The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 7 (October 1, 1936)
Famous — New Zealanders — No. 43 — John Webster, of Hokianga. — The Adventures of a Pioneer
John Webster, the grand old man of Opononi, Hokianga, was one of those adventurqus Scotsmen who sought their fortunes in the wildest parts of the earth, and distinguished themselves as pioneers of enterprise, self-reliance and cool courage. Into his early years in Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands were crowded incidents of peril and combat, narrow escapes, and strange experiences such as fell to few men even in those stirring times. As a cattle drover on the “Great Overland” in Australia, a fighter ih the Maori Wars, and a rover among the cannibal islands in the Pacific, he faced hardships and hazards and enjoyed free-lance life gloriously. He saw California in the roaring goldrush days of 1850; he was concerned in a romatitic tropic islands Republic scheme somewhat resembling Rajah Brooke's enterprise in Borneo. Mr. Webster was a great comrade of the famous “Pakeha-Maori,” Judge Waning; the two men of many adventures lived near each other at Hokianga.
The Story on the March.
John Webster, born in Montrose, Scotland, in 1818, was a man of eighty when I first met him, yet like many another old colonial hand who had seen much of wild and hard conditions in his time, he still relished the joys of life, he was always ready to see what fortune lay just round the corner. It was in 1898, when there was a little Maori rebellion in the North—it was Hone Toia's armed rising at Waima—and the Government had sent a military force of 120 to deal with the trouble. John Webster had come to Rawene to offer his help and his influence with the Mahurehure tribe in the effort to prevent bloodshed. His niana was considerable; he had been the friend of the fathers and grand-fathers of the restless young riflemen of Waima.
So he arid one of his sons saddled up and joined Colonel Newall's column on the march over the hills to the valley of discontent. I had talked with the veteran when we met at Rawene, and we rode together to Waima (my mission was to report events for the Auckland “Star” and the Press Association, a job of work that kept me in the Hokianga country for a fortnight). The quiet-mannered compact-framed little Scots settler with the wise old eyes that always held a glint of humour, was one of the most wonderful men I ever met. I listened enthralled to the story he told of the last cruise of the schooner Wanderer about which I had asked him at Rawene. It was a slow journey, that muddy march to Waima, and I heard much of the story of his life; much, too, later on in his beautiful old home at Opononi.
Maoris in Ambush.
The Maoris were in cover in the bush somewhere ahead, on the hill of the Puku-o-te-Hau, so we heard, but not a Maori was to be seen. “Will they tire on us?” was the question everyone asked, or thought. “Absurd,” said some knowing ones. Wise old John Webster did not say much, but he did not dismiss the idea as ridiculous. “You never know,” he said to me, “these Mahurehure have always been a touchy people; they still have the old warrior spirit, and they resent any injustice.”
Then he returned to the story of the Wanderer, and he was describing the fight for life that red morning when the savages killed Ben Boyd, its owner, and attacked the schooner—then in Webster's charge—when there was an interruption that quite dramatically fitted the moment—
Bang! A thunderous crash it made— then another, loaded with ball, too, made a noise like a young cannon. That Maori had put heavy charges of powder into his old tupara. It was Wiremu Makara; I saw him next day at Waima when he surrendered; a thorough-going old warrior with a perpetual grin. He had been stationed there in the fern above the road to give the signal to Hone Toia's seventy men when the pakeha column had marched into the ambush.
All this, of course, we did not know ac the time.
A Tense Moment.
“Now we're in for it!” said John Webster to me, quietly, and I declare he was smiling in his cool, wise old way. Well, the Maoris were not likely to fire at their old friend—but you never know. And what of the hapless riflemen with us, targets for the hidden Maoris? Not a sign of them but those bangs at us from the fern above the road-cutting. The next few moments would tell.
But not another shot was fired. A mounted Maori messenger, at peril of his life—for many a rifle was pointed at him by “rattled” recruits in Newall's column—came galloping along, Hone Toia's messenger. He was shouting to the hidden Maoris not to fire. “No fighting—no fighting! Hone Hcke is here! Don't fire!”
