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Publication details Title: The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period
Author: James Cowan
R. E. Owen, Wellington
Part of: New Zealand Wars (1845-1872) Collection
From New Zealand Electronic Text Centre


THERE ARE SOME bays in the South Pacific on whose shores wild history has been made-strands saturate with a hundred romantic, adventurous, and tragic memories. Pre-eminently one of these is the beach of Apia, in Samoa; another, steeped almost as deeply in early-days legend and war-time history, is Kororareka, Bay of Islands. From the dawn of civilized enterprise on our coasts we hear of Kororareka and its fleets of whalers at anchor, its Maori "ship-girls," its gun-play between quarrelsome native hapus, and its all-pervading flavour of licence and lawlessness; this period of pagan freedom followed by an unwilling reformation under the influence of reputable settlers and the British flag, a brief day of importance as the capital of the new-made colony, and the final debacle when the flagstaff on its sentry hill was laid in dust and the blockhouses and grog-shops alike went up in flames. Kororareka-the modern Russell-remains to-day a place apart, curiously little advanced, at any rate in population, by the passage of three-quarters of a century, and shorn of its ancient commercial glory; a sedate, pretty seaside township where the round of life in a delicious climate is seldom disturbed by intrusive shipping. The pervading air, a half-regretful recollection of a red-blooded past, is reminiscent of some of the old gold-digging towns on the coast of Westland.

The old landmarks are readily to be picked out. A modern flagstaff stands on the exact spot on Maiki Hill, 300 feet above us yonder, where Hone Heke, Haratua, and their kin four times felled the British signal-mast. The steep hills behind the little town are still clothed for the most part in manuka and fern as they were in Heke's day, with an immigrant admixture of gorse and sweetbrier. The old English church, with its marks of cannon-shot, still stands in the burying-ground around whose fence Kawiti fought the British bluejackets in 1845.

Let us picture something of the aspect of Kororareka Beach in the war-brewing "forties." This straggling town, its single street fitting itself closely to the rim of the gravelly beach, is a mingling of pakeha and Maori architecture. One- and two-storied weatherboard stores and publichouses have for close neighbours thatched whares of slab and fern, tree-trunk and raupo. Near the southern end of the beach is a Maori village enclosed by a palisade of split trees and manuka stakes. There is no jetty; the boats of men-o'-war whalers, and trading craft alike are hauled up on the beach. Over in the north cove by Waipara Spring two boats' crews from an American whaleship are towing off a string of water-casks roped together. Out in the bay lie half a dozen deep-sea vessels, most of them New Bedford whale-hunters; nearer the beach sundry fore-and-afters, schooner- or cutter-rigged, swing to an anchor; one or two of these are owned and sailed by Maoris, for the East Coast native is not only a first-rate sailor, but is beginning to taste the pleasures and profits of shipowning. Natives in their blankets and mats lounge on the beach-edge, dozing, smoking, or arguing in the vociferous manner of the Maori. Ngapuhi girls, barefooted and bareheaded, well plumped-out of figure, swing up and down the roadway flaunting the print gowns and the brightly coloured "roundabouts" and the glittering ear-rings bought with the dollars of the sailormen. Some of them are lately from the mission stations, maybe, but the temptations of Kororareka and the whaleships are irresistible. Many a native wears a little metal cross or a crucifix about his neck, or a figure of the Virgin hung by a black ribbon or tape from one ear, balancing a shark's tooth or a greenstone in the other-for the Catholic religion, newly come to the Bay, is highly popular, and Bishop Pompallier numbers his converts by the hundred. Most of the able-bodied men, tall athletes with tattooed faces, are armed. You see a party of young bloods spring ashore from a canoe, in from one of Pomare's, Heke's, or Kawiti's pas up the harbour, and observe that every man has his short-handled tomahawk, brightly polished of blade, thrust through his flax girdle just over the hip or at the small of the back; he would no more stir from home without it than a Far West plainsman of the old days would move abroad without his six-shooter. Many also carry their flint-lock guns, which they call ngutu-parera ("duck-bill"-from the shape of the hammer); and note, too, the new percussion-cap gun, double-barrelled, which the Maori is able to obtain from Sydney trading craft, while his antagonist soon-to-be, the British soldier, must for some years yet be content with the ancient musket.

