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Check to Your King

Chapter Twenty-One — Kororareka

page 196

Chapter Twenty-One

At noon on March 9th, 1845, a cloud of dust was seen moving, brown, thick, and slow along the clay road from Paroa Bay into Kororareka. Glasses were turned on it from the decks of the British war-sloop, H.M.S. Hazard, and the whisper, “Heke's on the move,” went the rounds. Then a young officer clicked his heels, made his report to Acting-Commander David Robertson. The jest was tossed down to the waiting men like an orange; a roar of laughter went up. The Maoris were coming, all right… stragglers from a nearby pa driving a great number of sheep past the danger zone. Apparently the shore defences were annoyed that natives, however peaceable, should be trapesing around the countryside, for the hill gun grumbled. Two shots went over the dusty river of men and beasts, but no damage was done, and the Maori drovers showed no alarm.

Diverting attention by this manoeuvre, Heke brought his forces more securely into position around the hills above Kororareka.

Russell, a few miles from Kororareka, became a ghost town when Hobson shifted the seat of government to Auckland. The two Bay of Islands settlements drifted together, their identities became slowly merged. At the time of Heke's attack, most of the settlers had established themselves in Kororareka. Later, the little settlement dropped the long-winded native name, and became Russell, tout court. This is where the tourist goes today when he wishes to haul tons of mako and marlin out of the obligingly vasty deeps. Of the original Russell, nothing remains. It has turned its back on history.

When Heke's behaviour was at its most spectacular, then, the defences of the Bay were pretty well concentrated in Kororareka. And the trouble with the campaign was that nobody knew from one day to the next whether it was a war or a game of tiddlywinks.

Governor FitzRoy, as has been mentioned, liked to make himself pleasant. Convinced that a war with Hone Heke was not the best means to this, he gave a fatal impression of weakness, now offering concessions, now making difficulties. The fact was, Captain FitzRoy was a good sailor, but no administrator. An attempt to change his vocation cost him his career.

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Heke, assured by enemy agencies (the Americans were suspected) that British power stood or fell with the Union Jack, centred his dislike on the flagstaff. It stood, he said, on ground never ceded under the Treaty of Waitangi, and consequently not the property of the Crown. Troops were brought from Sydney to change this attitude of mind. Then a parcel of chieftains made their submission to the Governor, handing in their muskets-which, by the way, proved to be ancient weapons, badly out of repair. Governor FitzRoy's friendliness got the better of him. He sent the troops back to Sydney, and gave back the muskets as well. A second and a third time Heke, his warriors at once re-arming throughout the north, cut down the flagstaff. FitzRoy passed the hopeful stage, and the Hazard took up her station in the Bay of Islands, lying off Kororareka.

The sight of a British ship, it was expected, would change the plans of the natives. That might have been all right. Unfortunately, the Bay of Islands was so accustomed to dealing in its own manner with ships of all nations. Something in the garish, noisy streets, whose red gables made a narrow flange under the leaning hills, got into discipline like the weevil into ship's biscuit. And this was such a comic-opera campaign.

There can be no denying it. By a combination of bad luck, bad management, and protracted optimism, the defenders contrived rather to encourage than to impress the natives, who, in any case, utterly outnumbered the whites, and were by no means badly off for arms. They might have been afraid of the Hazard's roundshot, but the sloop removed this difficulty by giving several preliminary displays of outrageous marksmanship, and by permitting several of her crew, in Mary Lockhart's brothel, to talk too much about the low state of her ammunition.

The situation, too late, was understood as serious. FitzRoy made frantic attempts to procure more warships from Sydney. Auckland itself was suffering a nervous crisis, expecting Heke to arrive and butcher the population at any moment. (He intended to do this. But Nene and Te Wherowhero, another great chieftain, between them spoiled the plan.) Meanwhile, the warships did not come, and did not come.…

The first exchange of hostilities was quaint. A week before, the Hazard's pinnace had fired on Heke's own canoe, as the chief passed blandly by to Keri-Keri, and by damned bad marksmanship contrived to miss. Governor FitzRoy put a price on Heke's head. Heke retorted by offering exactly the same figure for the Governor's topknot… and for that, alone, the young man deserves page 198 immortality. Acting-Commander Robertson's deputy in the shore defences, a hot-headed Lieutenant named Philpots, had galloped in the wrong direction a few mornings ago, with the midshipmite he was pleased to call his “aide-de-camp”, and both were taken by the Maoris. To their relief and humiliation, they were turned loose with only the loss of a pistol.

