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Historical Records of New Zealand

Captain Skinner to Commissioner Bigge

Captain Skinner to Commissioner Bigge.

His Majesty’s Store Ship Dromedary, Whangaroa Harbour, New Zealand, September 12th, 1820.


I have the honor to acquaint you that, having anchored in this harbour on the 21st June, we have since been principally employed in making a road from the river to a fine grove of cowrie, situated near one mile distant, which being nearly completed, I hope we shall be able to get the spars drawn down by the ten Government bullocks, which I brought from Port Jackson, but page 496 the process will be tedious, as I have at all times found the natives totally unequal to such labour as is requisite to get down spars of the large dimensions we require; they generally work tolerably well for a few days, but as soon as the novelty of their occupation has subsided, and they have got possession of a few trifling articles, we can get no further exertions from them; their chiefs, as they are termed, have not the least authority over their tribes, and it is indeed difficult to distinguish them from the other natives, as they all appear to dress, live, and work alike; they are extremely treacherous, and suspicious, and no force of argument will convince them of your intentions whenever they have a doubt, so much are they accustomed to deception in their neighbours; hence, promises have little or no weight with them; and I have in no instance discovered the least spark of gratitude among them, nor do they seem to possess such a feeling. There can be no doubt of their being cannibals, as there were two or three instances of their eating human flesh while we were laying at the Bay of Islands. I am not aware that any individual in this ship was actually a witness of this fact, but mangled limbs were seen near their huts by some of the officers, which appeared very lately killed. There indeed appears not the smallest doubt but they frequently kill what they term their slaves, or persons taken in war, for the sole purpose of eating them. These savages do not attempt to deny that it is the custom among them to eat their enemies, tho’ some of them, at the Bay of Islands, deny having eaten it themselves, as they know it is not approved of by Europeans; but others speak with delight of eating human flesh, and appear to admire the flavour, and I really believe they prefer it to other food. It seems also a common practice among them to kill their female children when young, as they consider them of no use. I have been told by one of the Europeans who resides at the Bay of Islands that there is an old woman now living at or near Tippoonah who is known to have killed six of her female offspring. There are several skulls and a heap of human bones laying on shore not more than four hundred yards from the ship, which we imgaine are some of the remains of the unfortunate victims of the Boyd, as the Dromedary is moored very near the spot where that ship was taken. Her wreck, which shews itself at low water, now lays about a mile higher up the river; part of the crew were killed in a wood close to where we are employed in getting out timber. These natives are by no means that formidable race I was led to imagine. One hundred armed soldiers might march from one end of New Zealand to the other without the least apprehension from them; nor would they, I believe, attack twenty armed men unless it could be done by surprize. The timber here appears remarkably fine, and in great page 497 abundance, particularly cowdie, which appears by far the most useful wood I have seen on the island. Some of those we have got cut down are certainly as fine specimens as can be seen, but all the spars of large size are situated a considerable distance from the banks of the rivers, and none seems to grow near the sea; therefore to get them afloat with our limited means is attended with immense labour, but if one hundred working men could be employed, and a guard of forty or fifty armed soldiers, they could then work independent of the savages, and the process of getting a cargo would be quite simple and easy. Was this part of the country uninhabited, I could in that case employ the greater part of the ship’s company in getting the spars down, but as we are now situated, I feel a reluctance in employing men in the woods among these treacherous cannibals, but am compelled to do so, or should not get a cargo.

Wangaroa affords an excellent harbour for any number of ships, but the country around appears unfavourable for cultivation, being composed of immense hills and almost everywhere covered with wood or fern, and scarcely a blade of grass to be found on any part of the island we have been at.

We got a few spars down from the Cowa Cowa, in the Bay of Islands, but it was attended with great labour and difficulty, and when we quitted that river in June the whole extent of the grove of kiketuah where the men were employed was inundated by the intense rains that had fallen for many preceding days and since our arrival here. We have had as much rain and stormy weather as might generally be expected in England in the month of November. We have frequently had storms of wind and rain continue for several days together, and the two months we have been here it has rained more than half the time, which has greatly retarded our progress in making the road, as it is situated upwards of six miles from the ship.

I hope it will be considered I have done my duty in sending in the American ship General Gates, for having brought away eleven convicts from Port Jackson.

The Coromandel is at the River Thames, but seems to find great difficulty in getting spars of proper dimensions. Mr. Kent, who commands the Prince Regent, schooner, whose conduct during the period he has served under my orders entitles him to great praise, will be able to give you any further information you may desire, as he has been to the River Thames and several other parts of the island.

I have, &c.,

R. Skinner,

Master Comg. To John Thomas Bigge, Esq., Commissioner of Enquiry, New South Wales.