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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

CHAPTER XX. — The General Gates, 1819 to 1824

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The General Gates, 1819 to 1824.

IT is hard to decide under what designation to classify the voyage of the General Gates. She was called after an American General in the War of Independence, was one of the numerous band of American sealing vessels which frequented the Australasian coasts, sailed from Boston on 20th October, 1818,1 under the command of Abimeleck Riggs,2 and reached Sydney on 4th June, 1819.

Her subsequent inglorious career has made her notorious in history.

After being fitted for the voyage she sailed on 29th June for the Bay of Islands. Among her passengers were the Revd. S. Marsden and several other clergymen, with some Maoris, all accredited to the Church Missionary Society. But she had on board other than legitimate passengers. From the time when the master of the American snow Mercury incurred the ire of the Governor at Sydney for stealing a convict woman, the Americans had taken away from Sydney a great number of convicts. Paterson, when Lieutenant-Governor, as far back as 1804, had attempted to stop the evil, and in a proclamation dated 11th August of that year, mentions “the injury His Majesty's service sustains by the numerous convicts that have escaped and been received on board American ships on their departure.” Riggs surpassed all previous records. He enticed five convicts on board, and allowed another five to stow away. He also took a freeman, who had not obtained a clearance. Eleven men left in the one ship, and what made his action the more serious was that the very best mechanics in the Government employ had been selected. On arrival at the Bay of Islands the men were formally put on the ship's articles and employed in ordinary work on board.

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On 15th September, she sailed from the Bay of Islands on a sealing expedition which took her in due course to Dusky Sound. There the frightful character of the captain manifested itself in imprisoning the men, placing them in irons, tying them up to the rigging, flogging them and then rubbing brine into the wounds caused by his punishment. The chief objects of his brutality were the prisoners he had smuggled on board while in Sydney and he put forward the pretext that the men were going to steal one of his boats. His stay at Dusky was not a success. He, however, landed a gang on the south coast, and returned to the Bay of Islands. Two other places called at were named Camel Island, where the ship went ashore, and Chanchi Harbour, probably Chalky Harbour.3

On 12th April, 1820, H.M.S. Dromedary was in the Bay of Islands returning from Sydney, and on the look out for a cargo of spars to take to England for the Navy. The General Gates was there too. Having received information of the condition of affairs that prevailed on the American ship, Captain Skinner paid her a visit, and found, as had been represented, that a large number of Sydney convicts were on board. These were all gathered together and taken on board the Dromedary. Then it became known that they had been enticed away, concealed and cruelly treated. Riggs, the captain, was therefore placed under arrest, and with the ship, and convicts, sent to Sydney where he arrived on 12th May, 1820, in charge of a British crew.4

In due course, the captain was brought before the Sydney Court, upon the charge of having violated the usual bond under the Port Regulations not to take away a convict without the Governor's permission, and fined in 12 penalties of £500 each; 11 for carrying away so many persons, and one for quitting the harbour without a clearance. In giving judgment Mr. Justice Field said, “It appeared by the evidence before the Court, that this American, being suffered to refresh his ship here, while partaking of a valuable fishery, which we might, if we page 296 pleased, monoplize to ourselves, instead of repaying the hospitality of the port with gratitude, acted more like a pirate than the subject of a friendly civilised nation, and went about into low public houses seducing some of our best convict mechanics. The learned Judge had no doubt that this was a breach of the laws of nations between friendly powers, and might, perhaps, revive the embers of discord in countries now happily at peace, and involve the defendant himself in consequences of which he was little aware. The defendant pleaded that he had now left seamen on sealing islands, who if not relieved must starve. For these serious consequences he must himself be responsible. Although when he left their port, breaking through its regulations, he might not have expected to have been brought back by any other constraint than that of perils of the seas yet he must be taken always to have contemplated these fatalities and that necessarily might bring him once more within a jurisdiction which would detain him for the penalties of his bond. And then, and not now, he should have thought what would become of the fishing parties which he had left on islands. Upon proper representation, the Governor of the Colony would take measures for the relief of these parties. All the Court had to do, was to decide whether the bond was not forfeited.”5

This judgment was given on 15th September, 1820. When it was satisfied is not recorded, but it must have been before the end of November, 1820, because on the 25th of that month, we find the captain advertising the list of men who were accompanying him. American files report that after a detention of nine months in Sydney, the General Gates was liberated in January, 1821, and in February sailed for the prosecution of her voyage after seals.6

She appears to have sailed from Sydney for the islands to take off the sealing parties she had left there before her seizure in New Zealand. After relieving them, she visited Hobart Town, sailing from that port in further prosecution page 297 of her sealing trip on 10th August. The next incident of this remarkable vessel's career is given in an American paper as follows.7

New Zealand Cannibals.

