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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 2 (May 2, 1938.)

History in an Old Church-Yard

page 31

History in an Old Church-Yard

Stories in stones (Photo., M. B. King.) The Memorial to Tamati Waka None.

Stories in stones
(Photo., M. B. King.)
The Memorial to Tamati Waka None.

Of all the historic spots in New Zealand, the Bay of Islands must, I think, take first place-especially Koro-rareka, or Russell, as it is now called. Here it was that the first Dominion capital was established; the notorious whaling station mentioned in so many of the old books-“The Cruise of the Cachalot,” for instance-and here were enacted so many of the events that live in New Zealand history. Old Russell does not forget its early life. The old bullet-riddled church, which has seen so much bloodshed and strife, and which claims to be the oldest church in New Zealand, lies sleeping tranquilly in the hot northern sunshine, surrounded by cool trees, flowery borders, grassy mounds and white headstones.

Death by drowning seems to have been the fate of many a brave seaman, for several places are indicated merely by the name of the victim, his ship, and the inscription, “The Sea Gave Up Her Dead.”

In another place a different story is told-that of the courage and patience of the pioneers who first came to the new colony. Here sleeps Hannah King Letheridge, the first white woman to be born in New Zealand. Through what experiences did she pass before reaching the ripe age of ninety-one? Little or no comfort was her lot, inadequate protection, and always the fear of the savage natives who might spring from the bush surrounding her home at Oihi Bay with the intent of murdering any white person in sight. Yet there is evidence of friendly natives here, too, in the big monument erected to Tamati Waka Nene, Maori chief, friend of the white man, who with his aid, greatly assisted in bringing the natives to regard the European people not as foes, but as friends. This stone towers above the smaller ones and bears the praise which he so justly deserves. Round about him lie other members of the Ngapuhi tribe, whose children's children inhabit the Bay to-day.

Children's graves there are in plenty-happily mostly old ones. One tells of a little Maori six-year-old, himself unable to swim, leaping into the tide to rescue his tiny white brother, and both perishing; another of an adventurous kiddy who met his death on the storm-beaten cliffs of Cape Brett, while chasing wild goats which were, alas! surer footed than he was; and yet another of the beloved daughter of a Maori chief whom Atua had called ere she had learned to toss her poi balls.

One finds a more recent date on the stone of Judge Martin, one of the greatest judges New Zealand has ever known, and at one time the youngest Crown Prosecutor in the British Dominions. I remember him well as one of the kindest and most understanding friends that a child, especially a boy fond of the sea, could ever wish for. Close by rests Captain Bert Cook, the last of the whalers, the tale of whose adventures on all the Seven Seas would fill more than one volume.

The oldest stone there-its date, 1836, just discernible-and some few others are made of soft sand stone; the lettering has been blurred, beaten off, and with the lettering has gone the stories. Men of the law, a naturalist, a United States Consul, fishermen, soldiers, sailors, and natives, lie side by side, their ranks all made equal in death.

(Photo., M. B. Kins.) The peaceful old church at Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

(Photo., M. B. Kins.) The peaceful old church at Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

Near the gate the gallant sailors and marines of H.M.S. “Hazard” lie in their last sleep-the sailors who fought and died to protect the people of Korora-reka when the Maoris sacked and burned the little village on 11th March, 1845. Although the graves of these brave men are amongst the oldest in the churchyard, and little is written of them, they are not forgotten. Theirs is not one of those whose headstone let-tering has been smudged with the wind and rain of the passing years. Each time their annual cruise brings the ships of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy into port, seamen'are told off to go ashore and paint the simple white wooden slab and railing which mark the spot in the corner of the old churchyard where they all lie buried. A short distance away lies their commander, on the spot where he fell fighting half a dozen natives single-handed.

One passes out through the gate again with the verses on the “Hazard” memorial still running through one's mind:

“The warlike of the isles,
The man of field and wave,
Are not the rocks their funeral piles,
The seas and shores their grave?
Go, stranger, track the deep,
Free, free, the white sails spread,
Wave may not foam, nor wild winds sweep,
Where rest not England's dead.“