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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter VI — A Select Committee on the Islands of New Zealand

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Chapter VI
A Select Committee on the Islands of New Zealand

Busby's dislike of Polack did not prevent the trader from signing a petition with many other inhabitants of the Bay of Islands and sending it through the British Resident to His Majesty King William IV. The petition asked for relief of the situation then existing in the area. Although the petitioners were aware that the British Government had no desire to extend its colonies, they stressed that a great number of the white settlers stood in need of protection. More than five hundred lived north of the Thames, many of whom were rearing children born in New Zealand. More Englishmen were coming out as immigrants and shipping was attracted by the good anchorage, the means to replenish stores and the excellent fishing in the area. In the six months ending June, 1836, one hundred and one vessels visited the bay. The lawlessness of many of the British residents, however, and the shocking crimes committed by them and by visiting sailors, made Kororareka almost untenable. White people attacked other whites and natives with impunity. Property was not safe. Crews of vessels were decoyed ashore and whilst they were absent from their ships, the vessels would be plundered and thoroughly stripped. The British Resident had no power to stop the depredations and the petitioners were afraid that if His Majesty did not take action in the matter, more murders would be committed and violence done.

The petitioners also feared annexation. Baron Charles de Thierry had sailed from England, with his wife, two children and a small retinue, for New Zealand by way of Sydney. On the way he had stopped at Nukahiva, in the Marquesas. Here, on 21 July, 1835, he persuaded the local chiefs "to solemnly invest" him with sovereignty of the island and swear allegiance to him, his heirs and successors. Proceeding to Tahiti he wrote a majestic letter to James Busby, informing him of his imminent arrival "having already declared my independence to Their Majesties—the Kings of Britain and France and to the President of the United States". He signed himself, "Sovereign Chief of New Zealand and King of Nukahiva". On receipt of the letter, Busby ceremoniously summoned a congress of thirty-five native chiefs who, by official proclamation, announced their independence as "The United Tribes of New Zealand". The Declaration of Independence was sent page 41 to Governor Gipps of New South Wales and to Baron de Thierry. The former, with a customary scoff at the Resident, said that Busby, having no other guns, had fired off "his paper pellet" at de Thierry. The latter sailed on undeterred. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the Bay of Islands were deeply concerned with de Thierry's claims and they hoped that their petition to the British Government would bring relief.

Besides Polack there was one other Jew amongst the many petitioners who signed the document. He was John Israel Montefiore. A Londoner by birth, he came to the Bay of Islands in 1831 and acted as a trader in a store along the seafront. Although a distant cousin of Joseph Barrow Montefiore, he had no business connection with him. Nevertheless, as a bearer of a noble and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish name, he upheld the honour of his family in surroundings where even the strongest will could easily have been tempted. Some residents disliked Polack because they presumed he played the gentleman. All recognized John Israel Montefiore as a true gentleman. Polack once stated that the only persons he associated with on the Bay of Islands were Mr Montefiore and a "Captain Powditch, a person equally respectable". Whether or not Mr Montefiore reciprocated the feeling is not stated. In order to keep away from the wicked township, Montefiore, in August, 1836, bought for £20 sterling a 346-acre property from the Maori chiefs, Ware Rahi, Pau, Pokerehu and Tupunapara. Situated at Manawa Bay, on the eastern side of the Bay of Islands peninsula, the property, although a watering place, was so far away from the town that Montefiore was able to find the isolation he desired. When, in 1838, other properties of a smaller size, purchased for about the same price, rose to a value of £4000 and land along the waterfront at Kororareka, because of keen competition, sold at prices equal to land in large towns in Europe, i.e., at £3 a foot, Montefiore's station was valued at only £47. As a gentleman he deliberately separated himself from the rabble.

Polack's restless nature induced him in March, 1836, to leave for Sydney for a prolonged period, taking with him, as he usually did, his native servant, Puhi. He could not long remain in one place when he returned. Early in 1837, he revisited Hokianga where he was deeply impressed by the progress achieved by the Wesleyan missionaries in improving the standards of the natives. Their efforts were somewhat hampered at the time by a crusade amongst the natives, rumoured to have been introduced by a captain of a ship, but which Polack believed was spread by a Christian sectarian. The movement, called Papahuriha, instilled a belief in the native that by shouting the magic word, meaning "Father in Heaven", no harm would come to him no matter what he did. Its adherents also observed Saturday as the Sabbath. Easily roused, the natives did not cover their religious differences by tolerance, but, in a most un-Christianlike manner, fought against each page 42 other with fierce fury. Having won popularity amongst the Hokianga natives whom he had known previously, Polack was offered a daughter of a chief as a wife. Doubtless the chief thought he had honoured Polack, for the natives were very strict in their customs with regard to marriage, and through it a chieftainess conferred her rank and property upon her husband. No inducement would allow Polack to accept. Soon afterwards he decided to forsake his adventurous life in New Zealand, at least temporarily, and, on 15 May, 1837, he left for England.

