Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



Of the actual events on which 'A Daughter of Maoriland' is based, Bertha Lawson gives this account:

Among the scholars was a girl of about thirteen or fourteen years of age. This child was always brooding, sitting alone, and seemed to be wretchedly miserable. She was very obedient and would try to do her work, but in a sullen morbid spirit. Her father had murdered her mother and was serving a life sentence in jail. This had happened when she was a little girl, and she had been cared by an aunt, who was very cruel to her. Her Christian name was Mary. I asked the children why she didn't play with them, and they said she was too cranky. We felt sorry for her. I used to take her to the cottage in the afternoon and give her a cup of tea. In half Maori, half English, Mary said she'd like to stay with me. I interviewed her aunt, who had no objection, and Mary stayed some time. We had arranged to get most of our groceries and stores from Wellington as we could get them for half price by ordering large supplies. They now began mysteriously to disappear. Mary said it was the swagmen. At one time three packets of candles went, leaving us without a candle in the house. But by this time I suspected Mary and told her she would have to go home. I was sure that the aunt received the goods and that was why she had allowed her to come. We had some trouble with her, and after she had gone I decided to do without domestic help. She figures in Harry's story "A Daughter of Maoriland".1

Lawson's account of the girl, written before she was taken page 120into their home occurs in his letter to MacCallum of 25 June:

But we are haunted just now by the eldest girl (16) a pure blooded aborigine-if there ever was one-of the heavy negro type, whose father killed her mother 11 years ago, (fit of jealousy) and on whose family (3 or 4 sisters) there seems to be a brooding cloud. This girl, they say, would take to the bush, if the last teacher punished her, and climb a tree and sit there and brood for hours-for days, if they didn't find her and get her home. Poor girl-but I shouldn't care to punish her if there were knives handy. The father, by the way, was "teased" (favourite Maori word for expressing it) by other Maoris concerning his wifes easy nature, and, coming home, he called her out to the grindstone while he sharpened a butcher's knife for "pighunting". She turned away mechanically or naturally like-a Maori wife, I suppose, and presently he felt the edge of the knife, and, being satisfied, he grabbed her suddenly and cut her throat-Well, he got 11 years, and is just out, (but not here); the girls were babies then, but it left an impression on them that anybody with a knack of observation could see today. I think I could tell a member of that family anywhere, in twenty years time, by the brooding cloud on the forheads and in their eyes.

Well, Mary haunts the school and will continue to do so during the holidays. She hangs round the wife like a dog, poor girl, "They're all away" she said once, "and I do feel so awefully lonely, Mrs Lawson." You need to hear a Maori woman say that to get at the pathos of it, Mary, by the way, as I found yesterday, still takes to the bush and broods. She, in her slow brooding way, cut a portrait out of the Illustrated London News, letterpress and all, and carefully trimmed it and pasted it on the wall at home-place of honour second to chatholic frame, (half picture half fresco) representing the birth of Christ-and she would have put it in that place, no doubt, if she could. -She told Mrs Lawson, in confidence, that she loved that man-(the portrait). It is a portrait of the Czar of Russia, of all the men in the world-son of him who was killed. Mary's mother was killed and-theres a chance for a psychological sketch for me I think!2

If there was uncertainty about the ages of the children at the school (since there was no registration of Maori births) there was even more about Mary Jacob's. Bertha says she was about 13 or 14, Henry in his letter to MacCallum that she was page 12116, and to Habens about 17, and in his Autobiography, 'about 20 a[s] big as I am'. His last guess is the more accurate. Kaikoura parish baptismal records, so far as any contemporary records can be trusted in such a matter, give her year of birth as 1876. As Mere Ratima she is on Stack's list, made in December 1877, of children likely to attend school-which would make her (since the school wasn't yet built and children started attending when they were 3 or 4) about 2. She would have been about 6 or 7 at the time of her mother's death. She was baptised on Boxing Day, 1886 as Mere Ratima, daughter of Ratima Waruhe and Herina Haura, and her sponsor was Martha Taki. A sister, Josephine Ratima, was baptised the same day, with the same sponsor, and most probably wrongly, the same year of birth. I can find no other reference to Josephine and suspect she may be the same as Para or Parahi who at the end of 1885 won a scholarship entitling her to secondary education at Napier. Parahi Jacob was one of Danaher's better pupils, gaining full or nearly full marks at every examination. Assuming she was 13 or 14 when she passed Standard IV (the average age for this pass for Maori pupils in 1894 was 13 years 6 months)3 she would have been born 1871-2, and so would have been 10 to 12 at the time of the murder.