On shore, Mr. Beckham, a magistrate, had joined forces with Lieutenant Philpots in effecting martial law. This had the result of making everyone tense, excited, and uncomfortable, but it is not known to have achieved any positive good. Mr. Hector, a choleric Russell attorney, was the Left Wing, and fought Mr. Beckham's ideas every inch of the way.

Charles states that Mr. Hector's roar was much more dreaded in Kororareka than the native tomahawks, but this may be mere libel.

Then there was Mary Lockhart's, representing the fair deserved, and inexpensively achieved, by the brave. A two-storeyed, russet-painted house at the corner of the main street, it had been rented by white men, and the lowest of Maori prostitutes moved in, gaudy in their European clothing and mock jewellery. Intercourse between sailors and native women was the custom of the Bay of Islands, and the sudden sparkle of brown eyes, the unexpected point of Maori wit, put a polish on the crudity of such affairs.

Three nights before the attack, Mary Lockhart, a handsome, middle-aged native woman, had slipped out of the house, a black shawl over her head, feet bare like any poor girl from the country, and hurried to the conference of chiefs at Pomare's pa. Heke was there, tall and confident… listening. From that hour, the war-party knew more than it should have done concerning the quantity of the defenders' ammunition.

Meanwhile, Charles de Thierry was making himself a little more unpopular. It sounds grotesque. But it is so much easier to start this practice than to stop it.

Sleeping in the guard-room at nights, while his sons patrolled the hills on sentry-duty, he learned what it is to be an insignificant unit attached to a world in a hurry. Everyone at the settlement was on edge, secretly or openly flustered, striving to summon up an air of command by barking and growling. It is not pleasant to go to sleep at night expecting to be wakened by the glare of flames and the uncouth yells of savages. Moreover, the settlers had their women and children on their hands. For so long they had taken the timely arrival of the warships from Sydney for granted, that now a safe evacuation of Kororareka seemed less feasible than page 199 staying to brave things out. A thousand times in a day they visioned the sails of the war-sloops spreading over the Bay, saw themselves, grouped on the foreshore, cheering and shaking hands. They lived on illusions, and in great discomfort. Little Kororareka was on the outer edge of panic.

Charles began to feel that they were rude to him. He felt that they were treading him underfoot. He had grown so used to that state of being in which every man's hand was against him that he could not believe all the singing hostility and excitement in the air was not directed against his own grey head. The tepid coffee, doled out in dirty tin pannikins, the need of sleeping in his greatcoat, the snappy manners of passers-by … it gave him the impression of another conspiracy against him. More, he was the stranger. These people, under their curtness and nervousness, knew one another very well, and could understand abbreviations. But who had time to listen to the high-flown de Thierry periods? If they spoke of him at all, it was not in complimentary terms.

He became a lightning-conductor for insults. In the end, of course, he exasperated them into behaving as crudely as anyone could have wished.

There is the other side. He had left his heart at Mount Isabel and with the natives; Mrs. Colman offered the Baroness four miserable slices of bread-and-butter; the women of his household were immured in an attic bedroom.

Despite all this, he was longing to shine. Immediately he did all the wrong things. He offered advice, pointing out to the defenders that their methods were wrong from first to last, and their position untenable. He mentioned that he had held a commission in His Majesty's 23rd Light Dragoons, and was very experienced with the natives.

Kororareka looked savage.

A score of times he told himself he'd not be dictated to by that little upstart Philpots. Defence organisation … a civil request, and he'd show the jackanapes what defence was, and teach them a thing or two about the Maori that had seemingly escaped their intelligence.

