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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

The Matilda at Otago, 1813

The Matilda at Otago, 1813.

The widespread character of revenge and brutality accorded to the New Zealanders about this time renders all the more pleasant the story told by Captain Fowler of the Matilda. This vessel sailed from Sydney in August, 1813, bound for New Zealand and then on to Tahiti. On her page 216 road she remained anchored for 11 days in Otago Harbour, driven there in distress.

“The vessel was manned with lascars,5 who were emaciated by fatigues they had before been unaccustomed to; and being for a length of time without vegetables, or fresh provisions; having then also but a few gallons of water left. As soon as Captain F. informed the chief Papuee of the state of his people, he received the most friendly profers and assistance; and collecting a number of his subjects, a large fishing party was immediately formed, and a present supply procured. Their potatoes were not more than half grown, and were taboo'd until they should attain their full size. Though the natives were thus prohibited their use themselves, the worthy chief would allow of no restraints operating against the distressed strangers, and to them an abundance was afforded. Such of the crew who were most capable were afterwards employed in procuring water, which was a mile's distance; but from the impediments they met with from the flax plant in rolling the casks, the labour was more than they could perform. The chief observing this, went himself to their assistance, and shouldering one of the casks set the example which his people immediately followed; and thus was the labour promptly and effectually relieved. The good chief visited the vessel immediately at sun rise every morning, and was personally attentive on all occasions to the supply of food to the crew. He noticed the running rigging to be in a decayed state, the vessel having suffered a long continuance of very bad weather; and without any prefatory remark sat down on deck with a number of his people, women and men promiscuously, and commenced rope making after the manner of the country, which is performed by plaiting four strands of flax, something in the way that our carriage whips are made, which proved an excellent substitute for a more expensive cordage. Captain F. speaks of the chief in the highest term of regard and veneration; his stature is full six feet and a page 217 half in height, athletically formed, his countenance as benign as his manners are mild; and commanding obedience more as the father of a family than as the chieftain of a barbarous district. At taking leave he expressed the most friendly concern for the welfare of the captain and his people, and hoped if they should come that way again he would call and acquaint him with their welfare.”

During this voyage Captain Fowler suffered the less of no less than three boats and fourteen men on the New Zealand coast.6 One boat was stolen by the natives from alongside the vessel, the second was taken away by six of the lascar crew, and the third was sent with Mr. Brown, chief officer, accompanied by two Europeans and five lascars, and never returned. Mr. Brown's boat was supposed by Captain Fowler to have foundered. Later on evidence was discovered of the fate of the men. De Blosseville ascertained in Sydney, in 1823, that of the six lascars in the second boat, three were killed by the natives and the others were kept alive and taught the natives how to dive and cut the ship's cables during the night and how to reduce the efficiency of firearms by attacking in wet weather. Prior to the Otago Heads massacre in 1817, Mr. Kelly was told by one of the surviving lascars of the Matilda that Mr. Brown, with six men, had been killed and eaten by the natives.

In Captain Fowler's description of what took place at Otago no mention is made of the loss of his men and boats, his straitened circumstances are attributed solely to the weather and the state of his crew's health. The loss may be presumed therefore to have taken place after he left Otago, but from the evidence we can equally conclude that the scene of the disasters was not very far away from this locality.

This is the first reference to Otago which the author has been able to identify with certainty, though he believes that the port was visited towards the end of 1809. As the date of Captain Fowler's visit may be taken to be the end of 1813, there is a period of four years to account for.