“And whatever was done, the basic problems remained – poor land with a low carrying capacity, largely unsuited to cattle and overrun with the manuka, tauhinu, fern and bracken.” –Author Helen Beaglehole

Reviewed by Tony Orman  

A slice of paradise?

On a clear day, looking south and a tad to the west, you can see the northern end of the South Island from the Kapiti Coast. In all probability it’s the Marlborough Sounds that are visible. The Marlborough Sounds consist of a labyrinth of valleys “drowned” by the sea. Geologists term them “drowned valleys”, i.e. rising sea/sinking land resulting in river and stream valleys being submerged.  

The result is a maze of twisting, sheltered inlets, providing sheltered anchorages for boats in the strongest of winds and a playground for aquatic outdoor adventure.

 It’s an idyllic region so that today, many own holiday beaches there. Others seek to live their permanently whether farming, running a tourist venture or simply enjoying retirement years or family holidays there. Some Kapiti people are not immune from being attracted there to a family bach or to holiday.

Promise and problems in the 19th century

 But back in the 19th century, some of the European pioneers, were attracted with promises of material riches. Newcomers European migrants were beguiled by New Zealand Company spun promises of a paradise of bays and coves and of ample fertile land that was ripe for intensive farming. But the early farmers in the Sounds found reality a contrast to the official promises.

“And whatever was done, the basic problems remained – poor land with a low carrying capacity, largely unsuited to cattle and overrun with the manuka, tauhinu, fern and bracken.” 

Reality was hard writes Helen Beaglehole.  The weather could be unforgiving. “Every bay, gully and headland seems to have squalls and whirlwinds of its own—make clouds of water spray and white foam dance in the air – even the most skilful men have been drowned and most of the settlers have been upset at times,”: wrote one observer in 1900.

Tough times for Maori

Before the Europeans arrival, had been the Maori who led a subsistence existence of a nomadic hunting and gathering life.  

“The arrival of the Pakeha saw the loss of their (Maori) land, language and way of life” writes Helen Beaglehole.

 “The Marlborough Sounds land sales were bought in the vast Waipounamu land sales; by 1856 Maori had been relegated to inferior land, where they faced poverty, illness and systemic racism.”

Resources and challenges

Yet despite initial promises and then disillusionment for many settlers to the Sounds, there seemed to be always alternative promises — often exaggerated greatly in the intent to attract. Even gold featured and there was antimony mining high in the hills of Queen Charlotte Sound, to fishing, whaling, tourism and forging new roads through the thick and quick-to-regenerate bush to name a few. Some settlers adapted with resilience and a positive air, others dejected had to admit defeat.

As one reads of the details of challenges and trials of previous generations, I found a developing a strong admiration for the mammoth exhaustive and meticulous research by the author. 

There was potentially an inherent danger of a tedious story on the Marlborough Sounds. The author admits that was a challenge. “The problem I faced—was to maintain a fast moving narrative not overly encumbered with the detail.”

She has succeeded admirably.

One point I found difficult was the use of Maori names alone instead of the current European origin names. For example instead of the current, accepted use of Queen Charlotte Sounds, the Maori name “Totaranui” is used. This had me not infrequently, turning back to the “key” page where both names were alongside each other.

A book with plenty of appeal

But rest assured, this is a book that should appeal to

  • Sounds residents
  • those who enjoy the Marlborough Sounds for boating, fishing, tramping and other outdoor recreation and holidaying 
  • those who find it fascinating delving into the rigours of early settlement, in this case the Marlborough Sounds. 

 Having been resident in the 1970s in Marlborough and renewing that in 1990, I suspect there is much more to be told yet such as the forging of roads to French Pass and Tennyson Inlet, a saga around a remarkable lady Betty Rowe on Arapawa Island who battled bureaucrats.

One feels there is much more to the Sounds history, perhaps a sequel might be in the future?

This is an outstanding chronicle of a large slice of the history of the Marlborough Sounds. Numerous intriguing and excellent historical photos enhance the author’s diligent research and competent writing. 

Massey University Press have done a grand job in design and publishing. Strongly recommended.