Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.
Captain G. E. Read's Colourful Career—From Seafarer to Financial Magnate—Mainspring of Many Enterprises—Sidelights on His Business Methods.
Born at Mendlesham, Suffolk, in 1815, Captain George Edward Read became Poverty Bay's most colourful, most enterprising and most prosperous pioneer. He was an extraordinary character, both physically and mentally. Stockily built, he had very short legs, and his figure, with the advancing years, betrayed excessive corpulency. What he lacked in educational attainments was much more than counterbalanced by rare gifts of shrewdness, foresight and industry. No other early resident played so prominent a part in laying the foundations of Gisborne.
But little is known concerning Read's career up till 1835, when he came out to southern waters in one of the Enderbys' whaling ships. In 1838 he was with Captain White on the Medway, trading out of Sydney to Tasmania. Gaining his first mate's certificate, he joined the Fair Barbadian (Captain Bennett), which called at East Cape in 1839. His next appointment was to the brig Transfer. As mate of the Luna (Captain Ellis), which traded on the East Coast in 1842, he was afforded an opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with its native inhabitants. Later in that year he became skipper of the schooner Kate. He then transferred to the Gannet, but he was not in charge of her when she was driven ashore at Anaura in August, 1843.
Read told the Poverty Bay Crown Grants Commission in 1869 that he was ashore at Poverty Bay for some time in 1844 looking after Captain W. B. Rhodes's interests. His stay must have been brief, seeing that, later in that year, he was in command of the Gauntlet. In 1845 the Elizabeth was in his charge. Both were in the East Coast trade. He then opened a store at Mawhai, where he supervised the construction of a 24-ton schooner, which he named Mendlesham in honour of his birthplace. She was in the East Coast trade, with Read as master, until the early part of 1852. When he returned to the sea he placed a native in charge of his store. He also opened a nativemanaged store at Purehua (Waipiro Bay).
In 1852 (Kaiti block case: 1873) Hirini te Kani, Rutene te Eke and Pahora Pahoe invited Read to establish a trading store and build a jetty on the eastern bank of the Turanganui River in front of the site now occupied by the Kaiti freezing works. page 187 Kahutia, a chief on what became the town side of the river, gave his consent. Read obtained suitable timber with a minimum of trouble, and, doubtless, at a very small outlay. Earlier in 1852 the brig Sisters had been driven on to Kaiti Beach [at the spot where the Star of Canada was wrecked in 1912]. He bought her hull from the natives, who, according to custom, had claimed it. When he began to build, Manahi (a brother of Kahutia) crossed the river to dispute his right of occupation, or, in the alternative, to collect some rent for himself. Taking up a stick, Read chased him away. The site was held by Read for twenty-one years rent free. In 1876 he sweetened the owners by making a payment of £60 as rent for the previous three years.
Shortly after settling on Kaiti, Read came to the conclusion that it would be much to his advantage if he also had a store on the western side of the river, and he began to build there. Kahutia ordered some natives to remove the foundation blocks, and, meeting Read, gave him a stern warning that he was to keep on the Kaiti side. In due course, however, Read did build much more pretentious business premises (which became known as “The Store”), as well as a goods shed and a jetty, on the township side of the river (near the junction of the Waimata and Taruheru Rivers) on a property which, since 1838, had passed through the hands of several Europeans and had become his own.
Upon entering into business in Poverty Bay, Read displayed his acumen by buying out “Yankee Smith,” who had established his main store at Makaraka in the late 1840's, and who also had a branch store near the mouth of the Turanganui River. Smith was a shipowner as well as a trader, and his was the largest business in the district. Read did not persevere with either of Smith's premises, preferring to concentrate his activities, first of all, at the store which he had built on Kaiti. He was now the principal trader.
Even late in life the call of the sea continued to ring in Read's ears. Not infrequently he would make a trip to Auckland in command of one of his own vessels. Doubtless, on such occasions, he combined business in the north with the pleasure which it must have given him to be at the helm once again. Between 1859 and 1862 his name often figured in the shipping intelligence as master of the cutter Planet. Indeed, as late as 1873 he took the Tawera to Auckland and back.
Within a few years Read added cattle-raising and then sheep-farming to his other lucrative enterprises. It seems that he did not pay rent for some of the properties which he utilized. Writing page 188 to Mr. McLean, Captain Harris (6/5/1868) said: “It is unfortunate that Captain Read and some other owners of stock can't be made to pay something for the use of land for grazing, as this state of affairs tends much to make the natives dissatisfied. A fair remuneration is nothing more than is due to them.” Some of the early settlers believed that Read made most of his fortune after the Massacre, but even before that very tragic happening his interests and his power were so extensive that he was looked upon as “The Uncrowned King of Poverty Bay.”
An elderly witness told the Native Land Court that Read's method of getting a footing in a property was to offer the principal owner a small sum of money, or some clothes for his wife and children, for the right of occupation. If the gift was accepted, he would proceed to erect a fence or put some other improvement upon the land. Then he would set about to acquire the interests of the other owners. When his freeholds and leaseholds were put up for auction after his death a solicitor, representing native objectors, solemnly warned bidders that, if their bids were accepted, they would find that they had merely bought a costly lawsuit!
One bad “spec.” was held up against Read by the other early settlers. When Paratene Turangi was slain by Te Kooti's orders in 1868 money was required by his relatives to entertain Ngati-Porou friends who came to attend the tangi. Read advanced £150 on a promise that, in return, he should receive portion of Awapuni block. After the tangi, when Riparata Kahutia heard of the matter, she made it very clear to him that the natives with whom he had dealt were not the owners of the land. Read did not persevere with that particular “purchase.”
As a rule, however, things would go very hard with a malcontent if Read had a signed agreement at his back. On one occasion Wi Pere and some others challenged one of his transactions on the grounds (1) that the consideration had included powder and spirits, and (2) that some natives had signed the agreement on behalf of others. Read became very angry. “I have a signed agreement,” he retorted. Threateningly, he then ordered the complainants off his premises. They did not linger.