Fiddich Review Centre

The story of the Indian immigrant who catalysed the New Zealand gold rush but died in near penury

On the morning of April 12, 2009, a group of people gathered at the Mount Stuart Reserve in New Zealand’s South Island to mark the historical contribution of one of the earliest Indian immigrants to the country. At the ceremony, presided over by New Zealand’s Indian-origin Governor General Anand Satyanand, a plaque was unveiled. It said in part: “Edward Peters: The discoverer of the first workable goldfield in Otago at Glenore in 1858-1859.”

Terse though the description may be, it was an attempt to redress a case of historical misremembering. For almost a century and half, the man credited with the discovery of gold in Otago was a Tasmania-born gold prospector and farmer named Gabriel Read. But the tireless efforts of New Zealand writer Alan Williams helped bring greater awareness about the contributions of Edward Peters. It was in fact Peters who catalysed the gold rush in New Zealand in the early 1860s.

“No doubt historians will continue to argue about who was first to do what and when for many years to come,” Satyanand said, unveiling the plaque. “However, it is important that Edward Peters’ story not be forgotten.” It is a story that begins in Maharashtra, spans the globe and is full of mystery and intrigue.

There are many sources on Peters – which varyingly refer to him as Goan, Eurasian and Anglo-Indian – but it is Williams’ book Edward Peters (Black Peter): The Discoverer of the First Workable Goldfield in Otago that pieces together parts of his life story. According to Williams, the man who would later be nicknamed Black Peter in New Zealand was born into a Maratha family in Satara in the 1820s. In search of a livelihood, he moved to Bombay and began taking jobs on ships. This took him a long way away from Satara, to the far corners of the world, including to California, where he took part in the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. He most likely adopted a Christian name before leaving India.

A new life

While living a nomadic existence, Peters ended up serving as a cook on the sailing ship Maori. When the ship called on Port Chalmers in 1853, he decided to get off. At that time there was no restriction on Indian immigration to New Zealand, although permission was needed from the British authorities to set foot in the Crown Colony. Aware of these rules, Peters, who took French leave (left the ship without informing the captain), went straight to the police to turn himself in. His punishment for the offence ended up being just six weeks in prison. After that he was released and allowed to live in the colony. In his new home, Peters took up various jobs, including as a hut builder, shepherd and bullock cart driver.

“Little would probably have ever been known of him after that if he had not been helping two other shepherds move some sheep across the south branch of the Tokomairiro River in late 1858,” Satyanand said in his speech at the 2009 commemoration event.

The shepherds had set up camp by the river’s edge. One evening, after they finished their meal, Peters took the dishes to the river to wash them and decided to look for gold.

“Peters had mining experience in California, but it was limited to the piece of equipment known as a goldminer’s cradle,” Glenn Conway wrote in the Otago Daily Times in 2009. “As a result, he knew something of the nature of the wash dirt in which gold was usually to be found, but of the practicalities of turning such opportunities into a strike, his experience was limited. Nevertheless, there is evidence he had an eye for where gold might be found.”

Peters managed to find enough gold to be made into a ring, which is now on display in a museum. The money he received for his find was just about enough for his upkeep for a while. Over the next few years, he went back to doing odd jobs, while the colonial authorities, for some reason, did nothing to follow up on the Indian immigrant’s discovery in Otago.

Twists of fate

Although the New Zealand government did not take his discovery seriously, news of Peters’ exploits slowly spread far and wide. Seeing how gold rushes created booms in places such as California and Victoria, Australia, a few pioneering prospectors came to New Zealand to try their luck. Among them was Gabriel Read.

Read had experience working in goldfields of several countries. Almost four years after Peters’ discovery, he set out to prospect for gold in the same area and succeeded. The area in which he discovered gold was later renamed Gabriel’s Gully in his honour. The authorities were satisfied enough with Read’s discoveries to seriously explore mining in the area, sparking off what is called the Otago Gold Rush. During this period, 18,000 prospectors from around the world came to New Zealand to seek their fortunes. Within just six months, Dunedin went from being a colonial settlement of 13,000 inhabitants to becoming the most populated city in the country with 30,000 residents.

Gabriel Read. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The acclaim and financial rewards for starting the gold rush went to Read, even though Peters had discovered gold in Otago before the Australian. “Some say Peters and Read met by chance after an expedition, and Peters naively told him where to find it,” Rosetta Quaranta wrote in the Newest Zealander. “Others believe Read simply heard about the location indirectly. Or maybe, it was just all a coincidence.”

The Otago Provincial Council initially offered a sum of £500 as “bonus” for the discovery of a remunerative goldfield in the region. Peters applied twice for the reward but was rejected. This was a result of both racism and local politics. A few years later, the council gave double the amount to Read. “It was Read, rather than Peters that received £1,000 from the Otago Provincial Council for his find and who has gone down in history as the discoverer of gold in Otago,” Satyanand said. “Such is fortune’s fickle hand.”

Despite the New Zealand authorities’ attitude, Peters did enjoy the sympathy of the general public in the country’s South Island. In 1885, the provincial council agreed to put £50 in a pension fund for him if the same amount could be raised by the public. Residents of Otago happily acquiesced. “Such was the affection with which he was held in the community, and the support of local MP Vincent Pyke, that the money was quickly raised,” Satyanand said.

Peters, who was living in Dunedin Benevolent Institution, ended up getting a pension of 10 shillings a month (half a pound) for the rest of his life. It was a small amount, but enough to meet his basic expenses until he died eight years later.

Read went back to Tasmania after receiving his handsome reward from Otago. But it wasn’t a happy time that awaited him there. He spent the last seven years of his life in a mental hospital, suffering from bipolar disorder. He died a year after Peters.

Peters would have been a small footnote in New Zealand’s history if it weren’t for the dedicated effort of Alan Williams. The writer looked through the archives of the Otago Witness, an illustrated weekly newspaper published in Dunedin from 1851 to 1932, to find any information about Peters. Williams also scoured through the New Zealand Archives and the collections of the Hocken Library in Dunedin and Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. His book, which was published in 2009, has long been out of print, with just a handful of excerpts available online. His efforts, though, have been instrumental in getting the wider public to know about the adventurous Indian who landed up in New Zealand’s shores and found gold.

There are now believed to be almost 250,000 people of Indian origin in New Zealand. This is a community that can proudly trace its past in the country to the 18th century, almost a hundred years before Peters moved there. Edward Peters may not have got his due in life, but is now seen as one of the symbols of a friendly relationship enjoyed between India and New Zealand.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.

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