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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER VI. — Vancouver's Visit, 1791

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Vancouver's Visit, 1791.

BOOK'S system for preserving the lives of his sailors which he had perfected with such care during his stay in Dusky, had proved so successful that the long ocean voyage was now robbed of half its terrors, and a great impetus given to exploration, and the commerce of the world. Sailors of all nations now embarked on long voyages, and the utmost ends of the earth were visited. These visits naturally rendered a proper survey and scientific exploration of the new lands absolutely necessary in the interests of shipping. There was also the question of a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific still waiting to be solved. To make provision for these, George the Third, in the autumn of 1789, planned an expedition to explore the coast of North West America.

The command of this expedition was given to Captain Henry Roberts, one of Cook's men during his second and third voyages; George Vancouver, who in 1773, in the capacity of a midshipman, was with Cook in the Resolution at Dusky Sound, and who had been four times to New Zealand, was appointed second in command. A Thames built vessel of 340 tons was purchased, named the Discovery, and sent to Deptford to be fitted out. It was also intended that, in addition to her, the Gorgon should go to Sydney and thence with the nucleus of a settlement to North America.1

While the above-named officers were preparing for their new commission, trouble arrived. The Spaniards and the British had come into conflict with one another at Nootka Sound, on the coast of North West America, and British vessels and factories had been seized by the ships of Spain. Negotiations between London and Madrid failed to settle matters and preparations were made to employ force, the pacific employment of the Discovery was postponed, and the page 78 officers repaired to their several war stations. The dispute was, however, amicably settled by Spain withdrawing from her position, and a vessel was ordered to Nootka Sound to formally receive everything back. At the same time the accurate survey of the coast line was to be proceeded with. Captain George Vancouver was appointed to the command of this expedition; the Discovery, which was lying ready was put into commission, and the Chatham, of 135 tons was ordered to accompany her. On board the Discovery were 100 officers and men, on the Chatham, 45.

In the plan of the expedition as outlined by Lord Grenville to the Lords of the Admiralty,2 and in the first set of instructions given to Vancouver later on, no mention was made of New Zealand. Subsequent communications dated 20th August, 1791, were however sent by a third vessel and Vancouver was informed that this despatch boat was, after leaving him, to proceed from the Sandwich Islands to the New South Wales Settlement, and on her way down, was to touch at New Zealand and secure two natives to teach the Port Jackson settlers how to prepare the flax fibre, but no instructions were given Vancouver himself to call at New Zealand. His visit to Dusky, therefore, shows the importance to the navigators of that day of this well surveyed harbour, and is another tribute to Cook's farsightedness.

Vancouver sailed via the Cape of Good Hope and King George Sound, calling at both places. When south of Tasmania he found his men in want of provisions which were only to be got on shore, and not knowing of any other place within reach where food supplies, planks, spars, tent poles, &c., could be procured, he made choice of Dusky Bay. Cook, on his visit to New Zealand in 1773, when all the adjoining lands were unsettled, had selected Dusky to recruit his expedition at, and here we have Vancouver, in 1791, notwithstanding that a new settlement had been established for three years at Sydney, and while on a voyage not to New Zealand, but to the Sandwich Islands, finding Dusky the best port of call.

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On 2nd November, 1791, Vancouver sighted the south coast of New Zealand, and by evening the Discovery and the Chatham were anchored in the arm leading into Facile Harbour, the spot recommended by Cook after his residence in Dusky Sound in 1773.

Vancouver's first few days' stay was celebrated by rather an exciting experience. Though with Cook at Dusky in the capacity of an A.B., in 1773, he had never been in Facile Harbour, so he thought it necessary to take Broughton, the captain of the Chatham, to fix sites for their several ships and shore occupations. This had no sooner been done, than the captains were alarmed at hearing two guns discharged from the vessels. Hastily getting into their boat they found that Vancouver's vessel, the Discovery, was on the move; and by the time they reached her, she was abreast of the entrance to the Sound. Having got on board, an attempt was made to regain Facile Harbour, but about five o'clock in the afternoon a violent gust created disorder aloft, and nothing remained but to make for Anchor Island Harbour, to leeward of them, where they anchored the vessel and moored her to the trees ashore.

