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

Chapter VIII — Whose “White Chief”?

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Chapter VIII
Whose “White Chief”?

Untraced Brig “Agnes”—Rutherford, the Tattooed Sailor—Was He Held Captive on the East Coast?—Grave of Old Vessel Uncovered at Gisborne—A Strange Coincidence.

Not a vestige of evidence has been found to substantiate the claim made in The New Zealanders (London, 1830) on behalf of an Englishman named John Rutherford that an armed American brig, the Agnes, with a crew of fourteen, was cut off in March, 1816, either in Poverty Bay or at Takomardo [? Tokomaru Bay] or at any other point on the eastern coast of the North Island. [In a pamphlet which Rutherford issued in Glasgow, he says that the Agnes did not reach Tahiti from Rio de Janeiro until 1 May, 1816.]

A stir was occasioned in Gisborne in July, 1926, when the Korua dredged up portions of the skeleton of a ship from a depth of from ten to twelve feet whilst she was excavating the river diversion cut. The spot was about 500 feet above high water mark, but only 200 feet above the line of high water shown on a plan prepared in 1880 for Sir John Coode, the eminent English harbour designer. It was, at first, believed that the remains were parts of the Rio Grande, which was driven up on Waikanae Beach on 30 April, 1884, but H. E. Johnstone, who had retained her figurehead, was able to show, by photographs, that the vessel had broken up much closer to the shore. He was also certain that practically the whole of her timbers had been taken away.

Within a day or two, the Korua had passed through the grave of the unknown ship, leaving high and dry about 60 feet of her keel and the whole of her stem (which was in one piece and measured twelve feet around the curve). According to Rutherford, the Agnes carried six guns, but no sign of any such relic was found. Elderly mariners and shipwrights reckoned that the vessel could not have been of less than 100 tons. They pointed out that she had been constructed in accordance with methods which had been superseded. Wooden pegs had been used to fasten the planks to the stem. First of all, a peg had been driven home; then, it had been split and a smaller peg forced into the aperture.

As some of the timber appeared charred, the theory was then advanced that the remains might have belonged to the neverfound Agnes of Rutherford's story. These dark patches proved page 63 to be only stains. Close examination of other finds also failed to add weight to the opinion that a discovery of great historical importance had been made. Among them were pieces of an iron stove, which bore a trade mark of a serpent interwoven with an anchor, and also some pieces of coal. There was, of course, no proof that any of them had sunk with the mystery vessel.

Interest in the discovery was heightened when some elderly natives claimed to have heard that a ship named Agnes had met her doom in the locality. That there had been any foul play in connection with the disaster all stoutly denied. Further inquiries revealed that, on 23 June, 1867, a craft bearing that name was wrecked at the mouth of the Turanganui River; that heavy seas carried her over the rocks on to the western side of the river; and that she broke up. Shipwrecks: New Zealand Disasters, 1795–1936 gives her as a schooner of 100 tons. It was, indeed, a strange coincidence in respect of nomenclature!

As no relic of the Agnes has ever been traced, and as no tribe has any tradition relating to her, some historians discredit Rutherford's narrative as a whole. However, either under compulsion or voluntarily—most readers may prefer the second choice—he must have spent a considerable time among the Maoris in order to have secured opportunities to gather the large fund of information concerning their customs which is credited to him, even allowing that he obtained some of it from other pakehas.

It is not known whether George Lillie Craik (the editor of The New Zealanders) met Rutherford, but Charles Knight (the publisher) did so. Rutherford, who was illiterate, had dictated his story to a shipmate on his voyage back to England. A strange omission is the name of the tribe with which he claims to have lived so long. It is stated that a gale threw the Agnes off her course to the Bay of Islands and carried her “past the mouth of the Thames”—presumably to the south of the tip of Coromandel Peninsula. When the storm abated, she was south of a high point of land “which, from Rutherford's description, there can be no doubt,” the editor says, “must have been that to which Captain Cook gave the name of Cape East.” Seeing that Poverty Bay and Takomardo gained places in the story, the exact wording that follows requires to be quoted:

“The land directly opposite to them was,” it is stated, “indented by a large bay. This the captain was very unwilling to enter, believing that no ship had ever anchored in it before, We have little doubt, however, that this was the very bay into which Cook first put on his arrival on the coasts of New Zealand in the beginning of October, 1769. He called it Poverty Bay and found it to lie in latitude 38d. 42m. S.
“The bay in which Rutherford now was must have been at least page 64 very near this part of the coast and his description answers exactly to that which Cook gives us of Poverty Bay. ‘It was,’ says Rutherford, ‘in the form of a half moon, with a sandy beach round it and had at its head a fresh water river, having a bar across its mouth, which makes it only navigable for boats.’
“All these particulars are noticed by Cook. Even the name given to it by the natives as reported by the one is not so entirely unlike that stated by the other as to make it quite improbable that the two are merely the same word differently represented. Cook wrote it Taoneroa and Rutherford Takomardo.”

