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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter IX — The Beginning of the Wellington Community

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Chapter IX
The Beginning of the Wellington Community

The poverty-stricken condition of the Jews in London in the eighteen-forties influenced a number of the younger generation to seek their future abroad, even as far as Australia and New Zealand. Those who chose New Zealand preferred Wellington to Auckland. It enjoyed a larger population and the organization of the New Zealand Company. Because of the splendid reports sent to his family by Abraham Hort, jun., his brother, Alfred W. Hort, came over to Wellington, and together the brothers, from their home at Te Aro, initiated trade with the Pacific Islands which a decade later led to their recognition as the leading merchants and shipowners in Apia, Samoa and Tahiti. They owned a substantial fleet of large and small sailing vessels trading between Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji, with headquarters at Apia, Samoa. Though very young, Abraham Hort, jun., had achieved a notable position in the town of Wellington. When, in October, 1842, Wellington assumed the status of a borough, Abraham Hort, jun., one of its three most distinguished merchants and only twenty-two years of age, was elected by 155 votes as an alderman.

Probably, Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid influenced his relative J. M. Levien to migrate to Wellington in the first year of the foundation of the town. Levien built a house on Thorndon Flat, and attained some eminence as an artist in New Zealand wood. Goldsmid may have influenced others who soon followed Levien. Henry Nathan, his wife Jane and child were among the early pioneers. Nathaniel Levin, a young man of twenty-one years of age, followed soon after. He opened a store on Lambton Quay a month or two after his arrival. He came on the same cattle-boat from Sydney as Abraham Hort, jun., who had travelled to Australia on a business venture. It appears that a relative, Simeon Levin, came to stay with him for a short period in 1843. Glowing accounts from relatives of conditions in Wellington in comparison with London may have urged others to take the step to sail for New Zealand. Another member of the Joseph family, Hyam Joseph, migrated and later removed to Auckland. Kaufman Samuel arrived by the Exporter in 1842, soon followed by two other of his relations. Two brothers, J. and James Hyams came on the same boat as Kaufman Samuel, and G. and L. Levy arrived on the Tyranian a few months later. Amongst others known page 59 to be in Wellington before the end of 1843 were one Aarons and Morris Asher, who later transferred to Sydney. He conducted a wholesale and retail general store on Lambton Quay, and frequently advertised in the local Press that he could sell cheaper than anyone else because he had the means.

Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, as a director of the New Zealand Company and a leader of Anglo-Jewry connected with the Neveh Zedek, the institution which combined the labours of a Jewish orphanage, youth occupational training centre and old-age home and which was known as the Jewish Hospital, must have favoured and been instrumental in sending young Jewish women to Wellington so as to give the young Jewish men already there an opportunity to marry within their faith. Two young ladies from the institution, Elizabeth Levi, aged twenty years, and Esther Solomon, aged eighteen years, did embark on the Birman in October, 1841, and arrived three months later at their destination. On 1 June, 1842, Wellington celebrated its first Jewish wedding when Benjamin Levy took Esther Solomon as his wife.

Before the High Holydays in 1842, London's Jewry was agog and its hopes raised of an alleviation through migration of the pressure upon its charitable funds and public institutions. In consultation with his friend Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, the distinguished London Jew, Abraham Hort, sen., widely known for his staunchness to his faith, philanthropy and public service, had decided to migrate with all the members of his family to join his two sons at Port Nicholson. He looked forward to facilitating migration for needy Jews, especially Germans, who at that time were hard pressed by their government and by importuning missionaries. As a man who had filled the highest positions at Duke's Place Synagogue and on charitable boards, he received the special blessing of the Chief Rabbi of England, Solomon Herschell, and a written authority from him to establish a congregation in Wellington and to promote Judaism in whatever way he thought correct.