Ratima had five children.4 It is possible from school records to give an account of the rest of the family. The name Annie Jacob appears on the examination schedules 1881-3. She did not do well and was sick or absent during two of the examinations. She enrolled a year after Mary and Para and left school before them, so that it is impossible to tell whether she was younger or older. I suspect she might have been the 'sick sister' of Lawson's story and the sick woman Bertha attended and called 'Mrs Jacobs'.

A brother John was as distinguished at school as Parahi and won a scholarship that took him to Te Aute College in 1887. A descendant by adoption of Ratima's remembers him as Jack Tuha Jacob and he was commonly known too as Hoani Terewiti Jacob; he can be recognised on Stack's 1877 list as Tuwhaitauira Ratima. Te Aute College records show his birthday at 20 June 1874; if correct, he was 8 at the time of the murder. He was possibly the Teoni (Johnnie) Ihaia, using his grandfather's name, who signed the 1894 petition; and as Terewiti Ihaia and John Jacobs he was on the school com-page 122mittee in 1896 and 1898 and probably in Lawson's year too (for which there is no inspector's report). He would be the model of the 'brother or someone' that Lawson's fictional teacher took the shotgun to.

The fifth member of the family provided Lawson with a suggestion for the fictional name he gave Mary-'August'. Her name was Oketopa or October. She began school in 1885 and since she could have started as young as 3, she was probably born 1880-1 and would have been between 1 and 3 years when she was orphaned. The petition of 1894 lists her as still of school age but though she might have been at school in Lawson's time her name does not appear on examination schedules after the school closed in 1889 (there was none for Lawson's year). Either Para or Annie was also known as Maud.

During Steel's time the spelling 'Jacobs' first appears. Two 'Jacobs' children can be ruled out by age. There was an Elizabeth or Irihapeti who started at the end of 1887 and might have been a daughter of Ratima's brother Karipa who married in 1881.5 A John 'Jacobs' who began school at the age of 2 or 3 in 1894 must have been a son of John Terewiti Jacob, returned from Te Aute. He was at school in Lawson's time.

This then was the family of Ratima and Erina when Erina was murdered on 26 January 1883: Parahi of 10 to 12, Annie of unknown age, John of 8 to 9, Mere of 6 to 7, and Oketopa of about 3. Lawson's account of the tragedy, depending on gossip fourteen years afterwards, is inaccurate. From the judge's report and the press report of the trial, the evidence was as follows: Ratima and Erina, according to Eliza Poharama, 'had never been good together…. He was always quarrelling with his wife, and she quarrelling with him'.6 In the week before the murder the runanga had met to consider a charge of adultery between Erina and Ratima's brother Karipa. Ihaia te Awanui presided, and Paratene was 'the magistrate'.7 Karipa was ordered to pay a fine but refused and said they could take everything off his back. The trial finished about midnight, but they stayed talking till dawn. Erina refused to go home with Ratima and said she was not afraid of death. According to Ihaia te Awanui, Erina had already been before the runanga twice and Karipa once. On the day of the murder Ratima and Erina were seen talking near their house from morning to noon, he was 'jawing, jawing all the time, and slapping her page 123face'.8 At lunch-time Danaher saw Ratima dragging his wife by the hand and intervened; Ratima, grey-faced with emotion, told him she had annoyed him again and had been a bad woman a second time. Danaher advised him to calm himself and went home for lunch. When he got home there was an immediate outcry that Erina was dead and he rode back to the kainga. Ratima had stabbed her five times in the neck with a hunting-knife. When he saw Ihaia te Awanui and Paratene coming he covered her body with a blanket. Danaher found the women washing her wounds. Asked why he had done it, Ratima said 'Ko ahau te utu', interpreted in the court as 'I shall be punished for it'. When the Kaikoura constable came at 3 p.m. Ratima sat quietly waiting to be arrested.

Ratima was found guilty after a jury retirement of 28 minutes; but the jury added a recommendation of mercy: in view of his wife's infidelity, 'we trust the term will not be a life one.'9 The judge sentenced him to death, but recommended that the sentence be commuted to penal servitude for life, and at the concurrence of the Minister of Justice and the Colonial Secretary, the Governor formally commuted the sentence.

Three years later Mu Wahaaruhe wrote to T. W. Lewis, Under-secretary to the Native Office, enquiring about the possibility of Ratima's release for good behaviour; but the reply was negative.10 Mrs Walsh thought he saved the life of a warder in gaol, but such an action would have been mentioned in the Department of Justice Annual Reports and there is no such mention.11 Yet he was in fact released, according to Lawson, shortly before June 1897, though he was not living in Mangamaunu. Nothing can be known of the circumstances and date of his release, which would have been recorded in the journals or logbooks of Lyttelton Prison, since they cannot be located.12 Mrs Walsh thought he was released on parole and married a woman from Kaiapoi or Little River who had a son by a previous marriage; this son was adopted and took the name of Jacob.

