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Cook’s encampment at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, in 1777. Image/View in Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand, hand-coloured aquatint by Joppien and Smith after an oil painting by John Webber, 1809, Alexander Turnbull Library, B-098-015

The largely forgotten history of how early Pākehā mixed with Māori

Fragments of history suggest early interaction between Māori and Pākehā was more balanced than might have been expected.

Fish, salted meat, perhaps some crayfish, probably some fur seal. The first Christmas dinner in the first Pākehā settlement in New Zealand would have been high in protein but low in trimmings. Just weeks after being dropped off on Anchor Island in Dusky Sound on December 1, 1792, the gang of 12 sealers had to make do with what they could forage or catch.

Still, it was a banquet in comparison to the festive fare that Captain James Cook and his Endeavour crew downed in a storm near the top of the North Island on Christmas Day, 1769. The gannet pie on offer tasted “somewhere between rotten leather and fishy beef” washed down with lashings of alcohol – launching an enduring Kiwi tradition of over-indulging on Christmas Day and nursing hangovers on Boxing Day.

Twenty-three years on, the 12 hardy sealers in Dusky Sound continued to live off the land and sea for 10 long months before being picked up by the Britannia and sailing out of our history books.

Today, their story is told only by the few artefacts left behind: a simple forge, a hand-wrought iron nail, a fitting for a mast or spar and fragments of a ceramic vessel with hand-lettering appearing to include the word “Street”.

This thin record is featured in Pākehā Settlements in a Māori World: New Zealand Archaeology 1769-1860, a riveting and encyclopaedic catalogue by archaeologist Ian Smith of the broken, the worn out, the discarded and the abandoned – buttons, iron nails, broken dolls, lacing hooks, chips of dinnerware and hundreds of clay tobacco pipes.

Together they tell the story of the earliest European arrivals in this country – sealers, whalers, runaways, timber merchants, missionaries and early settlers – from Cook’s first visit to 1860, when Pākehā outnumbered Māori for the first time. It’s a captivating but often overlooked story of early contact reliance, interaction and exchange.

“In the popular imagination you have Cook, then the missionaries, then the Treaty of Waitangi, and then we are into the historical world,” says Smith. “Books tend to concentrate on the land wars if they look at encounters at all, but otherwise [focus] predominantly on Pākehā against the environment, the pioneering man alone or the family out in the bush, pitted against nature, rather than encountering the Māori world.”

But archaeological discoveries from those first nine decades of European arrival, settlement and cultural interaction show this period in New Zealand history to be an important time of “becoming”. He cites a single thin, imperfectly shaped fish lure, bent from a piece of copper alloy some time in the early 1840s, then uncovered in 2005 on a sandy beach on the west coast of Māhia Peninsula, where the Te Hoe whaling station once operated.

“As a traditional form reproduced in an imported material it materialises the hybrid nature of cultural exchange going on. If there was one item that said a whole lot of what I was trying to say, that would be it.”

 European-influenced housing at Pūtiki Pā, Whanganui. Image/Watercolour by John Gilfillan, Alexander Turnbull Library, C-142-003

Such artefacts set New Zealand on a very different course from that of other colonised countries. “The way things worked out in New Zealand is a bit different. By the time New Zealand was colonised, the British were pretty reluctant colonialists – they came with a relatively soft hand and the notion of a treaty. They encountered a culture that was extremely sure of its own place in the world and that could see the benefits in the things these strangers were bringing – and probably also the dangers.

“But I think the nature of the encounter was much more evenly balanced than, say, the Australian example. Australia has almost an identical timeframe, apart from the convict side of things. It had sealing and whaling and gold rushes, but the nature of cultural encounter was quite different – both while it took place and in its longer-term outcomes.

“In New Zealand, you had about 50 years of Pākehā living here prior to the Treaty, and for most of that time, Pākehā knew they were here at the will or whim of Māori – who could wipe them out should they choose to. I think that engendered a certain amount of respect.

“There were probably plenty of Pākehā who paid lip service to that notion and changed their point of view when the political balance of power changed but, at least at that time, there was a recognition of equality. For Māori and Pākehā, there were things to be got out of the relationship, so it was valued. Then we have the 1860s wars and land confiscations, and a century of white hegemony in which the Māori world was pretty much ignored.”

Charles Heaphy,1839. Image/Alexander Turnbull Library

The bicultural turn in the 1970s, he says, may signify a return to these earliest interactions. “I am not sure why I think this, but something about the way things happened in that earlier period seems to have come back in the past 50 years, when people have given Māori their place back in the world.”

Material evidence from that earlier period is thin on – and under – the ground. Any physical reminders of Cook’s first visit to New Zealand 250 years ago have been eroded, corroded or blown away (axe-cut tree stumps in Dusky Sound, last recorded in 1963, are all that remained of Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, in 1773). The first tangible evidence of European presence in New Zealand is a single anchor, one of four lost from the St Jean Baptiste (French explorer Jean-François-Marie de Surville’s ship) during a storm in 1769, discovered on a sandy seabed in Doubtless Bay in 1974. A second anchor was found three months later; the other two are yet to be discovered.

From the early 1800s, sealing gangs, shore whalers and timber and flax merchants left a deeper archaeological footprint. Items found in caves, wells, overgrown hearths and shattered foundations – a knife blade, leather from a handmade boot, parts of a Chinese rice bowl, fragments of cloth and ever more pipes – tell a largely unwritten story of survival, self-sufficiency and hardship.

