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Check to Your King

Chapter Ten — Duel with Quill Pens

Chapter Ten
Duel with Quill Pens

[May be omitted by those with a constitutional dislike of historical detail: proves mainly how two gentlemen can waste everybody's time writing Impassioned Letters.]

* * * *

I can imagine few things that the British Resident at the Bay of Islands would have hated more; but the fact remains that in certain lights Mr. Busby bore a marked resemblance to Charles, Baron de Thierry.

Mr. Busby adored writing letters. Mr. Busby waxed eloquent – though at times a thought unconvincing – in argument. Mr. Busby was apt to take steps which staider men regarded as fantastic, and which won him small thanks from authority.

Show me where this departs from the faithful image of Our Charles.

At a distance of thousands of miles, then – one lodged at his Residency, one poised for flight at Tahiti – these two porcupines commenced firing off quills at each other. On the whole, Charles may be said to have won. Time meant nothing to him, once left with his ink-pot.

Busby and his family landed in New Zealand in 1831. Someone acting in official capacity there had long been craved by the distracted Government of New South Wales, whose convicts kept escaping to New Zealand, and there since no law existed – cocking long noses at them. The first British Resident, however, was one of Downing Street's own little touches; neither soldier nor sailor, not even so much as a broken-down politician. This put him out of favour with New South Wales, which had wanted red jackets and brass buttons to subdue its wild neighbour.

The idea was that, by the throwing of a British lamb, a Resident, to these wolves, law might be encouraged, at least among British subjects in New Zealand, while the escape of convicts to that country might be seriously checked.

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James Busby was the son of a John Busby, who had served the British Government well, but without much reward. His son gave the Government very useful information on waste lands, pounded away at the subject of viticulture, which might help establish the wine trade in Australia, wrote in 1831 a brochure on the subject of Residencies: A Brief Memoir, Relative to the Islands of New Zealand. Authority sniffed, and was satisfied. Mr. Busby was packed off to New Zealand, with a salary of £500 a year, and £200 extra to be used as palm-oil among native potentates.

He was an upright, rather pompous man, standing too much on his dignity for the liking of the raffish whites. The fact that British law in New Zealand could touch only British subjects, and that these could only be legally tried by the expensive method of sending them over to the New South Wales Courts, did much to cramp his style. He was in constant trouble with his escaped convicts. Australia was still much attached to rough and ready punishments for crime. A little time before, a former Governor of an Australian state had officially recommended that convicts found guilty of offences warranting the death penalty should, in lieu of mere execution, be cast adrift on New Zealand shores, where the natives would eat them. “The fear of this,” wrote Captain Phillip, “will operate much stronger than the dread of death.” Of the first six New South Wales convicts sentenced to death, only one cost the Government the price of a rope. The remaining five were driven out to be massacred among the Australian blacks.

Incidents bearing on the lawlessness of the country were not without their quaint humour. A homicidal maniac had escaped by ship to the Bay of Islands. Mr. Busby hurriedly shipped him back again. But, as it happened, the gentleman was not a British subject.

“What is this?” howled Authority. “What power entitled you to drive a man, not a British subject, from a country which is not a British possession?”

Friend Maniac was shipped, grinning, back to New Zealand, where his subsequent history remains wrapped in darkness.

Two New Zealand natives, as late as 1838, were tried by the Resident for murdering one Henry Buddle. Mr. Busby had the chief offender shot, as he deserved. The Attorney-General in New South Wales was not only most annoyed, but also refused to pay the expenses.

Whatever Mr. Busby did, he could be certain that Sydney would reprimand and discourage him. He had been pointedly insulted by the appointment of an “Additional British Resident”, Lieutenant page 81 Thomas McDonnell, a man with a genius for getting on with nobody and, by the way, one of the white men who had settled on Charles's 40,000 acres in the Hokianga district.

The Baron de Thierry's letter from Tahiti, informing Mr. Busby of his intention to found an Independent State on his lands at Hokianga, gave the latter, at last, an opportunity for the legal and technical manoeuvres which he loved.

This marauding Baron might wax eloquent. But there was ink and blood in old England yet. Mr. Busby bit the end of his pen and settled to it.