“In the Sultana from London arrived Mr. Joseph Price of Wilmington, Del., who was one of the crew of the brig General Gates of Boston. He furnishes the following account of the capture and butchery of most of the boats crew that landed on the coast of New Zealand.

“Sailed from Hobart Town, Van Dieman's Land, August 10, 1821, and on the 21st myself and 5 others, viz.: Thomas Router of London; James Webster; William Rawson of N. London; William Smith and James West both of New York, were landed on the coast of New Zealand in a whale boat with provisions, for the purpose of procuring seal skins.

“In six weeks we procured 3563 skins and the 11th of October we were taken by the natives of New Zealand between 10 and 11 o'clock at night. They set fire to our huts, burnt our skins, and the provisions we had left. They tied our hands behind our backs and we were marched by them to Lookinglass Bay which was upwards of 150 miles. During the whole of this time we had nothing to eat but roasted fish which the natives subsist on themselves:—Thence to Sandy Bay which is better than 200 miles; —when we arrived here, there was a tribe of savages who took us before their King and Queen, and the moment we were brought before them John Router, of London, was ordered to be killed. They tied him to a tree, and two Savages one before and one behind him, with a club each, knocked him on the head. They then cut off his head and buried it; the rest of the body these inhuman people deposited in a kind of oven, under ground, and roasted it as a person would roast an animal—of this they gave us to eat, and having nothing else we partook of it, which tasted very much like roasted pork. Consider dear reader, what a state our mind must be in at those awful moments. They tied the remaining five of us to a tree with fifty to page 298 guard us; the next day James Webster was killed and roasted; the day after this William Rawson of New London was killed and roasted; and the following day William Smith of New York, shared the fate of his unhappy companions. On the next day from what we could understand from the chief, James West, of New York, was to die; but fortunately for us, the night previous to his intended fate, a heavy squall rose from the east with rain, thunder and lightning, which so frightened the natives that they all ran away towards the west, making such a yelling noise as I never heard before, leaving us under the tree. We now untied each other, and walked away towards the beach where our boat was laying, which was about seven miles as nigh as we could guess. We now found our boat, two oars and the steer-oar, with her masts and sails. At the joy of finding our boat, I thought I was so strong as to carry her myself; we immediately launched her into the surf, and happy for us that Providence directed us to depart so soon as we did; for we were not thirty yards from the beach when 700 of the New Zealanders came in search of us. We were in the boat three days, having nothing to eat when we were picked up by the brig Maguary, captain White, belonging to Sydney, New South Wales, where we were landed on the 10th of November 1821.—Thence I sailed in English ship Admiral Cockburn to the Isle of France:—thence in the ship Julia-Ann of Calcutta to London. West was left in Sydney Hospital, sick.”

The account of the above in the “Boston Patriot” is in the third person. There is added “On each day the hands of their victims were assigned to the Queen, the feet to the King and the trunks to their subjects.” The brig is called Maquary. It has at the foot “M. Hall Books,” meaning evidently Mercantile Hall Books.

A similar account of the above gangs experiences is to be found in Polack Vol. I, p. 50, and there is little doubt that this writer obtained his information directly or indirectly from the Boston papers of fourteen years page 299 before, a few errors having crept in during transcription. It is not however, to call attention to Polack's version that mention is made of it here. An examination of Sydney files shows that about this time there were two vessels, the Campbell Macquarie and the Governor Macquarie, trading out of Sydney and that the latter arrived from the Friendly Islands in November 1822, after an absence of fourteen months from Sydney, during which time she had visited New Zealand and then spent twelve months in the Society Islands. She arrived under Captain Hunter, but is evidently the rescuing vessel referred to. The Admiral Cockburn sailed for the Isle of France on 23rd February, 1823, under Captain Briggs. The report given to the Boston paper is therefore one year in error in fixing the date as November, 1821.

As Price and Webb reached Sydney in November, 1822, and sailed in February, 1823, they were there when Mr. Grono appeared before the magistrate with the gang of the General Gates (see post). It is to be wondered at that Price makes no mention of Grono's action. The brutality of Captain Riggs towards his men would explain why Price manifested no desire to return, but the author considers that the interesting narrative of Price, given to the American journalist, requires further examination before acceptance to the full extent of the text.

