The Vegetable Caterpillar

Tuesday, 3 October 1893
Tasman Sea, off the coast of North Island, New Zealand

I am currently aboard a steamship headed south back to Wellington so I can “catch my flight” back to 2658 in my awaiting time machine. I spend the day above deck when I can watching the coast, the Tasman Sea and the seabirds. Occasionally I’ll run into some chap eager to show anyone his pursuit. It’s something he is passionate about but which most people would find boring. I never find these people boring at all.

A chap had a box of odd looking objects, no one else seemed interested in. Curious I went over to look over his shoulder. He was holding what looked like dried caterpillars with horns.

“Excuse me, sir.” I said. “I don’t wish to be rude, but what on earth is that?”

“That, sir, is the Aweto. Also known as the Vegetable Caterpillar, a creature that is both insect and plant.”

I introduced myself as a history scholar. He introduced himself as Professor Reginald Harrison, an entomologist from Oxford who had come to collect New Zealand insects to take back to the university. (I didn’t tell him I was from Cambridge, for fear the conversation would have digressed into who would win the next Cricket match.)

Instead he gave me a lecture on the Vegetable Caterpillar: “The aweto is the most extraordinary animal in New Zealand. It lives in the ground and when it grows to be about 2 inches, it sprouts a fungus from its neck. The plant shoots out of the ground with one leaf-less stem with a dark-brown head, like a tiny cattail. You can find them around rata trees. If you dig it up you will find the caterpillar, with the roots filling all of its body. Then both the caterpillar and the fungus die and become mummified. We are at a loss as to how this creature can propagate itself.”

I told him I had every confidence that science would solve the conundrum of the aweto.

Harrison also told me the Maori burn the mummified creatures and use the charcoal as black pigment in their tattooing. He said he wasn’t sure if they felt the aweto had magical properties or it just made really good pigment. He said if he wasn’t a scientist, he would be tempted to call them magical himself.

After I left Harrison, I pulled out my “pocket Bible” and checked my computer records. This odd creature is in fact an ordinary underground-dwelling caterpillar that should have grown to be a moth. Instead the poor thing got infected by the fungus Cordyceps robertsii. The spore begins growing inside it’s host, using the nutrients from it’s tissue until it kills caterpillar, then mummifies it. It then shoots up a stalk out of the ground with more spores to find more hosts. A rather insidious slow death, like something out of a horror story.

Also, the “vegetable caterpillar” is not only found in New Zealand. A similar fungus attacks caterpillars in Tibet and the resulting carcass has long been used in Chinese Medicine. Known as dong chong xia cao, it is considered the perfect combination of Yin and Yang, since it’s both animal and vegetable. It has been used to treat everything from acne to cancer.

I’m not sure if I could ingest an aweto. I think would be reluctant to let one poor creature‘s misfortune cure my own.


The Worst Earthquake in New Zealand History

Tuesday, 12 September 1893
Wellington, New Zealand

Today I visited the historic Basin Reserve Cricket Grounds dating back to 1866. Imagine my luck when I found a game starting. By the small size of the crowd of spectators this was obviously not an important match, but cricket is cricket.

Basin Reserve Cricket Grounds as it appears in 1893
I was sitting next to an elderly chap who turned out to be quite talkative. I love these sort of people and let them talk and record what they say. They are treasure troves of historic information. And I don’t have to worry about influencing them since they aren’t interested in what I have to say.

He introduced himself as Charlie Crawford. Said he had come here back in 1850 from Liverpool with his wife, Abigail.

“My word! You must have seen a lot in the building of Wellington.”

“Sure have. Why I remember when this cricket grounds was a lake.”

“A lake? Why did they fill it in? They could have lake a lovely park around it and let people row in it.”

“City didn’t fill it in. Mother Nature did.”

I looked up at Mount Victoria next to the grounds. “A landslide?”

“No, it was the Big One back in 1855. The Wairarapa Earthquake. The biggest ruddy quake to ever hit. Raised the earth up and the lake became a swamp. Before that the city was planning to connect the lake to the harbor with a canal so ships could come in for shipping. Everyone nipped that idea after the quake. Decided to make a cricket grounds instead. They had the inmates over in the jail come and drain it.”

“Land must have raised quite a bit.”

“And how! If you go down to the harbor you’ll see docks that don’t reach the water. The shoreline was raised. The city did get a bonus when the quake drained the nearby swamps and gave us more land.”

“You were in Wellington during the quake?”

“I’ll say. Scariest night of my life. It was the middle of summer, 23 January, a little after nine in the evening. The city had just spent two days celebrating the founding of the town. We were all dead tired. Abigail and I put the children to bed and I was reading to her Dickens while she knitted.

“All of a sudden the house began to move like waves on the sea. Pictures came hopping off the walls. Our chairs overturned and the chimney came through the roof! Abigail screamed, poor dear. They say it only lasted fifty seconds, but it seemed like hours. I crawled over to the missus. She was all right, just terrified. Then we heard the kids crying. Abigail forgot her fear and we both ran for their rooms. Thank the All-Mighty Lord, children were fine. Then the house shook again.”

