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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter V — Joel Samuel Polack

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Chapter V
Joel Samuel Polack

AT about the time Joseph Barrow Montefiore returned to Sydney, another adventurous young Jew, twenty-four-year-old Joel Samuel Polack, was making preparations to leave Sydney for New Zealand. Though young in years, he had travelled extensively and could be described as a man of considerable experience. Born in London in March, 1807, of Dutch parents who had settled in England, he began at a very early age to follow the calling of his father, Solomon Polack, a well-known London Jewish artist. When only sixteen, young Joel Samuel exhibited miniature paintings at the Royal Academy. Apparently the proceeds from his activities as a miniature portrait painter did not bring him affluence, for he joined the War Office and served in the Commissariat and Ordnance Department for which his talents and education well fitted him. A sound knowledge of a number of sciences, languages as well as histories, helped him to be selected for tasks which carried him to many parts of Europe, North America and even as far as South Africa on behalf of the Department. Of an inquiring mind and with an interest in exploration, he took the opportunity, whilst on the African continent, of sailing for Madagascar where, helped by his knowledge of French, he made investigations concerning the nature of the interior of the island.

His keenness to travel brought him out to Sydney where his brother Abraham already enjoyed a reputation as an innkeeper and a pillar of the Jewish community. In 1839 he was elected Chairman of the Building Committee to erect a new synagogue in York Street, Sydney. Joel Samuel Polack set himself up as a merchant and ships' chandler, but whether business competition was too fierce or whether he enjoyed exploration better than trade, is not known, but it was not many months after he had arrived in Sydney that he was already on his way to New Zealand.

He landed in 1831 at Hokianga, on the west coast of the North Island, where the Wesleyans had established a mission. The Methodists, when they founded their first mission station, in 1822, in the vicinity of the Anglican settlement in the Bay of Islands, worked in co-operation with their Christian brethren with little sectarian rivalry. Later, the Methodists alleged that the catechists and the lay workers of the Church Missionary Society station established by Marsden, were labouring for their own private benefit page 34 instead of trying to improve the status of the natives. The rivalries between the two sects grew to such an extent that the Wesleyans decided to move from the east to the west coast. Polack appreciated their efforts and motives, though the natives themselves were wary and suspicious. The missionaries acted in the kindest way to Polack.

Quickly learning to understand and speak the Maori language, Polack soon gained the trust and confidence of the Hokianga natives, who told him all he wanted to know since he was not a missionary. The natives respected the traders more than they did the missionaries because they received something from the merchants and greatly enjoyed bartering. Traders also had a better understanding of the character of the natives. The Maoris took a particular liking to Polack. He reciprocated. He respected their keen intelligence and enjoyed their sense of humour. For twelve pleasant months he collected flax at Hokianga, carefully noting Maori customs and recording their tales and legends. From them he learnt the native version of the coming of the white man. They thought the ship in which Captain Cook arrived to be a gigantic bird. When they saw a smaller ship and white human beings on it, they believed it was a house full of divinities. The killing of a chief from a musket shot they thought to be a thunderbolt from the "atuas", the gods, whilst the sound which issued from the musket was their thunder. Their dearest wish was to revenge themselves for the slaying of their chief, but they did not know how it could be done against the power of divinities. They considered the white man could bewitch them with a look and that some Maoris had become ill when staring at them. For this reason they thought it would be better to be rid of the "atuas".

As a clever, trained observer, Polack accumulated a great fund of knowledge on many aspects of the Maoris and New Zealand. His native friends helped him garner much of his material. Their friendship, too, led him quietly to form a liaison with a Maori girl.

