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


Untraced Brig “Agnes”—Rutherford, the Tattooed Sailor—Was He Held Captive on the East Coast?—Grave of Old Vessel Uncovered at Gisborne—A Strange Coincidence.

Not a vestige of evidence has been found to substantiate the claim made in The New Zealanders (London, 1830) on behalf of an Englishman named John Rutherford that an armed American brig, the Agnes, with a crew of fourteen, was cut off in March, 1816, either in Poverty Bay or at Takomardo [? Tokomaru Bay] or at any other point on the eastern coast of the North Island. [In a pamphlet which Rutherford issued in Glasgow, he says that the Agnes did not reach Tahiti from Rio de Janeiro until 1 May, 1816.]

A stir was occasioned in Gisborne in July, 1926, when the Korua dredged up portions of the skeleton of a ship from a depth of from ten to twelve feet whilst she was excavating the river diversion cut. The spot was about 500 feet above high water mark, but only 200 feet above the line of high water shown on a plan prepared in 1880 for Sir John Coode, the eminent English harbour designer. It was, at first, believed that the remains were parts of the Rio Grande, which was driven up on Waikanae Beach on 30 April, 1884, but H. E. Johnstone, who had retained her figurehead, was able to show, by photographs, that the vessel had broken up much closer to the shore. He was also certain that practically the whole of her timbers had been taken away.

Within a day or two, the Korua had passed through the grave of the unknown ship, leaving high and dry about 60 feet of her keel and the whole of her stem (which was in one piece and measured twelve feet around the curve). According to Rutherford, the Agnes carried six guns, but no sign of any such relic was found. Elderly mariners and shipwrights reckoned that the vessel could not have been of less than 100 tons. They pointed out that she had been constructed in accordance with methods which had been superseded. Wooden pegs had been used to fasten the planks to the stem. First of all, a peg had been driven home; then, it had been split and a smaller peg forced into the aperture.

As some of the timber appeared charred, the theory was then advanced that the remains might have belonged to the neverfound Agnes of Rutherford's story. These dark patches proved page 63 to be only stains. Close examination of other finds also failed to add weight to the opinion that a discovery of great historical importance had been made. Among them were pieces of an iron stove, which bore a trade mark of a serpent interwoven with an anchor, and also some pieces of coal. There was, of course, no proof that any of them had sunk with the mystery vessel.

Interest in the discovery was heightened when some elderly natives claimed to have heard that a ship named Agnes had met her doom in the locality. That there had been any foul play in connection with the disaster all stoutly denied. Further inquiries revealed that, on 23 June, 1867, a craft bearing that name was wrecked at the mouth of the Turanganui River; that heavy seas carried her over the rocks on to the western side of the river; and that she broke up. Shipwrecks: New Zealand Disasters, 1795–1936 gives her as a schooner of 100 tons. It was, indeed, a strange coincidence in respect of nomenclature!

As no relic of the Agnes has ever been traced, and as no tribe has any tradition relating to her, some historians discredit Rutherford's narrative as a whole. However, either under compulsion or voluntarily—most readers may prefer the second choice—he must have spent a considerable time among the Maoris in order to have secured opportunities to gather the large fund of information concerning their customs which is credited to him, even allowing that he obtained some of it from other pakehas.

It is not known whether George Lillie Craik (the editor of The New Zealanders) met Rutherford, but Charles Knight (the publisher) did so. Rutherford, who was illiterate, had dictated his story to a shipmate on his voyage back to England. A strange omission is the name of the tribe with which he claims to have lived so long. It is stated that a gale threw the Agnes off her course to the Bay of Islands and carried her “past the mouth of the Thames”—presumably to the south of the tip of Coromandel Peninsula. When the storm abated, she was south of a high point of land “which, from Rutherford's description, there can be no doubt,” the editor says, “must have been that to which Captain Cook gave the name of Cape East.” Seeing that Poverty Bay and Takomardo gained places in the story, the exact wording that follows requires to be quoted:

