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Soldiering in New Zealand, Being Reminiscences of a Veteran

Chapter XI

page 136

Chapter XI.

Transfer to the Chatham Islands—My duties there—Waitangi—The lagoons—Fish, flesh and fowl—The Residency—Many pleasant neighbours—Trying climate—We build a church and reading room—Mr. Foster—The wool trips—Visit of H.M.S. Goldfinch—Icebergs sighted—Checking the liquor traffic—Heta and Paki—Visit of H.M.S. Ringdove—Boat building—Death of Mr. Ballance—“Honest John Bryce.”

Of course we moved into a cheap house, and I was looking in various quarters for work, when news came of an outbreak of trouble among the Maoris at the Chatham Islands. The Premier, remembering my knack in the management of natives, asked me if I would go to the Islands and relieve Mr. Deighton, the resident magistrate. Mr. Ballance could only offer £200 a year salary and a residence, and to send me down by a Government steamer. The salary was miserably inadequate, but “half a loaf,” etc.

He further promised that I would not be asked to remain there for more than three or four years, and that when I had restored peace and order on the Islands, a more suitable district, carrying a larger salary, would be given to me in the North Island of New Zealand.

Before leaving for the Chathams I was presented with a sheaf of appointments and commissions. Besides being resident magistrate, I was postmaster, collector of customs, registrar of births, deaths and marriages, receiver of wrecks, licensing officer, and paymaster; and I had not been very long on the Islands before I was the principal doctor, engineer of wharfs, bridges and roads, referee of all connubial disputes and quarrels, etc., etc.

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Waitangi, Chatham Islands.

Waitangi, Chatham Islands.

page 139

We were landed at Waitangi roadstead, Chatham Islands, on 2nd September, 1891, with a couple of boatloads of luggage, and were very kindly received by the islanders and one or two of the chief Maoris. The natives, however, who were mostly connected with Taranaki tribes, were all followers of Te Whiti, and with the exception of Pango-Pango, a leading man, and one or two of the very few surviving aboriginal Maoris, were generally surly and aloof in manner.

Waitangi Bay is a very open anchorage, and the only harbour is Port Hutt in the north-west corner of the main island, but there are only two or three settlers in that vicinity. There are two villages on the island, a store and public house at Te One, about three miles east of Waitangi along the beach, and the local school, church and library.

A store, a public house, the local court-house and post office, and a lock-up comprised the buildings on the beach at Waitangi. Most of the Maori population had their huts a little distance back from the beach on higher ground. The Residency was on a bit of table-land overlooking the bay from the west.

We found the climate to be mild but very damp. There is very little frost in winter and only on some higher points inland, but hail often falls and sometimes sleet.

Quite half of the area of the island is occupied by two huge lagoons in the middle. These swarm with eels, and at one time had thousands of duck on them. The destruction of cover round the lagoons, and the influx of vast numbers of black swan seem to have driven most of the grey duck to other islands. The swamps have pukeho in numbers, supposed have been blown over from New Zealand, but there are no kiwi or wood-hens. Very fine specimens of the New Zealand pigeon are occasionally seen, but they are never numerous.

There are immense quantities of blue cod, hapuku and tarakihi page 140 on the fishing grounds, but no schnapper, and the islets off shore are the breeding places of albatross and mutton birds.

The aki-aki timber, of which there used to be a good supply, is a kind of sandal-wood which retains its strong scent even when kept for many years. If shaved or cut with a knife, it emits a strong but pleasant perfume, however old or dry it may be, but unlike the sandal-wood of commerce, it has no perfume unless a fresh surface is exposed to the air. When used as a fencing post the heart timber appears to be immune from decay. A German settler who had lived on the island for fifty years once said to me, “Aki-aki will last for ever: I have tried it!”

In the timbered parts of the Chathams there are many karaka trees, which grow to a great size. There is also plenty of flax and kareao or supple-jack.

I caught a pair of torpedo skates on the rocks one day; they are now in the Christchurch Museum, neatly stuffed. Sharks are plentiful. Captain Gommerell, who ran the mail steamer Kahu three times a month to the islands for many years, told me that he once saw a shark over thirty feet in length, close to his ship. Until he got a good clear view of it, he thought that it was some variety of whale; he was sure that he had not over-estimated the length.

