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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (November 1, 1938)

John Rutherford — The “White New Zealander”

page 25

John Rutherford
The “White New Zealander”

John Rutherford.

John Rutherford.

On the ninth of January, 1826, an American brig put into Poverty Bay and was boarded from a canoe by a cloaked and feathered native, heavily tattooed, and armed with a battle-axe. “Here is a white New Zealander!” exclaimed the captain.

The “native” replied in perfect English: “I am not a New Zealander. I am an Englishman.” And proceeded to unfold to the astonished Captain Jackson certain astounding adventures which had befallen him.

The “White New Zealander,” John Rutherford by name, had arrived in New Zealand about ten years previously, when Captain Coffin (ominous name!) of the American brig Agnes put in at “Tokomardo” for water. After a show of friendliness, the natives had captured the ship, slain the captain and two of the crew and captured the remainder. Six of the twelve who were brought ashore fell immediately to the Maori ovens, while Rutherford and five comrades were taken to the house of the chief where they were kept for the night. This house, said Rutherford, was long and wide, with an aperture closed by a sliding door, so low that it was necessary to crawl through it. The common people slept in the open air, sitting and covered by their upper mats, which gave them the appearance of so many haycocks or beehives.

The white prisoners were shortly forced to submit to the process of tattooing (moko), which Rutherford describes: “The whole of the natives having seated themselves on the ground in a ring, we were brought into the middle, stripped of our clothes and laid on our backs, and held down by five or six men, while two others commenced the operation of tattooing us. Having taken a piece of charcoal, and rubbed it upon a stone with a little water until they had produced a thickish liquid, they then dipped into it an instrument made of bone, having a sharp edge like a chisel, and shaped in the fashion of a garden-hoe, and immediately applied it to the skin, striking it twice or thrice with a small piece of wood. This caused a great deal of blood to flow, which they kept wiping off with the side of the hand, in order to see if the impression was sufficiently clear. When it was not, they applied the bone to the same place a second time. They employed, however, various instruments in the course of the operation; one being made of a shark's tooth, and another having teeth like a saw. They had them also of different sizes, to suit the different parts of the work. While I was undergoing this operation, although the pain was very acute, I never moved or uttered a sound, but my comrades moaned dreadfully. Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours under their hands; and during the operation, the chief Aimy's eldest daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After it was over, she led me to the river, that I might wash myself (for it had made me completely blind) and then conducted me to a great fire. They now returned us all our clothes with the exception of our shirts, which the women kept for themselves; wearing them, as we observed, with the fronts behind. We were now not only tattooed, but what they called tabooed, the meaning of which is, made sacred, or forbidden to touch any provisions of any kind with our hands. This state of things lasted for three days, during which time we were fed by the daughters of the chiefs. In three days, the swelling had greatly subsided, and I began to recover my sight; but it was six weeks before I was completely well. I had no medical assistance of any kind during my illness; but Aimy's two daughters were very attentive to me, and would frequently sit beside me, and talk to me in their language, of which, as yet, however, I did not understand much.”

The white men remained at this village for about six months. A house was assigned for them to live in, together with the possession of a much-prized iron pot the natives had taken from the vessel. At last they all set out with Aimy and another chief to pursue their journey into the interior. Four of the captives were left at different native villages with native chiefs. At last Rutherford and his sole remaining companion reached the inland pa of Aimy, and here a hut was erected in which the two men took up their abode and were permitted to live, as circumstances allowed, according to their English customs. And here, save for journeys taken with the chief, Rutherford continued to reside during the remainder of the time he spent in New Zealand.

For the first few months, he and his companion spent much time in fishing and shooting, the chief lending Rutherford a capital double-barrelled fowling piece as well as plenty of powder and duck-shot which he had taken from the plundered vessel. Then the chief Aimy's aged mother died, and her death was attributed to the fact that she had eaten potatoes which had been cut with a white man's knife. For this, Rutherford's companion, to whom the offending knife belonged, was slain with a mere, and Rutherford was left alone with the tribe.

Taught by the murder of his companion on how slight a tenure he held page 26 page 27 his own life, and exposed to the chance of in some way or other provoking their wrath, Rutherford began to feel his detention almost insupportable. His clothing being reduced to rags in spite of careful patching and mending over a term of three years, his sole garment was a white flax mat given him by the chief, which clothed him from shoulders to knees.

“Shortly after the death of my companion,” Rutherford narrated, “it happened that we were all assembled at a feast. The chief, Aimy, called me to him in the presence of the chiefs, and said that he wished to make me a chief on account of my prowess with the gun, with my consent. To this I readily agreed; upon which my hair was cut with an oyster shell in the front in the same manner in which the chiefs have theirs cut; and several of the chiefs made me a present of some mats, and promised to send me some pigs the next day. I now put on a mat covered over with red ochre and oil, and my head and face were anointed with the same composition by a chief's daughter who was entirely a stranger to me. I received, at the same time, a handsome stone mere, which I afterwards always carried with me.

