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The New Zealand Journal, Saturday, February 8 (1840)


New Zealand Hemp.*

On the Political and Commercial Advantages Which the Introduction and Use of the New Zealand Hemp Would Afford to Great Britain.
Of the many colonies founded by Great Britain, few have enjoyed the advantage of possessing at their very first establishment any staple commodity in sufficient abundance to furnish a return freight to the ships which had taken out provisions and other commodities for the use of the new settlers. This very signal ad-
vantage, the infant colony of New Zealand possesses in an eminent degree.
The two principal articles, timber and hemp—the natural pro-ductions of the country—are to be procured with the greatest fa-cility, at a moderate price, and in any quantities. Timber has of late, been exported to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, India, and England, at all of which places it meets with a ready sale. New Zealand hemp or flax, will, no doubt, be equally appreated when the strong prejudice now entertained by some against its use, shall have been overcome, and this we have good reason to hope will be the case ere long.
The plant from which the hemp or flax is procured, was first brought into this country by Captain Cook. It received from him the name of New Zealand flax, and, subsequently from botanists that of phormium tenax. Few natural productions have offered, on their discovery, so many very evident advantages as the New Zealand flax. Captain Cook speaks with great praise of the strength and fineness of its fibres, and all those who have since visited the country confirm what he says.
According to the accounts furnished by those who have resided in these islands, the hemp grows spontaneously everywhere; —along the shores—on the banks of the rivers—in the swamps— over hundreds of miles of plains. It requires only to be cut at the proper season, to be dried in the sun, to undergo a slight preparation, so as to diminish its bulk, to be packed and pressed before it is put on board the ships. The natives first dress and then use it for all purposes for which common hemp and flax are em-ployed in this country. They convert it into garments, lines, ropes, and nets, for which, owing to its strength and flexibility, it is admirably adapted. Almost all the vessels belonging to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, are entirely rigged with ropes made of the New Zealand hemp or flax, and manufactured at Sydney and Hobart Town. Many whalers prefer using lines made of the same material, because they offer more resistance than if made of Russian hemp, and do not become too hard and heavy after having remained long in the water.
Labillaroiere, the eminent French botanist, who visited New Zealand about twenty years after the discovery of these islands by Captain Cook, was directed by the French Government to give his particular attention to the several uses to which the newly-found flax might be applied. On his return, in a report made by him, in 1795, to the Academy of Sciences at Paris, after having mentioned the great importance which the introduction of this flax would be to many of the States of Europe, he proceeds to say that having made several experiments for the purpose of ascertaining the relative strength of the New Zealand flax compared with the Manilla, Russian, and other hemp and flax, he obtained the following results:
The strength of the Manilla hemp and European flax, was11 3/4
The strength of the Russian hemp16 1/3
The strength of the New Zealand hemp23 5/11
Ever since the year 1815, ineffectual endeavours have at different rent times been made to bring the New Zealand hemp into general use. From a variety of causes, these attempts have failed, and have been abandoned. As one of the chief causes of this result, we may mention the decided prejudice entertained by the great majority of our naval men against the introduction of this new hemp, a prejudice which has been fomented and kept alive by the powerful influence of parties, whose interests would eventually suffer should Russian hemp and flax cease to become one of the principal commodities imported into this country.
When we bear in mind that our yearly importations of hemp and flax have risen of late to the enormous quantity of 2,600,000 cwt., and that the English nation is entirely dependent on foreign powers, nay, principally on one only, Russia, for these most important commodities, indispensable to a maritime and commercial nation, we are astonished both at the want of public spirit in the people, and at the total absence of foresight on the part of Government on this point. Here is an article, which if once brought into general use, would produce incalculable advantages to the country, and render us almost entirely independent of foreign powers; and yet until these last few years, only a few ill directed attempts have been made to benefit the nation, not only in a mercantile and economical, but also in a political point of view. Let us suppose that England were at war with Russia, where should we apply for the millions, the hundreds of millions of pounds of hemp and flax which our royal and mercantile navy, as well as our manufactories require ? Not to France, because that country does not produce hemp sufficient for her own consumption; not to Belgium or Holland, for although both countries export flax, they produce but a small quantity of hemp, and are under the necessity of sending to Russia for what is required of this article for their navy. Italy, it is true, exports hemp, but comparatively in small quantities. So that we are, in fact, at the mercy of Russia—of one single country—for obtaining this important article of consumption. How great a cause of uneasiness should not this be to such a nation as England!
Had the true interests of the country been consulted in this respect, the introduction and use of the New Zealand hemp would already have become general, and many advantages have been derived by the country from the employment of it for all purposes in which common hemp and flax are now used.
It is admitted by all those persons who have visited and resided in New Zealand, that both the islands produce hemp and flax in such abundance, that all Europe might be supplied from them, and at a much lower prise than what is given for Russian hemp and flax. Instead then of purchasing this article from foreigners, we might procure it from those of our countrymen who have for years been induced to settle in that distant country, attracted there by the many advantages which the climate and natural productions offer; a country which has at length become an English colony,—thanks to the energy and indefatigable perseverance evinced by the founders and promoters of the New Zealand Company, and by Mr. Gibbon Wakefield in particular.
