The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 7 (October 1, 1935)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 31 — Mr. S. Percy Smith — Pioneer Surveyor, Explorer, Ethnologist and Historian
Famous New Zealanders
Mr. S. Percy Smith
Pioneer Surveyor, Explorer, Ethnologist and Historian.
No colonist of New Zealand lived a more useful pioneer life than Stephenson Percy Smith, who began his career as a surveyor in bush-clad Taranaki and ended his long public service as Surveyor-General. He came out from England with his parents when a child; he was an explorer of the interior of the North Island before he reached his twenties; he was acting for the Government in diplomatic Maori negotiations while still a very young man; he served in that pioneer battle-corps of the Empire's volunteers, the Taranaki Rifles, and he carried out survey duty under fire in the Hauhau War in South Taranaki. A survey party in his day was often a kind of military outpost. Mr. Smith was often entrusted by the Government with special State duties for which his Maori knowledge, his cool, judicial mind and his scientific tastes qualified him. He was our great pioneer Maori-Polynesian historian and ethnologist, blazing the way of knowledge as he has so often blazed the trail in the Maori forest. He was a man greatly beloved for his spirit of kindly helpfulness, and honoured for his great labours in the cause of a fuller knowledge of our Maori race and its origins.
Some of New Zealand's pioneer surveyors and explorers began their hard self-reliant life at an age when very many modern youths are still at college. Scientific education is so severe and complex in its requirements in these days that the period of instruction is necessarily prolonged.
But the professional man of our early settlement era had to set to at his practical work early and pick up his theory and his book science in his spare time. The surveyor and engineer, who played so important a part in the making of the nation, was early tested in the hard school of exploration and camp life in a perfectly wild land. The late Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson, the discoverer of Arthur's Pass, was barely twenty-two when he undertook the truly herculean task of surveying a great area of the Westland Coast and interior.
Stephenson Percy Smith was carrying out Government surveys in the all but unknown lands of the Northern Wairoa and Kaipara—unknown to all but the Kauri timber getters and traders—and parleying with Maori tribes when he was only twenty. Charles Wilson Hursthouse was about the same age when he began the Government survey of the Waitara block that led to the first Taranaki War. Such sturdy youthful pioneers developed very early the qualities of independence and the command of men.
Taranaki's Young Adventurers.
A year before the great geologist-explorers Hochstetler and von Haast travelled through the heart of the North Island as far as Taupo and the thermal regions, young Percy Smith and a party of four other Taranaki lads made an even more arduous and adventurous journey. His companions were Charles Wilson Hursthouse, his fellow-cadet in the Survey Office in New Plymouth (who became, forty years afterwards, Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges for the Dominion), F. Murray, J. McKellar, and H. Standish—all family names of note in Taranaki's history. They set out from New Plymouth at the beginning of 1858 on a trip of pleasure and exploration through the interior, a tour that lasted two months, and in the course of which they walked 500 miles, canoed fifty and rode on horseback 60 miles. The distances do not seem great in this easy motoring age, but it was a solid test of fitness and endurance of body and spirit in the early times. They carried their swags of food and blankets (weighing forty pounds each when they set out); they took a gun for shooting birds for food, but no other arms or munitions except that staple article of currency among the Maoris, tobacco.
They left New Plymouth on January 4, 1858, beginning a hard but glorious excursion by walking up the Coast to Mokau Heads, and paddling and poling up that rapid-whitened forest waterway in a canoe hired from the Maoris. They tramped from Motu-Karamu, nearly fifty miles up the river, through the ranges and valleys and swamps to the south end of Lake Taupo. There, at Mr. Grace's mission at Pukawa, and at the chief Iwikau Te Heuheu's pa close by, the young trampers were hospitably welcomed. “A good old man” was Smith's description of the chief in his narrative of the journey. From the Taupo country the party walked to Rotomahana and Tarawera; a memory of that wonder-region pilgrimage is a sketch from Percy Smith's pencil—one of many historic little drawings—of Rotomahana lake with its two pretty islets; places of primitive Maori life that vanished in the thunder of a bursting world in 1886. Returning to Taupo, the hard-faring tourists trudged through the Tongariro-Ruapehu country and down to the Rangitikei and Wanganui, and so on up the Coast—the last stage on horseback, to their vast satisfaction —to their homes.
Sketching While the Bullets Flew.
The period 1858–59 was one of Maori warfare in the district between the Bell Block (Hua) and the Waitara. The land-selling faction and the Land League, which was opposed to sales, fought each other bitterly and the Government professed itself powerless to stop the fray. Europeans were safe; the Maoris were careful not to interfere with the settlers. Fortifications were built by both sides. Young Percy Smith saw a good deal of the guerilla warfare. On March 10, 1858, he and Mr. Parris, Civil Commissioner in charge of Native Affairs, rode from New Plymouth to the Waitara to watch the combat. Smith, in his capacity of surveyor and topographer, made sketches under fire of the stockades occupied by Ihaia te Kiri-Kumara (the supporter of the Governor and land-selling), and Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake, the leader of Maori nationality. “Plenty of bullets flying over my head while sketching,” Mr. Smith wrote in his diary.
Surveyor and Diplomat.
Mr. Smith very early in life was called upon to exercise his qualities of wisdom, command and tact in dealing with Maori affairs. He was for most of his official life a kind of Native Commissioner as well as surveyor. He was not yet twenty-one years old when he was despatched by the Government to the Kaipara district in order to enlist the assistance of the Ngati-Whatua tribe against the Waikato tribes, who were reported to be preparing for an attack on the town of Auckland. He had been engaged in surveying newly purchased Government land in the Kaipara and Northern Wairoa, and after several months’ work there he had returned to Auckland, when he received instructions to go back to the district with all possible speed and bring down the Ngati-Whatua (the kindred of the Orakei residents) to come to the defence of the city, as most of the British troops were in Taranaki.