“The land directly opposite to them was,” it is stated, “indented by a large bay. This the captain was very unwilling to enter, believing that no ship had ever anchored in it before, We have little doubt, however, that this was the very bay into which Cook first put on his arrival on the coasts of New Zealand in the beginning of October, 1769. He called it Poverty Bay and found it to lie in latitude 38d. 42m. S.
“The bay in which Rutherford now was must have been at least page 64 very near this part of the coast and his description answers exactly to that which Cook gives us of Poverty Bay. ‘It was,’ says Rutherford, ‘in the form of a half moon, with a sandy beach round it and had at its head a fresh water river, having a bar across its mouth, which makes it only navigable for boats.’
“All these particulars are noticed by Cook. Even the name given to it by the natives as reported by the one is not so entirely unlike that stated by the other as to make it quite improbable that the two are merely the same word differently represented. Cook wrote it Taoneroa and Rutherford Takomardo.”

Sole responsibility for the suggestion that it was Poverty Bay which the Agnes entered rests, therefore, with the editor of The New Zealanders. If Rutherford had ever been in Poverty Bay, it is certain that he would not have been told by its inhabitants that its name was “Takomardo.” Where he picked up that place-name is a mystery. It is possible that there was a “Tokomaru” close to the locality in which he lived. The name is not uncommon. Apart from Tokomaru Bay, there is a Tokomaru in the Manawatu district.

When Captain Hovell returned to Sydney in November, 1815, he reported on the attack that had been made, on 20 August, on the Trial and the Brothers at Trial Harbour (perhaps Mercury Bay or Kennedy's Bay). The Sydney Gazette (18/11/1815) says:

“Among a variety of information communicated to the Gazette on the 8th inst., we omitted a statement made by Mr. Hovell, of the Brothers, of his having learned from the natives of New Zealand that three vessels had been, at different periods, cut off there, no accounts of which have reached this colony, viz. one at the head of the River Thames; one at Mercury Bay; and the third at Poverty Bay….” [The Agnes, according to Rutherford, was not taken until the following year.]

Playfully commenting upon the fact that the Sydney authorities had never heard of the alleged outrages, McNab (Tasman to Marsden, 1914 ed., p. 94) says: “… which is quite possible, when we consider the effective methods the natives had of removing incriminating evidence.” He was, of course, alluding to the Maoris' practice of eating their captives! If, however, one of the outrages reported by Captain Hovell had occurred in Poverty Bay or on the East Coast, or if the Agnes had been taken at either place, such a crime could not have been completely covered up. Neighbouring tribes would have got to know, and probably would have received gifts of loot, and, sooner or later, proof would have been furnished to visiting shipmasters. It also requires to be borne in mind that, within fifteen years, some pakehas had taken up their abode in Poverty Bay and others on the East Coast. None of them ever claimed to have heard of either “tragedy.”

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Cook's watering place, Cook's Cove, Tolaga Bay.By D'Urville's artist on L'Astrolabe, 1827.

Cook's watering place, Cook's Cove, Tolaga Bay.
By D'Urville's artist on L'Astrolabe, 1827.

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War dance on L'Astrolabe at Tolaga Bay, 1827. British Museum Print.

War dance on L'Astrolabe at Tolaga Bay, 1827.
British Museum Print.

page 65

Rutherford says that, soon after the Agnes dropped anchor “off the termination of a reef of rocks immediately under some elevated land which formed one of the sides of the bay,” many canoes went out to her, each containing about thirty women. On the first day, there was only a sprinkling of male visitors. The women remained on board all night, employing their time chiefly in pilfering. Next day, a chief named Aimy and about one hundred other natives went out in a war canoe. He set about to put the captain at his ease by sending out water and wood to the vessel. Bartering for about two hundred pigs was then entered upon. Those natives who stayed aboard on the second night cut away many ropes, besides committing thefts.

