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Crusoes of Sunday Island


The Annexation

with his children receiving education, a comfortable home established, green pastures won, gardens and plantations flourishing, Thomas Bell came at last to the near-realization of his cherished dream. The Robinson Crusoe cum Swiss Family Robinson chapters of his island saga had closed. A few years more, and with the assistance of his sons and freedom from unforeseen calamity, he would have reached the pinnacle of his ambition, and would be able in very truth to picture himself King of the Kermadecs.

But the Fates were yet to strike their cruellest blow, and he was to be stripped of almost everything.

Making their way down the Denham Bay cliffs one summer morning towards the end of 1886, Hettie and Bess paused abruptly, to stare in bewilderment at a strange sight down on the beach, a tall flagpole flying a red, white, and blue flag which stood out stiffly in the strong sea-breeze.

They hurried down the cliffs and presently stood beneath the pole, nailed to which was a flat, glass-fronted box containing some kind of document. Through the glass they read the words "... proclamation . . . Queen's Sovereignty." The rest was hidden in a fold of the paper.

"What does it mean?" puzzled Bess.

"Looks as if they've taken our island from us. That's the Union Jack flying up there."

Completely forgetting the errand which had brought them to the Bay, the girls hurried home with their sombre tidings. The family learned later that the Australian warship H.M.S. Diamond had put into the Bay under orders page 174 from Great Britain and had hoisted the British flag and proclaimed the Queen's Sovereignty as a first step towards the annexation of Sunday Island to the Colony of New Zealand. There was a great deal more, however, that Tom Bell did not find out until a long time later.

On August 18, 1885, the German flag had been hoisted at Apia, and in triumphant furtherance of Germany's schemes for colonization in the South Pacific, all Western Samoa was declared to be a German possession. Three months later, an astute and far-seeing Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir William Jervois, wrote.to Earl Granville, Secretary of State for the Colonies, urging that the Kermadec Islands be declared part of the Colony of New Zealand.

"Although so small as to be of hardly any value in themselves," he wrote, "it would be undesirable that they should fall into the possession of another Power."

Six months later the matter was brought by the Colonial Office to the attention of the Lords of the Admiralty, who were unimpressed. "My Lords cannot imagine any possible use, commercial or military, the islands could be to New Zealand," came the reply, "but they see no particular objection to the annexation, if the Government of the Colony wishes it."

The correspondence dragged on ponderously for nine months. Instructions were issued at last to the Admiral of the Australian Station to have the British flag hoisted on Sunday Island and the Queen's Sovereignty proclaimed.

This was done, but formal annexation was not effected until over a year later.

On August 16, 1887, the New Zealand Government steamer Stella with Captain Fairchild in command, landed a party of Government officials, officers and crew, on North Beach. A flagpole was erected on Fleetwood Bluff close to Bell's homestead, the British flag hoisted, and the Proclamation of Annexation was read, the entire Bell family being present.

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Whatever the Bells' thoughts may have been, the ceremony was conducted in a very friendly spirit, and after an inspection of Bell's plantations, the visitors were reported to "have had refreshments with the family, smoked mutton birds, yams, with tea and goat's milk to drink." It was further recorded that "the girls and boys were very well spoken," and "that most of the work appeared to be done by the girls, whose costumes were primitive, consisting of cotton dresses, very loose and just confined to the waist with a belt. Of boots and stockings, nothing was seen."

Before the party left, Bell went closely into the matter of the annexation with Mr. Percy Smith, New Zealand's Surveyor-General. He explained that it was not so much the annexation which disturbed him as the manner in which it had been carried out. Had instructions been given to the captain of the Diamond to make a full inspection of the island, he would have been enabled to submit a proper report, stating that for ten years it had been in the sole possession of a British family who had cleared large tracts of land and made many improvements.

Having been made a tenant-at-will on Government land without advice or notification, Bell therefore claimed in the interests of his large family a portion of at least 900 acres of the island's 4,000 acres of farming land. He marked the required area on a chart, claiming later that Smith had given a definite undertaking that this would be secured to him.

