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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

Wanganui In Early Days. — An Unforgotten Tragedy

Wanganui In Early Days.

An Unforgotten Tragedy.

In 1843 the European population of Wanganui numbered about two hundred. The settlers had come under the auspices of the New Zealand Land Company, but were compelled by the hostility of the Natives to keep to the town. Prior to the Treaty of Waitangi Colonel Wakefield had, as he thought, purchased here and elsewhere large tracts of land; but, as subsequent events proved, the Natives did not regard the transactions as absolute sales. The misunderstanding led to endless trouble, including strife and bloodshed; then the Gilfillan tragedy and disturbances followed. For a time it seemed that the settlement would collapse; but there were some sturdy pioneers in those days, who bravely held on to their holdings. They had their reward in seeing the settlement take a fresh start, and in time grow to be one of the most important districts in the colony. All honour to these brave pioneers, the true fathers of Wanganui! Their names deserve to be held in grateful remembrance.

The terrible massacre of the wife and several children of Mr Gilfillan occurred in April, 1847. Mr Gilfillan occupied a farm at Matarawa, six miles from the village of Wanganui. Just before dark, six Maoris went to his house, and engaged with [unclear: us] in friendly conversation, when one of them from behind struck him a blow with a tomahawk, wounding his neck. He rushed into the house and barricaded the door. But he had no arms, or means of keeping the Natives out; and at the entreaty page 22 of his wife, who thought they would be satisfied with plunder, he escaped from a side window and made for the town to procure assistance. The night was very dark, and no assistance was to be obtained, for the track was known to very few, was ill-defined, and difficult to follow even in daylight. But at daylight the following morning, a party of armed police and Putiki Maoris set out for the Gilfillan farm, and on their way their worst apprehensions were confirmed. They fell in with two little children, wet through with the heavy dew, and shivering with cold, who told them their terrible story—that their mother and all the family save themselves had been murdered, and the house plundered and burnt. After their father's escape, they said, the attention of the Natives being engrossed with plunder, their mother had taken the opportunity of putting these two out of a back window, and they had hidden themselves all night in a ravine.

The armed party made all haste to the farm, and soon reached the hill commanding a view of the valley, from where they saw a heap of smoking ruins. Soon they came on a heap of corpses. The poor mother's head had been mangled by repeated blows with a heavy wood-axe. Close by lay the body of the eldest daughter, her skull split nearly in two; and close to her the body of a young child. All had evidently been struck down in flight; the tottering steps of the little one appeared to have retarded the flight of the mother and sister. As they gazed on the dreadful spectacle, the cries of a child were heard from a neighbouring cowshed. There lay the body of a boy about ten years old, and near him, lying on its face, with arms outstretched, a baby apparently dead, but which was found to be sleeping and unhurt. Entering the shed, the police were horror-stricken by another ghastly sight. There sat a girl about seventeen, a deep tomahawk wound in her forehead, and her fair hair dabbled with blood, which flowed over another baby that she held in her lap. As the men entered, the child smiled through the mask of blood on its face, and crowed with delight.

Through what a long and dreadful night must that poor girl have passed! The flames of her home lighting up her place of refuge, and the bodies of her mother and the children around her, and the dread that the savage murderers might at any moment return and complete their work! Early in the morning a party of armed police and settlers arrived, the four dead bodies were removed to town; also the sadly-mangled and almost lifeless body of the second daughter, and the two babies who had escaped uninjured.

In the course of the same day the murderers were captured page 31 by the police some distance up the Wanganui river. The six villains were overtaken in a canoe, and after a scuffle, in which one of the canoes was capsized, five of the Natives were seized brought to town, and lodged in the stockade, the sixth escaping to the bush. The murderers were tried by court-martial. Four made no attempt to deny their guilt, and were sentenced to be hanged. A gallows was erected on the stockade hill, and shortly after daylight the four murderers were led forth, and the judgment of the court having been read to them in their own tongue, they paid the penalty of their crime. It had been their intention to strangle each other during the night, but the Rev. Father M. Compte, a French priest, who spent the night in ministering to them, succeeded in, diverting them from their purpose, and in inducing them to confess and write to their friends admitting the justice of their punishment. Otherwise he had no effect on them. They seemed utterly callous, and faced their death with stoical apathy.

In August, 1909, news came from Wanganui of the death of Miss Gilfillan, the last of the survivors of the massacre—an (event which has once again directed attention to this dark chapter of the past.