The Chathams have a good deal of interest for geologists and naturalists. There is a small and very handsome shag that is peculiar to the islands, and several small birds, including a rail, that are not found elsewhere, as far as I know. Mosquitos, and perhaps katipo spiders, are the only venomous insects. Rats seem to be fairly numerous.

We landed in September, and after we had bidden Captain Fairchild and the retiring magistrate, Mr. S. Deighton, farewell, I page 141 page 142
Mrs. Reihania te Poki.

Mrs. Reihania te Poki.

page 143 found plenty of work to do. We had to have the garden fenced and dug over and seeds sown for spring vegetables, and to buy a cow, for we could not go on accepting milk and butter from the settlers. The mail boat was expected about 5th October, so there were plenty of letters to be written and reports to be prepared. I also found a few court cases to settle, and a hasty marriage to be arranged.

The Residency, as our house was called, was built on slightly sloping ground above the cliff overlooking Petre Bay from the west. A small conical hill about fifty feet high on the edge of the cliff, about sixty yards from the house, was an ideal spot for a flagstaff, and I very soon found a suitable spar and had it properly rigged and stayed, with the Union Jack flying from the mast head.

Old Paina te Poki proved to be the chief native among the Maoris. He was very surly and suspicious when I called on him first; but the second in influence, old Pango-Pango, was more civil and inclined to be friendly. I could see that it would require tact and patience to secure the good opinion and goodwill of the leading Maoris; but I was confident that I could overcome their unfriendly attitude in time, if I did not show any doubt of their readiness to assist me in maintaining order equally among the Pakeha and the Maori population of the islands.

The Kahu duly arrived on 5th October, bringing the mail and stores for the islanders, and nearly all the inhabitants (about five hundred in number, half of whom were Maoris) must have assembled to meet the steamer. For the few days before she left I was kept busy, and Waitangi court-house and post office and the beach in front presented an animated spectacle. All the Europeans were in a hurry to put their business through before the ship sailed; and we had a good opportunity of becoming acquainted with the principal settlers. Mr. R. Chudleigh, J. P., seemed to be the most influential, and I soon page 144 discovered that my predecessor had been in the habit of consulting him on all important happenings on the island, and that I was expected to do the same.

Mr. A. Cox, another J.P., had been at one time in the army. I liked and respected him greatly; and I never had occasion to alter my high opinion of his rectitude and unselfish character.

Mr. Alex. Shand, Mr. Cox's partner, was a recognised authority in regard to Mori-ori traditions and history, and many of his letters are to be found in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.

Mr. Engst was an interesting person, being the last survivor of the two or three German missionaries, who were among the first white men to make a home on the Chathams. He had many extraordinary experiences to relate of early hardships and dangers endured, and he often reminded me of what I had read of Cromwell's Ironsides and the dour old Scotch Covenanters: bigoted and narrow and perhaps merciless in upholding their opinions of right, but with the courage and determination of a bull-dog.

Captain H. Hood was another noticeable personality, who owned a fine property on the Chathams when I first met him. He was full of energy, and had made much money in trading between the island and New Zealand; but he took up sheep farming, and lack of the necessary knowledge finally brought him to financial grief.

We were well settled down in our new home by the end of the year, and had got used to the exigencies of an island life and surroundings. The damp climate kept me suffering from a kind of influenza peculiar to the island and called mare-mare by the natives. It was many months before I got acclimatised; but my wife kept well and gained in health and strength, and enjoyed the open air and quiet life and the busy interests of our farmyard and garden.

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We encouraged the neighbours to provide a little church and a reading room at Te One village, where the state school was situated; and the schoolmaster, Mr. Foster, gave us valuable help in this work. He was very musical and well read, and clever at carving and carpentering, and did most of the building and ornamentation of the church himself. During our stay in the Chathams I always found in him a loyal supporter of any scheme for the advancement and benefit of the settlers and their children.