“Aimy now advised me to take two or three wives—it being the custom of the chiefs to take as many as they thought proper. About sixty women were then brought up before me; none of whom, however, pleased me. On which Aimy told me that I was tabooed for three days, at the expiration of which time he would take me with him to his brother's camp, where I should find plenty of women who would please me.”

Apparently, however, Rutherford had cast an approving eye upon the chief's eldest daughter, his ministering angel; for none of the parading beauties at the second camp met with his approval. When he approached the chief's daughter, who had followed to her uncle's pa, she immediately screamed and ran away. “But two of the natives, having thrown off their mats, pursued her and brought her back, when, by the direction of Aimy, I went and took hold of her hand. The two natives then let her go, and she walked quietly with me to her father; but continued laughing, and hung down her head. Aimy then called his other daughter to him, who also came laughing; and he then advised me to take them both. I then turned to them and asked them if they were willing to go with me, when they both signified their willingness.

“On this, Aimy told them they were tabooed to me, and directed us all three to go home together, which we did, followed by several of the natives.

“In the evening, a great feast was given, and dancing was kept up throughout the night.

“My eldest wife's name was Eshou, and that of my youngest Epecka,” says Rutherford with some complacence. “They were both handsome, mild and good-tempered. I was now always obliged to eat with them in the open air, as they would not eat under the roof of my house, that being contrary to the custom of their country. When away for any length of time, I used to take Epecka with me, and leave Eshou at home. The chief's wives in New Zealand are never jealous of one another, but live together in great harmony; the only distinction being that the oldest is always considered the head wife. He who marries a chief's daughter is secure from being plundered, as the natives dare not steal from any person of that rank.”

Rutherford made many journeys, both along the coast in canoes, and through the interior on foot, with Aimy; always accompanied by his younger wife, Epecka. They were attended by about twenty slave-women on the overland journeys, to carry their provisions, each woman bearing upon her back about thirty pounds of potatoes, and driving
(Photo., J. D. Buckley.) The General Manager of Railways, Mr. G. H. Mackley (left), and executive officers of the Railways Department, at Paekakariki, on the occasion of the trial run of the new standard railcar “Aotea,” 1st August, 1938.

(Photo., J. D. Buckley.)
The General Manager of Railways, Mr. G. H. Mackley (left), and executive officers of the Railways Department, at Paekakariki, on the occasion of the trial run of the new standard railcar “Aotea,” 1st August, 1938.

before her a pig tied by a string to its fore-leg. During the sea journeys, or when staying at a pa on the coast, Rutherford, unreconciled to his chiefly but barbaric lot, was continually on the look-out for a passing ship by which he might make his escape, but was never fortunate enough to see one.

During this time, he met many of the important chiefs of New Zealand, including Pomare and Hongi, and was witness to sanguinary battles between opposing tribes. In one of these encounters, Rutherford mentions that the two parties engaged had about two thousand stand of arms between them. This estimate is not an exaggerated one, being borne out by a missionary writer, Mr. Davis, who wrote in 1827, “The natives have many thousand stand of arms at this time among them.”

Now comes the story of the escape of Rutherford. Smoke signals appeared one day upon several of the mountains, which signified a ship on the coast. “I was quite overjoyed to hear the news,” stated Rutherford. “Aimy and I immediately set off for ‘Tokomardo’; and in two days we arrived at that place, the unfortunate scene of the capture of our ship and its crew on the 7th March, 1816. I now perceived the ship under sail, at about twenty miles distance from the land, off which the wind was blowing strong, which prevented her nearing. Meanwhile, as it page 28 was drawing towards night, we encamped, and sat down to supper. I observed that several of the natives about still wore round their necks and wrists many of the trinkets which they had taken out of our ship. The chiefs consulted together, and resolved that, if the ship came in, they would take her and massacre the crew. Next morning she was observed to be much nearer than she had been the night before; but the chiefs were still afraid that she would not come in, and therefore agreed that I should be sent on board, on purpose to decoy her to land, which I promised to do.

“I was then dressed in a feathered cloak, belt, and turban, and armed with a battle-axe, the head of which was formed of a stone which resembled green glass, but was so hard as to turn the heaviest blow of the hardest steel. In this attire I went off in a canoe, accompanied by the son of one of the chiefs, and four slaves. When we came alongside the vessel, I immediately went on board, and presented myself to the captain, who, as soon as he saw me, exclaimed, ‘Here is a white New Zealander!’”

Captain Jackson invited Rutherford to his cabin, where he was told of the plan to seize his ship, and warned of the danger of putting in at that part of the island. Rutherford begged the captain to stand off as quickly as possible, and to take him with him, as this was the only chance that had ever offered for escape in ten long years. By this time, the chief's son had commenced to help himself to articles he considered attractive from the ship. The crew forthwith tied him up and lowered him over the side to the canoe.

The captain agreeing heartily to give Rutherford passage, the ship stood off from the coast, and the exile took his last look at the scene of his long imprisonment.

Rutherford's experiences were later recounted in detail, and embodied in a little volume naively called, “The Library of Entertaining Knowledge,” published in 1830.