The southern adventures of the 70th regiment

It’s a meandering, fascinating story that involves Taranaki, India, Auckland, Dunedin, war, gold and a bunch of soldiers who spent a lot of time drunk or trying to desert.

Professor of History Charlotte Macdonald and Master of Arts student Maggie Blackburn have been researching the behaviour of a detachment of the British Imperial Army’s 70th Regiment sent to Otago in November 1861 ostensibly to help “police” the region’s gold rush.

Using records of courts-martial for desertion and drunkenness, they have pieced together a picture of the soldiers’ life during their two years in Dunedin.

The work forms part of the “Soldiers of Empire” project, online at .

Professor Macdonald says the Dunedin detachment of a regiment sent to take part in the New Zealand Wars in Taranaki forms an important part of a global story.

“Here’s a history investigation about New Zealand in 1861, when almost simultaneously there’s war in the north and gold discovered in the south, and one of the things that connects them are soldiers that came from Calcutta.”

The Taranaki war had escalated throughout 1860 and the 70th Regiment was ordered to New Zealand, arriving on three ships in May 1861.

“Almost at the same time, gold is discovered in Central Otago, in Gabriel’s Gully on May 20, 1861. In the south they are absolutely jubilant, and people are pouring into Dunedin in a great rush, most from Melbourne, Sydney and all around New Zealand.

“Dunedin was still small and pretty much ruled by the founders of the Otago Presbyterian settlement. Now they suddenly have all these rather vulgar people all rushing just to get their hands on gold and they were quite worried about the complete tumult, disorder, vulgarity that was sweeping through the place.”

About 100 men from the regiment were sent to Dunedin but by the time they got there they had been usurped by the arrival of an experienced Australian gold escort.

So they built a barracks, went to the theatre, played cricket and helped fight a fire in April 1863. And they drank and they deserted.

“When there’s a gold rush going on up the road, why would you sit it out in the pretty harsh conditions, get paid almost nothing, a shilling a week, be under the cosh of the military and rule of obedience,” Professor Macdonald says.

“Why not just skive off to the goldfields?”

Maggie used the now digitised Otago Police Gazette as one source for discovering who deserted or was court-martialled for drunkenness.

Fourteen courts-martial were held between 1861 and 1863–with 10 men appearing on charges of desertion and the remainder charged with either being drunk on duty, exhibiting “habitual drunkenness” or leaving their post.

Most were given 84 days hard labour and each deserter was branded, like cattle, with a “D” on the left side of their chest, Maggie says.

“Where the temptation of gold and chance of accruing riches was present, the potential benefits of desertion outweighed the punishments if they were caught.

“It is also possible that the presence of a second large group of men so close at hand—the gold seekers—made success of desertion a more likely prospect. It would have been easier to disappear into the hubbub of activity generated by the goldfields than into the bush in Taranaki.”

Soldiers could buy a discharge to leave, and become soldier-settlers, before ending their term of generally 12 years.

But 25 men, about a quarter of the whole detachment, chose to desert instead, nine of them “successfully”, in that they did not appear again in army records.

Professor Macdonald says “Soldiers of Empire” uses the latest in online computing and visualisation analysis to help understand a 19th century story.

“What is mapped tells you the pattern–why desertion and discharge might be something the military do as well as the fighting against Maori in the north–but it also gives you the fates of individual people.

“History is always about the story of the individual–capturing the human-level story—while also making meaning of the larger picture.”

The website shares stories as they are discovered.

“People can see what we have done, use it, comment, but also see the methods by which you might do historical research.

“I am really keen to keep showing prospective students there is not one single method in history–that we have all different kinds of tools to present our work.”