Documentary marks 175 years since first migrant ship arrived in Otago Harbour

Will McKee of Toitū interviews Sir Tom Devine at his home in Hamilton, Scotland.
Will McKee of Toitū interviews Sir Tom Devine at his home in Hamilton, Scotland. Photo credit: RNZ/Supplied

A documentary will help to mark 175 years since the arrival of the first migrant ship into Otago Harbour for the Dunedin settlement.

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum has been researching the challenges and adventures of 100 migrant pioneers to southern New Zealand between 1848 and 1861.

Documentary presenter Seán Brosnahan said it focused on the formation of the Otago settlement scheme from its genesis in Scotland through to how it played out on the ground.

Part of the challenge had been mastering the story on the other side of the water in Ireland and Scotland as usually the focus was on what happened when people got off the boats, he said.

"They came here with a whole history and motivations and aspirations, and from particular contexts and places and times, and that's what we've been trying to push back the story so we encapsulate all those origin points.

"Why did they leave where they left and why did they choose to come here when they could have gone to the United States or Canada or Australia or South Africa, or lots of other places?

"Why did they pick this little, tiny place at the bottom of the world which was pretty unappealing in the beginning period and so far away and so unknown. Why did those people choose to come here?"

The idea formed in 1843, but the settlers did not arrive on southern shores until 1848.

"In that five-year period, there were a lot of times in which the whole thing could have collapsed and it just wouldn't have happened so we were really keen to go and chart that, the evolution of the concept, how it changed and morphed into something different to the original conception, and who the people were that kept it going and what they had to face, and where those things happened."

Brosnahan expected the documentary would help to dispel a few myths, including who the first Scottish settlers were.

"I suppose some people tend to think that it was the poor bedraggled strays of Europe who came here and they sort of apply the Statue of Liberty sort of notion of the people who went to the United States.

"You've got to remember that New Zealand was so much further away as a destination. It took so much longer to get here and it cost so much more, that the poorest of the poor from Europe just couldn't contemplate coming here, and in fact a large proportion of those who did come here actually needed financial assistance from this side of the water to encourage them to come here rather than somewhere like the United States or Canada."

Instead, the settlers tended to have more means, more skills, more education, he said.

Filming at Croick Church, Highlands.
Filming at Croick Church, Highlands. Photo credit: RNZ/Supplied

"Once they got to Dunedin, you've got to remember those first settlers, they arrive here, they don't have much to get going and it's just all in front of them.

"The very first people have to build their own houses with their own hands or with primitive tools ... well, we talk about that and we show you some of the places where those happened.

"But then going off and exploring, out on the Taieri, down to Tokomairiro, the people who went further afield. Those are epic stories of exploration and settlement."

The documentary covers the period until the Gold Rush.

Filming on the Old Man Range in Central Otago.
Filming on the Old Man Range in Central Otago. Photo credit: RNZ/Supplied

"We really focused here on the beginning point and the period at which Otago was seen as a Scottish and Presbyterian settlement. Although that wasn't the totality of how that panned out.

"But the whole dream of this very exclusive sort of zone really died with the Gold Rush and the death of Captain Cargill, so that's kind of the point at which we note that transition and finish our story."

Originally, the team planned to travel to Scotland and Ireland in 2020 with all their bookings made. That was cancelled when the pandemic hit.

But Brosnahan said it gave them an opportunity - and time - for further in-depth research and to ensure they were even better prepared for the trip when it was possible last year.

They travelled over five weeks, visiting 350 locations.

"The great thrill of going to the real places and seeing what's there. Maybe there's nothing there, but you know this is where it really happened and sometimes you get there and there is something and it's really, really exciting, and we hope we convey that and share that and give people a chance to vicariously travel with us to all these diverse places.

"Hundreds and hundreds of locations, all of which feed together to make the story of Otago and its settlement as the new Edinburgh settlement, or Otago as it became."