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Historical Records of New Zealand

A Narrative of the Sufferings and Most Miraculous Escape of Mr. John F. Atkins, Second Officer of the Brig Haweis, which was treacherously captured by the Natives of New Zealand, on the 2nd of March, 1829, and a Part of the Crew massacred, interspersed with Some Descriptions of the Island and the Manners of the Inhabitants

A Narrative of the Sufferings and Most Miraculous Escape of Mr. John F. Atkins, Second Officer of the Brig Haweis, which was treacherously captured by the Natives of New Zealand, on the 2nd of March, 1829, and a Part of the Crew massacred, interspersed with Some Descriptions of the Island and the Manners of the Inhabitants.

On the 17th November, 1828, I sailed from Sydney as second officer in the brig Haweis, of 110 tons, and 14 men, commanded page 688 by Captn. John James, having also a gang of sealers, whom we were instructed to land, part on the Antipodes and the rest on the Bounty Islands. Having landed them according to our orders, we made sail for New Zealand on a trading voyage. We arrived at the Bay of Islands in December, and, after wooding and watering, sailed for the East Cape, distant about 500 miles from the bay. On our arrival, a great number of natives came off in large canoes, and, through the medium of our interpreter (an Englishman taken on board at the Bay of Islands), we endeavored successfully to induce them to trade. Eager as these people are for the possession of anything European, we regarded their disinclination to trade as an extraordinary circumstance, but the mystery was soon unravelled by our interpreter informing us that they were singing their war-song and preparing for an immediate attack on the vessel. We instantly flew to arms, removed the caps and aprons from our cannon, and determined on a vigorous resistance; but the savages, whose success depends on surprising their victims, as soon as they perceived we were aware of their intentions, fled with the greatest precipitation. Disappointed at this place in the object of our voyage we weighed anchor, and sailed along the coast until we entered the Bay of Plenty. The natives are very numerous and warlike, having a strong propensity for theft, and of a most treacherous disposition. Our captain permitted a few of the principal chiefs to come on board, treating them with much attention, hoping by a conciliatory disposition to induce them to trade with us. This plan succeeded very well, for in the course of two days as much flax was obtained as we required. The utmost vigilance was observed during this period, as the natives made several attempts to seize the ship, but our continued watchfulness, and the timely notice given by our interpreter, frustrated their intentions. We returned to the Bay of Islands to re-stow the hold, and make room for the quantity of pork required for our provisions, and, after coopering the casks, sailed to a place called Towrenga, at the head of the Bay of Plenty, several miles from our recent trading-place, and under the government of a chief who, we were informed, was of a more friendly disposition. Towrenga is a very good harbour for small vessels, with three fathoms in the channel at low water. The country is hilly, and much diversified with woods, not of any great extent, but so numerous and so delightfully dispersed as to present the appearance of a park, arranged by a tasteful hand. The hills in the distance are covered with verdure, and through every valley runs a beautiful stream, sometimes meandering in graceful silence, and at others rushing over the opposing fragments of rocks and trees in the cattaracts without number. page 689 Here the natives informed us hogs were abundant, but being wild in the bush, it would require some time to catch them. We cast anchor, and our interpreter, having had an interview with the natives, apparently confirmed the favourable account we had previously received of their friendly disposition, and for several days we obtained a tolerable supply, which, however, was soon discontinued; for at the end of seven weeks we had procured but five tons of potatoes and five tons of cleaned and cured meat. Our interpreter recommended the captain to send the boat to a settlement called by the natives Walkeetanna, about fifty miles from Towrenga Harbour, where the ship lay, being assured an abundance of