Indeed it was only the arrival just in the nick of time, of Mr. Hone Heke, the Ngapuhi member of Parliament, that prevented a battle in the bush that day. There was more than a touch of comic-opera in that march to page 18 page 19 Waima; but tragedy often treads on the heels of comedy; and it was only next day, and later when I explored the fern and bush above the road, and saw the log breastworks and the skilful way in which the Maoris prepared their ambuscade, that I realised how narrowly the Government column had come to real battle that day.
In the Opononi Home.
However, that is not my present story. John Webster said no more of the Wanderer that day; there were other more pressing matters for us all; but after all the raruraru was over (excellent Maori word that, it covers ail manner of bobbery, trouble, business, discussion), and Hone Toia and his fellow-leaders of the little rebellion were in the arms of the Law at Rawene, I had another quieter talk about the wonderful days when all the world was young and new. That was in the old adventurer's home in the’ shade of the Opononi groves, behind the sea-wall with its guns poking their iron muzzles through the square embrasures.
It was a delicious nest of warmth and sweetness, Opononi by the sea, winch had been Webster's home since the ‘Sixties. The garden, sheltered by tall and spreading pohutukawa trees, was filled with trees and plants from many lands. Bananas ripened there, under the Hokianga sun, in that garden cf repose within the fort-like beachfront wall. Those old ship's guns in the embrasures, the yellow sands, the murmurous wash of the tide, brought a touch of the sea-warrior's life and a salty suggestion of Kingsley's “Last Buccaneer.” A proper retreat for an old adventurer, and a writer, too— Robert Louis Stevenson would have delighted in such a home, with its parapeted garden plantation bathed in the golden light and the sound of the trampling surf at the Heads borne on the western breeze. As you walked up to the broad verandah, you would have seen tuatara lizards, those spiney relics of a lost world, blinking from great sea-shells of the tropic islands. Those guns gave the proper spirit to the place. If you were a Governor, maybe, or a Naval commander, John Webster himself would load and fire a round or two of blank in your honour.
Overbading in Australia.
Here, in hospitable old Opononi, let us begin at the beginning. John Webster told me how he was half a sailor already by the time he, at the age of twenty, landed from the ship Portland at Sydney, in the last month of 1838. The “first sight and sound he met on stepping ashore in the new land were the shuffling steps of the convict gangs and their leg chains; they worked on the roads in irons. That convict life and atmosphere filled him with dislike, or something stronger, for Australia. Still, he determined to see something of the great back country and the free adventurous life there. After some adventures—the first was being bailed up by bushrangers and robbed—he joined an expedition at the Murrumbidgee to take a large mob of cattle through the vast all but unknown territory to Adelaide. In August, 1839, the party began their long droving journey, driving a thousand head of cattle. The leader was Mr. Howe. There were innumerable little skirmishes With the natives, and the twenty men of the expedition suffered greatly from thirst. One of the whites was speared and killed by the blackfellows, and three hundred head of cattle were lost, mostly speared. But the expedition got through, a really wonderful exploit in such a country under the most unkindly circumstances. That was young Webster's first great adventure, rough and hard beyond description, but a glorious life to the youngster who had begun his working career in, a merchant's office in Scotland.
Trading at Hokianga.
John's brother, William Webster, had already come to New Zealand, and our young cattle-drover determined to join him in a more promising and congenial land than Australia. In 1841 he took ship to the Bay of Islands, and walked across the island by the bush track to Hokianga. There he took up his quarters with William at Wairere, and the two brothers carried on a trade with the Maoris. It was there that he first met Sir John Logan Campbell (then Dr. Campbell), who had gone there from Auckland to procure a cargo of kauri spars to fill a barque commanded by Captain Oaldy for England. Presently John went up to Herekino trading; there he saw much of the primitive Maori life, in more secluded surroundings than in busy Hokianga.