The following is a description of the storm from the journal of an officer of the Chatham, now in the possession of Mr. A. H. Turnbull:—

“The wind which in the morning blew moderate over the Land from the Nd & Ed. had by noon freshened to a Gale and the Discovery who lay in only 40 fams. water without us drove off the Bank and though she let go another Anchor she did not bring up but was obliged to heave them up. By the time this was accomplish'd she had drifted nearly out of the Bay. She fir'd some Guns as Signals to Captn. Vancouver who was away in the Boat and we perceived him & Mr. Broughton return to her while she was driving. The wind had increased to a very hard Gale indeed with heavy Squalls and she made as much sail as she cou'd possibly bear, endeavouring to work up into her old Anchorage. After beating page 80 “about some 3 hours without gaining anything considerable, her Fore Topsail Sheet Block gave way and being then nearly abreast of an opening in which there is a very Snug Harbour call'd by Captn. Cook Anchor Island she ran into it and we presently lost sight of her. She was compleatly land locked. We gave our Cable good scope and held on very well but in the Evening finding the weather still grow more Tempestuous and that we dragg'd our Anchor a little we let go another Anchor and veer'd away upon both and hoist in the Boats. We had no abatement of the Gale in the night and the following morning the 4th it seem'd to blow with greater violence. The sudden Gusts that came from the high land was amazing and so quick did they follow each other, that we scarcely had an interval of a lull for 5 minutes together. We got our Top Gallant Masts on Deck, struck the Lower Yards & Top Masts, secur'd the Boats and bent the Storm Staysails, with every other necessary precaution in case of our being driven to Sea. All this day and the night it blew dreadfully and we expected every minute either to part our cables or drive but tho' the Squalls were as hard as many on board ever remember'd to have seen, we had but very little sea with them. The morning of the 5th brought no abatement of the Wind till about 9 o'clock when after some very heavy rain it suddenly fell a perfect Calm, from being the minute before a hard Gale and we had the water at the same instant as smooth as a Mill Pond. The clouds began now to disperse, and to clear up all round, and about 10 o'clock we had a moderate Breeze at N.N.E. we therefore hove up one Anchor, and hove short on the other. About 11 our Captain came on board from the Discovery and about 3 we weigh'd and turn'd into Facile Harbour where about 6 o'clock we anchor'd in 5 fatm. water within a hundred yards of the shore.”

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H.M.S. “Discovery” (Vancouver's). From a Sketch in the possession of Mr. H. Baillie, Public Library, Wellington.

H.M.S. “Discovery” (Vancouver's).
From a Sketch in the possession of Mr. H. Baillie, Public Library, Wellington.

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H.M.S. “Chatham.” From a Pencil Sketch in the Library of Mr. A. H. Turnbull, Wellington.

H.M.S. “Chatham.”
From a Pencil Sketch in the Library of Mr. A. H. Turnbull, Wellington.

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No time was lost in getting things refitted. Vancouver did not intend to make as long a stay as Cook had done, and parties were at once employed cutting wood for fuel, and timber for spars and planks, brewing rimu beer and repairing sails, rigging and casks. A boat with four men was constantly employed fishing, and everyone had his task assigned to him.

There was only one part of the Sound that Cook did not explore in 1773—the upper part of the northern arm. On the 13th, 14th, and 15th November this unchartered portion was visited, found to divide into two arms and surveyed. Cook had named the unknown portion “Nobody Knows What.” Vancouver called it “Somebody Knows What.” Fortunately, these senseless names have been discarded in favour of the names of the two vessels.

Cook was too much pressed for time to survey this Sound and he ventured the opinion that it might communicate with Doubtful Harbour although he admitted that appearances were against this theory.3 An opinion, no matter how erroneous, when once advanced, may sometimes die hard. This opinion of Cook's, hazarded in 1773, was disproved by Vancouver in 1791, and the facts made known to the world, but in spite of that, we find maps published as late as 1841, showing an uncertain channel named Mac's Passage, connecting the two sounds.4

During the period they were engaged in survey work, a continual look out was kept for signs of Maoris; Cascade Cove and Indian Cove, places where families lived duririg Cook's visit 18 years before, were visited, but at neither of these places was any trace found, nor any circumstance that in the least indicated that the country was inhabited. The sole signs of human habitation observed by Vancouver were one or two miserable huts in the neighbourhood of Facile Harbour, and even these had not the appearance of having been lately occupied. Menzies, the botanist of the expedition, describes these huts as built in an obtuse form, about four feet in height and six in diameter at the bottom; composed of slender sticks, crossing each other and fastened page 82 together with twigs; closely thatched over with grass and fern; and having marks of a fireplace in front of the door. Cook's surmise that the inhabitants of the bay led a wandering life received verification during this visit.

