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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.


Life and Times of Captain J. W. Harris—Trader, Whaler and Grazier—Not Mahia's Mystery Pakeha—Valuable Journal Vanishes—His Contemporaries: Their Careers.

The “Founder of Poverty Bay” was John Williams Harris (born in Cornwall, England, in 1808), whom J. B. Montefiore and Co., merchants, of Sydney, sent over during the early stages of the flax boom to establish trading stations in this portion of New Zealand. To the natives, he became known as “Pene Hareti”—“Pene” being a shortened form of “Kapene,” the Maori word for “Captain,” and “Hareti” being the nearest they could manage in their own language for “Harris.” Why they styled him “Captain” is not clear. Visiting master mariners invariably referred to him as plain “Mr. Harris.” As many of the settlers followed the example of the natives in calling him “Captain,” that designation has been retained in these records.

Family tradition states that Harris, in his youth, made a voyage with an uncle who was the skipper of a China tea clipper, and that, afterwards, he joined the Royal Navy, but ill-health compelled him to give up an intended sea career. Be that as it may, he was still in his teens when he left England to join relatives who had migrated to the mother colony of New South Wales. On that side of the Tasman Sea he engaged only in shore occupations—first of all, in a counting—house; then, on a sheep station; and, finally, on the staff of Montefiore and Co.

For many years, it was widely believed that a great deal of exclusive, and, therefore, very valuable, information concerning the birth of European settlement in Poverty Bay reposed within the dusty covers of a MSS. book which, it was supposed, had been compiled by Captain Harris. No one outside the family circle claimed to be acquainted with its contents. However, in 1926. Francis Robert Harris, one of Harris's grandsons, placed the mystery book at the disposal of the writer, who published its main features in The Gisborne Times.

Historical students were keenly disappointed to find that the so-called Harris Memoirs did not allude to a number of very important events with which Harris had been associated. There was not a word about the moa bone which he took to Sydney early in 1837 and which led to confirmation by Professor R. Owen, of London, that huge birds had once ranged New Zealand. Only bare mention was made of the establishment of the whaling page 95 industry and of the arrival of the missionaries. In regard to the Hauhau troubles in 1865 and the Te Kooti revolt in 1868, there was complete silence. Internal evidence revealed that the notes were compiled in 1897, a quarter of a century after Harris's death, by his elder son (Edward Francis Harris), who, it seems, had intended to write a complete account of his father's life.

A journal which Captain Harris kept has vanished. Writing to Mr. McLean (16/9/1865) he says: “I will forward a copy of my journal, in which events are stated just as I hear them.” It is clear that Harris junior did not have it at hand when he compiled the Memoirs. Most likely, it was lost when the family home at Opou was destroyed by fire by the Te Kooti rebels in November, 1868. However, Harris junior preserved some valuable information not available elsewhere concerning the district's historic past. That he displayed a tendency to claim for his father credit for being “first in the field” in connection with so many things was excusable.