After the annexation, life went on much the same as usual, but deep in Bell's heart there was now an inevitable feeling of insecurity and unresolved tension with regard to the future.

This apprehension very soon proved to be only too well founded.

Early in 1889, the New Zealand Government decided to throw Sunday Island open for settlement and divided it into three blocks, averaging about 1,000 acres apiece.

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These were quickly leased to a party of intending settlers.

To Bell's indignation and disappointment his arrangement with the Surveyor-General seemed to have been entirely overlooked. All the Government had allowed him was 275 acres of land in an area he had no wish to possess, and which he held to be completely inadequate for the support of a family of twelve.

When in October 1889 the settlers, numbering about twenty men, women and children, arrived to take up their holdings in Denham Bay, they were appalled by the primitive conditions of life confronting them. They had set forth on this venture into the unknown solely on the strength of a pamphlet issued by the Government, containing a description of Sunday Island and its possibilities and attractions, written by Mr. Percy Smith on his return to New Zealand. They arrived on the island with their heads full of the same notions of an island paradise as those which had caught Tom Bell in their spell and completely changed the course of life for him and his family ten years previously. But where Bell, strong, resourceful and indomitable in purpose, had endured long enough to achieve success, the new settlers found it almost impossible to cope with the bitter conditions of life still existing. Earthquakes and landslides still shook the island, the rats were just as destructive, the goats just as elusive, the threat of starvation just as grim, as in earlier days.

Tom Bell gave the newcomers generous help, providing them with vegetables when supplies ran short and killing many of his sheep for them, although the only thanks he got from one or two of the party was the tearing down of his shearing shed, the killing of some of his stock and other acts of vandalism.

The impact of the settlers on the lives of the Bells, even apart from the inevitable sense of usurpation, was not altogether happy. With some of them, pleasant friendships were formed, particularly with the Bacon family, Mrs. Bacon and Mrs. Bell becoming firm friends. To page 177 young Alf Bacon, a lad in his 'teens, Sunday Island became a veritable "Isle of Enchantment." Its magic held him just as it had held Chris Johnston, and as it was to hold Tom Bell to the last days of his life.

Among the less pleasant experiences which ensued was the infatuation of one of the men, nearly fifty years old, for Bessie Bell, now an attractive girl of twenty. Whenever she visited Denham Bay, he followed her closely, making constant excuses to speak to her. This was a liberty she strongly resented. Neither she nor Hettie took the slightest interest in the opposite sex. Their lives had been too hard, their opportunities for meeting men other than their visiting sailor friends too limited to have roused even a normal spark of interest in male friendships.

The climax came one afternoon when Bess was carrying provisions from Denham Bay to a camp in the Crater Flats, where her father and some of the settlers were making a clearing for the sowing of grass seed.

In a lonely spot some little distance from the camp, the man stepped out from the dense bush where he had been waiting, and tried to make conversation. As usual, the girl gave very brief replies.

On reaching the hut, he became strongly excited and resentful. "You'll be sorry for this! You're always avoiding me, and you'll be sorry for it one of these days, but it'll be too late then."

He repeated this several times in threatening tones, but Bess made no response as she went on calmly unpacking her load. Suddenly the man snatched up his gun and a bullet whanged into the wall of the hut within inches of the girl's head.

Very white in the face, but quite calmly, she said, "You'd better mind what you're doing with that gun, or you'll find yourself in trouble."

Before the smoke had cleared, Bell and a couple of the settlers who had been coming up the track dashed into the hut. Dodging past them, the man fled for his life.

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"Let him alone," said Bess contemptuously. "He was only trying to frighten me. I'll go back home over the Blue Lake cliffs."

Although she made light of the incident, she was greatly relieved when she heard that her frustrated Romeo had left Denham Bay by the next ship to arrive. But there was an amusing sequel later on.

The girls were on North Beach one day watching a group of passengers landing from an island ship for a brief run ashore. As they straggled up the cliff track, Hettie suddenly exclaimed, "Look Bess! There goes your old Romeo, the chap who tried to pot you!" At that instant the man looked back and saw the girls. He raised his hat with a fine flourish, bowed politely, and passed out of their lives.

