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A Sailor's Story

From the book "The Digger's Story" by Carl J Pfaff

Captain Henry Jacobsen's Account of His Own Life

I am a very old West Coaster, having spent a great many of the best years of my life there in various capacities trading from Nelson up and down the Coast in my own vessel, which was flying the first British flag seen in Westport. This flag was presented to me by the Westport Borough Council, and is believed to be in their possession now (see copy of letter appended, received by me from the Town Clerk’s Office, Westport re the flag, which may be of interest to some West Coasters). As a gold digger, I often tramped over hills and through bush not previously tramped by the white man.

Before going to the West Coast of the South Island, I was engaged trading between Nelson, New Plymouth and Onehunga, taking stores for the commissariat and carrying the mails, coal and general cargo. This was during the time of the Maori War in Taranaki. In June, 1861, I was chartered by Messrs Waite and Saunders, who were then living in Collingwood, to go to Westport. We left Nelson in the ketch "Jane" with several gold diggers and a miscellaneous lot of cargo. Calling in at Collingwood we took on more diggers and cargo and sailed for Westport. On arrival at Westport we were joined by four or five men, who had left Collingwood at the same time as we did. They had launched their boat across Farewell Spit.

These, with the men I took in the ketch, were the first permanent settlers and gold diggers on the West Coast. We found about half-a-dozen Maoris living in Westport. There was no accommodation of any kind, so we had to set to work to provide some. The Maoris gave up one of their whares for us to put the stores in. The country was a mass of dense bush everywhere. Mosquitos, fleas, sandflies and blowflies were very plentiful. The blowflies were a perfect pest, getting into clothing, blankets and wherever they could. I waited for three weeks in Westport assisting the diggers (who afterwards scattered up the Buller River) with their stores. I continued to trade between Nelson and Westport for about six months; on one trip, I took among other cargo, three hundredweight of greenstone.

I then went to Waimangaroa where I myself tried golddigging. Failing to get any gold there, I went further up the Buller, but met with no luck. Returning to Westport, I had the misfortune to lose my boat, and all it contained, coming down the river. I managed to swim ashore, a distance of nearly a mile owing to the difficulty of landing, and then did the rest of the journey on foot.

In March, 1862, I was chartered by Mr Mackley to take him, his family and stores to the Grey River. Mr J. C. Richmond (afterwards Premier of New Zealand) was with us. While waiting to get into the Grey I sailed 50 miles South in order to give Mr Richmond an opportunity of painting Mt Cook. The conditions at the Grey were somwhat similar to those at Westport. There were a few Maoris who had cleared several acres of land, and whose live stock at the time consisted of thirteen roosters, one hen and a large number of dogs.

I assisted Mr Mackley to take his stores by the river to his place at Waipuna, about 45 miles from the Grey. It took nearly a month to take the six trips backwards and forwards, before Mr Mackley was settled. Mr Mackley’s house, which measured 40ft by 30ft, was made out of manuka poles and bark, and took eight days to build. Returning to the Grey with Mr Mackley we had to contend with a high flood, all the flat land being under water. We were nearly frozen when we reached the gorge.

In the Grey the Maoris were flooded out, the flat land where Greymouth now stands being six or seven feet under water. In order to reach the terrace at the back where we were to make our camp, we had to take the boat through the treetops. After a rest in the Grey, Mr Mackley, a Maori boy, and I walked to the saddle near the present town of Reefton, which took us two days. Reaching the Inangahua River we launched a small canoe previously left by Mr Rochfort at a place known to Mr Mackley. Here Mr Mackley and I parted. I then went in the canoe down the Inangahua and Buller Rivers, arriving in Westport in two days, in rags and tatters and half-starved.

There I was made welcome and had a good square meal, which I badly needed and thoroughly enjoyed. At Westport I found my old vessel on the beach. It had during my absence been sold with all it contained, by the mate who had also done away with the proceeds. Buying her back, I sailed round Blind Bay for some time and then finally sold the vessel. In September, 1864, I took charge of a sheepstation belonging to Major Newcombe, situated above the Grey River near the Ahaura. In January, 1865, Mrs Jacobsen joined me on the station. Some idea of the difficulty of travelling at that time may be gathered from the fact that it took Mrs Jacobsen eight days to do the journey of twenty-five miles in a canoe owing to floods, rain, and other inconveniences. Canoes were the chief means of conveyance from place to place, but one journey I made from the station to the Grey had to be made in a raft made of three bundles of flat sticks.

The house in which my wife and I lived was built of mud, the walls being covered with moss halfway up. The roof consisted of flakes of manuka bark tied down with flax. The place was infected with rats of a very large size. The comforts or discomforts of living may be easily imagined. I left the sheep station after having been there nine months. From an old account book in my possession some idea of the cost of provisions at that time may be gathered.

Items may be of interest today who grumble at the increased cost of living. The following are some of the prices ruling then:- Salt 2s. 6d. jer lb., sugar 2s. 6d. jer lb., salt beef 2s. 6d. per lb., flour from 60 to 75 pounds per ton, bread (4lb. loaf) 2s 6d., coffee 6s. per lb., tea 4s. per lb., onions 1s 6d per lb., small ham 24s. 6d., herrings 1s 6d each, potatoes 10s. per lb.

Soon after this things began to improve very rapidly. Gold diggings broke out in several places on the coast and inland. Large sailing vessels and several steamboats were plying chiefly from Nelson and Melbourne, bringing people and stores of all kinds. Settlers and diggers were flocking everywhere. I started gold-digging again, this time on the Nine Mile Beach between Greymouth and Westport. On my way I came across a man whose leg had been broken in two places through a fall from the cliff. While setting the leg and splinting it up with pieces of bark, Mr Kenesley (the gold field warden at the time) and three policemen arrived. They informed me that they had been trying to find my location, as I was wanted to take the post of signal man at Westport.

I accepted the position, and was gazetted signalman by Governor Bowen about September, 1866. One of my first duties on arrival at Westport was to see to the erection of a flagstaff. In 1875 I was transferred to the station at Port Hills, Nelson, where I remained until the station was removed to Boulder Bank. In 1890 I was transferred to the lighthouse service and removed to the Auckland District. After being altogether thirty-six years in the Government Service, I received notice from the secretary of the Marine Department that he had the honour to inform me that on account of my old age, my services would no longer be required.

So here I am, stranded like an old ship. I am 79 years of age. This is only an account of a few of the adventures on the West Coast, the recollections of which, with the many hardships endured, are still very vivid.

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