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Captain John Stewart: Enabler for the ‘Cannibal Statesman’

Scumbuggery (Part IV)

by Julie Halligan

In the early decades of the 18th century New Zealand was enjoying the profitable beginnings of international trade with its nearest neighbour, New South Wales.

The establishment of a British penal colony in Sydney was Great Britain’s solution a group of inter-related problems. A rapidly increasing population, displaced by the social behemoth ‘Industrial Revolution’, the rise of petty crime and prisoners that were in turn overwhelming a prison system unable to cope was the clarion call to all privateers and commercial interests of the world to arrive in Australasia with the aim of identifying resources that could be exploited for commercial profit.

Australia had been touted by Cook and Banks as a resource for maritime timber but on closer inspection the timber was found to be too rigid and of little use on the open seas.

New Zealand however was reported to be well forested and ‘possessed of numerous species which were ideal for the purpose’ of planking, spars and masts, having in kauri for example, the necessary flex to bend in high winds, which grows straight and tall to great heights before branching. New Zealand Kauri soon became a sought after timber for the maritime trade, as did New Zealand flax; formium tenax. This was a strong and sturdy flax much suited to the manufacturing into cordage (ropes) and sailcloth.

Until now, ‘the source of supplies of raw materials for cordage in particular usually came from Riga or Chile’ and were subject to a strangled supply due to internal disruption on the part of Riga and outright price fixing on the part of Russia or to the abject ‘suspicion and outright hostility of the Spanish who levied heavy duties’.1

The impetus was to find a regular source that could be purchased ‘in dressed condition’ and the discovery of New Zealand as a plentiful source of flax for cordage represented a lucrative global business for those who had the ability to deal with Maori, in whose lands these resources of timber and flax were located. By the early 1830s the trans-Tasman trade in timber and cordage had evolved into exports from New Zealand to New South Wales valued at approximately five thousand pounds sterling.

This was a phenomenal amount for the time and not easily gained as this was an uncertain era in New Zealand’s history, particularly for Maori who had been unsettled for some decades engaged in seemingly endless inter-tribal disputes and wars, leading to disruptions and interference with the remunerative flax and timber supply. This led to periodic shortages for the Pacific/trans-Tasman market. It was on the back of one man’s greed and these market forces of supply and demand that one of the most heinous and appalling crimes of early New Zealand’s history came to pass.

John Stewart, captain of the brig, the ‘Elizabeth’ had sailed into New Zealand waters looking to pick up a cargo of spars instead he fell in with the most feared killer since Hongi Heke, the chief of Ngati Toa, Te Rauparaha.

Te Rauparaha had been born sometime in the 1760s and although he was not of the highest rank within the tribe he rose to claim the chieftainship after a series of bloody inter-tribal wars established his appetite for battle.

Unfortunately Te Rauparaha’s thirst for revenge and interminable wars earned his tribe exile as conditions eventually became untenable and the tribe were forced out of Kawhia to take refuge in the Taranaki where Te Rauparaha continued to meddle and agitate tribe against tribe.

By 1822 the Ngati Toa were then again forced to move on and after more battles and skirmishes were ‘settled’ onto Kapiti Island, which then became Te Rauraparaha’s stronghold from which he ventured forth for more utu, scorched earth and bloodshed up and down the coasts of the North and South Islands.

By the time he met with Captain John Stewart of the brig ‘Elizabeth’ in 1830 Te Rauparaha had revenge on his heart and blood on his mind against his enemies in the South Island, Ngai Tahu, more specifically Chief Te Maiharanui.

Te Rauparaha offered Captain John Stewart a cargo of flax cordage to fill his hold in exchange for passage for himself and two hundred of his taua (warriors) from Kapiti to Akaroa, home of the Ngai Tahu and Chief Te Maiharanui and the object of his utu. Stewart allowed himself to be bribed on the premise that this Ngai Tahu chief had earlier harmed some Europeans and Te Rauparaha was claiming retribution. Stewart thereby agreed to transport Te Rauparaha and his cohort to Akaroa. He arrived on the ‘Elizabeth’ in November 1830 with his cargo of trained killers concealed below decks.

The plan unfolded as Te Rauparaha had devised, Stewart sent word to Te Maiharanui that he was interested in purchasing flax cordage in exchange for muskets and powder. Already engaged in organising his tribe in flax production and keen for the advantage of muskets and powder, Te Maiharanui accepted the invitation to come aboard the ‘Elizabeth’ to discuss terms with Stewart.

