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Land sakes

In a new memoir, author CK Stead reveals how his great-great grandfather exposed the secret land grabs of missionaries in the Bay of Islands.

Grandmother used to say proudly that she was 'a real Pig Islander', by which she meant that both her parents were born in New Zealand - something that was rare for a person born in 1881. A number of her close relatives, including her father, were buried in the Symonds Street Cemetery, and she looked on the English trees there with a proprietary affection, particularly in September when, as we passed in the tram, she would direct my attention loudly to their 'new spring dresses', embarrassing me not just because it was a cliché (the critic was already incipient) but because she had said it the year before, and the year before that. As we lumbered by, that graveyard would remind her of one or another relative whose story she would tell, and I would listen with half an ear. One, I remember, however: her uncle or great-uncle had accidentally poisoned himself (she was vivid on the subject of his slow and agonising death) by swallowing what he thought, reaching for it in the dark, was medicine, but from the wrong bottle; and it was as a result of his death (or so she said) that bottles containing poison were subsequently made with downward ridges so you could feel and be warned. His funeral procession, she told me, had stretched all the way from Three Lamps in Ponsonby, right down College Hill and all the way up the far side.

Most of those graves are gone now, swept away by the development of a motorway, but that of one of her grand­fathers, Martin McDermott, was just a few years ago still to be seen behind the wall on the western side of Symonds Street, across the road from the grave of Governor Hobson. He died too early for her to have known him, but she used to do an imitation of his widow's Scottish accent - 'Gangaway hame and tull yurr mitherr aim vurramuch obleeged t'hurr'. She also spoke often of her other grandfather, English John Flatt, who, at the age of ninety and without glasses, could sit outside his house in Thames and read the newspaper by the light of the street lamp.

John Flatt, she told me, had been an Anglican missionary (strictly speaking a non-ordained catechist) in 'the early days', but fell foul of his employer, the Church Missionary Society, because he criticised the Anglican community's excessive acquisitions of Maori land. Many years later I stumbled on the fact that this same John Flatt, briefly returned to London in 1837 in order to marry, had given evidence to a select committee of the House of Lords convened to report 'on the State of the Islands of New Zealand'. I looked up this report in the old British Museum and read a forty-page transcript of my great-great-grandfather's evidence; and on the basis of this reading concluded that what the Grandmother had reported to me had been wrong: my forebear, it seemed on that cursory reading, was reporting missionary land purchases and holdings in a tone that made them seem normal, and therefore (I assumed) acceptable - even justifying them as inevitable given the great size of the missionary families, particularly that of the Rev. Henry Williams, who had eleven children.

Many years later again, when I wrote my novel The Singing Whakapapa, I looked deeper into the matter and found that what my grandmother had told me had been, in essence, correct (as family myths often prove to be). Although in his evidence to that committee seeming to excuse those acquisitions of land, Flatt was really exposing them and describing their extent in the case of each missionary. These were facts not previously reported, and therefore unknown to the Church Missionary Society in London.

John Flatt's story is, I think, of great historic interest. He had gone out to New Zealand in 1834, travelling with another lay catechist, the printer William Colenso, who would be famous in our history for the record he was to make in 1840 of the speeches and incidents surrounding the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, now always referred to, with perhaps undue reverence, as New Zealand's 'founding document'. Flatt had been eager to take up the position he was appointed to as agriculturalist, assistant to the missionary settlement in the Bay of Islands and in particular to the Rev. Richard Davis. Once there, however, he was given little work, made to feel unwelcome and soon sent by Davis and Henry Williams to the missionary settlement at Matamata, headed by the Rev. Alfred Brown under the protection of the chief Waharoa. Here, along with that small community, Flatt became involved in what was to be the last intertribal Maori war, that between the local tribe, Ngati Haua, and Te Arawa of Rotorua.

As tension rose between the two tribes and it became clear an attack on Matamata was imminent, it was decided the mission must be closed. On 11 October 1836 Flatt was despatched with two horses and a small group of Maori to drive the mission herd over the Kaimai Range to the more secure mission station at Tauranga. He was back four days later; and on 18 October set off again with the one remaining horse, another group of about twenty mission Maori and some items the Rev. Brown felt should be sent to Tauranga for protection. Flatt called a halt by the Wairere Falls where he and his party camped for the night. In the early morning they came under attack by an Arawa taua. All of his party escaped except Flatt himself, and a young woman or girl (different accounts are given of her age), Tarore. Flatt was stripped of everything including his clothes; but, protected by the tapu Waharoa had put on the missionaries, his life and that of his horse were spared. Tarore, unprotected and a tribal enemy, was murdered in front of his eyes, her heart torn out, as was the custom with the first kill in an engagement.