It is acknowledged even by those who from the beginning have shown themselves the most violent opponents to the use of New Zealand hemp, that a rope made of this material, when even but indifferently dressed, will, on trial, bear a considerably greater strain before giving way, than a rope of equal size, manufactured of the very best Russian hemp. This comparatively superior strength of the New Zealand hemp over common hemp, has been ascertained by various experiments, not only by private parties, but by the royal navy.
In 1828, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty gave directions to the principal officers of Woolwich Dock Yard, for the trial of the positive strength of the fibre of the New Zealand hemp, compared to that of the best Russian hemp. In compliance with these instructions, bolts of rope were laid up with all possible care, the one of the first material, the other of the latter, and they were both submitted to the usual test on the 13th August, 1828, in presence of the officers of the Dock-yard. The following results were obtained:—
tons cwt. lbs.
A 4 1/4 inch tarred rope, made of Russian hemp, broke at a strain of 3 8 40
A 4-inch tarred rope, made of New Zealand Hemp, at 5 10 0
So that the rope laid of New Zealand hemp, though one quarter of an inch smaller than that of Russian hemp, bore 2 tons and 184 lbs., or about 60 per cent. more than the latter. It is not, therefore, against the positive strength of the New Zealand hemp that objections could be raised.
But it has been said that ropes of this hemp give way at the parts which are often bent, and that they break at the "nip." This is possible, supposing the hemp to have been cut before the right season, which is frequently the case; or that it has been improperly dressed. Now, from many experiments made by par-tics disposed to give a fair trial to this hemp, it has been proved beyond a doubt, that provided the hemp be cut in proper time and properly dressed, the ropes made with it, when used on board ship or elsewhere, have invariably worn well, and by comparison, at least as well as ropes made from Baltic hemp.
In support of all that has been stated as to the facility of procuring hemp from New Zealand, and in the greatest abundance, as well as to the suitableness of this article as a substitute for Baltic hemp and flax, we may be allowed to quote the opinion of a gentleman who was a resident during nearly fourteen years in New Zealand,—we mean Lieut. Mc. Donnell of the Royal Navy:—
"The flax plant grows, "says this gentleman," in wild luxuriance throughout the three islands of New Zealand. With attention paid to the cutting of the flax, in the proper season, and common care paid to its cultivation, I feel convinced of its superiority over that of Russia and Manilla. It possesses all the flexibility of the former—it is free from the wiry brittleness of the latter. I can have no hesitation in asserting that thousands of tons of this valuable article of commerce may be shipped off annually from New Zealand to the mother country. Nor do I assert this merely from my own observation and knowledge of the country, but I am borne out by the information I have received from several of the chiefs and intelligent natives, with whom I have conversed on the subject. I may safely say that New Zealand could supply all Europe with ease. Fair play has not generally been given to the flax sent home. Cut the plant at the right season, let the flax be dried, carefully packed in lengths and screwed, then the superiority of the New Zealand hemp over that of Europe will be manifest, and the prejudices that once existed will vanish for ever.
"All the standing and part of the running rigging of the Sir George Murray, a ship of 400 tons, belonging to myself, was laid up from New Zealand flax; it had been over the mast-heads for nearly three years. I can state that better rope never crossed a ship's mast-head. I have experienced some very heavy gales in the Sir George Murray, consequently the rigging had been well tried: when lifted and examined, it was found, barring being slightly chafed, as good as when first put over. The running rigging wore uncommonly well. Cordage and fishing-lines made from good New Zealand hemp have proved far more durable than any made from European hemp."
We can likewise refer to a part of the evidence given before a committee of the House of Lords, in 1838, by two competent judges, as to the strength and durability of the New Zealand hemp. The first of these gentlemen whose evidence we shall quote, is Captain Robert Fitzroy, of the Royal Navy, who had the command of his Majesty's ship "Beagle," employed during the years of 1835 and 1836 on the coast of New Zealand. Captain Fitzroy was asked—
"Have you ever had an opportunity, as commander of any of Her Majesty's vessels, of ascertaining the quality of rope made from New Zealand flax?" I have; I have used it for three years successively. "What is your opinion of it?" I think that if it were properly manufactured, it would make very
good rope; but that there is some defect in the way in which it has been manufactured, for it breaks in the 'nips,' though it wears a very long time in a straight line; yet, as the natives use it for nets three or four fathoms deep, and sometimes two or three hundred fathoms in length, and it lasts them many years, there must surely be some way of preparing it which would make it available for our rope.
"Have you found that the rope increases much in size, and becomes very stiff?