British Residency at New Zealand,
Bay of Islands, 30th October, 1835.


In adopting the measures I have thought necessary to defeat the enterprise which you have announced to me in your letter dated from Papeete Bay, Otaheiti, on the 14th ultimo, I have acted on the discretion which as an accredited representative of the British Government I have considered it my duty to exercise, under circumstances of so extraordinary a character. But even had I been entrusted with no powers at all in this respect, I should have thought it my duty upon the broad principles of common justice and humanity to have used whatever influence I possessed to prevent the occurrence of so much mischief as would be the inevitable result of an attempt upon the liberties of a free people ....

The British Government has extended to the natives of this country, as well as to His Britannic Majesty's subjects, the protection of British laws, so far as regards the conduct of British subjects. But with the present Independence of the natives, or with their personal or territorial rights, it has not interfered, nor permitted its subjects to interfere.…

[Note added by Robin Hyde:]

Mr. Busby goes on to discuss at length the de Thierry land claims, and the price paid thereon, described by him as “two dozen of axes”.

Even if the chiefs mentioned in the deed would have considered this the price, instead of the earnest thereof (as the axes were considered by them to be) you would have had to satisfy the claims of probably five hundred other individuals before you would have been permitted to take possession of your property, page 82 for the meanest of the New Zealanders is not a person to submit quietly to the most trivial inroad upon his rights. This disposes of your claim to any property in the soil of this country. But however well-founded a claim might have been, the chiefs are well aware that it would have been forfeited by your pretensions to Sovereign Rights: and they request me to warn you against approaching their lands, in whatever capacity you may choose to present yourself, or however accompanied, on pain of being treated as Independent States have a right to treat persons who attempt the usurpation of their sovereign rights within their territories.

[Note added by Robin Hyde:]

(Mr. Busby's dismissal of the purchase price paid for the 40,000 acres hardly takes into account the fact that the Church Missionary Society also purchased New Zealand land with axes; while the New Zealand Company later, for property valued at £50 in trade, acquired nearly a million acres.)

Being persuaded that the utter hopelessness of success will present itself to your mind in so strong a light as to prove to you the madness of persisting in your enterprise, and the criminality of engaging persons less qualified to judge to embark upon it, it seems almost supererogatory to add that should you present yourself, with whatever face, you may be sure of meeting with the most spirited resistance from the whole population… a population with whom warfare in its fiercest form has been a sport, and who are far from being ill-provided with arms and ammunition.

If the steps I have taken should, under Providence, be the means of preventing the sacrifice of even one life in a bad cause, I know I shall be held excused by His Majesty's Government for giving an appearance of importance to your enterprise, to which, apart from such a consideration, it has not the remotest title.

I am, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,

James Busby,

British Resident.

Nor had the Baron's most obedient servant contented himself with a letter. Enclosed were other documents, the first a circular composed by Mr. Busby for distribution among “His Britannic Majesty's Subjects, who are residing or trading in New Zealand”.

Extracts from this quaint document – a very early printing effort in New Zealand – emphasise the warm welcome being page 83 prepared for the Baron de Thierry, who is rather off-handedly referred to as “a person styling himself Charles, Baron de Thierry, Sovereign Chief of New Zealand, and King of Nukahiva, an Island of the Marquesas”. The little pamphlet goes into horror-stricken capitals every now and again. It is mentioned that Charles proceeds on an alleged invitation from Shunghie and “an alleged purchase made for him in 1822 by Mr. Kendall of three districts on the Hokianga, from three chiefs who had only a partial right in these districts, parts of which are now settled by British subjects, by right of purchase from the rightful proprietors.”

Charles is further accused of sending Mr. Busby “an elaborate exposition of his views” (this has the ring of truth), and of sending letters to the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, “in which he makes the most ample promises to all persons, whether white or native, who will accept his invitation to live under his Government: and in which he offers a stipulated salary to each individual missionary, in order to induce them to act as his magistrates.”

(Mr. Busby refers feelingly here to his faith in the loyalty and good sense of the missionaries.)