Whaleship watches on shore leave make lively business in the bar-rooms over their rum and ale. The captains have the parlours, sacred to the quarter-deck, and there they sit over their Scotch whisky or their cognac or squareface exchanging the news of all the seas, and relating their whale-fishing successes and misadventures

Kororareka, Bay of Islands

This drawing, from a sketch by Captain Clayton, of Kororareka, 10th March, 1845, shows the town as it was on the day before its destruction by Hone Heke and Kawiti.

from the Aleutians to Foveaux Strait and from the Japan coast to the Kermadecs. Hard old tyrants some of these whaling skippers, from Nantucket, or New Bedford, or Martha's Vineyard, or Boston, Mass.; of all sailors they are the monarchs absolute; their cruises last for years, and their crews they hold by the strong hand, and good rewards to the natives for the capture of deserters. Raffish-looking crews they captain. No two men wear clothes alike; some have blue monkey-jackets and duck trousers, some are in the dungarees of shipboard work; their headgear is a study in the variety of forecastle-made caps of canvas, Scotch caps, tarpaulins, and shapeless hats of patched cloth. Lean, hard-worked hunters of the world's biggest game; harpooners, and oarsmen, and blubber-flenchers from all the seafaring countries of the world: long-limbed, drawling men of the New England States; coal-black darkies from Jamaica; half-breed Indians from the State of Maine; piratical ear-ringed Portuguese-negroid nondescripts from the Azores and Cape de Verde Islands; brisk Irish lads unmistakable; and here and there a sturdy man of Kent or Devon who has run perhaps from a British man-of-war with a flogging captain and found worse than the "cat" in the oil-soaked whaler.

Follow the stores-buying captain or chief officer of the "Levi Starbuck" into one of the weatherboard trading-houses, blue with strong tobacco smoke and thick with the tang of tarred rope. This interior is a typical South Sea warehouse; the proprietor is ship-chandler, sea-stock dealer, ironmonger and gunsmith, grog-seller, gunpowder-purveyor, and a dozen other trades. He can provide a ship with anchor and cable, or set the Maoris on the track of Captain Ephraim J. Nye's runaway boat-steerer with admirable despatch; provide a 300-ton barque with a complete new set of sails or sufficient muskets and ammunition to conquer a cannibal island. There are blankets, prints, red sealing-wax, tomahawks, bullet-moulds, iron pots, tobacco by the cask, for the Maori trade; sugar and molasses and rum from the West Indies; salt beef and pork and adamant biscuit for sea-fare; sou'-westers, cutting-in spades, harpoon-line by the hundred fathom, lance-heads, charts, binnacle lanterns, spy-glasses, and boat-compasses; pistols and knuckle-dusters for the afterguard, holystones and squeejees and coal-tar to keep the fists of the 'foremast hands out of mischief.

Now board one of those whaleships lying out yonder at an easy anchor-the ships that made this Bay of Islands famous-and you shall see the most conservative of all craft afloat. While every other phase of sea-life and every other kind of ship has changed out of all likeness to the olden type, the sailing whaler does not alter. Step into the stern-sheets of one of those beautifully modelled carvel-built whaleboats with the tobacco-chewing New England mate standing at the 22-foot steer-oar. See how the crew of five stretch back to it with their ash oars-the long, full stroke of the true whaleman, who will have none of your quick and jerky Navy oarsmanship. A few of those long strokes and we are clambering up a rope ladder on to the white-scrubbed decks of a ship as clean as a yacht for all her greasy trade. The pervading but not unpleasant smell of oil, the stuff that permeates her every timber and fills half the casks in her hold; the rows of sharp-ended 30-foot boats at her cranes and davits; the leather- or canvas-covered harpoons and lances whose long shafts project from each boat; the barrel slung as a crow's-nest at her maintopgallant-masthead-these all proclaim her calling. But there is something more about her that tokens her a ship apart from all others, this barque "Narwhal," or "Levi Starbuck," "Canton Packet," "Pocahontas," or "Charles W. Morgan," or however she may be named. The bluff-bowed square-sterned craft, with her sides all hung with boats painted light blue like the sea, has an indescribable air of having been out of the world for years and years. The whale-hunter under canvas seems almost part of the sea, so long are the absences from port, so habituated the crews to the ways of the great deep.

In such a craft as this Herman Melville sails sperm-whale chasing at the time of our narrative; it is from just such a barque as the "Charles W. Morgan" or the "Awashonks" that he deserts to find the beautiful valley of Taipi and to give the world an undying true romance of the South Seas. The "Little Jule" of his Marquesan and Tahitian adventures, or the ivory-garnished "Pequod" of "Moby Dick, may "veritably be one of these far-roving barques that ride at the quiet anchorages of Kororareka and Wahapu this year 1845.

If you are privileged to explore the wrinkled canvas-backed charts to look into the captain's log-book you will see curious symbols that belong to the whale-fishing trade alone. The pencilled zigzag lines of the vessel's cruising course across the Pacific are punctuated every here and there with rough drawings of a whale's flukes, or the head of a great sperm bull, or maybe a school of porpoises. Each pictograph tells a tale of oil-getting, or of "drawn irons" and a lost whale; perhaps now and again a boat lost. Each emblem of a "kill" is figured with the numbers of barrels obtained. "Dirty work for clean money": sperm-oil these years of 1840-50 rises steadily until it is worth a dollar a gallon, and bone from the "right" whale is quoted at £200 per ton in New York.