"No; I have not found that effect. It does not absorb water like hemp; you cannot make what sailors call swobs (mops for cleaning the decks); but as the natives make very fine cordage of all kinds, my impression is, that there is some defect in our way of manufacturing it; either the plant is cut at a wrong time of the year, which the natives perhaps have not told us, or it is not worked up well afterwards."
The other gentleman, Mr. Charles Enderby, the head of a firm carrying on a considerable trade in the South Sea fisheries, corroborates by his evidence the statement made by Captain Fitzroy. In the course of his examination before the Lords' Committee, the following questions were put to him:—
"Do you conceive that the objection to the New Zealand flax has arisen from the inferiority of the article, or its having been badly prepared?
"Its having been badly prepared.
"Do you conceive that it will become an article of considerable export?
"I have no doubt of it.
"Do you, in your firm, make use of New Zealand flax?
"We do; we prefer it to Russian hemp.
"Can you get it much cheaper than the Russian hemp?
"It costs us less than the Russian hemp does."
We have stated that England is entirely dependent upon foreign powers for her supply of both hemp and flax, and that the greatest quantity is imported from Russia. By the Customhouse returns, beginning from the year 1835, until the 30th of November, 1839, we find that the amount of hemp imported is,
Cwts. Cwts.
for 1835 687,558 of which 610.518 from Russia.
1836 586,032 556,458 ditto.
1837 778,621 591,674 do.
1838 - 730,375 580,999 do.
11 months of 1839 895,927 711,827 do.
In all, 3,673,513 of which 3,051,576 from Russia alone. The imports of flax and tow, during the same period, were,
Cwts. Cwts.
for 1835 740,814 of which l 438,483 from Russia.
1836 1,529,115 1,037,021 ditto.
1837 1,000.864 682,025 do.
1888 1,625,276 1,089,559 do.
11 months of 1839 1,138,799 763,862 do.
In all, 6,035.868 of which 4,010,950 from Russia alone.
So that during the above-mentioned five years, five-sixths of all the hemp imported into this country, and which is almost entirely used for the shipping, was brought from Russia, likewise two-thirds of the flax.
Judging from the returns of the Custom-house, during the last twenty years, the quantity of both articles imported, has considerably increased,
Cwts. Cwts.
for in 1820it was426,163 of hemp, and382,389of flax and tow.
and for 11 months of 1839895,227— ditto. —1,138,799— ditto.
The whole of the hemp now employed for the shipping, and the greater part of the flax, might be supplied by New Zealand, and at a much lower price than at present paid; thus rendering England independent of foreign powers for articles of such great importance to the community at large, and particularly to our navy.
In consequence of the vast importations from Russia, of both hemp and flax, the balance of commerce with that empire is always against England. If of all the variety of articles furnished by Russia, we take hemp, flax, and tallow, we find that the sum paid annually for these alone, amount to three times the sum total of our exports to that country.
During the year 1836, our imports from Russia were—
£. s. d. £.
Tallow., 1,314,085 at 41 0 0 a ton 2,628,170
Flax 802,186 at 49 18 4 do. 2,102.103
Hemp 610,295 at 27 18 4 do. 851,876
While the amount of our exports to Russia was 1,742,433
From the foregoing observations, we hope to have made it evident that England would do well to give encouragement to any commercial intercourse which might be carried on with New Zealand, and to promote the further introduction and general use of the hemp which the colony produces in abundance.
Besides the advantages which would arise to England from the introduction and use of New Zealand hemp, we may mention the benefit which would thereby accrue to so many of our countrymen settled in that colony. The trade which now furnishes support to thousands of foreigners, might thus be transferred to our people, at once insuring them independence, wealth, and happiness. And the colony so stimulated to exertion and mercantile activity, could not fail of arriving soon at a high degree of prosperity.
In making these observations, we claim no exclusive protection —we ask for no commercial restriction in favour of the article, the use of which we are advocating. If foreign Russia can supply better and cheaper hemp than British New Zealand, let her. All we ask, is, an unprejudiced examination of the comparative advantages of the two, and we are absolutely certain of a triumph on the part of the New Zealand hemp. We would further remark that the evil is not so much that we depend on foreigners for our supply of hemp, as that we depend, as we have repeatedly hinted, on one foreign country. Supposing the present restrictive duties on timber repealed—supposing the duties equalized, as they ought to be, we should depend on foreigners; but as timber is supplied by many countries, that would be no evil. To suppose a combination of all countries to deprive England of timber, is to suppose an absurdity. In the case of hemp, however, the matter is widely different, and our dependence on one country alone, might, in the event of a war, amount to a serious evil, of which, however, New Zealand happily affords an effectual remedy.


This paper on the New Zealand Hemp or Flax, has been furnished us by a gentleman thoroughly conversant with the subject, and we are happy to add, we are enabled to promise other papers from the same intelligent source. We may here remark, that the production in question, (Phormium tenox) is commonly called New Zealand Flax; considering its qualities, however, and the purposes to which it is applicable, Hemp is the more proper designation. We take this opportunity of offering the writer our thanks for his interesting paper.—Ed.

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