In the first week of September, 1842, Hort embarked from London on the Prince of Wales together with his wife, five daughters and his son-in-law, Solomon Mocatta, who was married to his eldest daughter and who had assisted him in his public endeavours. A Samuel Joseph also boarded the ship. Hort had no difficulty about Kosher food, for he took with him a young man of about nineteen years of age from the Neveh Zedek, David M. Isaacs, in the capacity of Shohet, Mohel and Hazzan. In contrast to the other migrant passengers, Isaacs behaved himself in exemplary fashion, and for this he was rewarded by a signed testimonial from the captain, chief mate, doctor and cabin passengers, and addressed to His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex, Patron of the Jews' Hospital, Mile End, for the education and apprenticeship of youth and for the support of the aged poor, and to Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, page 60 Bart., and the rest of the directors of the New Zealand Company. Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, and sixth son of George III had shown himself a friend of the Jews in many ways including his patronage of the Jews' Hospital. Isaacs proved himself worthy of it.

As soon as the Prince of Wales arrived at Port Nicholson, via Nelson, on 3 January, 1843, Abraham Hort, sen., automatically assumed the leadership of the small Jewish community, winning the admiration of its members by his zeal and piety. He also took an active interest in every movement of merit in the general community. He became recognized as a man of consequence and character, thereby gaining the respect of all. On the Sabbath, four days after his arrival, he gathered together his family and eight other male co-religionists, and, in a moving prayer composed especially for the occasion, expressed the heartfelt gratitude of the travellers to the Almighty for their safe arrival. Although he had brought out Isaacs as a Hazzan, it was Hort who conducted the services, and he never let an opportunity pass without delivering a sermon on the significance of the occasion which was being celebrated. Isaacs acted as the Shohet, and earned his living as a shoemaker on Lambton Quay.

A man of wide knowledge, Hort was also a man who looked ahead. He brought out from London his own Matzah for the Passover, and to make certain of having sufficient supplies, ordered an adequate quantity from Sydney. In case the Matzah did not arrive in time, he had taken further precautions, and had arranged with a local farmer to cut the necessary amount of wheat, and with a baker to prepare it. Two years later he actually had to bring his emergency scheme into operation, for the ship with the Sydney Matzah aboard failed to dock in time. Wellington's first Passover service was a memorable affair. Not having yet built his own home, Hort conducted the evening service in the parlour of Mr Levien, in which twenty-four happy souls prayed in unison. From there, Isaacs, Levien and Samuel Joseph proceeded to Hort's room for the Seder service and meal prepared by Mrs Hort and her daughters. As a learned, married man, Solomon Mocatta conducted his own Seder service in his own home with his wife. On the following two days, the statutory services were held, Hort, as usual, delivering his sermons. They apparently had effect, for the small gathering subscribed £40 towards the building of a synagogue and the acquisition of a cemetery.

As soon as he came to Wellington, Hort, as a responsible Jew, recognized the principle that no town where Jews resided should be without its cemetery and synagogue. Accordingly, within ten days of his arrival, he sent a memorial to the Administrator, Lieutenant Willoughby Shortland, praying for grants of land for these two purposes. Beneath Hort's signature appeared the signatures of his two sons and Solomon, Benjamin and L. Levy, Kaufman page 61 Samuel and two relatives of the same name, Nathaniel Levin, Solomon Mocatta, David M. Isaacs, Samuel Joseph, Aarons and Morris Asher. About a fortnight later, Shortland replied that the Governor regretted he had no power to grant land for such purposes, and would refer the case to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies. Governor FitzRoy had learnt his lesson. A few years previously, whilst administering the Colony of New South Wales, he had been favourably disposed towards the claims of the Jews, and had allowed the Sydney Jewish community a grant of £1000 from the Supplementary Lists in order to defray the debt incurred in the building of the synagogue. Lord Grey, the Colonial Secretary of the day, had reprimanded him and informed him that he opposed further grants to the Jews, and regretted that FitzRoy had allowed the claim for £1000. FitzRoy had no desire to be selected for reprimand again. The refusal prompted Hort to appeal for subscriptions on the Passover, but apparently FitzRoy changed his mind about the cemetery, for when Hort applied again, in June, 1843, an immediate grant was made of one acre of land of which Hort consecrated one-quarter. FitzRoy was probably moved by Hobson's precedent in Auckland and the precedent of previous governors in New South Wales with regard to cemeteries. He appointed four trustees for the land—Abraham Hort, sen., Nathaniel Levin, Solomon Mocatta and Kaufman Samuel. Not until 4 February, 1845, did Hort officiate at the first burial—the second son of Benjamin and Esther Levy, aged only eight months.

