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White Wings Vol II. Founding Of The Provinces And Old-Time Shipping. Passenger Ships From 1840 To 1885

Chapter IV. — New Zealand's Grace Darling

page 134

Chapter IV.
New Zealand's Grace Darling.

In the Nelson Art Gallery there hangs a picture of a Maori woman, and under it is the following inscription: "In Public Recognition of the Brave Deeds of Huria Matenga, Chieftainess of the Ngatiawa, Ngatitama, and Ngatitoa Tribes, who in company with her husband, Hemi Matenga, at risk of life swam for a rope through a stormy sea, thereby saving the lives of the crew of the Delaware wrecked at Whakapuaka, September 3, 1863."

Huria Matenga (which is the Maorified form of "Julia Martin") was called the New Zealand "Grace Darling," and a thrilling story is connected with the wreck and a gallant rescue. The Delaware was a handsome new brigantine of 241 tons. She was in command of Captain Robert C. Baldwin, and she arrived at Nelson from London on August 10, 1863, with only one passenger, Mr. McCabe. After discharging part of her cargo she sailed again on September 3 for Napier, to which port part of her freight was consigned. There was one passenger, Mr. Henry Luffkin Skeet, a surveyor, who belonged to Napier. Within twenty-four hours of leaving port the craft was a total wreck, and the mate was drowned.

The Delaware was a new craft, American-built, and was intended for the Colonial trade. At that time many of the vessels owned in Britain were built on the other side of the Atlantic, whose shipwrights were noted for turning out speedy vessels. The Delaware's tonnage strikes one to-day as being very small indeed for the long voyage between the Old Country and New Zealand, but those were the days of small beginnings. The co-owners of the vessel were Messrs. Green, Robinson and Co., Ltd., London, and Captain Baldwin.

Leaving Nelson shortly before noon, the Delaware ran into bad weather that night at about 8 o'clock. At 1 a.m. she lost her jib, the wind then blowing a perfect hurricane, and the captain stripped her to close-reefed topsails, and storm trysails.

The weather was "as thick as a hedge" (in the captain's words), and very dark. In order to verify his position the captain took soundings every half hour, and all through the storm and the subsequent calamity he seems to have acted in a thoroughly seaman-like manner. At about half-past four he saw what he took to be land through a very thick haze, and he wore ship in an endeavour to get round Pepin's Island, but she drove heavily to leeward, and wearing ship again he tried to weather Graham's Point, situated about 15 miles from Nelson and 20 from the French Pass. It was hopeless, however, in that raging gale, and as a last resource at about six o'clock he let go his best bower anchor in thirteen fathoms of water, paying out 90 fathoms of cable. The sea was runningpage 135 mountains high, the ship pitching dreadfully, and about half an hour later the anchor-windlass carried away. Captain Baldwin then let go his second anchor, with 80 fathoms of cable. Great rollers swept over the unfortunate craft, and she began to drag, drifting steadily towards the cruel rocks.

To stay there was to court certain death, so Captain Baldwin boldly set what sail he could, slipped the cable, and decided on the desperate course of running the vessel on shore. There was nothing else for it, and the only thing to do was to try and pick the best spot—which was a sandy beach near Pepin's Island. Before that manoeuvre could be carried out the Delaware got among the rollers and refused to answer her helm. Seeing that she would be driven broadside on to the rocks, the captain made a last desperate effort to get her before the wind. Slowly she paid off, and then drove straight on to the rock-bound shore, which at that spot is precipitous, the cliffs being from 350 to 400 feet high.

She struck some submerged rocks about one hundred yards from the foot of the cliffs, and hung there with the waves beating over her. They were so near to the land and yet so far! The mate, Mr. Henry Squirrell, a young Ipswich man, aged 22 years, volunteered to try and get a line ashore. He was a strong swimmer, but it was more than a brave task to undertake in such a boiling sea. Making a light line fast to his waist, the mate lowered himself by the martingale, but injured his back against a rock, and fell into the sea. He was helpless and the crew hauled him on board again, the line being tangled round his feet. When he was got on board he was laid in a bunk in the forecastle and given up for dead.

It looked as though every man on board was doomed, but just then a few Maoris appeared on the small beach at the foot of the frowning cliffs, and hope revived. Mr. Skeet, the passenger, could speak Maori, and he told them to look out for the lead-line which would be thrown ashore to them. William Morgan, A.B., cast the line, and the Maoris, rushing fearlessly into the raging surf, cleverly caught it and hauled it ashore. Then a stouter line was by its means passed ashore, being made fast to one of the masts and to a large boulder about one hundred yards from the doomed vessel.

As the vessel lurched to and fro in the heavy surf, the line was alternately taut and slack, and only the greatest care on the part of the Maoris preserved it from being chafed to pieces on the jagged rocks. Down this perilous-looking rope the crew and Mr. Skeet clambered one at a time. As each man neared the beach the gallant Maoris rushed out, sometimes up to their necks, and helped him ashore. But for this plucky action on the part of the natives very few, if any, of the crew would have got ashore alive. All this time the line by which the men clambered off the wreck was slowly being chafed through, and it parted just as the captain got ashore. He was the last to leave the wreck.

No one had the slightest doubt about the mate being dead, but about an hour after the rescue the survivors were horrified to see him crawl out of the forecastle into the fore rigging. Finding himself alone the poor man made frantic signals to those ashore.page 136 Mr. Skeet asked the Maoris if they could do anything, but they said it was quite impossible with the rising tide, and pointed out that any attempt at rescue would only have meant throwing away more lives.

Waves were dashing right over the brigantine, and the crew tried to advise the mate by signs and shouts to lash himself to the rigging. He held on in the main rigging for some time, but eventually a wave bigger than the rest washed him off the wreck, and he was never seen again until next morning, when the body was found on the beach.

There were five in the party of brave Maoris who imperilled their lives time after time to save those of the pakeha sailors. "But for their bold and unwearied exertions I do not believe a soul would have got off the wreck," said Captain Baldwin in paying a tribute to the rescuers. The crew were astonished to find a woman among their deliverers, and according to contemporary accounts she was "readiest of all" when the natives rushed into the surf up to the neck, often enveloped by the breakers, and seized each man as he came down the rope.

In addition to Julia, there was her husband, called Hemi Matenga (James Martin), his brother Ropata (Robert), and two other men named Eraia (Elijah) and Kerei (Grey). It may seem strange that all the Maoris had European names, or rather that their names should be merely Maorified English ones, but the habit of the natives taking pakeha names was quite common in the early days.

At the inquest on the body of the drowned mate, the jury drew attention to the bravery of the Maoris, and suggested that their conduct was worthy of public recognition. The people of Nelson were not slow to appreciate the splendid act of the natives, and quickly subscribed funds to present each with a watch and chain. In addition the Government presented Julia, her husband, and the latter's brother with £50 each, and each of the other two received £10. The presentation was made in the Nelson Provincial Hall by the superintendent. Julia had a separate address presented to her, and, after referring to the brave act of Grace Darling, it went on to say: "And like her, Julia, your name and deed will find a place in local history. Your brave act is one of which a queen might be proud, and we present you with a watch whereon your children and their successors may read with pleasure an inscription which testifies the esteem in which you are held by the settlers of Nelson."

Hemi Martin replied for the natives. Speaking through Mr. James Mackay, the Maori said they had not the least idea when saving their European friends that they would receive any reward. They did not expect such reward, and only did what they could out of a desire to save life.