provisions could there be obtained. In consequence of this advice, the boat was rigged, and placed under my command, and early on the following morning I left the ship, accompanied by the interpreter and one of the crew, and at midnight anchored in a small cove close to the entrance of the settlement. At daybreak we got under weigh, and, after steering about a quarter of a mile up the river, we brought up abreast of the pah, or village, of the natives, who were here very numerous. This pah, like all the others I had seen in New Zealand, is situated on a steep lofty and conical hill of great natural strength, fortified by an embankment of earth, approached by a narrow and circular pathway, so difficult that an European climbs it with much danger, while the barefooted New Zealander ascends without inconvenience, running over the sharpest rocks and most rugged ways with great facility. A number of natives collected at the place of our landing, and received us with the herremi, or “salutations of friendship“ (the principal of these are their joining noses). On being informed by our interpreter of the object of our visit, they welcomed us with excessive joy, dancing and singing around us with violent and grotesque gesticulations, declaring their readiness to do all in their power for our assistance. They conducted us to the dwelling of their chief by the pathway before described. This was a small hut constructed of stakes driven into the ground, the sides and roofs of reeds so completely arranged as to be impervious to rain. A small space in the front was neatly paved, and the only aperture for light and air was a little sliding door of reeds scarcely large enough to admit a grown person, and the interior of the dwelling was so low that a man could not stand upright therein. It was surrounded by a sort of a verandah, covered with rude carvings, painted red, designating the rank and family of the chief. The huts of the common people are wretched in the extreme, very little better than pig-styes; but the practice of sleeping in the open air is so prevalent that the weather must be inclement indeed to force page 690 the natives to the shelter of their hovels. They sleep in a sitting posture, with their legs bent under them, enveloping themselves in their coarse upper mat, so that during the night they have the appearance of a number of small cocks of hay scattered about the side of the hill. To return to my narrative. We were introduced to their chief, named Enarraro (or “the lizard“ in their tongue); he was a tall, well proportioned man, of great personal strength and commanding aspect, and his body profusely tatooed; he was seated on the ground in front of his dwelling, with a handsome mat thrown over his shoulders, his face and body besmeared with oil and red ochre, and his hair, after the fashion of his country, tied in a bunch at the top of his head, and ornamented with the plumes of the albatross or gannet. On informing him of our errand we were shown a number of fine hogs, which he was willing to let us have. I requested him to send them overland to the ship, but this he said was impossible, as he was at war with several of the intervening tribes. Under these circumstances I had no alternative but to return to the ship. Unfortunately the wind was foul, with a very heavy sea on, and we could make no way, except to leeward, so that I was compelled to stand out to sea. Night now closed fast, with a gale of wind from the north west. We close reefed the sail, and our little bark made better weather than we could have expected, but at daylight we found ourselves so much to leeward of the river that we were under the necessity of returning to Walkeetanna, and on the wind dying away we took to our oars, and the same day, about 3 p.m., regained the settlement which the day before we had left. Previous to leaving the vessel the captain had instructed me to send a man with a guide overland with my report if I should be detained by contrary winds, or any other circumstances, and as I judged the north west winds had set in, and there appearing no probability of reaching the vessel in the boat, I requested the interpreter to undertake this commission. He felt no inclination either to walk such a journey or trust himself with the natives he might meet on the road, and for the same reasons the man with me belonging to the ship refused to attempt the hazardous task.