According to Hort, Governor FitzRoy had also promised him a grant of land for a synagogue. This seems most unlikely in view of FitzRoy's previous experience. Shortland may have assumed FitzRoy's assent, but it is very doubtful if it was ever given. This also appeared to be the Government's view. When Lord Stanley, the Colonial Secretary, refused Hort's memorial in November, 1843, Hort stubbornly persisted in a campaign which continued for over fifteen years to have FitzRoy's promise fulfilled. As late as 24 December, 1857, I. E. Featherston, Superintendent for Wellington, transferred to E. W. Stafford, Colonial Secretary at Auckland, an application from certain members of the Hebrew Congregation at Wellington for a "reserve" promised by Governor FitzRoy as the site for a synagogue. On 22 February, 1858, Stafford replied that the promise had been made without the authority of the law but that a Bill would be proposed in the next session of the General Assembly to enable the Government to fulfil this and similar equitable arrangements made on behalf of the Crown. The Bill, however, was not introduced. A year later, Hort again applied through the same channels for the promise to be honoured, but Stafford asked for certified copies of any documents containing such a promise to be exhibited. They could not be produced. The struggle then waned.

Hort, although always sanguine in the belief that a grant of land would page 62 eventually be made officially by the Government for the building of a synagogue, did not tarry on his own behalf to arrange a house of worship for Jewish prayer. After living colonial-fashion in a one-roomed house, he bought a half-acre plot in Abel Smith Street, and there built himself a home described as one of the finest in Wellington. He did not build on the acre of land at Cambridge Terrace which he had bought in London. In his new home he made special provision to fit out one of the larger rooms as a synagogue together with a gallery in order to seat the ladies.

Besides acting as the lay leader of the small Jewish community, Hort also served as the lay minister. He arranged for a Minyan to be present as in a proper Kehilah at the first Brith celebrated in Wellington on 17 June, 1843, for the infant son of Benjamin and Esther Levy. Hort considered David Isaacs a first-class Mohel, and took pride in the honour presented to him to act as Sandek. The community rejoiced with him when he acted as officiating minister at the marriage of his second daughter, Jessie, to Nathaniel Levin on 31 July, 1844. At the first Pentecostal services at which he ministered as Reader, he noted with deep regret that some of the members of the community would not close their places of business for the second day of the Festival. He preached his sermon to such effect that two congregants henceforth closed their businesses on the Sabbath. He desired to conduct the community on orthodox lines, and although he hoped all would work for its welfare, he foresaw "a struggle between the 'liberals' and the 'Tories'".

It may have been his fear of "liberalism" and assimilation which prompted him at first not to write about organized Jewish emigration to New Zealand. On arrival in the country, he discovered that his two sons had married outside the Jewish fold, as had J. M. Levien, the relative of Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid. Nevertheless, in his regular correspondence with the weekly London Jewish journal, the Voice of Jacob, he pointed out the benefits of emigration to New Zealand. He regarded the climate as salubrious, the soil fertile and the commercial position good. The country was open for capital and enterprise. Flax, he believed, would become New Zealand's staple product. The natives were intelligent, and at the time of writing were living in amity and were trading with the whites. He advised that only agriculturalists and tradesmen should emigrate as others would stand no chance. For those who adhered to the dietary laws there would be no difficulties as long as Kosher food was taken with them on board ship. If Jewish emigration grew, he thought the New Zealand Company would co-operate in supplying Kosher meat.

