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

Chapter XIII — The East Coast Tattooed Trader

page 107

Chapter XIII
The East Coast Tattooed Trader

Barnet Burns's Exploits—His Flight From Mahia in 1832—Was He at Siege of Kekeparaoa?—Fresh Light on Kidnapping Incident at East Cape—Plan for an English Colony at Tolaga Bay in 1836.

Although neither Poverty Bay nor the East Coast was the place of residence of “White Chief Rutherford” between 1816 and 1826, both districts, some years later, saw a great deal of another tattooed pakeha, a trader named George White (to the natives, “Hori Waiti”), who, upon his return to England, adopted the alliterative appellation: “Barnet Burns.” He published a booklet containing his “experiences,” which sold for sixpence. It ran into five editions, the first of which was printed in 1835 and the last in 1850. The Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington) has a copy of the 1844 edition, and the full narrative (excepting the glossary, and with only one of the two woodcuts) appears in Life in Early Poverty Bay (1927). Mrs. W. L. Williams attended one of Burns's entertainments at Manchester (the city in which she was born) in or about 1850.

When W. L. Williams returned to Poverty Bay from Oxford University in 1853, he brought back a copy of Burns's booklet, and had one of the pictures of Burns reproduced in the form of an enlarged photograph, which he presented to Burns's half-caste son (Hori Waiti) at a large gathering at Tokomaru Bay. Prior to making the gift, he asked the native elders whether they recognized the subject of the photograph. On their behalf, Witehau said: “We know this man,” and, turning to Hori, he added: “He is your father.” Hori then fired a shot above the photograph by way of a salute in honour of his father. The photograph is still treasured by his descendants.

In his booklet, Burns describes himself as an English sailor, but in one of his entertainment handbills he gives Scotland as the land of his birth. He says that he left England on the brig Walna in 1827, and that, after a short stay at Rio de Janeiro, he went by the barque Nimrod to Sydney, where he held a situation in the “Bank of Australia” for about two years. Then he shipped on the brig Elizabeth for a trading voyage to New Zealand and was away for eight months. Upon his own showing, therefore, the date on which he affirms that “I. Baron Montefiore”—he meant Joseph Barrow Montefiore, an influential merchant of Sydney—entered into an arrangement with him to act as his agent at Mahia could not have been as early as he suggests, viz. February, 1829. page 108 In strict fact, Burns, in company with Captain Harris and Tom Ralph, landed at Poverty Bay on 16 May, 1831, and he was sent by Harris to Mahia in the role of a sub-agent.

According to Burns, there was not then any other white man on Mahia—“not one residing within 100 miles of me.” “So here I was,” he says, “among a set of cannibals, trusting wholly and solely to their mercy, not knowing when they might take my trade [goods] from me, and not only my trade, but my life…. Then, for the first time since I took my fancy to visit New Zealand, I felt frightened at my situation.” He gives the name of the chief who protected him as “Awhawee,” and claims to have married one of his daughters. [His wife at Tolaga Bay was Amotawa, who belonged to Whanau-a-Ruataupare hapu, of Tokomaru Bay.] After he had been at Mahia for nearly eleven months [this would be early in 1830, vide Burns, but early in 1832, vide Harris], a vessel arrived from Sydney. When the natives learned that her captain had instructions to close the station, they became “quite cross and inclined to plunder.” He explains that he did not leave by the ship because his wife was on the point of lying-in.

Describing his flight from Mahia, Burns says that during the absence, at some distant plantations, of the majority of the tribe with which he was living, some members of a neighbouring tribe threatened to steal the goods which he had been permitted to retain. He calls this tribe the “Wattihabitties.” [Whatu-i-Apiti, a Hawke's Bay tribe which, with others from the south had, for some years, been sheltering on the peninsula on account of the possibility that their own district might be raided.] Upon Awhawee's advice, he placed his goods in a large war-canoe and, accompanied by his wife, his father-in-law and a few slaves, fled to Poverty Bay. A gale forced the fugitives to run for Wharryawaawa [Whareongaonga]. Next day a course was set for Wyshee [Waihi, the extreme point of Young Nick's Head]. As a heavy sea was running into Poverty Bay, they had to land and carry the goods overland, “a distance of 13 miles.” It is evident that Burns and his companions went to Harris's trading-station at Turanganui, seeing that, later in his narrative, he speaks of going up the Tooronga [Turanganui] River, meaning the arm now known as the Taruheru River.