Lieutenant Philpots sent a terse command that the Baron de Thierry was to join the Civic Guard. It was not an invitation, and he said nothing about a commission … gold lace, not an inch of it.

The Baron de Thierry sent his compliments, and refused.

The Baron de Thierry was informed that if he did not immediately do as he was told, his family would be denied all British protection.

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“Then, sir,” retorted the Baron, purple in the face, “I shall place my wife, children, and household under the protection of the American flag.”

If he had merely announced his intention of proceeding into Buckingham Palace with a bomb and lighted match, they might have thought it improper. But when he mentioned American protection, they could cheerfully have torn him limb from limb.

A few miles across the Bay, at Paihia, lay anchored the United States frigate, St. Louis, much better armed than H.M.S. Hazard. Her assistance against the natives, in the settlers' opinion, would put Kororareka out of danger. But the Captain of the St. Louis, quite properly, from his own point of view, determined to remain neutral. After the sack of the town, he gave considerable assistance in taking off refugees, under heavy fire. Before hostilities commenced, he refused to make himself useful. Sparks were flying between the Captain of the St. Louis and Lieutenant Philpots, who had the safety of women and children on his mind.

Twenty minutes after Charles had stalked out of the defence committee's office, meaning to arrange a passage for himself and his family on the Sir John Franklin, a schooner which undertook to sail for Auckland as soon as the disturbances were over, he was greeted in the main street by a ragged shout which ran from mouth to mouth.

“French bastard! … French bastard! … French bastard! …”

It was a narrow street, all taverns and straggling houses. Out of these poured the citizens and sailors, the native girls, until the world was nothing but a shout. Kororareka was in that frame of mind when people burn a witch because the cows have gone dry and too many children are breaking out in spots. Afterwards they feel happier and more efficient, until they notice that the cows are drier and the children spottier than ever. Their world was no longer safe nor coherent. Some blamed the natives, some Governor FitzRoy, Mr. Hector, Mr. Beckham, the St. Louis. Now they had the satisfaction of saying the same thing in chorus. Those at the far end of the street had no idea what it was all about. They simply saw a man walking, and heard their friends and acquaintances roaring, “Bastard!” “French bastard!” shrieked the seagulls. Charles stalked along, red in the face, and thinking obscurely of Lavaud's Code Napoléon, with the tricoloured edges.

Since the noise, like a vulgar neighbour, marched up the garden path and intruded itself into the house where the de Thierry women had taken refuge, Isabel, sitting in the window-seat of a parlour with shabby pink wallpaper, for an instant thrust her page 201 fingers into her ears. Then she let her hands fall into her lap again, and sat listening, a peculiarly intent look on her face.

A blockhouse, supposedly invincible, stood on Flagstaff Hill; another behind Mr. Polack's house, with a palisade of sharpened tea tree stakes. Mr. Polack's house also was crudely fortified, and acted as a third blockhouse. Charles had a glimpse of his old acquaintance, Archdeacon Williams, hurrying from Paihia to dispose of the mission goods in Mr. Polack's house, where already £10,000 worth of the settlers' valuables had been deposited. Archdeacon Williams, even at that date, did his best to assure the frightened women that the attack would come to nothing. In Polack's cellars the ammunition for the shore defences was stored away, making the place, as events proved, a dangerous refuge for the women and children, who were ordered there on the Monday after Heke's challenge arrived.

A hasty breakfast next morning, and the de Thierrys - Emily, Isabel, and Margaret Neilsen had refused the shelter of the block-house-boarded the Sir John Franklin, leaving old Black Aladdin tethered in a grass plot behind Bishop Pompallier's house. The schooner, which had lent her only gun to the settlers, lay right inshore. Bishop Pompallier, who had first offered the de Thierrys the shelter of his mission, decided himself to board the schooner, and await the turn of events. The clergy of other denominations were well represented. Out of the west arrived the tall young Anglican Bishop Selwyn, on his little schooner. In the Bay lay the Colonial brig, Victoria, Benjamin Turner's schooners, Flying Fish and Dolphin, H.M.S. Hazard; the St. Louis at a distance of some miles, lying near Paihia, and coming up from the north, her sails rusty over her cumbersome black bulk; the squat old whaler, Matilda. The smaller ships were anchored so close inshore that their decks were within musket-range, and every word of command shouted from the Hazard's decks could be heard aboard the Sir John Franklin.