I therefore determined on the journey myself, and, engaging a chief to conduct me, set out early on the following morning. I found the country very mountainous, intersected with numerous rivers, which greatly increased the length of our journey, as we were frequently compelled to traverse their banks for several miles before they were fordable. On the sides of these streams flax is growing in great abundance, and many small patches are under cultivation, producing cabbages, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and a small sort of turnip. They also grow page 691 water melons and peaches, and I met with a few orange trees, which have been introduced with success. The principal trees are the ronkaterra and the cowry, which grow to an immense height without a branch, and are of such magnitude as to be fit for the masts of large ships. The ronkaterra is found in marshy grounds and on the banks of rivers; it appears to be an evergreen, and bears a red berry. The cowry, which is much preferred, grows in a high and dry soil, has a beautiful foliage, and yields abundance of rosin. A great part of our road lay along the sound, which I found extremely heavy to walk on, and after travelling hard for two days and nights, cautiously avoiding the natives on our way, we at length reached the ship, when I gave my conductor a couple of tomahawks and a small portion of powder, with which he seemed much satisfied. On acquainting the captain that provisions were to be obtained at the place I had visited, he gave orders immediately to weigh anchor, which was readily obeyed, and we bore away for Walkeetanna, where we arrived the next night, to the seeming joy of the natives, who came off in large canoes with a plentiful supply of hogs, which we purchased of them without bringing the ship to an anchor. The chief (Enarraro) came on board, and welcomed us with much apparent cordiality, the same feeling seeming to actuate his people, who, in obedience to the orders of their chief, kept at a distance from the ship, which he would not allow them to board. After stowing our decks with live-stock as thickly as convenient, and the wind suddenly changing to the S.E., we bore away again for Towrenga Harbour, where we killed and salted our pigs; but not finding our quantity complete, we sailed again for Walkeetanna, where we arrived on Sunday, March 1st, 1829. The weather being very fine, we anchored between the Island of Matora and the main, and we had not brought up ten minutes before the natives came off in great numbers as before, from whom we obtained twenty more hogs, which were all we required. On Monday, March 2nd, about 6 a.m., the boat was sent on shore with the chief officer and eight hands, including the interpreter, to a boiling spring in the beach but a short distance from the vessel. At 1 p.m. we hailed them to come on board to dinner, but not hearing us, the captain left me in charge of the vessel with three hands, little imagining the treacherous intentions of the natives. At the time of his departure Enarraro was on board, with about ten natives alongside. I noticed them several times in earnest conversation about the kebooke (or ship), and, suspecting some treachery, I desired the steward, who was an Otaheitian, to hand up the cutlasses, keeping a strict watch on the chief, who I saw cock his piece, and put it under his kakahoo (or upper garment). His men at this page 692 signal sprang in the main chains, each having a musket, which they had secreted in their canoes. At this critical juncture we had no pistols on deck, and I was well aware if but one of us went below for them, they would immediately take advantage of his absence by commencing their attack. As our muskets were placed in the tops, not only as a security, but as a precautionary measure in the event of an attack, I ordered one of the crew to go in the fore top and shoot the chief. They each positively refused, not being so convinced as I was of the designs of the savages, and, seeing that not a moment was to be lost, I went up myself, giving strict orders to keep a sharp look out, to which they unfortunately paid but little attention, telling me I was meditating the life of an innocent man. As I was ascending the fore rigging they were joking with each other with great indifference, regardless of the motions of the natives, although I kept cautioning them; but as soon as the chief saw me in the fore top unlashing the muskets he fired at the oldest man, who had his back turned to him, playing with his cutlass, at about two paces from him, and shot him through the head, and with his maree (a short stone club, with a sharp edge) he split his skull. At this signal the whole number jumped on board, and in a moment another poor fellow met with the same fate. The steward was shot at several times before he left the deck, and then he made for the fore top with me. They then fired a volley at us, seeing me prime my piece, but in so doing the chief, Enarraro, broke my arm with a bullet, which I afterwards learnt went through the upper part, above the elbow, and shivered the bone, which caused me to lay down in the fore top; when with the most hideous howlings they immediately commenced their war-dance, but ere this three large war-canoes were alongside, which had been laying concealed behind the rocks, so that I am confident it was a premeditated piece of business, and I was extremely glad the captain had left the ship, or he would have fallen the first victim to their barbarity. They then began the plunder of the ship, and although I was lying in the fore top in extreme agony, I could plainly perceive that in the height of their depredations they paid but little attention to the authority of the chief, retaining their acquisitions with such tenacity that several, refusing to relinquish them, were speared through the body, and died on the spot. They speedily filled the canoes alongside, and the chief ordered one of the natives to fetch me down, but being unable to do it himself he called for assistance, when I was dragged down, and placed in a canoe with the Oteheitian. The sun having set, and the day closing fast, they paddled towards the harbour with all possible expedition, which we gained without accident, although our way led us through a tremendous page 693 surf. Some of the canoes more heavily laden, and containing the greater part of the arms and ammunition, were swamped, the natives saving their lives with much difficulty, with the loss of their canoes. Considering the horrible situation in which I was placed, ignorant of the fate of my worthy captain and the crew, who I suspected were all cut off, believing myself the only survivor of our ill-fated number, in the hands of cannibals, who I doubted not were reserving me for more cruel tortures, and at last to be made the victim of their appalling gluttony for human flesh, it might be expected that I should regard with apathy the loss of the canoes; but such was not the case, for, notwithstanding my extreme pain of body and mind, I beheld their destruction with exultation, considering it an act of retributive justice.