On the following morning (Rutherford continues) he caught a native stealing the dipson lead, “which, when I took it from him, he grinded his teeth and shook his tomahawk at me.” As payment for the water and wood, the chief received two muskets and some powder and shot, “these being the only articles for which the natives at that place would trade.” There were then about three hundred natives on deck, “every man being armed with a greenstone axe slung with a string from his waist.” After the midday meal, the captain, now much alarmed, ordered the sails to be loosened and set, so that the vessel might put to sea. Smoke could be seen rising from some hilltops, and natives had begun to muster on the beach from every part of the bay.

Describing the attack on the vessel, Rutherford says that the chief then threw off his mat and began a war dance. Immediately, the other natives did likewise, “dancing with such violence that I thought they would stove in the ship's deck.” The captain was the first to be slain. A like fate befell the cook, who went to his aid. In turn, the mate was fatally injured. The rest of the crew fled to the rigging. “I now sat down on the jibboom,” he says, “with tears in my eyes and trembling with terror.” Four of the crew jumped overboard, but were captured; the other eight, including himself, were driven from the rigging, seized and bound. The vessel was then set on fire, cut adrift, and allowed to ground within the mouth of the river near the end of the village.

Readers of the narrative are then told that, after the captives had been landed, the mate succumbed; the twelve survivors were tied to trees, and the bodies of their three dead companions were hung up by the heels. Touching on the plight of the survivors on the following morning, Rutherford says: “Gentle reader: we will now consider the sad situation we were in: our ship lost; three of our companions already killed; and the rest of us each tied to a tree, starving with hunger, wet and cold, and knowing that we were in the hands of cannibals.” But (so runs the story) the page 66 worst was yet to come. Later in the day, six of the captives were slaughtered in a barbarous manner before the eyes of their terrified comrades.

“The victims,” Rutherford states, “groaned several times as they were struggling in the agonies of death and, at every groan, the natives burst into great fits of laughter. We could not refrain from weeping … not knowing whose turn it might be next. Many of the natives, upon seeing our tears, laughed aloud and brandished their merys [meres] at us.”

Next morning, after the bodies had been cooking all night, steps were taken (so the gruesome story proceeds) to hold a feast. Even before the remains had been removed from the oven, some children were observed tearing the flesh from them.

“A short time after the chiefs had assembled,” Rutherford avers, “baskets were placed before them, and they proceeded to divide the flesh among the multitude at the rate of a basket among so many. They also sent us a basket of potatoes and some of the flesh, which resembled pork; but, instead of partaking of it, we shuddered at the very idea of such an unnatural and horrid custom, and made a present of it to one of the natives.”

The six unharmed seamen, it is stated, were taken by Aimy on an inland journey towards his home. When ten miles had been traversed, a halt was made at the home of Rangadi, another of the perpetrators of the outrage. At night, whilst they were sitting around a fire, several of the women amused themselves by playing with the captives' fingers, sometimes opening their shirts at the breast and, at other times, feeling the calves of their legs, “which made us think,” Rutherford says, “that they were examining us to see if we were fit enough for eating.”

It was at this village, according to Rutherford, that he and his companions were tattooed.

“Whilst I was undergoing the operation, and although the pain was most severe,” he explains, “I never either moved or uttered a sound, but my companions groaned dreadfully. Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours in their hands. During the operation, Aimy's elder daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After the operation, 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.”

The stay at Rangadi's village lasted for six months. John Watson (one of the captives) was carried away by a chief named Nainy, whilst another (name not given) was left with Rangadi. The party then went on to another village (distance not indicated) where the chief was named Plama. Here John Smith was forced to remain behind. Jefferson was left at Ewanna's village twelve miles farther on. It took only one more day to reach Aimy's home.

Rutherford does not indicate, at this point, how far Aimy's page 67 village was from the scene of the alleged capture of the Agnes. At page 274, however, he states that, in 1826, just prior to his escape, Aimy and he made the journey from the village to Tokamardo [the earlier spelling was “Takamardo”] in two days. His remaining shipmate was slain because, inadvertently, he committed a breach of the law of tapu, but his body was not eaten. In due course, Aimy made Rutherford a chief and gave him for wives his two daughters, Eshou and Epecka.