Some months later when the girls went across to the Bay, they found he had built a neat little hut, planted it round with roses and trained across the verandah a fine old grape vine. Then for no apparent reason he had once again departed and left it empty and deserted.

"Seems to have had ideas!" was Hettie's amused comment, as they helped themselves to the grapes, and wandered through the tidy little kitchen.

"If he had, he soon saw the game was up!" said Bess. Less dramatic, but far more unseemly than Bessie's experience with her Romeo was the abrupt finale to a dinner party Mrs. Bell arranged for some of the Denham Bay settlers and their wives. One of the latter had given birth to her first baby a few weeks previously, and Frederica, ever hospitable and kindly, had invited the mother and some of her friends over to the Terraces for a celebration. With the help of the girls, she set out a delicious dinner, a dinner such as none of the guests had eaten for many a long day.

One of the men arrived in an open-necked shirt, with a large bath towel draped round his waist and legs, secured at one side with a safety-pin.

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"Fine dinner, Mrs. Bell, dam' fine dinner? Must really compliment you on your cooking," he said patronizingly as the party strolled out on the verandah. "You'll have to invite us all over again when number two arrives, by Jove you will."

Another guest, an outspoken man who greatly disliked the speaker, said in icy tones, "If Mrs. Bell ever does invite you over again Mr. Braggard, I hope you will show some respect for your hostess and her young daughters by dressing yourself decently and putting on a pair of trousers."

The other man lunged forward and smashed his clenched fist into the speaker's face, knocking him backwards to the floor. In the confusion that followed Tom Bell confronted the offender. He made no move to strike him, but his voice trembled with the effort to control his towering passion as he said, "Get out, you swine! If ever you come near this house again, I'll kill you."

The other man turned, swung off the verandah without a word, and went quickly down the track. The Bells never saw him again.

At the end of a wasted and unhappy year, the disgruntled settlers were taken off by Captain Fairchild in the Government steamer Hinemoa. With them went Hettie and Mary Bell, and their old friend John Avent.

Thus began the breaking up of the Bell family, and of their home on the Terraces. They were followed within a year or two by Bess, Tom, Harry and Jack, who all went to Auckland and settled down in homes of their own.

Tom and Frederica Bell remained on the island with their younger sons and daughters. The fates had played a long, cruel game with their victim, and had almost, but not quite, succeeded in breaking him. But Tom Bell had never given in, and now he refused to give up. His family dispersed, never to be reunited, his hard-won kingdom in page 180 ruins, he still dreamed of victory. Early in the 'nineties, he discovered that the annexation of the island had been basically illegal, New Zealand having been granted jurisdiction over only a certain area in the South Pacific whose boundaries did not include the Kermadecs. On these grounds, he presented a petition to the New Zealand Government, and also wrote to the Colonial Office in London, stressing his rights.

The illegality was not questioned by either Government. Authority was given to New Zealand's Parliament to pass an Act extending the boundaries of the Colony, thus legalizing the annexation.

Obsessed more strongly year by year with a burning sense of injustice, Bell became a brooding, disappointed man. He made frequent trips to New Zealand to press his claims on first one Government, then another. In addition to the initial freehold grant of 275 acres, he was offered the use of the remainder of the island at a rental often shillings a year, if demanded. The offer was refused. Bell demanded the fee simple to the entire island on the grounds of right of occupancy, and also claimed compensation for losses and damage incurred during the settlers' stay in Denham Bay.

But it was a losing battle. His petitions and appeals, presented to Parliament year by year, won him the sympathy of many New Zealanders, but were always rejected by the Government. On one occasion, having secured the promise of a personal interview with the Prime Minister, he went up to the great man's hotel and waited patiently there for six hours. When at last the Prime Minister entered, Bell started up eagerly, and introduced himself.

"I'm Thomas Bell, sir. I've come down from Sunday Island to see you about. ..."

"I have nothing to say to you, Mr. Bell," was the reply. The Prime Minister brushed past him, and entered the lift.

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