“If such a person were once allowed to obtain a footing in this country, he might acquire such an influence over the Simpleminded Natives as would produce effects which cannot be too Anxiously Deprecated. My duty is to request all British settlers of all classes to use all the Influence they possess with the Natives, of every rank, in order to counteract the effect of any Emissaries who have arrived or may arrive among them. And to inspire both Chiefs and People with a spirit of the most Determined Resistance to the landing of a Person on their Shores, who comes with the Avowed Intention of Usurping a Sovereignty over them.”

Once again the signature of James Busby, British Resident. The date of October 10th, 1835.

The printing of the pamphlet was achieved at the press of the Church Missionary Society, set up in Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, where missionaries were most earnestly engaged in preaching goodwill to all men among the Simple-minded Natives.

The right hand of the missionaries, the Rev. Mr. Henry Williams (established at Paihia by old Samuel Marsden), sacrificed time and energy distributing the circular among the settlers.

But was this the limit of Mr. Busby's activities? Unfortunately, no. A third document was in the packet. No less than the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand.

Patience. I am not about to quote it in full.

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It suffices to say that at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, October 28th 1835, the hereditary chiefs and heads of the tribes of the North Part of New Zealand, assembled by Mr. Busby, formally declared the independence of their country, which they thereby constituted an Independent State, under the designation of “The United Tribes of New Zealand”.

All sovereign power and authority were to be vested in the chiefs within their territory, in their collective capacity. No legislative authority or function of Government separate from themselves was to be permitted, save by their own permission, legally given by themselves in congress assembled. They were pledged to meet thus in congress, in the autumn of each year, for the enactment of laws. And a copy of the declaration was to be sent to King George IV, with a request that he might act “as the parent of their Infant State”.

In 1838, giving evidence before the Select Committee in the House of Lords, one New Zealand witness explained that the Rev. Henry Williams had distributed the circular, whilst the residents had also been informed that the Baron de Thierry was really a French general, taking part in planned French aggression.

Allowing for the profitable footing which British subjects had obtained on that 40,000 acres of debatable country, it is still possible that Charles might have found tolerance had he come without pomp and circumstance. But the fine ring of the Sovereign Chieftaincy… the glitter of baby Nukahivan Crown… the guns exploding at Panama… it was too much for Englishmen to digest.

They were happily combined against a Foreign Usurper.

A cloud upon Mr. Busby's horizon; Sydney disapproved. Sydney was never done disapproving. Sir George Gipps contemptuously referred to the Declaration of Independence as “a paper pellet, fired off against the Baron de Thierry”.

But Mr. Busby lay back at Waitangi, blissfully exhausted. He had done his duty; and he had thoroughly written himself out.

On the other hand, Mr. Busby knew very little about Charles. One might perhaps abolish him by firing a sufficiency of well-directed cannon-balls. But with pen and ink? Never.

Note the chacteristic beginning of his address in reply:

Having but a few hours to write, I must refrain from entering as minutely as I could wish on the contents of your letter, which seems to have been written with intent to intimidate a man of weak nerve, who would feebly renounce his rights and forgo the objects which have brought him to these remote regions.

page 85

[Note added by Robin Hyde:]

(Have at you, Mr. British Resident!)

But in this, Sir, you mistake me, for I am neither very ignorant of worldly affairs, nor very easily frightened out of my plans. The which, with the blessing of God, I will bring ere long to desired maturity.

[Note added by Robin Hyde:]

(You will note that either side claims a complete monopoly of the right side of Providence.)

Acting on the broad principle that New Zealand is not a possession of the British Crown, I come forward as the humble champion of present and future New Zealand liberties. That my timber has been cut and is daily cutting, is sold and is daily selling, to my great loss, the loss of many thousands of pounds, all this I well know. But what I never expected to know is that an agent of the Crown of England would warn me not to approach my own property. Were we living under a Dey of Algiers, such things might be believed, but they are monstrous in British annals.… Such a thing is impossible, for were the King to deprive me of my lands, I would be an oppressed man; and if warned off my property by the King, a persecuted man; and thirty millions of voices would be raised in my defence, for there is not a person in Great Britain, from the peer to the peasant, but will side with the oppressed.