That death, traumatic for Flatt, has figured in Maori history, not because it was unusual in its brutality, but because a little bag Tarore carried around her neck was among the items the attacking warriors took away with them. That bag contained Colenso's printing of the missionary translation of the Luke gospel into Maori; and it was said it was instrumental in converting the Arawa tribe to Christianity. The message of peace was received and accepted; there was to be an end to the cycle of utu. So when Tarore's grave was rededicated in 1977 by the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the inscription recorded that her 'Gospel of St Luke brought peace to the tribes of Aotearoa'.

Meanwhile scandal was brewing among the missionary community. The Rev. William Yate had been caught in sexual engagements with young Maori men, and it was resolved that all unmarried missionaries, ordained or lay, should be sent home to England to acquire wives. Flatt returned to London to marry the woman he was already engaged to. There, however, he was told that his services with the Church Missionary Society were no longer required. If he wished to return to New Zealand (and he did), it would have to be under his own steam, and he would have to find another way of earning a living there.

It was the reasons for this dismissal that I tried to make sense of in the narrative of my novel The Singing Whakapapa, and I will not here rehearse the part that is invented and which (though I am convinced of it) may or may not be correct. What I can be sure of, however, is that Flatt deeply resented his dismissal; and that, in revealing to the House of Lords committee the extent of unauthorised land purchases by the Anglican Mission in New Zealand, he was taking revenge on those (in particular Henry Williams and Richard Davis) who had not wanted him as agriculturalist. By not welcoming him and admitting him to the fold, they created exactly the effect they were trying to prevent. In London Flatt gave the information they wished to keep secret, not only to the House of Lords committee, but also to Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the super-colonist whose schemes the missionaries had opposed; and Wakefield (citing Flatt by name) used them in a pamphlet which took the form of an open letter to Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The consequences for both Williams and Davis were, in the long term, dire. Questioned from London, probed and challenged about their land holdings, both men prevaricated. Distance made the process long and slow. But in the end the Rev. Davis was ordered to leave the Bay of Islands mission farm he had made his own, and go to work at Kaikohe. He complained bitterly that he had served the cause faithfully, and that 'to live and die for the benefit of the heathen' had been his sole concern; but the CMS had had enough of the embarrassment caused by these land grabs, and sent him on his way. Archdeacon (as he now was) Henry Williams, whose holding of 22,000 acres had already been halved by the land commissioners after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, was instructed by his masters in London to reduce it even further, to a maximum of 2596 acres. He refused; and, as I wrote in my novel, 'On 30 November 1849, eleven years after [John Flatt] had put the London clerical cat among the New Zealand clerical pigeons, Archdeacon Henry Williams was dismissed.'

The ups and downs of historical fashion are a rich source of irony and humour. Wakefield, the colonist and land-grabber supreme, is distinctly unfashionable among New Zealand historians, while the Anglican clergy who opposed him (including Henry Williams, who recently received a late posthumous reinstatement by the Anglican Church to his archdeacon-hood) are on the whole more acceptable - because they opposed him. That the missionaries, while resisting Wakefield's grand imperial designs, were busy making little family empires of their own is overlooked or forgiven. Having, all of us who are Pakeha, profited by what Wakefield did in establishing settlements in New Zealand, we can now deplore the man and his work, make public apologies to this and that Maori tribe, even make token recompense, comfortable in the knowledge that what was done then cannot be undone now.

And John Flatt? He was, and is, a nobody, long since forgotten. For myself, a special irony when I was writing my novel was that I was not able to find his grave, though I believe it must be somewhere in the graveyard near the Te Aroha Racecourse; while Tarore, the obscure young Maori woman whom he may have loved, and who was murdered before his eyes, has come out of the shadows of the past, and has a grave rededicated by the Maori Queen.

Flatt returned to New Zealand with his new wife, struggled to earn a living, and in the end made a successful life here and established a family. He was cheeky and resourceful. When James Busby, the British Government's agent in New Zealand before there was a governor, travelled to New South Wales to make a report in person, he suggested Flatt, with his wife and infant, might occupy the back of his house, tend the garden, feed the livestock and see the hens were kept out of the vines. When Busby returned he was slightly miffed to find them occupying the whole house. It pleases me, when I visit the Treaty House, as it now is, a hallowed memorial to the foundation of our nation, to think my forebears occupied it, and that the Grandmother's father took his first infant steps there.