In January, 1892, the Kahu made four or five journeys, locally known as the wool-trips, in quick succession between our island and Lyttelton. This was the busy season of the islanders, and they availed themselves of these opportunities of making a short visit to Christchurch and a quick return to their homes.

We had a succession of heavy gales and much rain towards the end of February; but the weather settled again in early March, and we had good sport catching huge cray-fish, which at this time of year frequent the rocky shallows to spawn.

On 3rd May we had a visit from H.M.S. Goldfinch, Captain Floyd, and after due interchange of compliments and calls, my wife and I accepted the invitation of Captain Floyd to go in the warship across to Port Hutt, where the commander intended to spend a few days in field drill, etc. At Port Hutt (or Whangaroa) we slept ashore in the Papens’ homestead, and from there had a good view of the evolutions of the blue jackets; and I showed the officers where they could easily load a boat with scores of big hapuka and cod.

On the 13th the man-of-war took us back to Waitangi after a very pleasant ten days’ enjoyment of the hospitality of Captain Floyd and the Papens.

On 29th October we saw two huge icebergs drifting north across page 146 the mouth of Petre Bay. A third was visible disappearing on the northern horizon; news came that still another berg had grounded on the south-west side of Pitt Island, and that a fifth had broken up into several small bergs further to the westward.

These vast islands of glittering ice were awe-inspiring from their size and height. One was shaped like a long and narrow promontory, with a castle-like hill at its northern end. It is curious that we heard of only one vessel having sighted these bergs, and yet they had less than five hundred miles to drift to pass close to Hawkes Bay, if they kept to the course they were on when seen by us. Possibly they may have broken up and melted; but as only about an eighth of their bulk was visible above water, it is difficult to believe that a berg that looked to be at least half a mile long could melt entirely in the few days’ drift to abreast of Napier. Probably the explanation is that westerly currents and wind set them a hundred miles or more to the east of the coast of New Zealand.

Our Maoris had a bad custom of buying a few cases of ale and having a big drinking bout on the occasion of the death of one of them. For some time I had been quietly recommending the chief men to discourage the practice, but without much success. Though they admitted that trouble sometimes resulted from drunkenness, they considered that the white men were mostly to blame. About the end of the year a death occurred and the usual drinking took place. Two of the natives, named Heta and Paki, quarrelling, Heta nearly killed Paki with an axe, and several others were hurt in the row.

I determined to stop the sale of liquor for awhile, and swearing in a few special constables whom I could depend on, I closed both the public houses, locking the doors of both bars and including, of course, the combined stores. The owners were furious; so were some of the page 147 settlers; but I was firm, though I allowed some food to be moved out for immediate use. There were loud threats of legal actions and petitions for my removal from the Islands, and my friends thought that I had made a mistake. No step of the kind had ever been made before, and I should be liable for heavy damages, etc., etc. But I knew my powers. I declared that in future I would also prohibit Sunday trading, and that I would not only stop the sale of drink whenever I considered it advisable, but would take away the licences from the owners of the houses if they opposed my orders.

Thus it happened that on New Year's Day, 1893, no drink was sold on the Chathams, a record indeed.

My next anxiety was to know what to do with Heta. If Paki died I should have to send him for trial to Christchurch with a number of witnesses and a special, at great expense to the Government. If I arrested Heta before the mail-boat, which was due to arrive in two days’ time, was about to sail, there might be serious trouble and an attempt to rescue him. Meanwhile I found that Paki would probably recover from his wounds, and I told my friend, chief Pango-Pango, as a great secret, that I intended to arrest Heta if he could be found before the steamer left. I guessed that Heta would hide on board the ship when she was at the other side of the island, where he was believed to be, and try to get away to Parihaka in North New Zealand, and I had no intention of searching the steamer for him. Things happened as I wished. Heta hid on board and got away on the 6th, and as he knew that a warrant was out for his arrest I did not expect to hear anything more of him for a year or two.

A man named Henderson came to tell me that he was going to Christchurch to get legal advice as to my liabilities for having closed the public houses and stores. When I retorted by warning him to be page 148 careful of what he said, or I might give him a free passage in charge of a constable, he took himself off swearing hard.