On arriving at the settlement the women surrounded us, singing and dancing, and with every demonstration of extravagant joy welcomed the return of their heroic lords, who in their estimation had achieved such valiant deeds. After landing their plunder they conveyed me to a place where they had kindled several very large fires, around which they collected, the glaring flames displaying with increased effect the horror of their distorted countenances. I observed them in eager consultation, and knew sufficient of their language to be fully aware that I was the subject of their deliberation. I considered my fate to be inevitable, but although many violently contended for my sacrifice, Almighty God had mercifully ordered it otherwise. I am indebted for my preservation at that moment to the chief who had been my conductor to the ship, who earnestly interceded for me, and at length succeeded in obtaining my respite, making a promise that if I was not ransomed by a certain period he would himself kill me, at the same time remarking that a musket would be of much more importance to them than the taking my life, with which they at length acquiesced. He then took me to his hut at the pah, where, ruminating on the occurrence of this eventful day, I offered my grateful thanksgiving to the Almighty for my miraculous preservation, imploring His protection and merciful deliverance. For the first two nights I could not even close my eyes, the terror of the circumstances I have detailed, and the increasing agonies of my arm, totally precluding the possibility of sleep, and my groans so disturbed the chief that he put me out of his hut, and I took shelter in a shed hard by. During this period no one had offered any assistance to alleviate my pain. I at length found a piece of pump leather, which I placed round my shattered member, after the manner of a splint, and using my stocking for a bandage, which the chief bound round the arm. This page 694 I was frequently obliged to remove, when I went to the river, accompanied by a native, and washed the wound in the best manner I could. I found a bullet had passed completely through the bone, and was assured some slugs remained in the wound, which it was impossible for me to remove. On the second morning of my captivity I was taken to that side of the pah which faces the harbour, and my attention was directed to a sail to windward. I could only just perceive her. On approaching the wreck of our unfortunate vessel, which by this time was entirely dismantled, I observed the natives abandon her in great haste, and she was shortly after taken possession of by a schooner, which proceeded to tow her our of the bay. In the most urgent manner I entreated to be taken on board, but all my assurance of ransom and indemnity were unavailing, and I had the extreme distress to witness the vessel’s departure, from whence appeared the only chance of ransom. After this I endeavoured to resign myself to the fate which seemed inevitably to await me, although the natural love of life, and a reflection on my past preservation, sometimes produced a gleam of hope that I should still escape. On the third day of my capture an incident occurred not in any way calculated to diminish the distress of my harrowed feelings: A native brought me the heaad of one of my unfortunate shipmates; it was the Otaheitian steward, who came on shore with me. He died the next morning, having received five bullets in his body. It was preserved by a method peculiar to themselves, and elaborately tatooed (many such are in their possession, as they are an article of their trade). I shuddered at the reflection that my own ere long might add to their number. On the fourth morning I was greatly alarmed by seeing all the natives flock round me, and anxiously enquired the reason. They told me the people of Towrenga (a neigh bouring tribe) were coming to attack them with numbers far exceeding their own, and the report evidently created great consternation among them. Shortly after Enarraro made his appearance with the captain’s sextant, which he gave me, desiring me to look at the sun, and inform him truly if the Towrenga people would come down on them. To refuse would have been fatal, and equally so an untrue prophesy; but, judging from the well-ascertained disposition of the natives of this island that the report of the plunder of our vessel would awaken the cupidity of some neighbouring tribe, I obeyed his commands, and, after taking an observation, requested to have a book, which I appeared to consult. I told him the Towrenga people would come against him with hostile intentions. He inquired “When,“ with much agitation, and, scarcely knowing what I said, I replied “Tomorrow.