A few months after Polack's arrival in London, the House of Lords appointed a Select Committee to inquire into the state of the islands of New Zealand. Rumours that the French intended to annex the islands were rife. In addition, Baron Charles de Thierry had at last arrived in Sydney and had written "to the White People of New Zealand" that on the first Wednesday of every month "six respectable men, previously selected by the body of the settlers, shall assemble to deliberate with the Baron de Thierry on all matters connected with the happiness and prosperity of the community". He promised a Utopian existence with equality of race, religious freedom, free medical attention and no taxation. Unfortunately for him, he could not persuade the master of any vessel to take him to New Zealand and he fretted in Sydney for many months. At last he induced an American skipper to oblige him and, together with an entourage of ninety-three of the riff-raff of New South Wales, set sail for Hokianga. He was deeply disappointed with his reception. All the Europeans there regarded his arrival as the best New Zealand joke to that date. Kendall, the catechist, dismissed some time previously by the Church Missionary Society, had disappeared with his money and the Maoris refused to recognize his claim to 40,000 acres. After a great deal of haggling, Nene, the Maori chief who had accompanied Hongi to England, granted to de Thierry 300 acres, and upon this small parcel of land he solemnly hoisted his discredited flag and established his Lilliputian kingdom. Although the British Government may also have regarded de Thierry's claims as fantastic, the increasing notice which New Zealand was receiving made it imperative for the Government to come to a decision regarding its policy.

Pressure upon the Government came also from another source, the New Zealand Land Company, of which Edward Gibbon Wakefield was the prime mover. The first New Zealand Association was formed in London in 1825. It sent an expedition with some sixty settlers to New Zealand, but when it arrived at Hokianga a native haka to welcome the guests so terrified the colonists, who mistook it for a war-dance, that all except four insisted, under the terms of the contract, that they be conveyed to England as they did not wish to stay.

In 1837 another New Zealand Association was formed with Francis page 43 Baring as chairman, and with a committee comprised mainly of former members and including some of those active in colonizing South Australia under the Wakefield scheme. Wakefield was impressed with the overstocked labour market in England which caused unemployment and low wages amongst the working classes. He disapproved more of the competition amongst the employing classes. To relieve competition amongst them he believed emigration to the colonies must be designed to attract capital and some of the people themselves who had capital to invest. He thought the key to the problem was the method of selling land. The system by which grants of land were given away freely or were sold at a very low price had the disadvantage of creating landowners without labourers to work the soil. This made the colonies unattractive to capitalists who "do not like to work with their own hands", but "like to direct with their heads the labours of others". Unrestricted free grants also created dispersed settlement which produced an uncultured type of life unattractive to the British upper classes.

Wakefield's scheme proposed the sale of land at a sufficient and uniform price set high enough to need possession of capital by the buyer. The uniform cost per acre for all land would ensure the best areas being developed first; only when the best land had improved and risen in value would the poorer land be accepted. Thus would dispersion be discouraged and the country would develop gradually. Labourers would be attracted by free passages provided by the money derived from the sale of land and by the high wages offering which would allow them to buy their own properties after a number of years of faithful service.

Strangely enough, Wakefield outlined his scheme in a pamphlet entitled A Letter from Sydney. He had never at that time been to Australia. It was an imaginative piece of writing composed in Newgate gaol. At the age of twenty, Wakefield eloped with and married an heiress who was a ward in Chancery, but was forgiven by the Lord Chancellor. Six years after the death of his wife, who left him with two children, he, with his brother William, abducted an heiress still at school and whom he did not know, and married her by false pretences. In prison after his conviction for this crime, he studied colonization and, after his release, his scheme attracted many moneyed men of Britain. Because of his record he had to work behind the scenes, a role for which his flair for manipulation and propaganda aptly fitted him.

Lord Glenelg was willing to grant the New Zealand Association a charter for colonization provided that the Maori chiefs consented and that the Association subscribed a certain amount of capital before it assumed authority. A prominent member of the Association, Lord Durham, with whom Wakefield was connected in colonizing Canada, refused the monetary condition on behalf of his colleagues on the grounds that the Association page 44 would "neither run any pecuniary risk nor accept any pecuniary advantage". When, however, in 1838, Lord Durham as Governor formed the New Zealand Land Company, for the purpose of employing capital in the purchase and resale of lands in New Zealand and the promotion of emigration to that country, the Government was compelled once again to appoint another of its innumerable Select Committees to inquire into the state of the islands of New Zealand.

Joseph Barrow Montefiore and Joel Samuel Polack being in England at the time, both gave evidence before it. Conducted by the House of Lords, it opened on 3 April, 1838. The members of the Committee recognized the difference in standing between Montefiore and Polack, as only one other, apart from Montefiore, amongst a number of witnesses was entitled Esquire. Polack earned only the title of Mister. Closely questioned about his experiences in New Zealand, Montefiore gave the opinion that the North Island should be taken over by the British Empire, although he believed it would be no easy task. He did not favour the missionaries as he had never heard of their being of any use, although they may have done some good about which he did not know. They enriched themselves and owned large tracts of land. An interesting observation of his concerned the natives who, he said, did not like the taste of human flesh, but only ate it as a token of victory. As there was no rule of law in New Zealand, nothing was known of half the atrocities perpetrated against the Maoris or amongst the whites themselves. Because of the bad characters in the area, nothing could be worse than the Bay of Islands. So bad was the reputation of the whites that he would believe any story told about them.

