History Of Kauri Gum

Kauri forests once covered a large part of New Zealand. After Maori and Europeans settled here much of this forest was lost to deforestation. Kauri gum is a fossilised resin extracted from Kauri trees. The resin would leak from the trees and harden from exposure to the air, it would then drop to the ground and often become covered in soil and leaves, meaning most Kauri gum has to be dug out of the ground.

In the 1800s Maori had many different uses for the gum which they called kapia. Fresh gum was used as chewing gum and the older gum could be boiled and softened for the same use. The gum was also highly flammable so was used as a fire starter or bound in flax as a torch. When burnt it could be mixed with animal flax and used as pigmentation for tattoos or moko. Kauri gum was also polished and sold on as jewellery or ornamental pieces (much like it is today).

Commercially kauri gum was used as a varnish and exported all over the world. Sadly, synthetic alternatives were found which proved to be much cheaper so Kauri was reserved as a high grade varnish for things such as handcrafted violins. 



APPEARANCE

The appearance of fossilised Kauri gum can change depending of the condition of the tree it came from, the ground it formed in and how old it is. It ranges in colour from a creamy-white to reddy-brown to black. The most prized pieces are pale-gold as they are hard and translucent. Kauri gum shares many of the same properties as amber, which can be found in the Northern Hemisphere. Carbon dating suggests most Kauri gum is at least a few thousand years old. 



GUM FIELDS AND DIGGERS

The largest gum fields were in Northland, Coromandel and Auckland, the sites of the original Kauri forests. Initially Kauri gum was readily available and could be found lying on the ground. By 1850, the majority of the gum had already been collected so people began digging for it. Gum found on hillsides was easier to dig than that found in swamps or near beaches. This was the birth of the gum-digging trade. Gum-diggers was a name adopted for men and women who were in the trade of digging gum. They worked in old Kauri fields which were often covered in mangroves and shrubs. It was extremely hard work and not very well paid but it attracted many Maori and European settlers, including women and children. Many Dalmatians who had come in the late 1800s to work in the South
Island gold fields also moved north to dig gum, but they were mostly transient workers who sent most of their money home, which resulted in a lot of resentment from the local work force. 

In 1898 the “Kauri Gum Industry Act” was passed, it reserved gum grounds for British settlers and required all other gum diggers to have a licence. By 1910 only British settlers could obtain a licence. 

Gum digging was a major source of income for North Island settlers and farmers often worked the fields in the winter months to subsidise the income from their unbroken land. By the 1920s 20,000 people were employed in gum digging, 7000 full-time. Gum digging was not restricted to settlers or workers in the rural areas, leading some people to catch the ferry across the Waitemata harbour in the Auckland area to dig in Birkenhead. They often caused damage to public roads and private farms, leaving the local councils to deal with the problems. 


Between every two trees is a doorway to a whole new world
— John Muir

METHODS

Most gum was dug using gum spears and “Skeltons” (blade like spears used for cutting through tree roots and soil). Once the gum was retrieved, it needed to be scraped and cleaned. 

Digging in swamps was a lot more complicated, needing longer spears with hooks on the end to scoop out the pieces of gum. Scrub was often burned with fire, many of which got out of control and would burn for weeks. Once the gum became scarce, many gum diggers would cut the trees and return later to collect the pieces of gum. Due to the damage to the trees, this was later banned.