“ He seemed much satisfied with me, and prepared page 695 for a vigorous defence. They built a clay bank about four feet high on the side of the river, at the foot of their pah, where they mounted our cannonades and swivels, and in conscious security awaited with impatience the dawn of the following day. At daybreak I heard a general discharge of musketry, and in a few minutes Enarraro came running to my hut, informing me of the attack of the Towrenga people as I had predicted, and, having now a high opinion of my gift in prophesy, implored me to tell him if the defence of his settlement would be sufficient. I told him “Yes,“ which greatly animated the spirits of himself and people, amongst whom my last prediction spread with rapidity. By this time the enemy were on the opposite side of the river, and had commenced a brisk fire, which was well returned by the assailed. A native conducted me to the back of the settlement, where they imagined I should be out of danger, my preservation appearing now an object of their solicitude. Shortly after this I heard the report of one of our cannons, when a song of joy was raised by the defenders, for the discharge of this gun had produced so much consternation among the enemy that they took to their heels with great precipitation, the attack having lasted about an hour. After this repulse Enarraro, accompanied by several chiefs, came to me, and were extravagant in my praise, saying I was an Attoah (a god). After the battle several wounded assailants were taken prisoners, whose heads were immediately cut off, their bodies were then embowelled and cooked, and, from the satisfaction displayed by both sexes at this horrible repast, I am persuaded they prefer human flesh to any other food. As the manner of preserving heads so effectually as to prevent decay must be a subject of curiosity, perhaps it may not be amiss here to describe it. After the head has been separated from the body, and the whole of the interior extracted, it is enveloped in leaves, and placed in an oven made of heated stones, deposited in a hole in the ground, and covered over with turf; the heat is very moderate, and the head is gradually steamed, until all the moisture, which is frequently wiped away, is extracted, after which it is exposed to the air until perfectly dry. In some of these heads the features, hair, and teeth are so perfect as in life, and years elapse before they show any symptoms of decay. The practice of preserving heads is universal among the New Zealanders; they bring them as trophies from their wars, and in the event of peace restore them to their families, this interchange being necessary to their reconciliation. They now frequently barter them with Europeans for a little gunpowder. The inhabitants I observed to be in general tall, well made, and active, of a brown colour, and black hair, which sometimes is curling, and their teeth are white and regular. page 696 They are divided into two classes, viz., ranghateeroos (or chiefs) and their relations of different degrees of consanguinity, and cookees (slaves), who are nearly black, and much shorter, and appear a different race of people. The features of a New Zealander before they are tattooed are pleasing, and many remarkably handsome. When a young man arrives at the age of what they suppose maturity, he must submit to the painful operation of tatooing, or be considered unmanly. They generally bear it with the greatest fortitude. It is performed in the following manner: The person performing the operation takes the head of the subject into his lap, on whose face the peculiar lines of his tribe are first marked out. A small chisel, made of the bone of a fish, is used to cut these lines through the skin, just entering the flesh, when a preparation of charcoal is rubbed into the incisions. The inflamation which is invariably produced by this operation is so great that but a small portion can be done at a time, so that it is many months before the man is completely tatooed. The same operation is performed on the women, but in a much less degree. The natives wear a mat made of a fine silky flax, very curiously woven by the women, which is thrown over their shoulders, and a similar mat is fastened round their waist by a girdle. They have also another mat which they wear in bad weather that completely covers them. Before going to war they paint their bodies with oil and red ochre, oiling their hair, which they form into a bunch at the top of their heads, decorated with the feathers of the albatross. The ears of both sexes are pierced in their infancy, which is gradually increased in size by the introduction of a stick, and is considered more ornamental as it becomes larger. The superior classes suspend the tooth of a scarce fish, which distinction is so tenaciously observed that a cookee (or slave) is not on any account permitted to wear it. They wear also round the neck a grotesque image, carved in green talc, which they seem to prize very highly, and which is preserved in a family for many generations. The dress of the females is precisely the same as the men, and they are generally very modest in their deportment. In complexion they are as fair as Italians, are generally short, but well made and handsome. They are subject to great brutality from their husbands, which they bear with exemplary fortitude and patience. They are faithful and affectionate wives, and regard the children they rear with the greatest fondness. An appalling practice, however, prevails among them—that of destroying their female infants should they exceed in number the male issue. This is done by the mother herself at the birth of the child, and is effected by pressing her finger on the opening of the skull. Still there are some mothers who page 697 regard this custom with becoming abhorrence. Plurality of wives among the chiefs is universal, but there is a decided distinction between the head wife and the others. The union with the head wife is a union of policy, being the daughter of a chief, and the offspring of this union takes precedence of the children of the other wife or wives, whose situation to the head wife is merely that of domestics. At the death of a chief it is frequently the custom for the head wife to hang herself, which is considered an act of the most sacred character.