“I yelled at Abigail to get her and the children out of the house. We didn’t need it crashing down on us. We grabbed blankets and tots, and ran outside into the street. We weren’t the only ones there. All our neighbors looked liked the devil himself was chasing them. All the chimneys I could see had come down. One neighbors house had come right off the foundation.

Wellington's shoreline about 1860
that beach was not there before the 1855 earthquake
“We all spent the night, huddled in the street. About the time we figured it was over, another aftershock would come. Newspaper reported over 200 in eleven hours! Forty homes collapsed. At least we weren’t down by the shore. When the shoreline raised all that water had to go somewhere. Houses down there had three feet of water in them. There were lots of landslides all around us. Biggest one was in the Hutt Valley. They say the quake measured 8.2 on the Richter Scale.”

Watercolour by Charles Emilius Gold,
shows a landslide left by the 1855 quake at the Hutt Valley.
I recalled lesser New Zealand quakes where hundreds had died. The 2011 Christchurch Earthquake was 6.3 with 166 dead. The 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake was 7.8 and took 258. What would a quake of 8.2 magnitude do? “I hesitate to ask, but what was the death toll?”



“In Wellington anyway. Took Baron Alzdorf, one of our pioneers. Had one of the few brick buildings at the time. Collapsed on the poor fellow. Now I heard a house in the nearby village of Wairarapa fell in and killed some poor Maori family, so the total really might be five, maybe eight.”

“Was Wellington that small?”

“There were 6,000 people here at the time.”

“And only a handful of casualties? My word! You were lucky.”

“Don’t think I don’t know that.”

“What of the aftermath? With all the homeless desperate people, you must have had a lot of looting.”

“None of that, sir. We all took care of each other. Even the ships at anchor were offering shelter to the homeless or those to nervous to go back into their houses. Made me proud of this town, let me tell you.”

“I guess that explains why there are so few brick buildings in Wellington.” In the Victorian Age, it seems every town I visit had a horrible fire and rebuilt in brick or stone.

“Yes, sir. Wellington might be afraid of fire, but we’re more afraid of earthquakes.”

I looked out over the peaceful scene of lads playing cricket, with the city in the background, trying to imagine that horrific night. I’m still amazed that much devastation took so few lives.


One Giant Leap for Womankind

Friday, 8 September 1893 - Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand women marching for suffrage
The right to vote is something all women in the 27th century take for granted, but that is not how it is in the Victorian Age. Many men in this time seem to think that a smaller size body means a smaller brain, and that women are unable to understand politics. (Of course, does anyone really understand politics?)

The Victorian Age is the Age of Change, however. All over the world women are beginning to question the status quo and demanding their rights. And contrary to the brute we too often paint the Victorian male as, many intelligent men are getting their point.

Today I posed as a freelance journalist to record a turning point in that struggle. On this day the New Zealand Parliament made history by deciding women had the right to vote, making them the first modern nation to do so. (I have to say “modern” because many “primitive” peoples let women help select chiefs, proving themselves more enlightened than their “civilized” counterparts.)

Sir John Hall
At the head of the Parliament supporters for Women’s Suffrage is Sir John Hall, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and now Member of Parliament. He is nearly 70 and a staunch conservative. He argues that the ladies will make a sober, sensible and conservative voting block. They will be thinking not of their own gain but for the future good of New Zealand and their children.

Kate Sheppard
However, Sir John is merely the liaison for the movement. The real driving force is Kate Sheppard, a housewife from Christchurch. Her true vocation is social reform. She helped Anne Ward, the wife of Judge Dudley Ward, start to New Zealand Women’s Temperance Union, to try to stop the epidemic alcoholism that is rampant in this age. Men drink up their wages in pubs, then come home and beat the wife when she asks how she’s going to feed the children. The horror stories are too common.

The ladies quickly found out that without the vote, they could do little to change the laws. So this conservative group took on the radical cause of Women’s Suffrage. Mrs. Sheppard, knowing this was bigger than the Temperance Movement, made it a separate cause to bring in women outside the Union. She turned out to be a very moving speaker and gifted organizer and has gotten many to rally around the cause.

The first page of the Petition
(click to enlarge)
In 1891 Kate Sheppard and the Temperance Union presented a petition to New Zealand Parliament to give women the vote. It was voted down. Undaunted she came back with a larger petition the next year. Again rejected. This year she has collected 30, 853 signatures. She took all the petition sheets and glued them together, rolling it around a broomstick to create a giant scroll. You should have seen the looks on the Members of Parliament faces when John Hall brought in the scroll in a wheelbarrow. He then rolled the scroll out, down the center of the debating chamber. There was still enough left to hit the end wall with a resounding thump.

The bill passed the House of Representatives with a wide margin. It still has to go through the 38 men of the Legislative Council where it will squeak through. It will be found out later that Premier Richard Seddon will order one of his Liberal Party councilors to change his vote to a “Neh.” Two other councilors, enraged by his interference will change their own votes to a “Yea,” allowing the bill to pass 20 to 18. Later the Liberal Party will take bows for giving women the vote.