As the size and number of these early Pākehā settlements grew, so too did their reliance on, and interaction with, local Māori as partners, traders, workers, domestic staff or simply neighbours. The excavation of a midden on Mana Island close to the home of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rangihaeata, who lived on the island from the early 1820s until about 1844, revealed traditional stone and bone artefacts, including fragments of adzes and bone fish hooks, alongside a stash of imported copper and iron nails, bits of glass, gunflints and broken chinaware.

Te Aro foreshore in the 1840s. Image/Watercolour by Robert Park, Alexander Turnbull Library, B-078-016

Investigations at Papāhīhu, a small kāinga on the banks of Pūkaki Creek less than 10km from Ōnehunga, revealed two waves of occupation, one around the 16th century and the other between 1835 and 1863 during a time of increasing Pākehā settlement. Findings from this later phase demonstrate the selective adoption of Western materials and technologies, including clay pipes, alcohol bottles, rectangular postholes clearly dug with metal spades and fragments of iron cooking pots. The remains of earth ovens and a relative scarcity of ceramic kitchenware, however, suggest the local indigenous population was taking advantage of the new things on offer, “but not at the expense of their traditional material culture”.

In 1823, Codfish Island/Whenua Hou, just west of Stewart Island/Rakiura, was selected by Ngāi Tahu as an integrated mixed-race settlement for some 33 Pākehā men and 24 Māori women and their children. Earth ovens, stone flakes from traditional cutting tools, the remains of kai moana – barracouta, blue cod, muttonbirds, penguins, occasionally fur seals and sea lions – and the relative scarcity of ceramic dinnerware suggest the Pākehā men adapted to a Māori lifestyle little changed from the 14th and 15th centuries. Evidence of European influence was limited to potato gardens, introduced mint, alcohol and those ubiquitous pipes.

Permanent settlement by Europeans began with the arrival of missionaries in 1814, and, from this point, the archaeological record becomes richer. The legacy of the 23 men, women and children who settled in the mission station at Hohi in the Bay of Islands – a twine spinner, locally made earthenware, evidence of vegetable gardens and pencils and tablets – illustrate the “civilising” mission of the small settlement and the housing, culture and economy of this “foundational” Pākehā community, including its interactions with its Māori hosts.
Ian Smith. Photo/Ian Dove/Supplied

By the end of the 1820s, the archaeological record shows a new kind of multi-function settlement. In the Bay of Islands, at the Ngāti Manu village on Kororāreka beach, coopers, blacksmiths and sawyers lived within the palisaded enclosures of different hapū. Archaeological remains from this formative period in Russell’s history are difficult to disentangle from those of later 19th-century occupation, but two sites – Alexander Gray’s grog shop and Rewa’s pā, the last of the Māori settlements on the Kororāreka foreshore – have been confidently assigned to this time. The site of the grog shop has thrown up, unsurprisingly, a concentration of glass, buttons and pipes (the excavation of two cesspits found clay pipes more common in one latrine, and what appears to be a perfume bottle in the other, raising the possibility of his and hers facilities). From Rewa’s pā, on the same site, a small stone adze, fragments of a patu, case-gin bottles, gunflints, bone-handled cutlery and china plates show the extent to which Western domestic practices were taking place within the pā.

During the early colonial phase from 1820 to 1840, the record gets richer again. Archaeological investigations and a magnetometer survey of Ōkaito, the first short-lived seat of colonial government upstream from Kororāreka, reveal a substantial settlement comprising New Zealand’s first Government House, a store, blacksmith shop, jetty and boatbuilding shed. Bought by Governor Hobson in 1840, the site contained part of a woven flax kit; the butt of a fowling shotgun; several dark-olive glass bottles, presumably used for alcohol; and a thin, fluted medicine bottle, perhaps used for laudanum or other opium-based treatment (Hobson was ill during the last 10 months of his stay there).

By 1849, eight years after the capital moved to Auckland, the Pākehā population stood at about 2000, or 2.5% of the estimated Māori population. Just 10 years later, new colonisation settlement schemes had tilted the population balance and Pākehā outnumbered Māori for the first time.

Opened in 1851, Rangiātea Church, in Ōtaki, blended English and Māori architecture. Image/ATL

Smith’s book sifts through the material evidence to paint a picture of bicultural life in New Zealand up to this point. He also rifles through the accounts of earlier non-Māori visitors – Portuguese, Spanish, Tamils, Chinese. All, he concludes, lie “in the realm of fantasy”. But the book also applauds archaeology itself: its ability to give voice to those who did not, or perhaps could not, write; to shine a light not only on official occasions or momentous events, but also on the everyday lives of ordinary people; and to extract information from the slimmest of evidence. In 1988, Smith was part of a team excavating the central Auckland site where the Sky Tower now stands. The discovery of two sections of a perimeter ditch opened up the story of Fort Ligar, built in 1845 by Aucklanders fearful of attack from the north, then promptly abandoned, razed and built over. “I had no knowledge of this fort. The last time it was mentioned in the history books was about 1890 – it had been lost and forgotten.”

Such finds, writes Smith, “seldom fail to grip those who encounter the objects and the stories they embody”. In a year commemorating the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Endeavour, and those first bloody interactions on the beach at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay, such finds also push out the story of New Zealand to include the largely forgotten history of early cultural and material exchange.

“If we can see in our own history the way that relationship has developed and evolved, and if we can recognise the good and the bad in confronting our past, that is when you get beyond the beach.”


This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.