But to return to my narrative. Nothing occurred to myself until the 9th of March, when to my inexpressible joy I was informed of my ransom; but before detailing the circumstances which produced my liberation I must return to the captain and boat’s crew, who were on shore at the time the ship was captured. On the captain’s reaching the shore, the first object he observed was a native running away with the knives of our people, and on joining the crew he was informed the natives had made off with the hatchets and knives. He gave orders immediately to launch the boat, thinking at the time all was not right. They discovered that the oars had also been stolen. On looking round they discovered a native on the top of a high rock with them in his possession. Our people pursued him with speed and determination, which so terrified him that he threw the oars down and made off. On their return to the boat the natives kept up a brisk fire at them from behind the rocks, happily without effect. After they had left the shore the catastrophe on board the brig was soon discovered, but, seeing her in the possession of the natives armed, and themselves weaponless, it was useless then to attempt her recapture; they therefore stood towards the N.W., and after rowing hard all the day and the following night, they fortunately fell in with the schooner New Zealander, Capt. Clark, from Sydney. Our people were received on board, and on hearing the fate of the brig, Capt. Clark determined to retake her, which he effected in the manner already described. On boarding her they were shocked with the appalling spectacle of fragments of human flesh scattered about the decks, with the remains of a fire, from which they immediately concluded their shipmates had been all of them massacred, and devoured by the natives. They sailed for Towrenga, where they were informed I was alive, and detained a prisoner at Walkeetanna. The captain dispatched two chiefs overland, with muskets for my ransom, which they happily effected, and in the morning of the 9th of March I immediately set out with them on their return, amidst expressions of esteem and regret at my departure. This journey overland I have before described, but owing to my weak and exhausted state it page 698 was most tedious and painful. The hills being covered with fern, I found it extremely difficult to travel, and on account of the heavy dues [dews] which fall every night, it was impossible to rest upon them. My conductor procured me intervals of repose by making holes in the sand, where I layed down, until feeling cold and chilly I again renewed my journey, which was still further protracted by the necessity of avoiding the hostile tribes on the roads. After three days and nights of painful travelling we reached Towrenga, where I had the inexpressible happiness of rejoining my kind captain and crew, and, with mutual congratulations on our providential escape, we related to each other the events which had transpired since the time of our departure. On the 15th of March we arrived at the Bay of Islands, where Capn. James took me on shore to the Rev. Mr. Williams, a missionary residing there, but, as he was not a medical man, the only assistance he could render me was to administer a powder, for the purpose of preventing the accumulation of proud flesh. I sailed for Sydney on the 17th of March, in the New Zealander, Capt. Clark, and arrived on the 25th, after having been three weeks and two days without any surgical aid. At Sydney three slugs and several pieces of stone were extracted, and so bad was the fracture that the medical men strongly recommended me to have my arm taken off, to which I could not be prevailed on to consent. After remaining 11 weeks in Sydney my wound was tolerably healed, but, despairing of ever recovering the use of my arm, so as to be able to resume my duties on board ship, I returned to England in the barque Vesper, and arrived after a passage of four months and a half.