On 19 September, Governor Lord Glasgow will give Royal Assent, making the bill a law. Women will vote for the first time on 28 November. Although women cannot be elected to the House of Representatives until 1919, this year Elizabeth Yates will be elected the Mayor of Onehunga, making her the first woman mayor in the British Empire. And in just a little over a hundred years, in 1997, New Zealand will have a woman Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, leading the nation.

There was quite a cheer from the crowd of ladies outside when then were given the good news. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the exuberant women--everything from little girls to elderly matrons, society women standing next to scullery maids, Europeans and Maori alike--as they laughed, cried and hugged each other. It is more than just a vote to them. Their government is acknowledging that they are members of society.

Hats off to you, fine ladies of New Zealand. Bravo!

The Kate Sheppard Memorial
 in Christchurch, NZ by Margriet Windhausen
showing the leaders of the movement (left to right)
Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Taitokerau, who requested the vote for women from the Kotahitanga Maori Parliament.
Amey Daldy, a foundation member of the Auckland WCTU and president of the Auckland Franchise League.
Kate Sheppard of Christchurch, the leader of the suffrage campaign.
Ada Wells of Christchurch who campaigned vigorously for equal educational opportunities for girls and women.
Harriet Morison of Dunedin, vice president of the Tailoresses’ Union and a powerful advocate for working women.
Helen Nicol who pioneered the women’s franchise campaign in Dunedin.
and of course the famous petition in the wheelbarrow.

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage Around the World


The Last Place of Earth

5 September 1893 - Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand is truly unique. It’s nearest neighbor is Australia, and yet it’s far enough away to make it seem a world away. The country is only a little smaller than Britain so it’s hardly a small group of tiny islands like the rest of the South Pacific nations. In fact it’s so far south, it feels like it’s in the north. It seems more like Europe...only a weird alien sort of Europe.

New Zealand circa 1890
(click on to enlarge)
New Zealand is made of two major islands--called the North Island and South Island, to make it easy for everyone. The Islands have been isolated for 80 million years. Since that time New Zealand has spent 23 million years with only 18% of her present surface above water and has suffered numerous upheavals from earthquakes and volcanoes. Most of her flora and fauna arrived here by air or sea. Her only mammals are three species of bats, and sea mammals like seals and whales. This lack of mammals has allowed the bird population to dominate--more than one species losing need for flight. Many of the plants and animals in New Zealand cannot be found anywhere else.

Humans only arrived here 1250 A.D., making it the last place on Earth colonized by people (not counting tiny atolls and the Antarctic, of course.) Perhaps it’s not surprising that it was that most adventurous and sea-faring savvy of folks, the Polynesians. However they were expecting the usual tropical paradise they knew and instead found a temperate land. It was a bit like telling a bunch of Hawaiians to pack for Fiji and then dumping them in Switzerland. Their clothing was inadequate and most of their crops could not survive here. But the Polynesians are tough and adaptable. They not only survived but flourished, creating the unique Maori culture.

The first European to discover New Zealand was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. He also discovered the fierce Maori and quickly left after losing four crewmen. The Dutch never returned, but named the place Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. It wasn’t until 1769, that the next European showed up--British explorer, James Cook. He couldn’t think of a better name, so anglicised the Latin name to New Zealand. For awhile only whalers and traders used the island as a convenient stopover. They traded with the Maori for provisions bringing muskets and potatoes. (Both were eagerly adopted.) The Europeans also brought foreign diseases, decreasing the native population to 40%.

Maori village
 As I mentioned before, the Maori are tough and adaptable. In 1835, when France announced they were going to colonize the islands, the Maori put down their muskets and quit warring with each other, to create the United Tribes of New Zealand. They sent the British king, William IV, a Declaration of Independence, asking for his protection. The British, not wanting the French to grab anything if they could help it, quickly signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840.

The treaty may have given the British an excuse to takeover, but it also made the Maori full citizens of the British Empire with equal rights, giving them a foot up from most indigenous folks in the 1800s. Not that the Maori haven’t had land taken away or been treated shabbily. In a few years in 1896, the Maori will only number 42,000. However they will rebound and thrive over the next century.

After New Zealand became an official British colony, immigrants began pouring in from the British Isles, as well as other countries. Despite this it’s young age, the country is blossoming. In 1870 the population was about 250,00. Now it is probably around 700,000. And it will be nearly four million by the end of the twentieth century.

Wellington Panorama (1890) by E.A. Cockerell
  I’m currently in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand since 1865, when it was moved from Auckland. It was nothing personal, mind you. Wellington was just closer to the middle of the country and Auckland was way up north. The city is still a bit rough around the edges as the frontier town is quickly being replaced with a modern city. All part of its charm.

There is an excitement in the air one can feel. Most people here are immigrants, or at least the children of immigrants. It‘s a new land of new beginnings where anything is possible!

The Kiwi
The national bird of New Zealand
as well as proud nickname for New Zealanders