The Georgian England of the 1800s was a savage regime still attempting to come to grips with the sweeping social changes that had arisen as a direct result of the industrial revolution of the 1700s. A massive exodus of country folk from off the land into the newly emerging industrial cities had created a social earthquake that had reverberations through the length and breadth of the whole of Great Britain.
It was no different in Continental Europe. For the greater population, progress had not engineered any improvement in their plight to survive. In the slums of industrial Great Britain where the living conditions were abominable and disease rampant, the nature of their work gnawed away at their bodies producing physical deformities and early deaths. For the Georgian rulers and masters, life was considered cheap, man’s inhumanity to man knew no bounds and Christianity’s exhortation to compassion a curiosity scarcely acted upon. ‘It was of little solace to the oppressed that they lived in the most technologically advanced and prosperous nation on earth – and in this was the paradox; poverty, squalor and want via great riches and advances.’ For those in the wider world and in foreign climes life was no different, utopia did not exist outside of the pages of a work of philosophy. In the closing decades of the 1700s and the early decades of the 1800s Britannia had, with great energy, employed herself in the business of populating her navy and army with personnel via the ‘pressed’ method. Great Britain had evolved legislation over the past century that allowed the goodly men of its realm to be bashed about the head from behind with a cudgeon to be dragooned into the King’s defence forces in order to feed the ever present maw of war. An unrelenting and nefarious piece of scumbuggery that destroyed lives and families for over 150 years.
Great Britain’s defence forces were not filled with professional soldiers whose career trajectories were firmly focused on shiny buttons and braid, it was filled with farm labourers and industrial workers kidnapped off the streets of their towns and cities. These sorry men who involuntarily endured months and years at sea were the very sort of men who arrived at Sydney Cove on His Majesty’s ships, on their way to New Zealand waters. If a King’s ship captain or a commercial ship’s captain needed to fill a shortfall in sailors, he only had to make a ‘polite application’ to the Governor of the colony to be granted as many convicts as required to solve the onboard ‘staff’ shortages.
By the early decades of 1800s the British government’s navy was making frequent visits to New Zealand waters as were many commercial ships from the Dutch East Indies, India (the British East India Company) and America, all interested in the exploitation of the many resources this country had to offer. These ships made landfall all around the coastal region of New Zealand and for those most disaffected by their miserable ‘pressed’ lives onboard these ships or as convict sailors, jumping ship and disappearing into the thick bush seemed a better option than life under the canvas as prisoners.
Not all of these men seeking freedom found it, many met their end at the hands of Maori and were eaten. Some were taken as slaves and held captive. But as the early decades of the 1800s unfolded and as more of these ships filled with white men arrived looking to trade or set up sealing or whaling depots, some chiefs saw the merit in having a white man living among them. These men were known as Pakeha Maori and initially they were generally treated as pets and as curiosities.
In fact for a while it became competitive among chiefs and tribes to possess more than one of these pale faces. A very few of these men were elevated to significant social status and had the ear of their chiefs such as John Cavanagh, a convict sailor who had the patronage of the great Nga Puhi chief Te Pahi and as such had freedom of movement and lack of oversight. Another Pakeha Maori who lived among the Nga Puhi in 1806 was the ‘brutal’ scumbag George Bruce. An escaped convict of ‘diminuitive size’ who in the year he spent among Nga Puhi, ‘was tattooed, given the daughter of Te Pahi as his woman, had tohungas confide their lore to his ear and subsequently became an early source of information on the customs of Maori’ once his sojourn was up and he had eventually made his way back to England minus his Maori wife.
Most other Pakeha Maori were rudely awakened to discover that the Maori lived in a very strict hierarchical society, as rigid and rule bound as the one they had deserted. That in the scheme of things, they were one rung up the social ladder from the captives of tribal warfare. They were ‘Mokai’ which meant slave in Maori. John Rutherford, one of the more celebrated Pakeha Maori escaped aboard an American brig in 1826 claiming he had been a captive for the past ten years. (Rutherford sported a full facial tattoo that later became the focus of an infamous sideshow in England).
Originally the function of these Pakeha Maori was to act as interpreter and mediator for their chief to the visiting ships merchant and whaling ships but as time went on their function evolved into preparing the chief for the social changes that these white men were bringing with them and the coming ‘invasion’ of more white men and women in the decades that followed.
Technology and material goods had a huge impact on a society who had never seen boiling water, a metal cauldron and its function for example had to be explained to Maori, how a needle worked and what it was for. While all of this was new to Maori, these Pakeha Maori had a place and were relatively safe.
As muskets made their way into tribal society, Pakeha Maori were generally given the task to be responsible for maintenance and upkeep. By the 1820s some canny chiefs welcomed runaway sailors as their merit as ransom bargaining chips, their life in exchange for muskets. Sometimes this method worked sometimes it failed, depending on who the Maori were dealing with.
But as with all things, it came to an end, by the 1840s the gloss had paled on the ownership or membership of Pakeha Maori among tribes and the point of them had ceased to be of any importance.
More names of some of those men whose lives were spent among the Maori of the early years of the 1800s are known to us and the telling of their stories reads like a ‘Boys Own Annual’. Jacky Marmon known as Cannibal Jack, Barnet Burns, Thomas Taylor, Kimbel Bent, James Cavanagh, Frederick Maning are but to name a few .
Some of these men were of questionable character, some were the cause of war, some were simple men just looking for peace. However these Pakeha Maori’s were all products of their origins; ‘scumbuggerers’ from the harsh landscape of Georgian Great Britain.
‘Fatal Frontiers; a new history of NZ in the decades before the Treaty’ by Paul Moon
‘Pakeha Maori; the extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived as Maori in early New Zealand’ by Trevor Bentley