The editor of the Voice of Jacob, aware of London's depressed conditions, strongly supported emigration to New Zealand. He stated that emigration was not expensive, and in some conditions even gratuitous. He suggested New Zealand as a colony where oppressed Jews, especially Germans, could go, but warned that any continental migration should be organized and page 63 carried out with the greatest of care, as it could add to the burden of the English Jews. Religious observances could easily be kept, he stated, both on board ship and in Wellington, where a Minyan already existed. He suggested that Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid do something more for his co-religionists, and hinted that he should take note of the activities of the missionaries. The directors of the New Zealand Company, of which he was one, had agreed to co-operate to the extent of £.150 per annum for three years with the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland in sending a kirk minister to Nelson, the Company's new settlement. The newspaper pointed out that one of the main planks of the Church of Scotland's programme was the conversion of Jews.

Not until he had been in the colony for two years did Hort suggest a semblance of organized migration. He proposed that three or four families should be given free passages and grants of land of between 20 and 25 acres each, which would be paid off in instalments after seven years. Other emigrants could then follow. Orthodox Jews could take advantage of the offer, for he had arranged the community on an orthodox basis. Hort's increased concern with emigration stemmed from the fact that the number of Jews in Wellington had dwindled. Out of a total population of 2273 in the settlement in 1845, only 19 were Jews. No Minyan attended the Passover service held in his home that year. Better wages in Auckland enticed craftsmen and labourers to forsake the sponsors who had brought them out to the southern settlements. The Wellington, New Plymouth and Nelson settlements had not fulfilled the hopes of their inhabitants, because the New Zealand Company was unable to put the colonists in quiet possession of their land. In addition to the long and ruinous controversies with the Imperial Government, the natives were beginning to display their dissatisfaction with the land deals.

Serious trouble had broken out in the Nelson district. A survey party sent out to Wairau had been obstructed in their task by Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata, who opposed the claim. Although the dispute had been listed for official investigation, interested persons in Wellington and Nelson had organized an armed group under Arthur Wakefield, another brother of Edward Gibbon and William Wakefield, with instructions to arrest the two Maori chiefs. The attempt to place manacles upon Te Rauparaha wildly incensed the Maoris, who disliked their chief being treated as a common criminal. A bitter argument broke out in which a member of the British party accidentally fired a shot. The natives accepted it as a signal for a fight. Outnumbered, the whites fell back, and, being untrained, ultimately gave themselves up. In the action one of Te Rangihaeata's wives had been killed, and, driven to mad rage, he would not listen to the pleas for mercy. He and his followers slew twenty-two of their opponents including page 64 Arthur Wakefield. Amongst the terror-stricken Europeans, demands were made for the punishment of the culprits, and Wellington sent an impressive, sympathetic address to the Nelson settlement condoling with the victims of the "Wairau Massacre". As leading citizens, Abraham Hort, sen., Jacob Joseph, Hyam Joseph, Solomon Mocatta, Nathaniel Levin and Kaufman Samuel appended their signatures to the memorial. Governor FitzRoy came over from Auckland especially to judge the issues. After hearing both sides, he came to an unpopular conclusion as far as the Europeans were concerned. "The whites," he stated in his report to the Colonial Office, "needlessly violated the rules of the law of England, the maxims of prudence, and the principles of justice."

Crafty Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata regarded FitzRoy's decision as a victory. Rumours floated into Wellington that the Maori chiefs were about to attack the town and, in order to safeguard themselves, the citizens formed a military sub-committee to study the town's defences. Among the members were Abraham Hort, sen., and Nathaniel Levin. Later, hostilities broke out between the Maoris and the whites. Each accused the other of commencing them. The Maori chiefs, believing they were being cheated out of their land, moved from obstruction to raiding and killing civilians. In Wellington, the militia, in which service was compulsory, was hurriedly called up. Levin rose from ensign to lieutenant and then quickly to captain. Some fighting took place in the Hutt Valley, but eventually the Maoris were driven north and well away from the settlement.

