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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Huria Matenga, the Brave Swimmer

Huria Matenga, the Brave Swimmer.

The second subject in this sketch of courageous women is Huria (Julia) Matenga, the young chief-tainess of Whakapuaka, on the Nelson coast, whose bravery and humanity at the wreck of the Delaware in 1863 earned her the admiration and praise of both races. She came to be called “New Zealand's Grace Darling.” She was foremost in saving a distressed crew at the risk of her life, in a stormy sea, and her deed of bravery even excelled that of the plucky English page 116 girl who rowed off to a wreck with her father, braving the gale to save the perishing.

Julia Matenga, whose Maori name is the native form of both Marsden and Martin, was the wife of a young half-caste chief named Hemi Matenga (James Martin), who had been named after Sir William Martin, one-time Chief Justice of the Colony. They were each about twenty-eight years of age, a handsome couple, tall and stalwart, and each was a strong swimmer. I have never seen a more admirable specimen of the athletic pakeha-Maori blend than Hemi Matenga, erect and straight-backed and powerful even in his seventies. His beautiful wife was the granddaughter of a renowned warrior, Te Puoho, of the Ngati-Toa, the great Rauparaha's tribe.*

Hemi and Huria lived on their farm at Whakapuaka, near where the cable-station was afterwards established.

Early on the morning of September 4th, 1863, the Maoris saw a vessel lying wrecked on the rocks off Whakapuaka. This was the Delaware, an English brigantine of 241 tons, a new vessel recently out from London; she had sailed from Nelson the previous day for Napier. A strong gale was blowing, and in endeavouring to beat out against it the vessel was driven on the rocks, about 100 yards from the cliffs, where she lay with the seas sweeping over her. The mate made ready to swim ashore with a line, but a sea caught him and dashed him on a rock, and he was hauled back badly injured. The natives on shore saw the wrecked page 117 craft, and several of them hurried along the beach until they reached the nearest point to the Delaware, eager to succour those in distress; some of them lit a fire on the shore and prepared for the reception of the imperilled mariners.

The three who came to the help of the crew were Julia Matenga, her husband, and a man named Hohapeta Kahupuku. One of the crew threw a light rope, a lead-line, overboard, and Julia and the two men threw off their clothes and swam out, in spite of the great seas. They had no canoe or boat, but no small craft could have lived in that boiling surf. A terrifying sea was rolling in before the N.E. gale and breaking over the brigantine.

The three Maoris had a desperate struggle; it seemed half-an-hour before they were near enough to get the line which the sailor had thrown out. A rope was bent on to the ship's end of this line, and the Maoris hauled it ashore; the ship's end was made fast to one of the masts and the Maoris secured the other to a boulder on the narrow beach at the foot of the cliffs. Julia was the foremost of the swimmers and was the first to grasp the lead-line which the sailor threw. The swimmers dived under the great rollers that came roaring in.

The line between ship and shore having been hauled taut, all but one of the crew struggled to the land holding to the rope, assisted by the three Maoris. This was a task of great difficulty. As each man neared the beach the Matengas and their companions rushed out, sometimes up to their necks in the surf, sometimes swimming, and helped him to the beach. All this time page 118 the line was being chafed through by the sharp rocks and it parted just as the last man to leave the wreck, the captain (Robert Baldwin), reached the land.

One life only was lost. The mate, a young Englishman named Henry Squirrel, who made a gallant attempt to swim to the beach with a line soon after the vessel struck, was badly hurt and was laid in a bunk apparently dead. But after all the others were safe on shore, they were amazed and greatly distressed to see him climb into the fore-rigging and wave for help. Hemi Matenga asked the captain, “Why did you not tell me there was still one of your men on board?” The Maoris would have brought him on shore had they known, but now it was quite impossible, the tide was rising, and the seas were thundering right over the brigantine. The poor mate was washed off and drowned.

So all hands but one were rescued, thanks to the fearless, powerful Maori swimmers. Julia and her men were very much cut and bruised by the rocks, in their efforts to get the sailors to the shore, and Hemi Matenga related afterwards that when he rode the twenty miles into Nelson town to report the wreck he was scarcely able to sit his horse.

The Nelson townspeople were greatly excited by the news of the Delaware wreck and the rescue by the Maoris. A fund was immediately raised, and a public presentation was made to the three swimmers. Julia and her husband each received an inscribed gold watch, and their companion, a youth, and the helpers on the shore each were given a silver watch. Sums of money were also presented to them. Julia's portrait hangs in page 119 the Nelson Art Gallery, and under it is this inscription: “In Public Recognition of the Brave Deeds of Huria Matenga, Chieftainess of the Ngati-Awa, Ngati-Tama and Ngati-Toa 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.”

The brave woman of Whakapuaka died at her home there in 1909. Her stalwart husband followed her in 1912, at the age of seventy-seven. Hemi, who was half-brother of Wi Parata Kakakura, the chief of Waikanae, was a fine figure of a man to the last, lean and erect. When I last talked with him in Wellington he was on his way, notwithstanding his three score and fifteen years, to Matata, in the Bay of Plenty, duck-shooting, a sportsman to the end. Only a little while previous to our meeting he had rescued a Nelson man from drowning, near the very same place where he and his wife had saved the despairing crew of the Delaware forty-six years before.

* Te Puoho's amazing march from the Nelson country down the West Coast and into Otago and Southland is narrated in the book “Tales of the Maori Bush”. (Cowan).