The year is 1861. In the north, conflict between British-led government forces and Taranaki iwi has taken a brief pause. In April, several Te Ātiawa rangatira agree on terms of peace with the Crown. Wiremu Kingi, a notable exception, declares his consent for the peace but declines to sign and retreats into the Waikato. Grievances over land at Waitara in Taranaki continue to generate tension, the truce is uneasy, and the British military presence in the colony of New Zealand remains substantial.
In May, along the Tuapeka River in Central Otago, Tasmanian miner Gabriel Read strikes gold in the wintry Clutha Valley. To the dismay, though not surprise, of the founders of the Scottish Presbyterian settlement of Dunedin, the discovery prompts a rush of diggers. The colony is now playing host to two large and vastly different groups of men. In the north, the regimented, rifle carrying enforcers of empire contrast sharply with a fundamentally transient population of ‘footloose, single, drunken’ and ‘assertively egalitarian’ prospectors in the south.
The 70th Regiment Dunedin Detachment
The 70th regiment, colloquially known as the Glasgow Greys, had been dispatched to New Zealand as war in Taranaki escalated. Following twelve years of service in India, they were ordered to leave Allahabad in late 1860 and set sail for New Zealand from Calcutta in January 1861.
Travelling in three transport ships, the regiment sailed into Waitematā harbour in May 1861. ‘A fine body of men, rather sallow from protracted exposure to an Indian sun’ but with the ‘look of trained and resolute soldiers’, the regiment was stationed first at the large military camp at Otahuhu. In November, a detachment of 100 rank and file, led by Captain A. Saltmarshe, sailed from Otahuhu bound for Dunedin to assist in keeping order in the region overrun with thousands of men en route to the glitter and wealth of the Otago goldfields.
In the south, agitation among Otago’s pastoralists over the potential ill-discipline of the goldfield camps was causing a headache for local authorities. Taking these protests into account, and lobbied by Otago Superintendent Major Richardson desperate to prevent an outbreak of disorder equivalent to the Eureka Rebellion at Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, the General Government had acquiesced and agreed to send a detachment of the 70th south. In doing so, saddling Otago with the full expense, an ‘exorbitant and unjust affliction’ which Provincial Councillors and the editors of the Colonist felt entirely justified in complaining about.
War in the North, Gold in the South: Mapping Incidents of Desertion
As it turned out, the detachment of the 70th regiment stationed in Dunedin between November 1861 and June 1863 did not get to experience the glitter and hubbub of the goldfields, at least not in any official capacity. Men of the Victoria gold escort, established by St John Branigan, arrived in Otago in August 1861 to ensure the safety of the gold brought from the fields up country to Dunedin. Restructuring the force to mirror the methods employed by the goldfield police in Victoria, which he admired, Richardson’s employment of experienced gold field escorts rendered the regiment’s expected role redundant.
While the men of the British Imperial Army may have been applauded by the colonial press as a ‘fine body of men’ they lived a fairly brutal existence, subject to a fierce disciplinary regime and entitled to basic rations. Instances of desertion, drunkenness and theft were commonplace. A brief assessment of the court martials at which men of the 70th regiment appeared during their term of service in New Zealand paints a colourful picture. Charges of drunkenness were particularly common, accompanied by violence, theft, fraud, black market dealings in tobacco and commissariat rum, and ‘indecent conduct’. Garrison life in the nineteenth century was often rough and tough.
Stationed so close to the glitter and glamour of the goldfields with comparatively little to do, desertions from the Dunedin detachment were only to be expected. Desertion was not rare. Several soldiers appeared in the WO12 muster rolls for multiple counts of desertion. It was, nonetheless, a serious offence which could be punished with hard labour, sentences of up to 50 lashes, and, most commonly, the permanent branding of a D on the upper chest.
With a total force numbering just 100, more than a quarter of the men, 26 in total, deserted at some point during the detachment’s tenure in Dunedin. Some disappeared successfully and do not appear in any further military records. Some rejoined of their own accord, perhaps finding that life on the goldfields was not as glamorous as it had appeared. Others were less fortunate, apprehended by local police and, often, court martialled for their offence. One deserter, Private James Hughes, was apprehended on his way to the Dunedin racecourse in March 1863, but the vast majority of deserters from the Dunedin detachment set about joining the steady stream of prospectors heading for the diggings at Tuapeka, Waitahuna, and (from mid-1862) further north along the Dunstan Creek.
That a number of men of the 70th set out for the diggings is evident. Records of apprehension in the Otago Police Gazette place several deserters in these localities. Alexander Ferguson, John Hodkinson and Thomas Duckworth were all arrested by the Dunstan Police in February 1863 and returned to their regiment by the Dunstan Gold Escort. George Hale was arrested in 1864, after his regiment had returned to Auckland, by the Mount Ida police near St Bathans. Elsewhere, Private Michael Coffey, a fair haired native of County Tipperary who spoke with a stammer, was ‘supposed to have gone to the Dunstan Diggings’ when he deserted in 1862.
While the prospect of accruing some flashy material wealth was genuinely possible in goldrush Otago, in Taranaki no such temptation existed and alcohol served as the most popular distraction from the routine of garrison life.
Of the 14 court martials held in Dunedin between 1861 and 1863, ten were for charges of desertion. By comparison, a similar number of hearings held for the men of the 70th stationed in New Plymouth during the same period did not include a single charge of desertion, instead dominated by 11 charges of drunkenness.
Full map of 70th regiment court martials can be viewed here
For a map of the 70th regiment desertions, deaths and discharges click here
The majority of the regiment was stationed at Otahuhu where desertion was also fairly common, accounting for 40 of the 83 court martials held there for the 70th between 1861 and 1863. In contrast to Dunedin, where just 100 men were stationed, the number of 70th regiment men at Otahuhu exceeded 400, significantly diminishing the ratio of desertions to total men in the north compared with the gold-crazed south.
Across the country, soldiers in the 70th were most likely to desert between 1862 and 1863 when 63 individuals were charged. With hostilities suspended in the north, and gold fever spreading through the south, it is little surprise that the regiment grew restless. Desertion rates soared in Dunedin and Otahuhu, where the men were relatively sedentary. In New Plymouth, by contrast, where tensions continued to bubble over the land at Waitara, desertion was a less enticing prospect.
Where the potential for riches on the goldfields was present, desertion rates were particularly high. More than a quarter of the Dunedin-based rank and file saw some benefit in chasing that glittering prospect. Despite their relative discipline, gold proved as powerful a temptation for the soldiers stationed in Dunedin in 1861 as it did for the diggers who had crossed the country, the Tasman, even the Pacific in pursuit of it.
By June 1863, the shaky peace treaty in the north had run its course with the resumption of hostilities in Taranaki and the Crown push to challenge the Kīngitanga in the Waikato. The Dunedin detachment, excluding those who had either purchased their discharge or successfully disappeared into the bustle of the goldfields, returned to their regiment at Otahuhu, leaving the temptation of gold behind them.
The regiment went on to fight in the main Waikato, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty campaigns in the New Zealand Wars before receiving orders to return to England. The last transport of troops left in 1866, bringing the regiment’s 15 years of overseas service to an end.