The Select Committee questioned Polack more closely than it did Montefiore. An air of doubt as to Polack's bona fides prevailed, and perhaps a little prejudice, although the Committee recognized that the length of Polack's stay in New Zealand and his ability to speak the Maori tongue entitled him to speak with some authority. He suggested that if Britain annexed the country, a regular stipend should be paid to the Maori chiefs whose land had been bought. He did not oppose the natives owning firearms, and believed that it lessened the loss of lives amongst them. The only method of stopping the wars amongst the Maoris would be for the Europeans to employ the natives. He, too, did not favour the Church Missionary Society's activities, but admired the work of the Wesleyans. Asked if there were many Jews in New Zealand, he at first said that he knew of no others beside himself and John Israel Montefiore, but later on stated that four Jews lived there. Obviously, he meant the others were not worth knowing. When asked if the Jews had erected a synagogue he answered with an emphatic "No!" The Select Committee then closely cross-examined him concerning the sale of spirituous liquors to the natives, which had caused disastrous page 45 havoc amongst them. He denied selling spirits to the Maoris. He said that he only sold spirits wholesale like every other trader in the Bay of Islands.

Apparently someone whispered an adverse rumour concerning Polack to the members of the Committee, for he was recalled and re-examined. A Mr John Downing Towell then gave evidence stating that he had been in New Zealand as a surgeon for two months near the end of 1837. He had not met Polack there, but knew him well in New South Wales. He also knew his brother. Asked if he thought Polack should be designated a respectable man, he replied: "I am in possession of one or two facts of my own knowledge which would make me disbelieve him on his oath under any circumstances." He did not state the facts.

Polack had no opportunity to defend his reputation before the Select Committee. When the London Times discussed the inquiry it called Polack "a worthy and wandering offshoot of the seed of Abraham", and attacked him unmercifully as a purveyor of spirits. Deeply offended, Polack sued The Times and the jury, after a retirement of only a few minutes, awarded him £100 damages for libel, a result which should have given Polack a great amount of satisfaction. It was no easy matter to win a libel suit against The Times.

His reputation vindicated, Polack was elected a member of the Colonial Society in London and, in the same year, 1838, published two valuable, lengthy books, each of two volumes, through the auspices of Michael Bentley of New Burlington Street, London, the Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty. The first of the books was entitled, New Zealand: Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures during a Residence in that Country between the Years 1831 and 18S7, whilst the second book, similar in character and content, but excluding his personal adventures, he called, Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders and Remarks to Intending Emigrants. His writings stamped Polack as a versatile and knowledgeable scholar, for he discusses with admirable clarity and detail practically every historical, geographical and scientific aspect of New Zealand known at that date.

An account of the early voyages of exploration to New Zealand, propounds the theory that Juan Fernandez visited the country in 1576—before Abel Tasman. Polack's vivid descriptions of the customs, habits, traditions and disputes of the natives abolished many of the fears and rumours then current concerning the Maoris. There is no doubt where his sympathies lay. He deeply deplored the fact that Europeans were not punished for the crimes they committed against the natives. He considered the Maoris extremely clever, intelligent and quick to learn. Admirable and natural sailors, they added to their craft by their excellence as map-makers. They hastily adopted European customs to their advantage and learnt from travellers abroad. Once they stopped him sailing up a river, demanding page 46 anchorage dues, just as the pakeha authorities demanded them at Port Jackson.

Geographical details of the coast, rivers, mountains and forests as well as the climatic conditions of the country, prove Polack's ability for keen observation, whilst his chapters on the fauna and flora and geological features of the soil establish him as no mean scientist. For the intending investor or immigrant, exact particulars of the flax and whaling industries were invaluable. Besides an appendix setting out the petition, with the names of the petitioners, sent to King William IV in 1836 and requesting that New Zealand be taken over by the British Government, and a list of the names of the vessels which visited Kororareka and Waitangi in 1836, Polack's books are of inestimable consequence because of his own drawings and woodcuts which lavishly illustrate them. From them we gain a lasting impression of scenes at the Bay of Islands and Kororareka in the early years of white settlement in New Zealand.

Joel Samuel Polack cannot be regarded only as a New Zealand pioneer. He made a definite contribution to its culture, to the white man's understanding of the Maori, to its annexation as a British colony, and played his part in publicizing it in English-speaking countries and in Europe. His adventurous nature, superior airs and, perhaps, his Jewish background may have awakened prejudices against him. At heart, however, he inherited the Hebrew love for scholarship for the sake of study itself. In the preface of his first book on New Zealand he states that he regarded it "as the duty of every individual to add, to the best of his abilities, some contribution towards the general treasury of knowledge".