‘The unfortunate tribes who were without instruments of destruction stood on the defensive and perceiving their utter extirpation was likely to follow …invited Europeans…among them and promised in return for ammunition, to dress as much flax as their visitors possibly required.’2

Te Maiharanui, unsuspecting of foul play, went on-board the ‘Elizabeth’ to greet Captain Stewart, accompanied by his wife Te Whe and their eight year old daughter Nga Roimata. Giving nothing away, Captain Stewart led the chief, his wife and daughter below deck where they were seized by Stewart’s crew who clapped them into manacles. Like a spectre emerging out of a mist Te Rauparaha made full effect of the shadows to appear before the horrified captives where he began to taunt and harangue the chief with the full horrors that awaited him. Above deck, without any idea of what was unfolding below, Te Maiharanui’s people continued to board ship becoming similarly entrapped by Stewart’s crew.

For the rest of the day, the human cargo grew in numbers as Te Rauparaha’s self-discipline kept him hidden from view until he was satisfied by the bounty he now had entrapped in the decks below.

As the day gave way to evening, Te Rauparaha organised his taua into groups and utilising the ‘Elizabeth’s lifeboats made landfall where they then massacred the unsuspecting village of Takapuneke and burnt it to the ground. Those captured, men, women and children, were butchered and hastily hacked into pieces for a quick bake in the ovens before being stuffed into baskets for transportation to the waiting ship.3

By now Te Maiharanui would have known what hideous fate awaited them at the hands of Te Rauparaha, and he made what must have been a painfully hard decision but one that was no doubt lessened in its severity when compared to what staying his hand would have meant. Te Maiharanui strangled his own daughter and pushed her body out of the window into the waters below, better food for the fishes than a feast for Te Rauparaha.

For six long weeks Te Maiharanui and his people were held captive while the flax cargo was delivered to Stewart as Te Rauparaha promised. Upon receipt of the cargo Captain Stewart then allowed Te Rauparaha a free rein with the prisoners below deck and so began the long and drawn out torture by Te Rauparaha on Te Maiharanui and his wife Te Whe. Te Maiharanui had his eyes burnt out by a hot poker and ended his life in a most ignoble way for any Maori warrior, his throat was cut and he suffered being aware of having his blood drunk by his enemies as his life drained away and the ritual cannibalism of the vanquished began.

Thus entered into the annals of New Zealand’s history one of the most appalling accounts of collusion between Pakeha and Maori.

Captain Stewart knowingly turned a blind eye to this wholesale slaughter conducted on board his ship and he had closed his ears to the screams of the tortured believing that no-one in the civilized world would hear tell of this episode nor of his involvement in it.

Arriving two months later in Sydney Captain Stewart delivered his cargo of flax cordage to the merchants believing that no-one would be aware of the origins of his cargo nor how he obtained it, and despite having on board his ship two witnesses to the atrocities, John Cowell the interpreter, Benjamin Turner, neither of these men felt compelled to report to the relevant authorities what had transpired. Stewart, Cowell and Turner were free to walk about Sydney Town without threat of arrest and by the time news did eventually arrive in Sydney, telling of the kidnapping, tortures and massacre, Stewart and his men had already departed Sydney thus escaping any form of justice.

It was this horrendous event that gave the New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling much anxiety and unrest primarily due to the New South Wales authorities failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of this gross and hideous crime. It impelled him to send a despatch to the British Secretary of State for War in London, a recommendation for the instalment of a British Resident in New Zealand who could be supported by a military detachment of sufficient size to deal with such incidents as those involving Captain Stewart and Te Rauparaha. The idea had some merit but it was not actioned upon for some years albeit in a modified way with the installation of the ineffectual Busby as British Resident.

As for Captain Stewart, he is believed to have sailed to South America and was never seen in New Zealand waters again while Te Rauparaha, who a modern psychologist would probably call a psychopath, continued his murderous rampages in the South and North Islands until his death on 27 November 1849.

Neither man is remembered as leaving gentle footprints in history’s pages.

In memory of the Ngai Tahu people of Takapuneke Pa, Onawe Peninsula, Akaroa. We will remember them.

  1. ‘Fatal Frontiers’ by Paul Moon 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. ‘Cannibal Jack’ by Trevor Bentley 

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elocal Digital Edition – June 2019 (#219)

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