The Telegraph in Aotearoa New Zealand

This map is the product of a research project, facilitated by PK Porthcurno: Museum of Global Communications (PK), into the history of the telegraph cable in Aotearoa New Zealand. Using archival resources from PK, subjects including colonisation, sacrality, gold-mining, and naval activity are illustrated through points on the map and cumulatively show a snapshot of the telegraph, and activity associated with it, in Aotearoa New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand was colonised by Britain, with the country officially annexed in 1840, and European presence since 1642. The Māori people of Aotearoa continue to endure the effects of this colonisation. The project’s stimulus was the history of communication in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our methodological objective was an environmental scan—an all-encompassing exploration of the history of the telegraph in Aotearoa New Zealand and activity associated with it; however, research has illuminated some strong trends which indicate the entanglement of colonisation and communication. 

The gold rush of the 1860s was one of the major incentives to have the telegraph in Te Wai Pounamu/the South island, as the increased population led to a greater number of Europeans who expected the efficiencies and commodities of Europe. Further to this, the laying of telegraph cables in Te Ika a Maui/the North island was stimulated by Te riri Pākehā (the New Zealand wars). Telegraph cables helped warn the Europeans when Māori attacks were imminent. In the past this has been framed, in the footnotes of Aotearoa New Zealand history, as Māori being ‘hostile’ to European development. In this research, we have attempted to reevaluate such biases in order to explore how the telegraph was part of the everyday warfare that led to thousands of Māori deaths. Similarly, cable ships from Europe brought muskets and artillery as well as telegraph cables. Land that was used for cable stations and cable communities was often contested by Māori, with some built on tapu (sacred) land. 

This map aims to document the history of the telegraph, while simultaneously engaging with the complex entanglement of Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial history. Small is not simple, and the telegraphic history of an isolated island country can be fertile and provoking. 

NB: Wherever possible, dual place names (Māori and English) have been used. English place names have been used for cartographical ease, however, we acknowledge the argument for using only Māori names in respect to Māori history and tangata whenua.

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