The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)
New Zealand Memories
Our pioneer records at first or secondhand, are scant enough. Hence it was a pleasure to come upon such a book as “New Zealand Memories,” by Brenda Guthrie, a grand-daughter of the man whose experiences she describes.
Ebenezeer Hay was ordered by his doctor to take a long sea-voyage for his health's sake, and with his brave young wife he came to New Zealand by the Bengal Merchant. The sailors on the Bengal Merchant were in the habit of secreting, for barter with the natives, muskets, tobacco, beads, red blankets or powder. Though the Captain was a bully of the first water, each voyage lost him one of his crew, for the attractions of the Maori maidens proved too strong.
It was a life to ruin any sailor, for to the Maoris he was merely a trafficker who, by his knowledge of English, could obtain for them by barter the wares they coveted. They feasted with the sellers and they feasted with purchasers and most of them ended as sullen, sodden wrecks. They had not the long, hard fight with the sea that the whalers had, to cleanse them. With the coming of the settlers their usefulness ceased and they became disreputable hangers on of both camps.
There are little fragments that will be seized on by the New Zealand novelists of the future. Take this: “Dr. Logan told them of another chief called Te Rauparaha, a small, slightly built Maori, with six fingers on each hand, quiet in speech and action, but capable of the most horrible atrocities when roused. Although his name meant ‘Convolvulus Leaf,’ in spite of such a soft sounding epithet, he won as many victories by cunning as his opponent, Hongi, won by war.”
The book gives an account of Maori customs, among them this description of the feast at a tangi or Maori wake: “Bags of fat eels from the rivers, endless baskets of sweet potatoes, dozens of choice pigs, and birds from the forests, nets full of fish from the sea, piles of fern-root, and the greatest delicacy of all—decayed shark kept till it smelt.”
It tells the story of New Zealand's marvels, of the “tuatara,” the oldest reptile. “He is a sluggish fellow about twenty inches long, of the lizard family, with strong jaws and three eyes. He lives in holes and is very fond of raw meat when he can get it.” It discusses the strangeness of the kiwi and the kuaka, but does not mention the short tailed bat, one of the seven wonders of the world.
The ships Aurora, Ariel, and Duke of Roxburgh were lying behind Matiu or Soames Island and the Bengal Merchant dropped anchor beside them. “The sons of Epuni, two fine stalwart youths, in silky mats with huia feathers in their hair, dined with the captain, and the other sailors were much diverted when the two young Maoris carried away with them all that they had been unable to eat, but, Dr. Logan explained to the former that this was a native custom, it being considered by them most disrespectful to one's host to leave any food behind.” They were displaying an ancient courtesy.
The Hays landed at Pito-one (End of the Sand). In that awful fog and rain their poor worldly possessions were scattered on the beach, but “with the aid of an old sail, some canvas, blocks of wood, and a spar or two, the men of the party and a few willing Maoris fashioned a shelter of sorts by making the upturned boat habitable. So with a boat for a roof and sand for a floor, a sail for walls and canvas for a door, my grandparents and party spent their first night ashore.” Verily they deserved the stately home they owned at the end in the South. This is a description of their first hut and its making: “They placed a chimney—on a supplejack framework—of stone and clay at each end, and for windows they used some of my grand-mother's precious calico from the big box. An earthen floor beaten down hard and slabs of timber for doors completed this small hut which was to be their home for two or three years. Across the chimney, halfway up, an iron bar was built in, from which was suspended the kettles, three-legged’ pots, and camp-oven which later was the bane of a young house-wife's life.”
Their friends also had a house built on the pattern of a whaler's house with a framework of Kareau or supplejack plastered with a thick coating of clay inside and out. The Hays finally migrated to the South, but not before they had seen horse races on Petone beach.
“Mr. Jerningham Wakefield, as Clerk of the Course, looked resplendent in velvet cap, breeches, and pink coat, while one of the Petone ladies caused quite a sensation in my grand-mother's flowered silk gown.”
One reader at least was sorry when the scene shifted from Wellington, so vivid and simple was the picturization of the early days in the present capital. The Hay family prospered in the South. Their new house in the Pigeon Bay Valley was made of wood put together with dowels. They had no nails. The natives were at first hostile, but, realizing later the benevolence of the newcomers, became friendly.
For a treat Ebenezeer Hay would row his young family in a whaleboat to Port Levy, a strenuous pull of ten or twelve hours for the four or five rowers. Their visitors included such diverse personages as Sir George Grey and “Bloody Jack,” the old chief, Tuwhaike, who borrowed Hay's gold watch to wear while interviewing the Governor. It was a lucky loan, for Tuwhaike had great influence with his own people and his friendship was worth cultivating.
Then the first batch of settlers came to Canterbury Plains. “Clinging to each other so as not to be blown away from the top of the Bridle Path, they gazed disconsolately upon miles of waving tussock and flax, stretching in flat desolation to the snowy Alps in the far distance…. Immaculately dressed and gingerly picking their way among boulders, they must have presented a picture very much like those young surveyors who, caused so much merriment at Port Nicholson.” These were the men who made “The Plains.”
This is a book that is meat both for novelist and historian. To such memoirs we will owe much in the years to come.