The storm broke on Tuesday, March 10th, in still early morning, with the guns of the lower blockhouse, under Mr. Hector's direction, firing the first shot at a native party. Not a man fell, but a shot from the Hazard greeted the Maori rush down the hillsides. A seaman dropped with a musket-ball through his chest, as the gun behind Polack's fell to the enemy, without a single native casualty.

The barricaded doors of the upper blockhouse were seen to open, and the defenders, headed by Lieutenant Philpots, poured out in a sortie as brave as it was indiscreet. In five minutes the party page 202 was cut off from the blockhouse, and both blockhouse and flagstaff fell to the natives. The flagstaff was sheathed in a heavy iron casing but not even this could withstand the battering of tomahawks. There was a wild yell as the Union Jack was torn down, to be pulled instantly into fragments, while the red shirt of the war-party ran up in sight of the watching ships.

Had the Maoris now turned the guns of the captured blockhouse on the whites cut off from shelter, they must have inflicted terrible losses. But, throughout the battle, Heke kept the pledge he had made to his friend, Bishop Pompallier. His warriors had come to break British dominance and haul down the colours, not to massacre the whites. He had sworn that people who kept their shutters fastened would not be attacked, and his party dared not disobey. This forbearance, however, put the defenders in a difficult position. Realising that the Maoris were holding their fire from the exposed whites, they dared not fire directly into the mass of natives, and infuriate them towards a general slaughter. The settlers and their defenders were hopelessly outnumbered.

Lieutenant Philpots wrung his hands, as the St. Louis, coming nearer shore, refused to land an attacking-party. From H.M.S. Hazard was shouted bad news. Acting-Commander Robertson, leading a shore party, was down and desperately wounded. The sloop's gunners were firing blind, her ammunition at a low ebb. From the Sir John Franklin, every detail of the disaster was visible. A man would drop suddenly, huddled and limp against the blockhouse wall, another give a queer little leap and fall with arms outstretched, a puppet jerked and dropped by hidden wires.

A wild, continuous yell told the climax of the native attack. From old Maori trenches, tufted with long grass on the slopes behind Kororareka, a withering fire poured down. The Hazard's shore party, caught in the open, paid for their daring with a heavy casualty list.

Another shout, as the red shirt is pulled down and a white flag of truce flutters up. Nobody can guess what the victorious savages want.

Then exhausted men, some propped wounded against bullet-scarred walls, others with sweat pouring down powder-blackened faces, raised a straggling cheer. The Maoris were seen leading down from their trenches Signalman Tapper's wife and children, believed to have been massacred some days before. But the eldest girl, her blue eyes distraught, the bodice of her torn dress stiff with blood, collapsed, fainting at the sailors' feet. The Maoris would spare the whites… but Captain Wing's half-caste child, three page 203 years old, had clung in her arms and hidden its little dark face against her breast. They butchered the child with tomahawks in the white girl's arms.

Hurriedly, under cover of the flag of truce, the white women and children were evacuated to the ships, some families boarding the Hazard, the rest coming at a stumbling run to the gang-planks of the schooners and the St. Louis, which had anchored under heavy fire to take on refugees. The last women were not clear of the blockhouse when there was a terrific roar, and the roof of Polack's house lifted sheer off, under a fountain of flame. The gunpowder had caught. Mr. Polack was blown up, and crashed down among his ruined cellars, but by some amazing chance was unhurt except for a few bruises. A seaman wriggled clear like a snake with a broken back, his face hideously disfigured. From the shore came the dreadful intermittent sobbing of a girl who lay with a broken thigh. The firing started again. Peppery little Mr. Hector stuck gamely to his post, and his three guns continued to hold off the Maoris from the second blockhouse.