Within a short time of arrival, Polack began to satisfy his passion for exploration. Using a whaleboat, he sailed for Kaipara on a commercial speculation, principally to discover if the river had a channel through its sand-bar. Early in 1832 he made a similar exploration, going farther afield in search of spars and flax. He always took his native servant, Puhi, with him. On the second venture ten natives accompanied him in order to visit their relatives and to gain prestige for serving a "Rangatira no Uropi", a gentleman from Europe. Wherever he went he was received hospitably, rubbing noses with the natives and causing astonishment amongst them. They would watch him dressing in the mornings, and his washing, shaving and mirror were continual sources of amazement. His comb did not arouse curiosity as they possessed a similar article for personal use. At one village, as a sign of friendship, a native carried him on his back and took him down page 35 hill, whilst at another village where he rested, the head of a family offered him his beautiful, pleasant, vivacious, fifteen-year-old daughter as a wife. Polack was given no time to accept or refuse. The girl, Konihaua, ran off.

Sailing down the Wairoa River and exploring the Thames area, he estimated the land would be good for colonization, so he prepared the way by mapping and sketching the rivers, coastline and surrounding terrain. His journey was not free from fear. Once he came to a village where he was horrified to see decapitated heads of natives stuck on the palings of the Maori pa, and the fierceness of the terrifying shouts and movements of naked Maoris dancing a haka also caused him no little trepidation. Not without belief in God, Polack, on his return, offered a prayer of thankfulness to his Heavenly Father that He had brought him back safely to Hokianga.

Not long after he came back from his expedition, Polack realized that Hokianga held no future for him and that Kororareka, in the Bay of Islands, because of its excellent harbour and facilities, would be the town that would prosper. He transferred to Kororareka, setting himself up as a trader and as a wholesale and retail merchant. From the natives he bought five separate pieces of land, a total of 1100 acres. The first parcel of land, 250 acres in extent, at Taiaruru, he received in exchange for various articles to the value of 15 shillings. Another large estate cost him only 25 shillings, whilst yet another area of 91/2 acres in Kororareka cost him 40 shillings. He called the latter Parramatta. He bought it from Tohitapu, a ferocious warrior who had taken part in the massacre of Marion Dufresne, the French explorer, and his companions. For his part in the attack, Tohitapu had been allotted Dufresne's body. Not all the purchases of land Polack made were voluntary. The three smaller sites were forced upon him by the natives and he bought them only for the sake of good will. On the Kororareka property, which lay on a hill close by the waterfront at the extreme north of the town, he built a substantial store which, because of its position, was one of the prominent buildings in the township. Although the natives fully understood the nature of a land purchase and a barter transaction, they had little perception of the value of their property in relation to the goods they received in exchange, but Polack had not the slightest intention of misleading them. The prices he paid were the current rates prevalent in the Bay of Islands at the time. In reality, the actual vendors of the land did not usually receive the full amount of the barter handed over to them by the purchaser. Native law demanded that all persons connected, even only vaguely, with the vendor should share in the goods received. Polack related that once, when passing through a native village where a transaction had just been concluded, he unwillingly received, at the insistence of the Maoris, a small portion of the proceeds.

No authority existed in the Bay of Islands to prevent the exploitation of page 36 the natives. Kororareka was a wild place. Throughout the seven seas it had gained an unsavoury reputation as a sink of iniquity. Every evil and crime imaginable was committed there by white against white and by white against the Maori. The violence offered to the natives by masters of sailing vessels nearly cost Polack his life. On his first expedition after taking up his abode on the east coast, he sailed for Tolaga Bay in his whaling boat. After showing him relics of Captain Cook, whom they called Kuki, the Maoris made an attempt to capture both him and his boat in the belief that he was about to commit an offence against them as masters of other vessels had done. He barely escaped with his life. Because of the relationship between white and native he always had to be alert against treachery when moving out of the settlement of the Bay of Islands. When he made an expedition to the Poverty Bay area in June, 1835, only a warning by two natives enabled him to take the action necessary to avoid capture.