I must ask in what I have aimed a blow at the liberties of the people of New Zealand? Is it by coming thousands of miles to arrest their too rapid demoralisation and degradation, and by wishing to raise them to the level of civilisation? Is it by devoting all my earthly substance to them? Is it by bringing a young family to dwell among them? By encountering dangers and privations, and by my willingness to live and die in their cause, that I show myself to be the dangerous man you are pleased to picture me?

Look at the United States, the Canadas, the West Indies, South America, the Cape of Good Hope, New Holland and Van Diemen's Land: and you may point an instructive moral to the New Zealanders. When the New Zealand chiefs who received a flag (for the benefit of a few white people who wanted registers for New Zealand-built ships), assisted at this extraordinary ceremony, how were they treated? As equals, or as inferiors? Did they dine at the same table with the whites; or is it true, as newspapers report, that they “were supplied with a plentiful mess of flour sweetened with sugar, on which they feasted”?

Is this the manner in which hereditary chiefs are to be treated? It is thus, sir, that the proud spirit of the native race is broken and degraded. They are spoken of as sovereigns, and treated as slaves. But there is yet a voice which shall be heard by these devoted page 86 people; they shall learn the truth, they shall see how hereditary chiefs ought to be treated. And then, if they think it is to their interest to treat me as you have so humanely advised, they may kill and eat me, and history shall tell her own version, which will never redound very greatly to the credit of those who represented me other than one of the earliest and best friends of the New Zealand people.

I am, Sir,
Yours very obediently,

Charles, Baron de Thierry

. Forwarded by the brig Criterion, August 30th, 1836.

Ink… the man was a cuttlefish for it. His track across the globe is marked with swamps of ink. But amid all the words, you will notice one small, honest, and painstaking star.

He has a sincere regard for the native peoples: a desire to treat them as equals.

Thousands of white men read that account of the distribution of a flour-sweetened mess among the chieftains. (“Ko rodirodi”, or “wai ma”.)

Charles was the only one who burst into flames at the idea. Years after he had assured Mr. Busby that this was no way to handle the proud spirit of the native people, a catch-cry went round among the North Island Maoris.

“Have you eaten the White Queen's stir-about?”

The eyes of warriors smouldered as they heard that gibe. They had eaten with childlike enthusiasm. Their pride had not quite digested the stir-about, and the circumstance, among others, helped them in preparing them for war.

It is about this time that Major Edward Fergus disappears, perhaps a little sadly, from the picture. The army in their white trousers and striking cockades were now less vital than renewed support from Panama. Thither Fergus bent his sails with many promises of return. The Princess Isabel wept bitterly over her lost cavalier. Major Fergus, equestrian statue of the kingdom, fades into the dull security of private life.

It is now or never. If one doesn't get to New Zealand, one may, from the vehemence of this Busby, find the whole place entrenched by brigades of ravenous cannibals. “Frère, il faut partir!” Who was it had made that suggestion? Sister Caroline, of course, that time when he had endeavoured to raise funds in Paris. Money is there, if you demonstrate to the capitalists that you actually possess the page 87 nuts to insert in their large pouches. They will never be optimistic in advance.

To get out of Tahiti is easier said than done. Skippers develop an invincible prejudice against transporting the de Thierrys to any British shore at all. For months, attempts to obtain a passage to Sydney are a mere beating the wind. The ships will have none of Charles. He devotes his time to correspondence with Sir Richard Bourke, laying before him his plans, with a fullness of detail which must have made the Governor's brain reel. As for the Australian newspapers, they cannot have been so amiable, for in one letter to Sir Richard, Charles complains bitterly of “the low scurrility of the Sydney press”.

Suddenly he discovers for himself the way of escape from Tahiti. He makes himself a nuisance, such a nuisance.…

It was a blow that could not have been expected. The man has bought up the coconut oil in Tahiti, effected a corner in supplies. He will not sell until his passage to Sydney is arranged.

That against which all the elements, thunder especially, have warred, has come to pass. On May 3rd, 1837, Captain Lincoln gives the de Thierry party passage to Sydney in the Yankee brig Draco.

Thus, with a flourish of trumpets, however small and forlorn it may sound in that vast ocean, things begin to move again. The Sovereign Chief is really on his way to New Zealand.