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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The Durhams landed at Auckland on 8th January, 1864. Robley was then twenty-four. Keen to come to terms with the new country to which his service had brought him, he very soon after landing bought a Maori vocabulary, and F. E. Maning's two books, Old New Zealand and Heke's War in the North both the latter then but recently on the market. Maning's descriptive prose inspired him with an intelligent interest in the Maori and his customs, with the result that when his regiment was despatched in the following April to participate in General Cameron's Tauranga Campaign, Robley arrived there virtually with sketch-book in hand. The towering bulk of Maunganui on the port beam as H.M.S. Miranda worked into the harbour, was engraved upon his memory for a lifetime. The entrance was not without incident, either, for Miranda went aground, and was freed only by the time-honoured manoeuvre of rushing men and cannon from side to side of the ship while she endeavoured to go ahead under sail and engine.2

The military occupation of Tauranga took place prior to organised European settlement here. Outside of the large Anglican Mission settlement and the smaller Roman Catholic station at Otumoetai, it is doubtful whether there were more than half a dozen European settlers and traders scattered around the harbour. This is a partial explanation why the pictorial records of men like Robley are confined almost wholly to Maori things.

The Imperial troops built their large, strongly-defended camp on the ground between the present day Domain and the harbour, with the grounds of Archdeacon Brown's residence just over the dividing hedge. In due course second-lieutenant Robley paid a social call on Archdeacon Brown and his wife, but there is a suspicion that cakes and ale in the restrained atmosphere of the Mission House was not a complete answer for this lusty young man. In any case the great hospitality of the Browns appears to have become the preserve of the senior officers.

During the final week in which General Cameron made his unimaginative preparations to attack the Maori position at Pukehinahina — named by Europeans, Gate PaLieutenant Robley found time to go duck-shooting up the Waimapu estuary. His inseparable sketch-book was in his pocket and from one of the eminences in the vicinity where nowadays Courtenay Road crosses the estuary swamp, he made a sketch of the inland view to the south-west.1 When later in the course of duty, he saw from a frontal position the Maoris entrenching on Pukehinahina, he knew he was viewing from another angle one of the ridges drawn in the sketch made when duck-shooting. He took the sketch to his colonel, with the added information that at low tide it was possible to out-flank the enemy position, supporting his statement with a map of his route.2 So by the sporting occasions of a junior officer, rather than by the precautions of elementary military intelligence work, General Cameron was able to place troops in the rear of the Maori position before opening his attack.

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We have Robley to thank for the details of the Maori defences at Gate Pa, as these were filled in by the British almost immediately afterwards, and a Royal Engineer type of redoubt built in their place. When he reached the position on the morning of April 30th he made several drawings, including details of the defences, and a plan of the maze of trenches: he also paced out the dimensions of the positions.

Another sketch he made that morning was of a group of three badly-wounded Maoris to whom he had given his rum ration. The rum, the Maoris could understand, but they could not comprehend his strange action of drawing them and they craned wonderingly toward him as he set to work; (fig. 23). The central figure of the three is Reweti who later succumbed to his injuries — six bullet wounds and broken legs.

One historical detail of Gate Pa confirmed by Robley concerns the Maoris' water supply. Not only does he show in the composite illustration referred to above, water supplies at the swamps on both flanks, but of that on the Maori right flank he wrote:

"E [ast] where the pa water supply was — a trench to this. I watched all 28th April with six marksmen"1

This running water was (and still is) in the gully behind St George's Church, between it and Wellesley Grove.

In his memoirs Robley makes no mention of having fought at Te Ranga4 in the following June, so it is likely he was amongst those detailed to garrison the base camp that day.

The surrender of the local tribes after Te Ranga was not effected at one great ceremony, but was a gradual process as one group after another realised further resistance was useless.5 Robley drew the scene at the main surrender which took place on July 25th, 1864; this and several other scenes were later reproduced in the Illustrated London News under the following captions:6

Illus. London News.
Gate Pa (showing trenches etc) 23.7.1864 page 81
Maori War Canoe at Tauranga 6.8.1864 page 137
Arms taken at Te Ranga 24.9.1864 page 319
Surrender of Tauranga Natives 29.10.1864 page 429
A New Zealand Funeral Ceremony 17.2.1866 page 159
The Matata Pa. 24.2.1866 page 189
War Dance at the Ngaiterangi
War Canoes Competing for Prizes 28.4.1866 page 417
Gateway of Maori Pa at Maketu 12.1.1867 page 29

After the surrender his regiment remained at Tauranga on garrison duty until the beginning of 1866, when it was withdrawn and returned to England: but meantime, Robley made the most of his sketching opportunities. Indeed, at the hospital he earned something of a name for oddity by the readiness with which he would squat beside Maori casualties the better to study their tattoo designs.2

He was also a curio collector.7 In May, 1864, while in charge of a fatigue party grave digging in the Mission cemetery, one of his men turned up a greenstone mere. The soldier waved it in a mock haka at some Maoris passing below in a canoe, who straightaway successfully applied to headquarters for its return. Sixty years later Robley could still evince regret at having missed that one.

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There is a story too, behind his sketch of a pataka (food-store) which stood on the left bank of the Wairoa, near the present-day bridge. Prior to the battle at Gate Pa, Wairoa was one of the places fortified by the Kingite Maoris against coming events. But subsequent to that engagement, the position was abandoned and Robley was one of a detachment sent to fill in the trenches at the deserted pa. While so engaged, he saw the pataka across the river and espying the carving with which it was decorated, his collector's instincts got the better of him and despite orders not to cross the river, he went over and secured it.8

In 1865 he obtained leave to accompany the Colonial forces who went in pursuit of the Hauhaus who had killed the Rev. Volkner at Opotiki, his companion being the youthful Gilbert Mair. This explains how Robley came to do the Maketu and Matata drawings. On Boxing Day of the same year the garrison sports enabled Robley to draw two fully-manned war canoes as they crossed Tauranga harbour to take part in a race. This drawing has been used to illustrate four New Zealand books that I know of: Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, Gilbert Mair's Reminiscences, the 1922 edition of Old New Zealand, and Maori Music — this last having by far the best plate. Gilbert Mair reckoned this drawing to be the best reproduction of a real Maori war canoe ever published.9

Detail of Maori Tattoo. Spiral on Right Cheek.

Detail of Maori Tattoo. Spiral on Right Cheek.

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Badly wounded Maoris in the abandoned defences at Gate Pa, Tauranga. Drawn by Robley on the morning of of April 30, 1864.

Badly wounded Maoris in the abandoned defences at Gate Pa, Tauranga.
Drawn by Robley on the morning of of April 30, 1864.