Every entry in his journal shows Vancouver to have been a careful and conscientious commander, and loyal to his old master. Not having been in Facile Harbour before, he must inspect it before entering. Cook said that the first thing to do on anchoring was to attend to the health of the men. This was done. Cook had left the north arm unexplored. This must be attended to now and completed. Cook had taken a great interest in the natives. Although 18 years had passed away, they were now looked for and information gleaned about them. Cook had recommended Facile Harbour. Vancouver's experience showed the difficulty of making this harbour sometimes, and the advantage of Anchor Island Harbour as a standby. To give this knowledge in nautical form to the shipping world, the 16th November was spent surveying the harbour, making out sailing directions, and naming some of the islands about it. In addition to the survey of Anchor Island Harbour by Vancouver, Broughton, whose vessel remained in Facile Harbour throughout the stay, made a survey of that Harbour, and it is published in the narrative of the voyage. Vancouver, for his chart, took as a basis that of Cook, adding to it his own discoveries and such trifling additions as in the course of his observations he had been able to make.

Some of Vancouver's records, however, show great differences between himself and Cook. It is difficult to conceive Cook making the mistake of having the captains of the two vessels ashore together and out of sight, while one of the ships might, unknown, be drifting seaward. Again Cook was a great sportsman. Every seal he saw was noted in his journal, and every fowl he killed was discussed with all the zeal of one anxious to inspect it scientifically as well as at the mess table. Killing seals or shooting ducks was always an enjoyable recreation with Cook, and there is no doubt page 83 that his love of sport made him a very close observer of the habits of animals. His list of names in Dusky shows this characteristic: Shag River, Seal Rock, Seal, Curlew, Shagg, Petrel, Pigeon and Parrot Isles; Cormorant, Goose, Duck, Wood Hen, and Sportsman's Coves. Vancouver, on the other hand, never mentions seals in the bay, nor does he refer to their absence; he merely states that some wild fowl were procured, though they were found in by no means such numbers as in 1773, owing, he suggests, to the difference in the seasons. He had made a search for the geese placed there by Cook, but seeing none, attributed it to the same cause. Speaking on this question of a season for the birds, Mr. Henry, late caretaker at Resolution Island, mentions visiting the Petrel Islands at the same period of the year that Cook did and finding no petrels,5 but he does not say whether his visit was made during the day or at night, and Forster records the fact that the petrel was not to be seen during the day.6 Mr. Henry states however, that birds visiting the Sound appear to be very uncertain in their times of coming.7

On Sunday, 20th November, the Discovery sailed out of Anchor Island Harbour and took up a position alongside the Chatham in Facile Harbour. Monday was spent completing their cargo of wood and water, and rimu and manuka for brewing beer; and at noon they sailed, adding another tribute to Dusky as a marine sanatorium. “Thus we quitted Dusky bay, greatly indebted to its most excellent refreshments, and the salubrity of its air. The good effects of a plentiful supply of fish, and spruce beer, were evident in the appearance of every individual in our little society. The health of our convalescents was perfectly re-established, and excepting one with a chronic complaint, and two wounded by cuts in their legs, we had not a man on the surgeon's list; though, on the most trifling occasion of indisposition, no person was ever permitted to attend his duty.”

The salubrity of the air is characteristic of the sounds, and of the mountain tracks. In the opinion of many, who page 84 have traversed the Te Anau-Milford track, the air is absolutely germless, and ill effects seldom follow exposure to the elements there.