The dissatisfaction of the Maoris in the south affected the natives in the north. At Kororareka, the moving of the capital to Auckland had taken trade and people from the Bay of Islands. Maori chiefs could no longer levy tolls on ships which anchored in the bay. Prices for goods increased considerably because of the heavy customs duties imposed by the Government. The authorities would not allow the natives to sell land direct to the Europeans, whilst the Government would not buy the land the Maoris wished to sell. The Land Commission's procedure took too long, and its decisions were often perverse. That which was taken from the whites was not returned to the natives but declared Crown property. In any case, Hone Heke, a proud Bay of Islands chief, considered British rule cramped his style of living. In his eyes, the symbol of his hatred was the flag that flew on Tapper's Mount, on the top of the hill at the foot of which stood Polack's store at the extreme northern end of the Kororareka township. Hone Heke cut the flagpole down. Such insurrection could not be allowed by the authorities and, against advice, the flagpole was re-erected. Hone Heke cut it down again. Although the whites were greatly outnumbered and the authorities warned that to raise the flagpole once again would cause a serious outbreak, FitzRoy's advisers insisted upon its replacement. A guard was placed beside the flag- page 65 pole and, halfway down the hill between the flag and Polack's store, a blockhouse was built, manned by about six men. Close by stood three old ships' guns. Hone Heke laughed at the preparations of the whites and boasted he would cut the flagpole down a third time.

Polack's store became the headquarters of the Kororareka Association of Vigilants. Although Joel Samuel Polack travelled from time to time to Auckland he maintained his home and chief place of business at Kororareka. Only one other Jew of note did the same—Benjamin Isaacs, the proprietor and editor of the Bay of Islands Advocate from November, 1843, to February, 1844. He later settled in Australia where he was associated with several newspapers and where he established the Bathurst Advocate in 1848. Polack had become famous in the town. In 1842, as the result of a bitter dispute, he had fought a duel with Benjamin Turner, in which both were slightly wounded. As it was considered to be the safest place in the township, the militia built a stockade around Polack's store. In the cellars the residents stored their money and valuables, and every night the women and children went there to sleep. The militia also stored their ammunition in Polack's house, but did not lay up provisions of food. On 11 March, 1845, Hone Heke started his attack, as expected, from the road which ran out from the south of the town. This assault, however, was a clever strategic trick, for Hone Heke had deployed his main body of warriors around the high hills to the north and captured the flagpole by craftiness and surprise. By ten o'clock in the morning, Polack's store was so full of women, children and non-combatants as well as militia that the officers in charge decided to evacuate the women and children. The position was serious. Ammunition had run out at the blockhouse. Taking advantage of the Maori warriors' martial courtesy in allowing the women, children and wounded to proceed to the evacuation ships unmolested, the leaders carried out the movement in haste and by twelve noon all the evacuees were on board ship. A lack of strong leadership led the officers of the militia and the local magistrate to come to the decision to abandon the town. A fierce quarrel broke out among the white combatants which quickly settled itself. In the heat of the argument, an unknown person spiked the guns. Another person, smoking near the ammunition, allowed his pipe to fall on a powder-keg. Up went Polack's building. Two persons were killed instantly, and Polack himself was amongst those seriously wounded. A fire, which broke out after the explosion, nearly burnt him to death. During the night all the men were evacuated to the ships in the harbour where, from the decks, they could see the sacking and looting of the town and their homes by Hone Heke and his followers. They could also see a broken flagpole.

On 13 March, 1845, Kororareka was abandoned. The ships left for Auckland where the citizens, horror-struck with the disaster, blamed every- page 66 one but themselves. FitzRoy came in for much abuse. They questioned his method of raising the militia. In a petition, the signatories deplored the state of the colony. They volunteered to enrol themselves as soldiers. They had no confidence in the officers, who had no stake in the colony and did not care about its future. They supported the Canadian method whereby officers were selected for the militia according to the number of men they could raise to follow them. The first name on the petition was that of John Israel Montefiore. Amongst the others was that of David Nathan.

By the end of 1845, New Zealand was in distress. The settlers were despondent and embittered; the Treasury was empty; the Maoris were flushed with success; and British prestige was at its lowest ebb. FitzRoy was recalled.