In 1837, Captain John Roberton purchased Motuarohia Island (Russell, Northland), began converting the island for farming, and built a home for his wife Elizabeth and children.
While the Church Missionary Society was active in working with Bay of Islands Maori, who at the time heavily outnumbered Europeans, the missionaries had apparently not won over the European settlers – this was an era when Kororāreka was known for drunken lawlessness.
The Roberton family generally seemed happy in John’s retirement, becoming content enough that they could even take on a boarder, the daughter of John Roberton’s friend, Captain William Brind. Hosting little Isobella Brind brought extra money into the household , and the Robertons felt safe knowing that Isobella was the daughter of Brind and a Maori woman, Moewaka, who was a daughter of the Ngāpuhi Chief Rewa.
Living on an island came at a cost, and John drowned in the bay in 1840. A helper named Thomas Bull had to be hired, as did a 16 year old Maori boy named Maketu Wharetotara – the son of a minor Ngāpuhi chief, Ruhe.
Ruhe was known for his temper – once, he had attacked a missionary’s wife with a pistol – but it was said that Ruhe’s rage was always followed by remorse and regret , and that was passed down to Maketu, who reluctantly agreed to do manual work on the farm.
Maketu never got along with Thomas Bull. Bull was gruff to the point of abusiveness, and this rankled with Maketu, who, as the son of a chief, expected to be treated royally. But Maketu was too young to take on a grown man, and his chiefly rank meant it was beneath him to fight a commoner, so Elizabeth interpreted Maketu’s growing recalcitrance as a bad teenage attitude.
The tables were to be turned on the night of November 30, 1841, as Maketu crept into Bull’s room and, without warning, sunk an axe into Bull’s head. The sound of the shattering skull awoke Elizabeth, but her reaction was not to scream for help and run away – instead, Elizabeth scolded Maketu and warned the boy that he would be hanged for murder, until Maketu couldn’t take the chastisement any more. Maketu killed and horribly mutilated the hysterical widow, then turned on the little girls and butchered them while they screamed for their mummy. There was still another victim in the house, eight year old Gordon, who escaped out of a rear window and fled through the midnight blackness. Maketu chased the boy to the top of a hill, which ended in a towering cliff. Gordon had nowhere to run, and Maketu pummelled the boy then threw him alive off the cliff. The boy fell two hundred feet before his little body was dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
Maketu plundered the house and set fire to the bodies, and then returned to his people, satisfied that he had made retribution for Bull’s insult.
The house fire sent so much smoke into the bay that locals set out to investigate. In the charred ruins, they were horrified to find four corpses. The Chief Constable determined that this could not possibly have been an accident and immediately rumours sprang up about a possible Maori uprising in the area. In Kororāreka, the Europeans grew nervous, and two local men, Spicer and Wilson, summoned every authority in the Bay of Islands, so intense was the fear that the murder was the sign of a Maori uprising against the settlers.
Indeed, Ngāpuhi’s Chief Pomare had been buying up arms and preparing to wage war, because the Treaty of Waitangi had failed to slow the acquisition of land by British settlers. Investigators were ferried to Motuarohia Island and back, protected by Royal Navy warships. But the murderer, when found, would not be punished by a European lynch mob: the new Treaty meant that all Maori in the country were privy to the laws of England. The murderer would receive his day in court – but only if he was given up by his people, who gathered on the beach, outnumbering Spicer and Wilson 150:1. They offered the hundreds of Maori who had gathered on Motuarohia’s beach money, tobacco and rum for the murderer , but Maketu happily admitted the killings anyway. The death of Thomas Bull was certainly utu, he agreed ; however, the murders of Elizabeth and her daughters, and pummelling her son and then tossing the screaming child from a cliff, Maketu could not write off as culturally sanctioned.
Both sides were nervous, the weather threatened to flood the boat, and Spicer and Wilson were on a tiny vessel with a father and son both experienced in slaughter. Williams’s wife recorded the tension of the settler community on December 23, 1841:
“The murderer has been discovered to be a son of Ruhe; 300 natives are gathered at Motuarohia and refuse to give the murderer up; It is more alarming than anything Busby has known in New Zealand, and thinks the natives ripe for an outbreak…. we trust that the God of Jacob is still around us when times of danger threaten.”
The Rev Williams tried to intervene, as he had led the conversion of many local Maori to Christianity, but Williams was told by Ngāpuhi that justice was already planned: Chief Rewa would kill Maketu as retribution for the death of little Isobella, who was of Ngāpuhi blood. “I do not know a chief who has not expressed his distrust in the Europeans,” Williams wrote in his diary. “In regard to British law, the natives do not yet consider that it applies to them. In the event of any serious disturbance between the native tribes and Europeans, the British subjects cannot expect protection from any of the tribes.”
Even resident missionaries were threatened, and the situation became so tense that a French man-of-war offered to defend the British. However, Ruhe, Pomare and Nene eventually signed a declaration agreeing to hand over Maketu to Queen Victoria, in good faith, and Ruhe accepted the Rev Williams’s advice to give up his son to British justice. Despite Ruhe carrying two tomahawks, Spicer and Wilson let Ruhe sail with them as they took his son away from his people.
The New Zealand Herald of February 28, 1842 records Maketu’s sensational trial at the Supreme Court House on Queen Street in Auckland. Chief Justice William Martin was delivered by ship, along with the Attorney General. Newspapers at the time weren’t guarded about prejudicing the trial: the Auckland Chronicle described Maketu as “a misjudged young chap who in a moment of passion, and without malice prepense, committed the crime” while the New Zealand Herald & Auckland Gazette was less forgiving: “A more cold-blooded and inhuman murder is difficult to conceive,” one reporter wrote. “The treacherous slaying of the man, the incredible cruelty of the murder of the little boy who ran from the monster, or the cowardly slaughter of Elizabeth and two infants, marked the perpetrator a diabolical savage.”
This was the first Supreme Court trial ever held in New Zealand, and huge numbers of Maori arrived to see it, but most could not get into the court room and had to wait outside.
Maketu pleaded not guilty – after all, exacting utu against Thomas Bull did not entail guilt for him. Maketu’s lawyer argued that the defendant was unaware that he had committed a crime which broke British law, although the judge responded that from the moment the Proclamation was read, every person in these islands was under the law of England.
The Attorney General laid out a wealth of evidence about the mutilated bodies found in the charred remains of the Roberton house, but what really counted was testimony against Maketu from his own tribe. “What is this?” Chief Eatohu asked of the judge, amazed that British law afforded lawyers for defendants. “You know he is guilty as well as we do, and yet you appoint a man who knows nothing of the matter to persuade the judge that he is not guilty!”
Most shocking of all, the coroner testified that Bull’s body was found with the eyes closed and the legs drawn up towards his chest: Thomas Bull had been murdered in his sleep.
Maketu was found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Maketu tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but when he saw the gallows literally being built in front of him, he broke down in tears. Ngāpuhi begged the Governor to be allowed to execute Maketu themselves, but the government was determined to demonstrate British law.
Acts 16:30 was read from the Bible as Maketu stepped out on to the gallows before a crowd of 1000. “He who sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” With the same bravado which led to the massacre on Motuarohia, Maketu confidently stepped forward until the platform gave way beneath his feet. The rope didn’t break his neck – it strangled him to death.
“That man was my greatest enemy for my father’s sake,” one spectator said afterwards. “But I am not satisfied with his utu. I would have killed him in a fight, or I would have put his head in an oven, but I would not have hung him. That’s the way of the Pakeha.”