If the Maoris had been united amongst themselves, it might have resulted in the complete annihilation of the Europeans at Kororareka, but each tribe vied with his neighbour, this sometimes leading to a mere token display of hostility but on other occasions resulting in great loss of life. At the Bay of Islands, Polack witnessed a fight in which three thousand natives were involved but not one life was forfeited. The missionaries of the Church Missionary Society had little influence amongst them. One or two of the catechists had acted in such a way as to undo all the labour of Marsden and his colleagues. The missionaries did not enjoy the confidence of the whites because the missionaries opposed their evil habits and stood aloof from them. On the other hand the settlers believed the missionaries had acquired vast tracts of land for themselves personally and not for the church, and that they opposed colonization in order to serve their own private interests.

In the midst of the obscure state of affairs around the Bay of Islands there appeared another factor to add to the confusion. When the catechist Kendall had taken the native chief, Hongi, to England and so to Professor Lee at Cambridge so that he could transcribe into writing the spoken language of the Maoris, the appearance of Hongi awakened in one of the undergraduates of Queen's College the echoes of tales of adventure he had heard in his childhood about New Zealand. This undergraduate, Baron Charles de Thierry, born in London in 1793 of emigre French parents who had escaped the French Revolution by a hair's breadth, gave Kendall thirty-six axes and a sum of money variously stated as £700, £1100 and £16,000 to buy him an estate at Hokianga. In due course Kendall sent him a deed of purchase for 40,000 acres of land. Supported by the deed, the Baron applied to the Colonial Office for protection and for a loan of £10,000 to assist him to colonize New Zealand. The Government of the time, reluctant page 37 to add to its colonial obligations, refused to help de Thierry as New Zealand "was not considered a possession of the Crown". He then applied to the French Government which also refused to become involved.

Since no country claimed dominion over the islands, de Thierry considered himself free to act independently and launched a colonization scheme on the strength of his deed of purchase. Rumours of de Thierry's plans to annex the land they possessed reached the settlers in New Zealand and they put pressure upon the Governor of New South Wales to place New Zealand under his protection. The missionaries, in order to save the Maoris from the depredations of the whites, also influenced the North Auckland chiefs to meet at Kerikeri and to ask for the protection of "King William the Gracious, Chief of England". It resulted in the appointment in 1832, by the Governor of New South Wales, of James Busby, a Sydney engineer, as British Resident in New Zealand at a salary of £500 plus £200 for gifts to the Maoris. Since the British Government did not desire any further colonial responsibilities, Busby was given no authority except a letter to "the chiefs of New Zealand" and told "to conciliate the goodwill of the chiefs" and "to lay the foundations of your measures upon the influence which you shall obtain over the native chiefs". Kororareka's reputation would not allow Busby to take up his residence in the township. He built his residence on the opposite side of the bay.

Busby and Polack did not agree with each other. Polack, except for business purposes and one or two particular friends, kept himself aloof from the rest of the Kororareka community. He wanted to play the gentleman. He sought friendship with Busby as an equal, but the latter regarded Polack as obnoxious. Amongst other matters, Polack resented any imputation against his character but somehow Busby had discovered through the usual channels of gossip of a small isolated township that Polack had lived with a native girl at Hokianga. Polack's reformed views did not help him. When writing about two native women who were working for him, he was particularly careful to mention that they served him for washing and cooking only "as I determined in Sydney to have no communication with the women of this place as I had a responsible character to support." He even became puritan in his outlook. A white man, Dominick Ferari, who had worked for him as a carpenter, had been living with a native princess for years. One day, Polack informed Ferari that he did not consider himself a canonized saint but he could not allow Ferari to continue working for him, although he was an admirable artisan and a man whom he wanted and needed, unless Ferari married the girl legally under the auspices of the missionaries.

James Busby also would not tolerate Polack because he continued to trade extensively with a Maori chief of the district, Rete, who had been guilty of an attack upon the British Resident. Neither the settlers nor the page 38 natives paid much attention to Busby, who had no authority to wield and whose sincere efforts were scoffed at and criticized by both the Governor of New South Wales, who had sent him, and the inhabitants of the Bay of Islands. Polack became one of his most hostile critics. As for the natives, they quickly learnt to ape the antagonism of the whites.