Then a party of rowdy Maoris broke the windows of a house belonging to the old chief Paina te Poki, and I fined eight of them twenty shillings each and the cost of repairs. After this I seemed to have gained the confidence and support of the head Maoris, and had no further trouble to speak of with the natives. A few days later I fined three drunken men, as well as the captain of the steamer, for selling grog to non-passengers.

In short I made myself rather unpleasant to quite a number of people, but the big regatta that came off three days afterwards was singularly successful and free of drunkenness and rows.

We felt a mild shock of earthquake on 12th February, the only one that I remember during my five years' stay on the Chathams.

We had the usual heavy gales and much rain during the end of February and the early part of March, and a sharp attack of island fever laid me up for a week.

On 28th March, H.M.S. Ringdove, Captain Bain, anchored off Waitangi, bringing a heavy mail. We exchanged the usual compliments, and Paymaster Webb and Lieutenant Sykes came to lunch with us. On the following day we went on board to pay our respects and brought Captain Bain back to tea.

Next day I arranged that Captain Bain should be taken for a day's shooting, and Lieutenant Collingwood and I went fishing. On the Sunday my wife and I lunched on board with the captain and wardroom officers; and on Monday evening the captain and Mr. Webb came to bid us farewell, as they were to sail early next morning for Port Hutt, leaving there for New Zealand on the Thursday. On the Saturday the Kahu took our mail and left for Lyttelton.

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Hon. John Bryce.

Hon. John Bryce.

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Mr. Odman, a Swede who owned the store and public house on the beach at Waitangi, was a good sailorman, and he and I were very friendly, as we were both fond of boating and fishing. He was a very decent, honest fellow, and I liked him much. He had an attack of quinsy every year, but I always cured him with a few doses of homœopathic medicine, for, as I have said, I was chief doctor of the Islands, as well as chief engineer and boat-builder.

At this time I built two flat-bottomed boats of the Canadian pattern, from plans and measurements in a book on boat building and boat sailing that I got from Whitcombe & Tombs at Christchurch. They were most useful boats for fishing in the bay and would live in quite a lively sea. Later on I built a 22-foot half-decked yacht, fit to sail round the island, but that was a three months' job.

The natives owned four huge whale boats, kept hauled up into sheds on the Waitangi beach. They used these boats for birding expeditions to Pitt's Island and outlying rocks in the month of March, when they brought back hundreds of albatross and mutton birds.

In April the s.s. Ohau came for a load of sheep and brought a mail. She made a second trip the following week from Port Hutt.

On 4th July of that year we received the news of the death of the Hon. John Ballance, which grieved me much, for I esteemed him as the one honest man in the cabinet. Peace to his memory!

In looking over some papers of a later date, I came across a speech made at a public dinner by the late Hon. John Bryce, well known as “Honest John Bryce.” It is too good to be lost, so I make no apology for inserting here the report that appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle. “Mr. Bryce proposed the toast of Her Majesty's Opposition, and in doing so spoke at considerable length. He page 152 said that it was with great regret that he had to admit that he did not regard the House of Representatives with the same esteem with which he had once regarded it, but no one had ever heard him say that he felt sorry for having entered politics. While he strongly desired to see Sir John Hall remain in politics, he admitted that no one was more entitled to rest. The present Government had gone in largely for tax and experimental legislation. He regretted that the Premier had not paid more attention to strict accuracy in regard to facts which he had put before the public. The Premier's position was such that he should verify his facts to a greater extent than he had done. When Sir John Hall was leader of the House, if he had made a statement in positive terms as to facts and figures within his knowledge, no one in the House would have doubted his word. What a contrast (said Mr. Bryce) there was now, when a statement that came from the Government benches had to be verified before it could be believed. He thought that the present Premier must have some phrenological development bearing the same relation to facts as kleptomania bore to honesty. The policy of the present Government was a policy of fads tempered by deception. He thought it improbable that he himself would re-enter politics.” Mr. Bryce had resigned his seat in the House of Representatives to mark his disgust and contempt for the political methods of the Government of the day, and could not be persuaded to seek re-election.