By the murder the children not only suffered the shock of losing their mother; they lost their father too. In a community of about eighty living in small huts, and with many of the men absent on seasonal work, there was no permanent provision for them. Pope noted in his report of 26 February 1883:

page 124

The Natives referred to the children of Erina Jacob…. They are anxious to know what is to be done with the children; I asked them to bring the case before the Native Minister. If that is not the proper course to pursue, it might be as well to send the Maoris some directions as to what they should do in order to provide for these children.13

A marginal note on the file cross-refers to a Native Office file now destroyed.14 The register for the destroyed file, however, shows that it consisted of a letter from W. Gibson, Chairman of the Kaikoura County Council, dated 21 May 1883, drawing the Minister's attention to the children, presumably at the representation of Danaher. J. M. Sherrard has provided me with this minute from a meeting of the Kaikoura County Council:

19 May 1883—The Chairman was authorized to see into the matter of the Jacob's children and to expend 20/- to 30/- on them. The Chairman to communicate with the Native Minister calling his attention to the starving conditions of the children of Ratima Jacob and asking him to take steps immediately to relieve their distress.15

There is no record of what action the Minister took. By February 1884 they were in the care of a woman called Ripeka. The only Ripeka (Rebecca) I have been able to find is Ripeka Tanga who was mother of Pene Tahui, Lawson's chairman of the school committee. Pope reported on 22 February:

I saw Ratima's children; they are suffering from influenza, but they are well in other respects. The matron Ripeka is in Mr Danaher's opinion and in mine not active enough to take charge of the children. Their grandmother, Maraia, has not returned from Waipapa; she is strongly and would be a much better matron for them.16

On 20 August of the same year Pope reported again:

I saw Ratima's five children; they were clean and appeared to be well nourished; they attend school regularly. These children are now living with their grandfather Ihaia Waruhi; he appears to be a very decent old Native. I heard no complaints with regard to these children….17

On 16 October 1885 Pope mentions them again: 'They [i.e. the committee] ask that the children Jacob may not be overlooked during the approaching change of masters'.18

page 125

The fact that it was Martha Taki who sponsored the baptism of Mere and Josephine in 1886 and that their grandfather Ihaia Wahaaruhe was not himself baptised till eight months later, suggests that Ihaia was no longer their guardian and that Martha Taki was. The fact that the runanga decided in February 1886 that Para Jacob and Emilia Taki should decline the scholarships entitling them to secondary education since they were needed to help in 'household duties' suggests that Mrs Taki had good reason for needing help, as she would have done if she were rearing two families.19

Lawson might well have feared Mary with her 'eyes like a hawk' watching for his mistakes in arithmetic: she had had over nine years longer at school than he had, though she had not made much use of them. She enrolled when the school opened and for her first three examinations she got no marks at all. In February 1884, like the two other Jacob children at school, she was given full marks (and passed Standard I)-presumably a charity pass, since they had influenza at the time. It took her a further two years to pass Standard II. When at the end of 1888 (under Beck) she failed, Kirk named her as one of those 'of good working age' who had 'attended well on the whole' who should have passed. She must have been thought too old to be listed in the 1894 petition (she would have been 17 or 18); but she re-enrolled when the school reopened. That this is not another girl called Mary Jacob is evident, first from Lawson's guess at her age, and second, from her being credited on the examination schedule, December 1894, with having spent '36 months' at school. This is wrong and may be all that Steel could make of her answers to his inquiries; but there had not been any other Mary Jacob at the school when it closed in 1890. In 1896, the only year for which her attendances are given, she missed 115 half-days out of 403, nearly thirty per cent. At the end of that year, aged about 20, she passed Standard II. Presumably, since according to Bertha she was considered strange and moody, she was sent to school for something to do.

It was possible under the Native Schools Code for teachers to take Maori girls to board with them, with the object of teaching them European housekeeping. For this they could claim £2 for every three months the girl stayed with them. It was specifically provided that such girls 'shall be treated as page 126boarders and not as servants'.20 It is possible that it was under this scheme that the Lawsons at first took Mary Jacob into their home, but there is no record of any claim by Lawson. Mary of course did not stay three months, and teachers' payments are not recorded on the school file, and if kept separately, have been destroyed. But it is clear that Bertha saw Mary as 'domestic help'. In 1910 Lawson recalled having had a 'servant', though the name he gives is that of another pupil, Maraia Poharama.21