Poverty Bay's First Bushfeller

Burns tells his readers that, three weeks afterwards, he established himself twelve miles farther inland. Light on this point is shed by W. L. Williams in a letter (31/12/1859) to Lands Commissioner Bell:

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“I think I mentioned to you the circumstances of Mr. Harris having located a man named Burns on portion of the land in question [Pouparae, which lies a few miles to the north-west of Gisborne] and that this man Burns took possession of the ground and cleared off a quantity of the bush growing on it without any molestation, and without even the slightest objection being raised by any of the natives to his residing there without their leave. Mr. Harris, I understand, is prepared to make a statement on oath to this effect. [No trace of earlier systematic bushfelling in Poverty Bay has been found. The year was 1832.]

It is stated by Burns that there was a white man at Wherowhero (Muriwai) whom he wished to visit, but he was prevented from doing so on account of an unsettling report to the effect that an outside tribe consisting of six hundred men had entered the district, and was about twenty miles off. [These intruders were Whakatohea and were dislodged from Muhunga, near Ormond, by T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki in 1832.] Burns avers that he went with the force which routed them. An intended ambush, he says, was spoilt by a dog, which had wandered away. He adds that only four slaves were taken, and that they were “killed and devoured.”

His next venture was a flax-buying trip in company with some of the tribe to which he was attached [T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki] to a place twenty-eight miles distant named Mutu. [Elsdon Best thought that Burns meant Motu, but that locality is fifty miles inland, and was then in heavy bush. Above Puha, which is only twenty-five miles inland, flax was not plentiful.] Burns says that he and his companions were attacked by a party of Knightarangy [Ngai-te-Rangi] and that all of them were slain and eaten excepting himself. [The Ngai-te-Rangi had been in the habit of making incursions into Poverty Bay, but had desisted prior to Burns's day.] His life hung in the balance until he agreed to be tattooed and to live with, and to fight for, his captors. When the tattooing was about a quarter finished, he contrived to escape.

Soon afterwards, according to Burns, the Poverty Bay tribes, together with some allies, assembled with the object of wiping out the Walkathowas [Whakatohea], who had remained in the district. He claims that he had charge of one hundred and fifty of the six hundred attackers who surrounded the invaders. This is, plainly, a reference to the Siege of Kekeparaoa, which took place in 1832. It is not unlikely that he was “Mahuika's pakeha,” who, it was held by Wi Pere, was present, in addition to Harris, at the siege. Some of Burns's information lends colour to the belief that it was gained first-hand, for he mentions that the site of the enemy's pa was adjacent to a river, that the besieged consisted principally of Whakatohea, that the pa was taken by a sudden mass effort, and that the prisoners were divided among page 110 the attackers. His further suggestion that sixty prisoners were slain and eaten must be regarded as a fantastic exaggeration.

Burns next recounts the circumstances in which he moved to Onawa [Uawa, or Tolaga Bay]. He says that he went there to act as agent for a firm—name not disclosed—which had the Prince of Denmark—on the Sydney-New Zealand run. However, it would seem that it was Harris who sent him there. In the Harris Memoirs, p. 5, it is stated that a trading branch was started by Harris at Tolaga Bay shortly after his arrival at Poverty Bay. Burns mentions that he found at Tolaga Bay a trader who was acting for Captain Kent [this would be Ferris], and that he established his station on the opposite side of the river to that on which his rival resided. It is not open to doubt that the year was 1832.

During his stay of “nearly three years” at Tolaga Bay, Burns became (so he claims) the chief of a tribe numbering six hundred. He adds:

“This part was the place where I enjoyed happiness. It was the place where I was tattooed—at least where the remaining part of my face was marked—and not only my face but my body. I do not mean to say that I was tattooed altogether against my will, as I submitted to have the latter part done. In fact, I thought within myself that, as one part of my face was disfigured, I might as well have it done completely, particularly as it would be of service to me.” [Native accounts state that Burns was tattooed at Loisel's Beach (near Tolaga Bay) and that he gave a musket to Te Aperahama, of Tokomaru Bay, for performing the work.]

Rescue of Captive Sailors

An interesting—perhaps, the true—version of the episode relating to the carrying away of some Waiapu natives to the Bay of Islands by the Elizabeth (Captain Black) in April, 1833, is supplied by Burns. According to the missionary records, a gale sprang up whilst the natives were visiting the vessel and they could not be landed. On the other hand, Burns says that it was on account of the tribe's action in harbouring three members of the crew who had run away that Captain Black made off with his fifteen native guests. [They were returned by the Rev. W. Williams in January, 1834.]

