from the peninsula on the north coast. The south of the west coast must have been inhabited, on the other hand, since Cook found some natives in Dusky Bay. There have also been great wars near the north of the west coast, and no doubt to distance themselves from the conquerors, the vanquished have fled to the south. It is that same west coast, opposite to Banks’ Peninsula and in the same latitude, that the well known rock called pounamu[9] is found. It is green, very fine, very hard, and polishable like marble. It is taken from a river which noisily falls from the heights of the mountains through crags of rocks and waterfalls. It seems that this rock is moved[10] by the waters. Because it changes its position the natives believe that it was originally a fish. They claim that those who come and look for it without performing the customary ceremonies will not find it. These ceremonies involve coming and spending the night on the side of the river. Everyone goes to sleep. Only one person remains awake; the priest who is praying, prays through the whole night, to the God to send the rock and to point it out to those who are sleeping peacefully. As many as are the people warned by the divinity, so many are the rocks that come. Pounamu, before the weapons and sharp instruments of the Europeans were known by the natives, was the great currency of all New Zealand. People made out of it the skull-breaker or mere, a weapon of war, axes to cut down trees and to dig out canoes, and ear pendants the shape and the length of a finger. They heated it so as to be able to break it more easily; then they worked on it by means of rubbing it against other rocks.
I estimate[11] the population of the South Island at three or four thousand natives. On the peninsula there are now about 200 of them, at Otago 300, 20 miles to the north of Otago, still on the coast, 300, on Ruapuke[12] near Foveaux[13] Strait, two or three hundred, on the west coast 100. The rest of the population lives in the north of the island. I do not know the number exactly. I think that there are perhaps two thousand natives. Three English missionaries are located there. There are no natives in the interior of the island, according to what I have heard. They are all found in the bays, and to say that they are in contact with the numerous whaling ships that come into these seas, is to say that they are degraded, and overwhelmed by shameful diseases. They will not be long in dying out. I have baptised thirty natives at Port Olive.
This note is not exact enough. I have not gathered enough information.


  1. Written “Forêt”
  2. Written “Pounemu”
  3. The Maori name is Hakaroa – C Girard footnote
  4. Written “Lewy”
  5. Then the name of what is now Lyttelton Harbour - translator’s note
  6. terrain
  7. “it” – elle – can only refer to the chain of mountains - translator’s note
  8. Written “Tarauparaha”
  9. Written “pounemu”
  10. ?chariée
  11. ? porte
  12. Ruapuke Island written Eruapuke
  13. Written “Fauv”

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