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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.


Barnet Burns's Exploits—His Flight From Mahia in 1832—Was He at Siege of Kekeparaoa?—Fresh Light on Kidnapping Incident at East Cape—Plan for an English Colony at Tolaga Bay in 1836.

Although neither Poverty Bay nor the East Coast was the place of residence of “White Chief Rutherford” between 1816 and 1826, both districts, some years later, saw a great deal of another tattooed pakeha, a trader named George White (to the natives, “Hori Waiti”), who, upon his return to England, adopted the alliterative appellation: “Barnet Burns.” He published a booklet containing his “experiences,” which sold for sixpence. It ran into five editions, the first of which was printed in 1835 and the last in 1850. The Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington) has a copy of the 1844 edition, and the full narrative (excepting the glossary, and with only one of the two woodcuts) appears in Life in Early Poverty Bay (1927). Mrs. W. L. Williams attended one of Burns's entertainments at Manchester (the city in which she was born) in or about 1850.

When W. L. Williams returned to Poverty Bay from Oxford University in 1853, he brought back a copy of Burns's booklet, and had one of the pictures of Burns reproduced in the form of an enlarged photograph, which he presented to Burns's half-caste son (Hori Waiti) at a large gathering at Tokomaru Bay. Prior to making the gift, he asked the native elders whether they recognized the subject of the photograph. On their behalf, Witehau said: “We know this man,” and, turning to Hori, he added: “He is your father.” Hori then fired a shot above the photograph by way of a salute in honour of his father. The photograph is still treasured by his descendants.

In his booklet, Burns describes himself as an English sailor, but in one of his entertainment handbills he gives Scotland as the land of his birth. He says that he left England on the brig Walna in 1827, and that, after a short stay at Rio de Janeiro, he went by the barque Nimrod to Sydney, where he held a situation in the “Bank of Australia” for about two years. Then he shipped on the brig Elizabeth for a trading voyage to New Zealand and was away for eight months. Upon his own showing, therefore, the date on which he affirms that “I. Baron Montefiore”—he meant Joseph Barrow Montefiore, an influential merchant of Sydney—entered into an arrangement with him to act as his agent at Mahia could not have been as early as he suggests, viz. February, 1829. page 108 In strict fact, Burns, in company with Captain Harris and Tom Ralph, landed at Poverty Bay on 16 May, 1831, and he was sent by Harris to Mahia in the role of a sub-agent.

According to Burns, there was not then any other white man on Mahia—“not one residing within 100 miles of me.” “So here I was,” he says, “among a set of cannibals, trusting wholly and solely to their mercy, not knowing when they might take my trade [goods] from me, and not only my trade, but my life…. Then, for the first time since I took my fancy to visit New Zealand, I felt frightened at my situation.” He gives the name of the chief who protected him as “Awhawee,” and claims to have married one of his daughters. [His wife at Tolaga Bay was Amotawa, who belonged to Whanau-a-Ruataupare hapu, of Tokomaru Bay.] After he had been at Mahia for nearly eleven months [this would be early in 1830, vide Burns, but early in 1832, vide Harris], a vessel arrived from Sydney. When the natives learned that her captain had instructions to close the station, they became “quite cross and inclined to plunder.” He explains that he did not leave by the ship because his wife was on the point of lying-in.

Describing his flight from Mahia, Burns says that during the absence, at some distant plantations, of the majority of the tribe with which he was living, some members of a neighbouring tribe threatened to steal the goods which he had been permitted to retain. He calls this tribe the “Wattihabitties.” [Whatu-i-Apiti, a Hawke's Bay tribe which, with others from the south had, for some years, been sheltering on the peninsula on account of the possibility that their own district might be raided.] Upon Awhawee's advice, he placed his goods in a large war-canoe and, accompanied by his wife, his father-in-law and a few slaves, fled to Poverty Bay. A gale forced the fugitives to run for Wharryawaawa [Whareongaonga]. Next day a course was set for Wyshee [Waihi, the extreme point of Young Nick's Head]. As a heavy sea was running into Poverty Bay, they had to land and carry the goods overland, “a distance of 13 miles.” It is evident that Burns and his companions went to Harris's trading-station at Turanganui, seeing that, later in his narrative, he speaks of going up the Tooronga [Turanganui] River, meaning the arm now known as the Taruheru River.