“My Isabel stood beside me on the deck. A musket-ball struck the cathead beside her, and another passed between us. She laughed, and said, ‘That one was close, wasn't it, Papa ? How cold the wind blew.’ I begged her to come below, but she shook her head. ‘If we go below, they will say you are afraid. We must stay where we are.’”

Mr. Hector's gun ceased firing. In late afternoon, the Maoris began the sack of Kororareka. Some of the whites, half dazed, remained on shore, and took part unmolested in the plundering of their own property. Comic opera, like the rest.

“Seeing others go ashore, I left the Sir John Franklin myself, to try to effect the rescue of my poor affrighted horse, which had rolled over and over in his rope, and looked like a great cocoon. I untied him, and came back to the ship to see if he could be brought on board. But when I looked back, it was to see a party of natives leading him away. I believe that many other horses suffered the same fate.”

So Black Aladdin, with a brown hand at his halter, trots into a world far removed from sugar-loaves and striped winter apples.

Twilight made the Bay a place of ghosts. One after another, like great grey moths, the ships spread sail. There was a sobbing of exhausted women on each of those ships. The Hazard had taken as many refugees as she could carry, the St. Louis one hundred and nineteen. The Matilda's big hulk carried two hundred and twelve, with thirteen wounded soldiers in an improvised sick bay. The page 204 rest huddled on the schooners. No food had been provided in the blockhouses, and the ships' provisions were quite inadequate. Famished, weary, and facing destitution, the refugees left their dead at Kororareka. With the houses destroyed there, the losses in property amounted to about £50,000.

Auckland waited with desperate eagerness for the ships from Sydney, and cheered when three ships came into harbour. Then the St. Louis, the Hazard, and the Matilda drew alongside, and the town went into mourning.

The little Sir John Franklin, well ahead of heavier craft, berthed in Auckland on the same day that Hone Heke gave Kororareka to the flames, sparing only a few mission buildings. Heke's campaign saw its last big triumph with this assault. The warships arrived at last from Sydney, bringing with them Captain Grey, who first, with the able assistance of Nene and other leading chiefs, proceeded in the most business-like way to clean up the warparties, and then replaced Captain FitzRoy as Governor of the Colony. Heke's fire smouldered in northern grass for a long time, but it was only at Kororareka that really large letters of flame told the world of his intentions.

“In Auckland, I found the value of Government scrip down to 1s. 9d. in the £. My first call was to my land agent.… When I had paid him the £40 required for his services, I had almost nothing left. I was nearly broken-hearted, wondering what I could contrive now for my family. But one of the Hokianga's respectable white settlers, to whom I had lent money in times past, now assisted me.… I called on Governor FitzRoy, and was given an extremely friendly interview. When the men from H.M.S. Hazard came to Auckland, I was exposed again to insult and assault, and threatened on all sides as the Frenchman who said he would take refuge under American colours. It was stated that I was a spy of France, and only waiting for a native rising to usurp power for her.… I was knocked down in the streets, kicked and insulted.… A few days after my arrival, a native came up to my son Richard in the street, and spoke to him in a confused manner, asking if the white man would fight again against the Maoris. My son replied that he had better ask someone else, and walked on. That night, my three eldest sons were arrested and taken to the police station, where an attempt was made to implicate them on a treasonable charge. But the whole was exposed as a plot, in which a Mr. Hancock had endeavoured to induce the native to set a trap for my sons. Fortunately, he was overheard.… If ever I am an enemy, which God forbid, I shall be an open one.

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“As far greater men have done, I decided now to make existence possible for my family by the employment of what talents I had.…”

Then began the music-stool, dangling schoolboy legs, a nailed boot pressed down in grim determination on the loud pedal. The Baron de Thierry gives a concert to display the talent of his pupils, and mothers are requested not to bring infants in arms.

Far away on Mount Isabel, apricots drop, flushed and downy-cheeked, into the grass; there are still sleek grapes under the unkempt vines. “Fruit,” wrote Charles, in 1856, “of which I never see a particle.”

The Sèvres nymph watches him through her misty halo of candlelight. She has seen more kings fall than one.