Newspaper Article 1998 – Fascinating insight into early NZ

Fascinating insight into early NZ

INCIDENTAL HISTORY by Brian Duggan; 112 pages in large format; published by CHB Print, Waipukurau; copies can be obtained from LEAPCo, PO Box 7011, Taradale; price $21 plus $4 post and packaging.

Incidental History by Taradale author Brian Duggan presents little known stories about the first wave of European sailors and settlers in Australia, Norfolk Island and New Zealand.

They are lifted directly from 200-year-old letters and journals of the people who were the actual players in those turbulent adventures. They were wild days of lawlessness and heroism, there were moments of greatness and others of despair.

Fifty years before the Treaty of Waitangi the British were dumping thousands of convicts in New South Wales without any provision for their return home.

The author says there has been nothing to equal this misguided social experiment until Hitler’s slave camps of the mid-20th century. This is the backdrop to the stories.

The merchant seamen who delivered the human cargo looked for adventure and big money when the government contract expired and there were plenty to be had from whaling or supplying the starving penal colony. Their voyages were unofficial, non-governmental, and entrepreneurial rather than of discovery. If they were successful the rewards were rich indeed. However, there were many ever present dangers and shipwreck was all too frequent. The logs of these sailors give us a window to the vanishing past which is fascinating, and a refreshing contrast to official histories.

Yet this book is more than just a sailor’s frontier adventure as it also unravels the circumstances in which the British Navy kidnapped two young Maori men in 1793. They were “taken” against their will and by trickery to teach the convicts how to work the flax plant at Norfolk Island. This was a Navy strategy to manufacture jute for cordage and sails. But the English did not know flax preparation was women’s work in Maori society and the victims knew nothing of the information the Navy sought.

One outcome of the kidnapping was that the Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales and the Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island came into personal conflict. It was a clash of “little emperors” who despised each other.

Back in England the Government was embarrassed about this public quarrel and steps were taken to hush things up. Silence and the discreet erasure/loss of the records were routine practice to hide the abundant failings and weakness in British Colonial administration. As time passed it became apparent that there were other, far reaching, influences as a result of this kidnapping incident.

On the other side of early colonial rule “down under” there were the professionals like Sir Joseph Banks, the famous botanist with Captain Cook’s expedition.

Sir Joseph was extremely powerful in English colonial policy.

He was a guiding influence in selecting Australia to replace the Americas as a penal colony when the War of Independence ended British rule in that country.

It was he who recommended Norfolk Island as the ideal place to process flax. In New Zealand he had seen Maori with flax cloaks and flax fishing nets and was deeply impressed with the quality of workmanship. He thought it would be profitable to learn from the Maori how to manufacture such good flax ware.

Today it is difficult to imagine how he saw any relationship between a flax skirt or a fishing net and manufactured heavy cordage, and ships’ sails. None-the-less the Admiralty was persuaded to the argument and Governor Phillip had directed Commandant King, as a first priority, to the manufacture of flax products. The plan before King was simply to obtain two or three natives of New Zealand and bring them to Norfolk Island where his convicts could learn from them their flax work skills.

No thought had been given as to which Maori, or their rank, or gender, or the opinion of the intended voluntary victims.

It became King’s main problem after settlement on the island to fulfil this order. The planners believed any initiative they took would be welcomed by the “Indians” who would benefit from an encounter with their “civilised” culture and no one knew that flax work in Maori society was women’s work. Arrogance this may be, but it was an arrogance born of ignorance and serves to illustrate an abyss of unawareness that existed between these two cultures at that time.

A poignant example of Maori unawareness was illustrated later when Lieutenant-Governor King drew a map in the sand explaining where Norfolk Island was and the Maori, good sailors themselves, were incredulous that it could be as close and yet unknown to their tradition.

The author, who describes himself as a hobbyist historian, took nearly five years to prepare Incidental History. The result is an excellent research book for the student of the early settlement of Australia and New Zealand or for lovers of history.

Photo captions –

This stylised drawing depicts a shipboard haka in New Zealand waters before trading begins. (Note the artist’s inclusion of a female in the haka group).

Sir Joseph Banks, who so impressed with the quality of woven flax cloaks and flax fishing nets by Maori that he wanted prisoners on the penal colony of Norfolk Island to learn flax weaving skills from Maori.

From an Original Drawing by G. P. Harris

Chief Te Pahi as Europeans preferred to visualise Maori. Note the Greek-Roman toga and heroic posture.

‘Incidental History’ contains many items of interest for the enthusiastic amateur historian. Shown here board the Renown in Dusky Sound in 1984, are members of an expedition which retrieved cannon from the Endeavour. Left to right, Lance Shaw, (skipper), Dr Simon Cotton, Phil Morrison, Diane Cotton, Bruce Waite, Kelly Tarlton, Dale Farnsworth, Sigmund Spath and Barbara Cotton.

Original digital file


Date published

31 January 1998

Format of the original

Newspaper article


  • Sir Joseph Banks
  • Captain Cook
  • Barbara Cotton
  • Diane Cotton
  • Doctor Simon Cotton
  • Brian Duggan
  • Dale Farnsworth
  • G P Harris
  • Lieutenant-Governor King
  • Phil Morrison
  • Governor Phillip
  • Lance Shaw
  • Sigmond Spath
  • Kelly Tarlton
  • Chief Te Pahi
  • Bruce Waite

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