Sole responsibility for the suggestion that it was Poverty Bay which the Agnes entered rests, therefore, with the editor of The New Zealanders. If Rutherford had ever been in Poverty Bay, it is certain that he would not have been told by its inhabitants that its name was “Takomardo.” Where he picked up that place-name is a mystery. It is possible that there was a “Tokomaru” close to the locality in which he lived. The name is not uncommon. Apart from Tokomaru Bay, there is a Tokomaru in the Manawatu district.

When Captain Hovell returned to Sydney in November, 1815, he reported on the attack that had been made, on 20 August, on the Trial and the Brothers at Trial Harbour (perhaps Mercury Bay or Kennedy's Bay). The Sydney Gazette (18/11/1815) says:

“Among a variety of information communicated to the Gazette on the 8th inst., we omitted a statement made by Mr. Hovell, of the Brothers, of his having learned from the natives of New Zealand that three vessels had been, at different periods, cut off there, no accounts of which have reached this colony, viz. one at the head of the River Thames; one at Mercury Bay; and the third at Poverty Bay….” [The Agnes, according to Rutherford, was not taken until the following year.]

Playfully commenting upon the fact that the Sydney authorities had never heard of the alleged outrages, McNab (Tasman to Marsden, 1914 ed., p. 94) says: “… which is quite possible, when we consider the effective methods the natives had of removing incriminating evidence.” He was, of course, alluding to the Maoris' practice of eating their captives! If, however, one of the outrages reported by Captain Hovell had occurred in Poverty Bay or on the East Coast, or if the Agnes had been taken at either place, such a crime could not have been completely covered up. Neighbouring tribes would have got to know, and probably would have received gifts of loot, and, sooner or later, proof would have been furnished to visiting shipmasters. It also requires to be borne in mind that, within fifteen years, some pakehas had taken up their abode in Poverty Bay and others on the East Coast. None of them ever claimed to have heard of either “tragedy.”

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Cook's watering place, Cook's Cove, Tolaga Bay.By D'Urville's artist on L'Astrolabe, 1827.

Cook's watering place, Cook's Cove, Tolaga Bay.
By D'Urville's artist on L'Astrolabe, 1827.

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War dance on L'Astrolabe at Tolaga Bay, 1827. British Museum Print.

War dance on L'Astrolabe at Tolaga Bay, 1827.
British Museum Print.

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Rutherford says that, soon after the Agnes dropped anchor “off the termination of a reef of rocks immediately under some elevated land which formed one of the sides of the bay,” many canoes went out to her, each containing about thirty women. On the first day, there was only a sprinkling of male visitors. The women remained on board all night, employing their time chiefly in pilfering. Next day, a chief named Aimy and about one hundred other natives went out in a war canoe. He set about to put the captain at his ease by sending out water and wood to the vessel. Bartering for about two hundred pigs was then entered upon. Those natives who stayed aboard on the second night cut away many ropes, besides committing thefts.

On the following morning (Rutherford continues) he caught a native stealing the dipson lead, “which, when I took it from him, he grinded his teeth and shook his tomahawk at me.” As payment for the water and wood, the chief received two muskets and some powder and shot, “these being the only articles for which the natives at that place would trade.” There were then about three hundred natives on deck, “every man being armed with a greenstone axe slung with a string from his waist.” After the midday meal, the captain, now much alarmed, ordered the sails to be loosened and set, so that the vessel might put to sea. Smoke could be seen rising from some hilltops, and natives had begun to muster on the beach from every part of the bay.

Describing the attack on the vessel, Rutherford says that the chief then threw off his mat and began a war dance. Immediately, the other natives did likewise, “dancing with such violence that I thought they would stove in the ship's deck.” The captain was the first to be slain. A like fate befell the cook, who went to his aid. In turn, the mate was fatally injured. The rest of the crew fled to the rigging. “I now sat down on the jibboom,” he says, “with tears in my eyes and trembling with terror.” Four of the crew jumped overboard, but were captured; the other eight, including himself, were driven from the rigging, seized and bound. The vessel was then set on fire, cut adrift, and allowed to ground within the mouth of the river near the end of the village.

Readers of the narrative are then told that, after the captives had been landed, the mate succumbed; the twelve survivors were tied to trees, and the bodies of their three dead companions were hung up by the heels. Touching on the plight of the survivors on the following morning, Rutherford says: “Gentle reader: we will now consider the sad situation we were in: our ship lost; three of our companions already killed; and the rest of us each tied to a tree, starving with hunger, wet and cold, and knowing that we were in the hands of cannibals.” But (so runs the story) the page 66 worst was yet to come. Later in the day, six of the captives were slaughtered in a barbarous manner before the eyes of their terrified comrades.

