Title: Robley — Soldier with a Pencil

Author: L. W. Melvin

Publication details: Tauranga Historical Society, 1957

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Ronald Melvin

Part of: The Moko Texts Collection

This text is the subject of: National Library of New Zealand Catalogue

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Robley — Soldier with a Pencil


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General Cameron's attack on Gate Pa, Tauranga, April 29th, 1864, had been heavily defeated. About five o'clock next morning, the British, learning that the Maori defenders had slipped away during the night, advanced and took possession of the abandoned position. All that was left for them to do was to gather up the dead and wounded.

A certain Lieutenant Robley was early on the scene and made several rapid sketches, including one of the abandoned defences. Later in the morning, having addressed this sketch to a London paper, he ran with it back to the Tauranga waterfront where he was able to catch the captain of a vessel about to leave for Auckland. A few hasty words, and a sympathetic captain promised to post it on arrival — a promise he kept.1 In this way, Robley's packet connected with a mail which left Auckland direct for England shortly afterwards and his sketch appeared in the Illustrated London News of June 23rd. It was the first sketch of many glimpses he was to give the British public of their war in New Zealand and of the people they were fighting.

Horatio Gordon Robley purchased a commission in the Britsh [sic] army for £4502 and was appointed to the 68th Durham Light Infantry with the rank of Ensign (then the lowest commissioned rank in the British infantry) on 14th May, 1858. He was a keen recruit at the battalion training depot at Fermoy, Ireland, cramming extra lessons in his quarters when off duty. He was also an enthusiastic amateur sketcher, with an unquenchable curiosity and interest in the unusual.

Within a few months he was ordered with a mixed draft of 4 officers and 100 men of the Essex Regiment and the King's Dragoon Guards, to join his regiment in Burma. But before going aboard the 600 ton sailing ship Colgrain at Gravesend, he made sure of purchasing a shark hook and chain — for was he not now going adventuring? The young subaltern did not have long to wait, for in the Bay of Biscay he witnessed his transport rescue the crew of a sinking Greek vessel. Next, Gomera, in the Canary Islands, provided appealing material for his sketch-book for it was here that Columbus had outfitted. Sickness broke out aboard the Colgrain and the two senior military officers were laid low. Came Christmas night with young Robley as duty officer. Some of the crew broke into the spirit store and passed out quantities to the troops. The under-privileged ranks of the British Army needed no second bidding. That which began in stealth ended in pandemonium when a glorious, free-for-all drunk developed. Revellers were everywhere and the proper working of the ship was endangered. Robley made his contribution to the restoration of order by "using different persuasions to suit different occasions," until the last drunk was herded below decks. An angry ship's captain was taking no more risks and ordered the hatches battened down, so Robley had the questionable pleasure of listening at close range to songs and speeches until the plunging of the heavily laden ship reduced the drunken soldiery to impotence.

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During his following five years service in Burma, Robley took every opportunity to observe the people and learn the language. On one occasion he obtained leave to accompany an American missionary on a visit to the Karens, a hill people who made their homes on elevated platforms as a precaution against tigers. The numerous sketches made during this period formed the basis for his illustrations some years later, when he was asked by the firm of Cassells & Co. to contribute to their publication, Races of Mankind.

During his Burma service Robley began to specialise in rifle shooting. Following a spell of sick-leave in England in 1860, he applied for and was granted a term in the School of Musketry. Rejoining his regiment the following year, he purchased for £2502 the commission of second lieutenant and was appointed musketry instructor.

His numerous sketching visits to Burmese temples had been marked by a due degree of deference to his surroundings and he became friendly with several Buddhist monks. As a result, when the news came that the Durhams were to depart for New Zealand, his friends invoked Buddha to make him invulnerable; but, as he remarked in later years, was that fair to the Maoris? Anyhow, to suit the occasion he had an image of Buddha tattooed in red on his right arm.

Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley, 1st Battalion, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders

Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley, 1st
Battalion, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders