Headed ‘Kawau 12th May 1876’ (his birthday), Peter McDonald's manuscript autobiography begins: ‘Having this day entered on my seventy-seventh year I intend to make a few observations on my pass'd life – not that there is anything very particular to be found in these observations but it will help to pass away my idle times and may perhaps enable some other individuals to do the same.’
Born in Glasgow in 1800, McDonald completed his formal schooling at age eleven, but he never lost his readiness to learn and to tackle new experiences. As a young man he worked in a variety of retailing jobs (oil and paint, wine and spirits, food co-operatives). Later he became a clerk for Scottish geologist John Craig, who was interested at one point in surveying mineral deposits in New Zealand. Although Craig eventually decided venturing into the Antipodes, McDonald thought he would try his luck. With his wife Margaret and their three small children, he joined the migrants sailing for New Zealand from Greenock aboard the Jane Gifford. They arrived in Auckland in October 1842.
In his Autobiography, with a shaky grasp of the spellings of Māori words, McDonald recalls his first impressions of the young settlement: ‘Auckland was a queer wee town when we arrived there in 1842. The houses were few and built of wood or rahapoo very frail tenements indeed - The tide made its way up Queen street by two different creeks one of these went in by what is now the Bank of New Zealand and a few large Pohoutukaw[a] trees stood where the back walls of the Bank now stands- the other creek up Queen St in what was called Ligar's Canal… There was a long rickety wooden Bridge by which people passed from Shortland St to West Queen St.’
In 1845 McDonald accepted a job in the copper mines of Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. He was based on the island for the rest of his life, working as a vegetable gardener, fisherman and schoolmaster as well as a miner. After his death in 1879, his papers were passed on to Kawau's most eminent resident, Sir George Grey, and thereafter to the Library. As well as the Autobiography, they include McDonald's diaries from the 1850s, his ‘thoughts on old age’ and several manuscript poems.