“The victims,” Rutherford states, “groaned several times as they were struggling in the agonies of death and, at every groan, the natives burst into great fits of laughter. We could not refrain from weeping … not knowing whose turn it might be next. Many of the natives, upon seeing our tears, laughed aloud and brandished their merys [meres] at us.”

Next morning, after the bodies had been cooking all night, steps were taken (so the gruesome story proceeds) to hold a feast. Even before the remains had been removed from the oven, some children were observed tearing the flesh from them.

“A short time after the chiefs had assembled,” Rutherford avers, “baskets were placed before them, and they proceeded to divide the flesh among the multitude at the rate of a basket among so many. They also sent us a basket of potatoes and some of the flesh, which resembled pork; but, instead of partaking of it, we shuddered at the very idea of such an unnatural and horrid custom, and made a present of it to one of the natives.”

The six unharmed seamen, it is stated, were taken by Aimy on an inland journey towards his home. When ten miles had been traversed, a halt was made at the home of Rangadi, another of the perpetrators of the outrage. At night, whilst they were sitting around a fire, several of the women amused themselves by playing with the captives' fingers, sometimes opening their shirts at the breast and, at other times, feeling the calves of their legs, “which made us think,” Rutherford says, “that they were examining us to see if we were fit enough for eating.”

It was at this village, according to Rutherford, that he and his companions were tattooed.

“Whilst I was undergoing the operation, and although the pain was most severe,” he explains, “I never either moved or uttered a sound, but my companions groaned dreadfully. Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours in their hands. During the operation, Aimy's elder daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After the operation, she led me to the river that I might wash myself (for it had made me completely blind) and then conducted me to a great fire.”

The stay at Rangadi's village lasted for six months. John Watson (one of the captives) was carried away by a chief named Nainy, whilst another (name not given) was left with Rangadi. The party then went on to another village (distance not indicated) where the chief was named Plama. Here John Smith was forced to remain behind. Jefferson was left at Ewanna's village twelve miles farther on. It took only one more day to reach Aimy's home.

Rutherford does not indicate, at this point, how far Aimy's page 67 village was from the scene of the alleged capture of the Agnes. At page 274, however, he states that, in 1826, just prior to his escape, Aimy and he made the journey from the village to Tokamardo [the earlier spelling was “Takamardo”] in two days. His remaining shipmate was slain because, inadvertently, he committed a breach of the law of tapu, but his body was not eaten. In due course, Aimy made Rutherford a chief and gave him for wives his two daughters, Eshou and Epecka.

Tall Story of Lengthy Journey

The narrative is embellished with an account of a lengthy journey which, Rutherford says, he and Epecka took in company with Aimy. It was, he avers, made “sometimes by water and sometimes by land,” and, “in about a month,” the party “arrived at a place (subsequently described as a village) called Taranake, on the coast of Cook's Straits.” Twenty slave women, it is stated, were among the party. Each of them not only carried provisions, but also “drove before her a pig, which she held by a string tied to its foreleg.” As such a lengthy journey would have involved great hardships, also the perils incidental to passing through the domains of several tribes, the portion of the narrative dealing with it is widely regarded as a pure fabrication.

Rutherford claims that, whilst he was in the Cook Strait area, he met another tattooed Englishman named James Mowry [James Caddell] of Southern Cape [Stewart Island]. Caddell, he states, told him that, when he was a boy, he was on the Sydney Cove; that he went ashore in a boat near Southern Cape; and that the rest of the party were slain by the natives. He added that he had been in New Zealand for eight years. The tragic incident mentioned by Caddell occurred in 1810, so that the year in which they met—wherever the meeting took place—must have been about 1818. That they did fraternize during that year appears to be supported by the fact that Rutherford correctly estimated Caddell's age at that date at twenty-four years. When Caddell was in Sydney in 1823, he told M. de Blossville of the Coquille, that he was sixteen years old when he was taken into captivity.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that Rutherford lived in the North Island as early as 1818, or that it was in or about Cook Strait that he and Caddell met. He states that Caddell had heard of the capture of the Agnes, but he places too great a strain on the credulity of his readers when he adds that it was from him that he received accounts of the deaths of his shipmates, Smith and Watson. According to his own story, these men were held captive by chiefs who lived not far from Aimy's village, i.e. page 68 in a district in the North Island some hundreds of miles from Stewart Island, where Caddell lived.

No American armed vessel that answers to the description of the Agnes can be traced by the United States authorities. Rutherford states that her master was a Captain Coffin. This was not an uncommon surname among American master mariners in those days. A Captain Coffin was in charge of the Enterprise in May, 1817—just over twelve months after the Agnes is alleged to have been taken—when she called at the Snares and rescued a party of maroons. If Rutherford was on board her, he might easily have made the acquaintance of Caddell whilst she was in southern waters.