Cook when he discovered Dusky had sailed north, and when in 1773 he surveyed it, he went over the same course. Vancouver's expedition was the first which visited Dusky, and after leaving it made for the south. Here was an opportunity of ending the uncertainty which Cook had left in the coast line where now is Foveaux Strait. A storm which rivalled the celebrated one experienced in Dusky, now came up from the south west, and the means taken for safety, precluded all possibility of examining the coast line. The two vessels were so completely separated that they did not sight each other again until they met at Tahiti on 30th December. Both vessels on parting adopted the same tactics, and kept well away to the south to get round the land and clear the Traps. In doing so they both stumbled, quite unexpectedly, upon the same group of islands. Vancouver in the Discovery sighted them at eleven o'clock on the 23rd and called them the Snares, “a cluster of seven craggy islands.” Broughton in the Chatham sighted them at two o'clock the same afternoon, “a cluster of small islets and rocks,” and called them Knight's Island, after Captain Knight of the navy. The Chatham actually sailed in between them, and closely observed their position and outline. “In this passage we had a confused irregular swell, with the appearance of broken water; large bunches of seaweed were observed, and the whole surface was covered with birds of a blackish colour.” When the two commanders afterwards met and compared notes, Vancouver having discovered the islands first, the name Snares was retained, but Broughton having sailed in between them, their relative situation as laid down by him was accepted as against Vancouver's.

Mr. Archibald Menzies has already been mentioned and we are indebted to him for by far the most pleasant account of Vancouver's stay at Dusky. Menzies was a great personal friend of Banks and to that gentleman doubtless page 85 owed his position. The correspondence between the two shows that Vancouver did not always get on well with his subordinates. But the manuscript, which Menzies evidently meant for publication, contains no reference to friction with the commander. Menzies was on board the Discovery and therefore his first botanical work was on Anchor Island, but after a careful search of that ground, he shifted over to the Chatham and spent a very profitable time in that neighbourhood. His favourite plants were ferns and mosses which he found, to his intense delight, were very numerously represented in the Sound. Live specimens of new and uncommon plants were collected for the King's gardens at Kew. If Vancouver was no sportsman, the same cannot be said of Menzies, who, with the officers of the Chatham, went out on expeditions lasting over several days but not associated with very much success.

Broughton's party, as they returned from the exploration of the northern arm, visited the site of Cook's old camp on the shores of Pickersgill Harbour, and found, so Menzies, who accompanied them, says, that in the garden there had grown up a dense covering of brushwood and fern, which completely obliterated all sign of the old clearing, and only the fact that its position was recorded and described enabled the spot to be identified. In the journal of the Chatham, on the other hand, the writer says that by the remains of trees cut and sawn down and by the cleared ground, they readily found out the place where Cook carried on his operations ashore.

After leaving the Snares Broughton sailed on in very variable weather till about two o'clock on the morning of the 29th, when all were astonished by the “Land ahead” shout of the fore top lookout. The Chatham immediately hove to until daylight and Broughton named the point which had been sighted, Point Alison. A hill alongside was named Mount Patterson, a name which has since disappeared from the maps and a Cape Pattisson has been substituted. The most northerly point was called Cape Young, and two islands lying off the Cape were called The page 86 Two Sisters, now the Sisters. Broughton sailed along the northern coast looking in vain for a bay in which to anchor. Signs of inhabitants were visible, but it was some time before people were observed running on the beach. On seeing them the Chatham immediately put back and came to anchor on the northern shore about 3 miles from the eastern extremity of the land which the commander called Point Munnings.

Having landed, Broughton found some canoes so strangely constructed that it was some time before he could decide what they were. They were formed like a common wheelbarrow and their sides, which consisted of small sticks lashed together, were about 8 or 9 feet long. Three feet wide at one end and two at the other these primitive floats narrowed downwards until they ended in a flat bottom about a foot broad and two feet deep. They were filled with seaweed to the top and they were evidently used for floating about in smooth water to enable their occupants to, fish close to the rocky beach.

While engaged in the inspection of these boats and some fishing nets that lay about, the natives crowded round in a rather threatening manner, and Broughton, who did not desire to promote a conflict, withdrew his men to the boat, and keeping out of arms reach endeavoured to cultivate friendly relations with them. They willingly received all that was offered in the way of gifts, and Mr. Sheriff, one of the mates, tempted by their friendly demeanour, stepped on shore among them. His reception however was neither what he expected nor desired, as the natives endeavoured to hustle him inland, and he quickly returned to the comparative safety of the boat. They then rowed to the other side of the little bay, but the Morioris were there as soon as the visitors and it was not deemed advisable to land.