A party headed by Burns set off to ransom the captive sailors, who were held by “Cotahrow, one of the greatest tyrants in that part of New Zealand.” He threatened to slay them in retaliation for Captain Black's misdeed. Part of the bargain was that the ransom should be paid upon the safe delivery of the sailors at Tolaga Bay. Unhappily for Cotahrow, his canoe capsized on the bar of the Uawa River, with the result that he and his crew, together with his canoe, were seized as lawful prizes by the page 111 Uawa natives and no ransom was required to be paid! Burns adds that it was only on account of his personal intervention that Cotahrow obtained his liberty and got his canoe back. The sailors went on to Sydney on the brig Byron.

Prior to Burns's departure from Tolaga Bay, Amotawa had had two children. Both died in infancy. Subsequently, there was born a son, Hori Waiti (George White), who became a stalwart and familiar figure on the East Coast. Te Kani-a-Takirau, who already had at least one wife (Mariko), then made Amotawa an additional wife. When Ra Mackey lived at Te Kani's home at Whangara in the early 1850's, the great chief had three wives. Hori was born either late in 1834, or at the beginning of 1835. Te Kani scornfully refused to sanction the bestowal upon him of the name “Kingi Hori” (“King George”), which Burns had desired should be given to the child if it proved to be a boy. [William IV was then on the Throne.] It was Te Kani's opinion that it was far too aristocratic a name to be awarded a half-caste. Instead, he insisted that a boy born to his own sister should be called after the deceased British monarch.

Burns left Poverty Bay on the Bardaster (Captain Chalmers). The date is not given in his booklet. His friend Morgan, in a letter to the Home authorities (19/4/1836), fixes it as “at or about the end of October, 1834.” The Bardaster was on the East Coast about that time, and, resuming her voyage, via Cook Strait, she reached Sydney on 2 November, 1834, en route to England, where she arrived early in 1835. Burns says he left England in 1827 and returned after an absence of eight years.

Tattooed from head to foot—his face and thighs permanently ornamented in the Maori fashion, and his arms and chest decorated in the manner so dear to sailormen—Burns, like Rutherford, attracted widespread attention in England. He proved a first-class showman. The Hocken Library (Dunedin) has two specimens of the handbills which he used in connection with his entertainments. Upon the occasion of his appearances at Ward-wick, Derby, in April, 1842, he was described as being “beautifully tattooed,” and it was stated that he would be “dressed in the costume of New Zealand”; narrate “the various battles in which he was engaged”; exhibit “the head of a New Zealand chief, his opponent in battle”; and answer any questions. Burns's numerous descendants on the East Coast will be interested to learn that he was assisted by “Mrs. Burns,” who was billed to perform “several airs and waltzes on the musical glasses.” The charges for admittance were: Front seat, 1/-; children, 6d.; and back seats, 6d. A promise was given that the lecture-room would page 112 be well aired. In an 1849 handbill, Burns is described as “Pahe a Range” and Mrs. Burns as “Madame Pahe a Range.”

Some further information concerning Burns appears in correspondence filed in the Public Records Office in London. There is a copy in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Early in 1836, Burns was living at Southampton. On his behalf, a Thomas Morgan wrote to the Foreign Office (19/4/1836) requesting that an opportunity should be afforded him to place before H.M. Government a plan in respect of colonization either in New Zealand or in South Australia. The letter was referred to the Colonial Office.

Befriended in His Youth

Burns is described as a native of Liverpool, where he was born in 1807, and as “a smart, active man, naturally quick and intelligent, who has received a plain education and who conducts himself in a very becoming manner.” He went to sea as a cabin boy when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, but left his ship in the West Indies, where he entered the service of Lewis Lecesne, a rich merchant of colour. Lecesne was severely persecuted by the planters in Jamaica, and, with a Mr. Escoffery, was banished by the House of Assembly in 1824 for displaying a keen interest in a movement aimed at securing improved conditions for the slaves. When Lecesne settled in London, Burns followed him there. Acting as a father to him, Lecesne placed him in the Lancastrian School in London, “where he quickly rose to the highest classes.” In 1827, Burns again went to sea. Morgan's outline of his subsequent career follows that given in the Burns booklet, excepting, in particular, that no reference is made to the Siege of Kekeparaoa.