“As I knew the people well by this time,” Mr. Smith wrote in his diary narrative of the mission, “it was thought I was the best messenger to fetch them. On the 4th April, 1860, an hour after receiving my instructions, I was away up the Waitemata with three Maoris on this business. We travelled on over the portage through the night, arriving at Kapoai, a native village on the Upper Kaipara, at 3 a.m., and as soon as the tide served, started down the river for the Wairoa. The natives had all gone to Te Kopuru, where I found them all encamped. In addition to about four hundred Ngati-Whatua, there were some two hundred Ngapuhi (the two tribes were engaged in peace-making). They had built a square of temporary huts and tents with a large open space in the centre for speeches and war-dances.
“As soon as I arrived I was seated on a stool in the centre of this square (the marae), where the letter from the Government was read, and I had to explain the necessity for the Auckland [Orakei] tribes returning at once to assist in the defence of the city. But they did not appear in any hurry, and declared that they could not leave until they had concluded the peace with Ngapuhi all of which was very annoying to me, as I had to impress them to make all haste back. Otherwise, this great meeting was very interesting to me, for it was held with all the formality of ancient times — long speeches, war-dances, and all kinds of old ceremonies, not the least interesting of which was the hari-tuku-kai, or songs and dances of the young women page 24 as they advanced into the square, bringing the baskets of food held in their hands above their heads. My tent was pitched in the square, and generally one of the chiefs sat with me to explain the meaning of the various speeches and ceremonies.
“It was not until the 11th that peace was made and we all left, the Ngapuhi going up the river and the rest of us down stream to Tauhara; and a very fine sight it was to see our flotilla of about thirty boats and several fine war-canoes under sail. We were detained there by bad weather until the 18th, for the crossing inside Kaipara Heads is only to be undertaken in fine weather; it is so dangerous a place owing to the heavy seas which get up. It was not until the 20th that we arrived in town, and then most of my relieving force had melted away. Luckily the Waikato tribes had changed their minds and gone home, and so ended my urgent trip to fetch help to Auckland.
“Had the necessity arisen there is no doubt the Ngati-Whatua tribe would willingly have fought against their old enemies the Waikato. And, moreover, this tribe felt a kind of responsibility for the safety of the pakeha, for after a great meeting at Okahu (Orakei), on Auckland Harbour, they had sent an emissary to the Bay of Islands, to Governor Hobson, inviting him to occupy their country on the isthmus of Auckland and form his seat of Government there. It was not entirely an unselfish offer on their part, for the Tamaki Isthmus had been the constant highway of hostile war-parties both from north and south for ages past, and they thought that if they could get the white man to settle there these hostile incursions would cease, which in fact they did, for ever. In these raids Ngati - Whatua always suffered.”
Surveying Under Fire.
During the Sixties Mr. Smith was chiefly employed as a district surveyor in Taranaki. The surveyors engaged in subdivision work for settlement and laying out roads and townships carried out their duties under adventurous and often very perilous conditions. In 1866–67 he and several other surveyors were busy cutting up country for settlement between the Waingongoro and Waito-tara Rivers, including the land where the towns of Hawera and Patea and Waverley now stand. This country had recently been confiscated from the Maoris in punishment for what was called by the pakeha rebellion, and by the Maori, fighting for their rights and nationality. As a state of war existed at the time and the land was held only by virtue of the rifle, survey work had to be carried out under military service conditions. Mr. Smith and his fellow surveyors and their men were given covering parties of Military Settlers and Constabulary for their protection.
There were some narrow escapes. Once Mr. Smith and two companions, Major McDonnell and Lieut. Wirihana (Native Contingent) were nearly cut off by a party of Hauhaus in ambush, when they were out on horseback selecting sites for redoubts and townships. At the Waihi stream—not far from the present site of Hawera town—Smith was riding about forty yards ahead of the rest, when he was fired on heavily by Maoris who were concealed in the fern and flax. He got his horse turned with difficulty, and rode back to his comrades, and they all galloped off with bullets flying about their ears. The Hauhaus kept up a hot fire on them for a long time. Mr. Smith in his diary account of the incident wrote that he could see and hear the bullets striking the flax bushes as he rode along.
“We recrossed the Waihi and reached Waingongoro in safety, very thankful for our miraculous escape. None of us was hit, though there were more than forty Hauhaus firing at us as hard as they could.”
Occasionally some of Smith's men, by way of variety when survey work was delayed by the Hauhaus, joined the Military expeditions as volunteers for night attacks; two of them were killed.
At the Chathams.
In 1868 Mr. Smith was sent to Chatham Island to carry out some Government survey work and he was there when Te Kooti and his people to the number of nearly 300—men, women and children—escaped from their island of exile. The escape was most cleverly planned and skilfully carried out by Te Kooti, who had a just grievance against the Government, which had sent him there without trial two years before, and kept him there, with his companions, on a kind of indeterminate sentence. Mr. Smith happened to be some miles away, in the interior of the island, and knew nothing of the occurrence for several days. He made a number of sketches of the place, as was his way on survey duty, and one of these is reproduced with this article. It shows Waitangi Bay and settlement, the official and business headquarters of the Chathams, with the military redoubt on the low cliff above the beach terrace. This redoubt, a square earthwork with flanking bastions at diagonally opposite corners, was easily captured by Te Kooti from its unsuspecting small garrison under Captain Thomas, R.M. The magazine, armoury and Government safe were looted, and Te Kooti with his armed men and their families, put to sea in the three-masted schooner Rifleman, which had just ar-
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