Observe that all these merchant ships are armed, some with a single iron carronade or a brass gun on each side, some with whole broadsides of four or six guns, 9-pounders and 12-pounders. Yonder taut-masted brig, a trader from Hobart Town, has a swivel gun on her poop as well as a whole battery on her main deck; she is lately in from a sandalwooding cruise to the New Hebrides and New Caledonia and a voyage to China, and she has used her guns against Western Pacific cannibals and Canton pirates. The merchant sailor of 1845 had to be gunner too; and it is aboard these traders and whalers that some of our young Ngapuhi, making a voyage for the love of adventure and the open sea-road, have learned to load, lay, and fire artillery, a science that is to be of use presently to their war-chief Heke.

Such were some of the distinguishing features of Kororareka Bay in the early years of British sovereignty. The visits of whaleships were all-important, for it was almost solely with them that the business of the white dealers and the Maori barterers lay. In 1845 there were more than six hundred American ships and barques engaged in whale-fishing, and of these a considerable number visited New Zealand annually; and English, French, Sydney, and Hobart whalers also frequented the coast. Mr. John Webster, of Hokianga, related in his reminiscences that when he landed at Russell Town from Sydney on the 1st May, 1841, there were over twenty whaling-ships in the Bay, and the beach was alive with seamen and their officers. It was the season when all the whalers put in for provisions and to fit out for another year's chase of the sperm and the "right" whale. But the number of visitors quickly lessened when the Governor in Council imposed a Customs tariff on the stable articles of trade, thus making the port highly expensive for the whalemen; and, as will be shown, this falling-off in trade created annoyance and resentment in the Maori mind.

The white population of Kororareka in its days of prosperity was about a thousand; by 1845 this number had fallen to some four hundred. In 1842 the town even supported a newspaper, the Bay of Islands Observer, a four-page weekly sold for a shilling. Traders' advertisements in this paper give us an insight into the commercial life of the place, and enable us to picture scenes in the 'longshore stores, with their curious variety of goods stocked for maritime and Maori customers. Thomas Spicer, "Kororareka Beach," announced that he had for sale such articles as "duck frocks and trousers, muslin dresses, assorted prints, fine Congo tea, fine French capers, iron pots, tobacco, salt, shovels and spades, tomahawks, cartouche-boxes, superfine beaver hats, and crockery." C. J. Cook and Co. informed the public that they dealt in ironmongery, blankets, tea, sugar, tobacco, policemen's lanterns, umbrellas, spittoons, sealing-wax, escutcheons, solar lamps, shot, powder, tinder-boxes, salt pork, "and all other necessary commodities." At Wahapu an American, Captain William Mayhew-one of the foreign residents from whom Hone Heke received political inspiration-conducted a large store in which he stocked, among other necessities of life, gunpowder in casks and canisters, flour, tar, anchors, butter, cheese, shot, dungaree, sealskin caps, silk hats, French bedsteads, double-barrelled flint-lock guns, single- and double-barrelled percussion guns, ploughs, pit-saws, blankets, slop clothes, and sarsaparilla.

There was a "Kororareka Observatory." William Robertson, who owned this establishment advertised repairs to timekeepers, and added: "Commanders of vessels may have their chronometers rated by transit observations and an astronomical clock kept at Greenwich mean time."

In 1842 the falling-off in maritime trade was already marked; nevertheless, many ship-commanders preferred Kororareka to more populous ports. Small fleets of square-riggers made for the bay in the off-season; for example, in two days (4th and 5th May) in 1842 four American whaleships-the "Triad," "Caledonia," "Washington," and "Fanny"-arrived at Kororareka, bringing in their holds, as the result of their cruises in the Pacific, takes totalling 6,550 barrels of oil and 51,000 lb. of bone. The New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator of September, 1844, said: "The receipts at the Bay of Islands from furnishing supplies to whalers averaged for several years about £45,000 annually, and now this trade is nearly extinct." Up to the date of Heke's War, however, the number of whaling-vessels using Russell and Wahapu as ports of refitting and refreshing was still considerable. Captain McKeever, of the United States warship "St. Louis," writing from the Bay of Islands, 13th March, 1845, to the Secretary of the Navy at Washington, said: "Of the high importance of the Bay of Islands to our whalesmen, and of the great value of American interest involved here (there being no less than seventy or eighty of the whalers touching and refitting annually), I presume you are well aware, and I am safe probably in saying that no other port or harbour in the world competes with it in its importance to the American whaling interests." The Bay of Islands, indeed, was regularly visited for water, wood, and stores, and for the shipping of oil, until, in the final days of the American Civil War, the Confederate commerce-destroying cruiser " Shenandoah" left a trail of burning New England whaleships across the Pacific; and even in the "nineties" I have seen an occasional whaling-barque, such as the "Gayhead," of New Bedford, lying at anchor at Russell, boating off her water-casks, as in the early days, from the perennial spring of Waipara.