Uawa (spelt “Youkawa”) is described by Morgan, on behalf of Burns, as a very valuable and very beautiful part of New Zealand. It is covered, it is stated, “with most fertile savannahs and with valleys which are clothed in the richest verdure, and through which run rivers of most excellent water, and where timber and flax of the first quality and in great abundance may be procured mainly for the trouble of collecting them.” Burns, it is added, had left at Youkawa his wife and two fine children [Hori had been born since], beside valuable property in spars, flax, etc. to a large amount. He was known in New Zealand as “Ahordi” or “E'Hori” (George), “from the name of our late revered sovereign, which name is much respected by the natives, who call the English ‘George's race,’ believing us to live in tribes like theirs, and that George is the principal chief.” Living as a chief, and being tattooed, Burns had great advantages, great power and great privileges which he could not otherwise have possessed.

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Bishop W. Williams. First Anglican Missionary in Poverty Bay (1840).

Bishop W. Williams.
First Anglican Missionary in Poverty Bay (1840).

Rev. C. Baker and Mrs. Baker. Opened mission station at Tolaga Bay (1843).

Rev. C. Baker and Mrs. Baker.
Opened mission station at Tolaga Bay (1843).

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Poverty Bay (1868) Poverty Bay Massacre : (10-11-1868) Locality PlanCompiled by J. A. Mackay.

Poverty Bay
Poverty Bay Massacre : (10-11-1868)
Locality Plan

Compiled by J. A. Mackay.

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According to Morgan, Burns had the sole control of the eastern side of the North Island from East Cape to Cook Strait. He described it as little known to Europeans, “as the few captains who traded there made it their study, through a spirit of avarice and jealousy, to prevent, as much as possible, all communication with strangers, and had been frequently known to throw overboard letters entrusted to them which Burns and others had written to merchants in other parts, and, by this means, contrive to monopolize the valuable trade there to themselves.” Burns told Morgan that, at Uawa, he had sold to Captain Lambert, of H.M.S. Alligator [1834] a canoe, which had his own likeness curiously engraved by the natives upon the figurehead. This canoe, he believed, had been presented to the King. Whilst in England, he particularly desired to be introduced to the notice of His Majesty, as the first question which the natives were sure to ask upon his return would be whether he had seen him.

Burns's Colonization Plan

After putting forward a plea, on behalf of Burns, that missionaries should be sent to Uawa, Morgan proceeds:

“A small colony of steady tradesmen and artisans, particularly carpenters, would meet with employment and great encouragement under Burns's protection, wanting only their tools and a few trifling articles to ensure them a competency, and they would soon alter the face of this fine country and the conditions and manners of the inhabitants. Agricultural implements might also be sent out with great advantage, as there is plenty of good land to bring into cultivation, and the natives themselves would soon learn to use them, by which means the beautiful and fruitful soil of New Zealand would shortly produce, almost spontaneously, wheat and all other corn, pulse and vegetables cultivated in England, so as soon to vie with, if not excel, those of the Mother Country…. Burns has a well-wooded district under his control, and has only to raise a hand to have thousands of loads of the finest timber cut and transported to the coast for the use of H.M. Navy, or for any other purposes for which it might be required…. He is, for a time, engaged in assisting an agent on the Isle of Wight, who is translating the Scriptures, or part of them, into the language of New Zealand, after which he will be happy to have the honour of waiting upon H.M.'s Secretary for State for the Colonies….”

The High Commissioner for New Zealand (Mr. W. J. Jordan) kindly had the Public Records Office files searched, on behalf of the writer, to ascertain, if possible, the Home Government's attitude concerning Burns's proposal that an English colony should be established at Tolaga Bay. No trace of a reply was found in the Colonial Office files for 1836 or in either of the two succeeding years. On Morgan's letter, there was a minute (20/4/1836): “Acknowledge the receipt and express Lord Glenelg's thanks to the writer for this statement.” Mr. Jordan added: “Actually, page 114 such a minute indicates, I think, that His Lordship was unlikely to concern himself deeply about the suggestion, and certainly did not intend to state his views on the question either to Burns or to Morgan.” New Zealand was, of course, not then a Crown possession.


Hori Waiti junior was adopted by relatives at Tokomaru Bay. He married Matiria and they had eight children: Peti (Mrs. J. Babbington, of Tokomaru Bay), Hirini (Tokomaru Bay), Paratene (Waipiro Bay), Hori Patene (Tokomaru Bay), Peihana (Tokomaru Bay), Prince (Tokomaru Bay), Adelaide (Mrs. Collins, of Te Arai), and Pani Tapatapa (Mrs. P. Mulligan, of East Cape). In all, Burns had twenty-six grandchildren and some scores of great grandchildren. The sixth generation has now appeared. Hori Waiti died on 10 August, 1898.

Amotawa's father's name is given in East Coast genealogies as Ihiri and her mother's as Aria.