After placing this unfortunate gang on the southern coast the General Gates sailed for the Bay of Islands where she arrived in August with a gang which she had relieved. Her intention at that time was to call for her sealing gang in January, 1822. So stated Clark who left the vessel at the Bay of Islands and returned to America. On 10th November, 1821, she anchored at Matavai Bay with 11,000 skins on board, and on the 15th of the same month she sailed for the Leeward Islands.8

From what came to light afterwards it may be presumed that the General Gates did not proceed to the South Cape in January, 1822, as intended. She sailed from Whampoa (Canton) where she was on 15th March, 1822, page 300 cruising round until about 14th May, when she made for Manila and Batavia. From Batavia she made for the South Seas. On 21st August9 she steered for Hobart, which she reached on 2nd November, 1822.10 Here she remained until 5th December when she sailed for New Zealand. On 18th December she dropped anchor in Chalky Sound, looking for her sealing gang, when it was found that they had, only a few days before, been relieved by the Government vessel the Snapper under Captain Edwardson. Of the original crew of eight men, four had been devoured by the natives11 and one lost.

The crew stated, on being relieved, that they had been left ashore seventeen months before, which would make the date June, 1821, an improbable one in view of the known movements of the General Gates. It is more probable that this gang was left ashore during the same trip as Price's gang, —some time in August, 1821, or a period of fifteen months before. The seventeen months stated by the crew would mean that in August, 1821, though the General Gates was in the neighbourhood she had overlooked them.

A gang was left by the General Gates on this second trip to the south and it appears to have had as rough a time as that experienced by the first gang.

On 21st January, 1823, Captain Grono brought into Sydney the brig Elizabeth from the sealing grounds off New Zealand with 1,500 seal skins. In the press references appears the following:

“Mr. Grono, master of the Elizabeth, colonial brig, appeared at the Police Office yesterday, together with 7 men, 5 of whom were Europeans, 1 an American, and 1 a New Zealander. Mr. Grono brought these persons from the West Coast of New Zealand, under the following circumstances:—Upon the Elizabeth making the coast, a boat came off, manned by seven men. They told the person in charge of the Elizabeth, the master then being absent, that the natives were very hostile to the crews of vessels, and to the gangs in the vicinity; that a party of them had page 301 lately killed four of their gang; and therefore advised them to be cautious. They further said that their boat, with themselves, belonged to the American ship General Gates, Captain Riggs, which was cruising off the Islands, leaving the chief officer Burnham with them. This latter individual is the American alluded to. When Mr. Grono came to a knowledge of this occurence, he proceeded on shore with a boat's crew, and took the men prisoners; under the idea, so he wished to impress the magistrates, that they were runaway convicts, and had now turned pirates in our seas. One of the men avowed himself to be an escaped prisoner of the Crown, but the others asserted their freedom, which no one was prepared to deny. They said there was not the smallest doubt but that Capt. Riggs would come after them to Port Jackson, as soon as information reached him of the event; which had before now occurred, from the gang of Mr. Grono stationed on the spot he took this party from. The free men were directed to be remanded till ample satisfaction could be procured as to their actual freedom, and the prisoner was ordered into custody, to be dealt with in the usual way. With regard to the conduct of Mr. Grono on the novel occasion, the Magistrates, in this state of the proceedings, could not withhold expressing their entire disapprobation at the perpetration of such an act.”

Grono is our old friend who, in the Governor Bligh, in one of the West Coast Sounds, relieved the survivors of the Active ten years before, and who, earlier still, was one of the first in Foveaux Strait. He got into trouble over this matter, and appearances suggest that he well deserved to. The fact that he left a gang where he took the other from, suggests that the gang in possession was taken away because its members had a good sealing spot which Grono wished to obtain possession of. Four men being spoken of as having been killed, would lead the reader to suppose that this referred to the gang which had been left at Chalky page 302 Sound in 1822, and the fate of which, presumably, was discovered in November, 1823. The Elizabeth returned to the Fisheries on 13th February, 1823, and probably took the gang back with her.