Broughton now made up his mind to return on board, but as the natives remained at the last point he changed his mind and returned to where he had first landed and thus, having evaded the natives, stepped on shore unopposed. Here to one of the trees was nailed the lead inscription “His page 87 Britannic Majesty's Brig Chatham, Lieutenant William Robert Broughton commander, the 29th November 1791,” and in a bottle at the foot of the tree a paper written “Navis Britann. Majest. Chatham, Gulielm, Robertis Broughton, Princeps, 29th of November 1791.” The British flag was hoisted, a sod turned over, and the land, which Broughton named Chatham Island, taken possession of in the name of King George the Third.

When the interesting ceremony was completed some of the natives, this time more friendly in their appearance, arrived upon the scene. Their dress consisted of mats of seal skins and they responded to the saluting of noses as did the New Zealanders. Deceived by their friendly conduct Broughton decided to visit the east point of the bay and with the boat close in shore set out along the beach. From the ship, signs of water inland had been seen and a party now proceeded to examine it; this accomplished, a return was made to the boat, when matters assumed a rather threatening aspect. The party had not proceeded very far, when all doubt of the intention of the natives was at an end. Led on by a youth, the natives became very demonstrative and threatening, and pressed round the men as they prepared to enter the boat. Broughton tried small shot on one of them but with no effect and the natives at once commenced the assault. Four more shots were fired and the natives fled, one of them dropping dead before reaching the wood. As danger was still threatening Broughton left a few trinkets about in the canoes and embarked for the Chatham. Skirmish Bay was the name given to the scene of this unfortunate incident, and it is described as “a bay from which to Point Munnings the shore is low, rocky, and clothed with wood.”

In view of Lieutenant Broughton's version of the encounter the native tradition of the story recorded by Mr. A. Shand, of the Chatham Islands is intensely interesting.

“He landed at Kaingaroa Harbour, or Skirmish Bay, as he named it, where the Morioris of the place came round in wondering amazement to ascertain page 88 “what these strange creatures were. Noticing the sailors smoking, they remarked, ‘See Manuhika's fire proceeding from their throats!’ The rigging of the vessel they likened to Kupenga (nets), and so forth, with many amusing remarks. The sex of these strange creatures puzzled the natives, and seeing the visitors were friendly, they touched and handled them. Ultimately some concluded that they were women, while some of the bolder spirits attempted to take hold of them and drag them off to their homes in the bush above the sea beach. In order, apparently, to put a stop to this the sailors fired to alarm them, on which they remarked, ‘Hear the crack of the kelp of their god Hauoro!’ alluding to the report made by thrashing long arms of bull kelp on a sea-beach. Then, seeing another party coming up from the east of the harbour, the sailors fired, killing and wounding some of the Morioris, which scared them, and they fled into the bush. Subsequently the Morioris relate that they thrashed severely those who took part in and caused the mishap to the strangers. It appeared also that some had remonstrated with the others regarding their behaviour to the strangers. Later on a boat came ashore and left some beads and other things as gifts, which the natives took only when the strangers had departed. The time of year when this happened was that of the maturity of the young of the seabird kukuri—November, as stated by Lieutenant Broughton.”

If the traditionary story can be relied on, and a close investigation will show that it certainly coincides with Broughton's own description, the natives who caused the attack were not those who first met the party. This is more clearly shown from the journal in Mr. Turnbull's possession, where it states that the attacking party consisted of only 14, while 40 had been present at the earlier interview. Had Broughton, instead of sailing away as he did, page 89 returned the following day, it is more than probable that he would have found the natives very friendly disposed towards him and ready to make up for the hostile reception they had given him the day before.

Broughton, directing his course to Tahiti, the place appointed for next meeting place of the expedition, sailed away without getting any further idea of the configuration of the island than a knowledge of the northern coastline.

Of the names given by Broughton to the newly discovered land, Chatham is after the vessel in which the discoverers sailed, Point Alison, from the name of the lookout who first detected land, and Skirmish Bay owes its name to the unfortunate encounter with the natives. The origin of the nomenclature generally of the island is not so certain. It may be mentioned, however, that in a list of the crew of the expedition, professing to be copied from the Admiralty Records in the Public Record Office, London, appears the names of Patterson and Manning on board the Discovery, and Young on board the Chatham. Cape Pattisson taking, as we saw, the place of Mount Patterson, would suggest that the names were given after members of the crew. Strange to say, the name Alison does not occur in the above list of the members of the expedition, though Broughton states that this man first sighted the land.