The story of ‘Black Peter’: the Indian pioneer behind Otago’s gold rush

Before the 1880s, Indians were not identified in Census records. Their presence was simply “noted”, and one of them went by the name of Edward Peters (or “Black Peter”, as some would nickname him) – an Anglo-Indian settler who many claim was the first to strike gold in Otago between 1958 and 1959.

If these claims were true, Peters would be the catalyst behind Otago’s gold rush of the 1860s, having discovered the precious metal in the region more than two years before Australian Gabriel Read. Some historians believe that, although Read is credited with discovering gold at Tuapeka in Otago, it was actually Peters who told him where to look.

Time to put the record straight?

According to records, Edward Peters was born in Mumbai (Bombay at the time). Not much is known about his life before he arrived in New Zealand, but according to some accounts, he might have spent some time chasing gold in California.

Peters landed in Otago around 1953 as a cook on the sailing ship Maori. After jumping ship, he turned himself to the police and spent the required six weeks in jail, before heading south to work on sheep farms. Sometimes, he and other shephers moved sheep across the Tokomairiro River, and as the story goes, one of these expeditions changed the course of history.

In 1958, while the party was camping along the river’s banks, Peters decided to pan for gold while cleaning up the dishes. He found enough to make a gold ring, which is now on display at the Otago Settlers Museum. But here’s where things get tricky.

In 1861, a Tasmanian gold prospector and farmer, who had apparently learned about Peters’ find, sailed to Otago on board the Don Pedro II. The man was Gabriel Read, and only a few months later, he struck gold along the banks of the Tuapeka River, in what is now known as Gabriel’s Gully (pictured below, then and today). Some say Peters and Read met by chance after an expedition, and Peters naively told him where to find it. Others believe Read simply heard about the location indirectly. Or maybe, it was just all a coincidence.

Be that as it may, it was Read, and not Peters, who won a £1000 reward from the Otago Provincial Council for his find. It was Read who wrote to Otago Superintendent John Richardson to confirm the discovery that sparked the Otago Gold Rush. And again, it was Read’s name – not Peters’ – that ended up in history books.

But over the years, attempts have been made to debunk the myth. In 1885, a petition was presented to Parliament requesting that Peters’ milestone be recognised. Following the dismissal of the petition by a parliamentary committee, the local community quickly raised money to provide Peters with a pension until his death in 1893.

In 2009 – on the 150th anniversary of Edward’s gold discovery – the Glenore Manuka Trust erected a monument in his honour (pictured below). “He never ever got the recognition, anything of note, so we are just helping put that right,” said Glenore Manuka Trust chairman Alan Williams, who also wrote a book about Peters’ story.

Racism and local politics may have downplayed Peters’ findings, but it looks like it’s never too late to put the record straight.