Light has been thrown upon what may have actuated Grono to take the extreme step of arresting the men and taking them to Sydney, by the unearthing, from among the manuscript Hobart Records, of the following official document.12

Sydney, New South Wales, 20th Nov., 1824. I hereby certify to all whom it may concern that I have it in recollection (tho not a distinct recollection) that His Excellency the late Governor, did authorise, and I believe request Mr. Jonathan Griffiths, Mr. Grono, and other Masters of Colonial Vessels to apprehend at sea, or wherever else they should meet with them, all persons whom they might know or get ascertained to them to be runaway Prisoners of the Crown, or persons escaping from the Colony to the injury of their Creditors, and in defiance of the Port Regulations, and that the said Masters of Colonial Vessels should deliver up all persons so secured or detained by them, to the proper authorities in any Port or Place within the limits of the territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies whereat they should first arrive.

J. T. Campbell

Secretary to the Government of New South Wales during the administration thereof, by the late Major General Macquarie.

Of course if Macquarie appointed Grono practically to be a water police magistrate, his action may be defensible. The document is published, as it appears to have some bearing on the question.

The troubles of the unfortunate sealing gangs of the General Gates were not yet at an end. On 31st March, page 303 1824, a schooner called the Samuel, commanded by Captain Dawson, arrived from the southern coast of New Zealand with some news of the General Gates.13

“Mr. Dawson, the commander of the Samuel, has brought with him this voyage a black Native woman with a child two years old. She had been taken by the American ship General Gates from Kangaroo Island and left on the South Cape of New Zealand, with a gang of sealers. After these men had been there some short time, a horde of the savages came upon them, and nearly massacred all the party. The poor Native, with her little one, took shelter under a rock, till the New Zealanders left the spot. For eight months the mother and child lived, without fire, on birds and seals. They are yet on board the Samuel, and were in good health when rescued by Mr. Dawson from danger.”

This would give the date of the massacre as June, 1823, or perhaps a month or two earlier according to the length of time the native woman had been on the Samuel. This clearly indicates one of the gangs placed on shore after leaving Hobart. If it was June, 1823, that this massacre took place, it is plainly a different one from that described by the gang seized by Grono in January of the same year. We therefore appear to be in possession of evidence which indicates that there were three massacres.

On 18th June, 1823, the General Gates arrived at Tahiti from the Marquesas.14 The date upon which Riggs returned and found his men butchered cannot be given, but that he did return in due course was sadly experienced by the natives of Ruapuke, and their graphic account of the revenge taken, is given in the language of the Revd. J. F. H. Wohlers, who resided in Ruapuke, Stewart Island, from 1844 until his death in 1885.

“It must have been about 1820–1830—I knew a few who were present—when the Maoris in the south first came into touch with the Europeans. The captain of a whaling vessel placed a few of her people in an uninhabited bay in Stewart page 304 Island to catch fur seals, whilst he went whale-fishing with the rest of the crew. The natives, however, did not approve of this. Soon a number of men and women went across from Ruapuke to Stewart Island, fell upon the sealers, and killed and cooked them. They then looked for their provisions. At that time they were quite unacquainted with European things. They took the flour for white ash, and amused themselves with throwing it at one another and watching the white dust fly. Then they found something that looked like provisions, and they chewed it till foam came out of their mouths (it was soap), but it was not to their taste. Still worse did the tobacco taste, which they, therefore, called Heaven's gall (Aurangi). A vessel held some black seed (gunpowder), which they scattered about as a useless thing. Then when they had satisfied themselves with the flesh of the dead men and in the evening sat around a bright fire—oh! what a fright—lightning and flames of fire suddenly broke out amongst them. The fire had lit the powder they had thrown away. Some time afterwards some canoes with all their crews were lost, and no one knew for a long time what had become of them, until later some whale fishers came from Australia, who became friendly with the natives, and these brought the news that an American whaling captain known to them, when he found that the men he had left on Stewart Island had been killed and eaten, whilst sailing about, meeting some canoes, had sailed them down.”15

Thus do we learn that Abimeleck Riggs took a terrible revenge upon the natives for the murder of his men. Mr. Wohlers speaks of the natives having just come in contact with the Europeans. Early as the date was, we have seen that 10 years before, the Europeans traded with the natives in this locality.

As further recording the movements of the General Gates, it may be mentioned that in March, 1824, she sailed from Waihoa for Manila, and in February, 1825, page 305 was coasting out of that port.16 What became of this vessel that commenced by stealing convicts, that experienced arrest by a man of war, that found her officers imprisoned, that ultimately had her gangs plundered and eaten by the Maoris or kidnapped by captains of sealing vessels, and what was the end of the inhuman monster who commanded her, remains a mystery. Diligent search by the author in the shipping files of the Boston papers failed to throw any light upon the question, and the burning of the Customs records of that port seems to close up all avenues to further information.