Posted by: scribe9 | December 14, 2009

In the beginning…

As every schoolchild knows, December 13 is the day the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (namesake of Tasmania, the Tasman Sea, the Tasmanian tiger, etc.) first set European eyes on Nieuw Zeeland (later Anglicized to New Zealand), in 1642. And December 13 happened to be the day we came north to the Bay of Islands, where British rule over New Zealand started almost two hundred years later.

Unlike New Netherland, which the Dutch bought from the Indians and later surrendered to the British who renamed it New York, the Dutch didn’t settle New Zealand–because during Tasman’s discovery voyage he lost four sailors to the Maori. The fierceness of the Maori was also the reason the British didn’t rush into settle New Zealand. In need of a new penal colony after Georgia became unavailable in 1776, they looked for new spots in the Antipodes. They decided on Australia, as it had less threatening natives than New Zealand.

Europeans started arriving anyway, causing trouble among themselves and with the Maori, so in 1832 the British government named a British Resident (at half pay). Here’s his house:

and part of his garden:

In his front yard in 1840, the British and the Maoris signed the Treaty of Waitanga, to resolve issues of sovereignty over the land (and to give the British a document they could use to keep out the French, who had designs on the south island). Not surprisingly, considering the disparate languages and cultures, the Maoris and the British interpreted the treaty differently, and it is still at the center of land claims.

Given that the Treaty was the founding document of British New Zealand, it’s a bit surprising that the house and land were virtually abandoned for decades until, in the early 1930s, a Governor-General (representative of the British Crown in New Zealand) and his wife used their own funds to buy the property and give it to the country, in time to have it fixed up for the centennial of the signing. Maori tribes from all over the country donated a meeting house and a war canoe:

named after the legendary first Polynesian canoe to visit New Zealand a thousand years ago.

Across the bay from the Treaty Grounds

is the little town of Russell, the first European settlement in New Zealand, where whalers and merchant ships stopped. Although its original Maori name meant “Sweet blue penguin” (apparently blue penguin meat was tasty), its nickname by the time of the treaty was “the hell-hole of the Pacific,” as it was full of brothels and bars and devoid of law enforcement. It became New Zealand’s first capital (briefly—the capital moved twice, as it did in the young United States). Among its more attractive buildings are the oldest extant church (1830s, remodeled 1870s) in New Zealand, of which I couldn’t take a decent exterior photo, so here are a stained glass window:

and several of the dozens of needlepoint pew cushions with local scenes, native birds, and the like:

and the 1860s police station and residence, under a massive Moreton bay fig tree:

Above the main street is the most expensive overnight accommodation in New Zealand, at five figures. Yup, the former “hell-hole of the Pacific” is now a major tourist destination. The Bay of Islands is full of fancy B&Bs, a wide range of motels (including very modest places catering to backpackers), every kind of boat hire you could wish (except maybe an ice cutter, and the last whaler disappeared a century ago), and loads of restaurants and take-away places—and with only one McDonald’s.

For rugby fans and Anglophiles, I must mention that the Governor-General who saved the treaty grounds lived to the ripe old age of 90. He spent the last seventy of those years as the first president of a local rugby club; it was no doubt his enthusiasm for rugby that encouraged the British to send him to New Zealand for five years. He was born plain Charles Bathurst, and went through ten different modes of address as he accumulated a peerage and various honors before dying as The Right Honourable the Viscount Bledisloe, GCMG, KBE, PC, KStJ.




  1. Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe!🙂. I’ll go and read some more!

  2. […] Saturday is the second Hobson holiday. Waitangi Day this year celebrates the 170th anniversary of the initial signing of the treaty between the British and Maori which is considered the founding of New Zealand. (Hobson, who’d arrived a week earlier, represented the Crown as Lieutenant Governor and Consul.) It wasn’t even a public holiday until 1934, after the treaty grounds where it was signed had been given to the public (see […]

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