Polack's hostility to Busby arose not only because he would not treat with him as an equal, but also because the Resident would not help him recover some possessions which the natives had stolen from his house. The natives would always demand "utu" for the slightest injury or pretext. Once, Polack's servant threw out a hoe to the gardener. It missed its mark and hit a local native chief who was passing. Next day the chief sent one of his slaves to Polack to inquire if it would be "equally convenient to strip him on Monday as he did not want to disturb the Sabbath of the missionaries". Normally, amongst the natives stripping a home of all its possessions constituted satisfaction of any demand for compensation. On another occasion, some Maoris came and asked Polack for tools to help the natives who were working in his garden. Whilst Polack went away on business, the Maoris, in league with a female servant working in the house, entered the premises and stole £-150 worth of goods. Polack caught them and solicited the aid of Busby, who happened to be in Kororareka at the time, to have the Maoris return the merchandise to him. The Maoris told Busby that Polack cursed them and had said he would cut off the head of one of the Maoris and cook it in a frying-pan. The natives had a superstitious dread of being cursed. It was a sufficient injury to demand "utu". Busby told them that if they had any cause of complaint against Polack they should have told him. He ordered the stolen goods to be returned. The chief returned a musket and shovel but his companions brazenly refused to give anything back. The chief grabbed the musket and shovel and walked off with it again. Seeing that it was hopeless to argue any more with the natives, Busby strode off and made his way back by boat to his residence on the other side of the harbour, accompanied by defiant volleys from the muskets of the Maoris who fired over his head.

This demonstration annoyed Busby the more as he was inclined to believe the natives because they had never acted in that way before. He concluded a report on the matter with: "The Jew's bearing towards the natives had not been such as was in every way calculated, in the absence of efficient protection, to secure his safety." Polack persistently requested the Resident to take up his case with the Maoris, but Busby refused point-blank to do so. He had been taught his lesson. Once before he had pursued the natives in order to recover some stolen goods, but he had had to retire ignominiously after finding his life in danger when some of the natives began snooting at him. The settlers scoffed at him because he failed in his mission, page 39 and the Governor of New South Wales also criticized him, instructing him not to act as a constable and sarcastically referred to the fact of his "retiring with so little advantage". Besides an acrimonious correspondence between Busby and Polack, the latter, with an able and sharp pen acted as secret correspondent for the Sydney periodical the Australian which severely admonished the Resident for not helping the Europeans. Polack consistently sniped at Busby, writing in the strain: "Mr Busby is found to be worse than useless in protecting the residents." The quarrel between the two men grew to such intensity that Busby refused access to Polack and refused to have any connection with him except by correspondence.

In spite of Busby's antagonism, Polack was regarded as a man of standing in the community, though he may not have been popular. Busby's opinion of him could not have improved when Polack opened a brewery in 1835. Amongst the many crimes for which the Europeans were responsible against the Maoris, few were more iniquitous than the indiscriminate sale to them of spirituous liquors. It caused incalculable harm to their morale, self-esteem and conduct. It thoroughly demoralized them. Naively, Polack stated that he had built his brewery so as to put beer on the Kororareka market in order that it should take the place of spirits. If the natives acquired a taste for beer, he hoped they would be prevented from drinking more injurious liquors. Polack ordered his hops from Sydney and employed a Hobart Town brewer to brew them. On this account he later claimed to have introduced "New Zealand's first foreign manufacture". It may have been Polack's brewery which accounted for Busby writing so bitterly about him. In a letter to his brother, the Resident stated: "He is universally detested here. The other settlers know that he is as great a rogue as the worst of them, and he, forsooth, wants to play the gentleman amongst them. . . . Confound the scamp that I should have taken up so much paper with him!"