The description given by Rutherford of the return journey from “Cook's Straits” is of interest chiefly because it serves to indicate that the locality in which he lived among the natives was not, even according to himself, as far south as Tokomaru Bay. He says that the party, after travelling from Cook Strait for six weeks, arrived at “East Cape” [even Cook's East Cape is forty miles north of Tokomaru Bay], where they met Bomurry [Pomare], a great chief belonging to the Bay of Islands, “who had plundered and murdered nearly every person that lived between the East Cape and the River Thames.”

“He (Pomare) and his followers having taken leave of us,” says Rutherford, “we also left the East Cape, . . and proceeded on our journey homewards, travelling during the day and encamping during the night … In this way, we arrived in four days at our own village….”

That at some time Rutherford did run across Pomare need not be doubted, even although it is most unlikely that the locale was Cook's East Cape. Pomare participated in a number of expeditions—how many is not clear—in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century and touched at many points to the south of the Bay of Islands. However, interest attaches to Rutherford's further statement that he saw in one of Pomare's canoes a trunk bearing the name of Captain Brin [Brind] of the Asp. A whale-ship named Asp, whilst under the command of Captain Brind, used the Bay of Islands for a base in 1822–3. The year 1818 seems too early, therefore, for the meeting which Rutherford suggests he had with Pomare.

Stronger light on the question as to the locality in which Rutherford lived among the Maoris is shed in his imperfect account of the conflict known as “Te Ika-a-Ranganui,” which took place in the Kaipara district in 1825 between the Ngati-Whatua and the Ngapuhi. Some of his details are held to be correct, but his claim to have been an eyewitness is disproved by page 69 the fact that he says that Ngati-Whatua emerged victorious, whereas (although, at the outset, they had a temporary triumph) they were, in the end, routed by Ngapuhi.

The scene of the struggle is described by Rutherford as “a place called Kipara [Kaipara] near the source of the River Thames.” There, he says, he met John Mawman [Marmon], who lived at Sukyanna [Hokianga], and who had accompanied Ngapuhi. If (as he suggests) Kaipara was only two hundred miles from Aimy's village, further proof is afforded that he was not held captive—if he ever was a prisoner—below Whakatane.

According to The New Zealanders, Rutherford escaped from captivity on 9 January, 1826. An unnamed American brig (Captain Jackson) was sighted off “Takomardo,” and Aimy and the other chiefs resolved to seize her and murder the crew. He was sent out in a canoe to decoy her to the land, but he warned the captain and the vessel stood off. In his Glasgow pamphlet, Rutherford states that the vessel was the American discovery brig Avenger, and he gives the date of his escape as 18 January, 1827. McNab (Turnbull Library records) was informed by the secretary to the U.S. Navy that no such vessel could be traced in its lists.

The two accounts also differ as to Rutherford's movements after he left New Zealand. In the pamphlet version, it is made out that the Avenger carried him on to Brazil, but, in The New Zealanders, it is stated that he left her at Tahiti, where he stayed until January, 1827; that he then went to Sydney on the brig Macquarie; that he sailed from Sydney on the Sydney Packet (Captain Tailor), leaving her at Rio de Janeiro. In both accounts, he claims to have made the final stage of his journey to England in H.M.S. Blanche. Dr. G. H. Scholefield examined the logs and muster rolls of that vessel in London for McNab, but did not find Rutherford's name.

Some Historians Deceived

Colenso (Transactions of the New Zealand Institute (1868), p. 64 and p. 67), twice lists the Agnes among vessels seized in New Zealand waters in the early days, and gives Tokomaru as the scene of the outrage. In the 1878 issue, p. 109, he states that Rutherford was at the great battle in the Kaipara district between Ngati-Whatua and Ngapuhi and that the head of Hongi's son Hare was “carried off in triumph by Rutherford's Maori party from the East Coast.” He adds: “Rutherford is in many respects a truthful witness, as I have good reason for saying, having formerly traced out not a few of his statements.” But, in August, 1896, he told the members of the Hawke's Bay page 70 Philosophical Institute that, shortly after he arrived in New Zealand in 1834, he made inquiries at the places described by Rutherford “without being able to discover any trace of him or of the events narrated by him, and had come to the conclusion that the story was largely mythical.”

Rusden, who was also completely deceived, states (History of New Zealand, Vol. 1, p. 116): “About 1825 or 1826, Hongi fought a battle against Ngati-Whatua and their allies. Rutherford, the sole survivor of the Agnes, destroyed by the Maoris on the East Coast in 1816, had been treated as a chief by the Ngati-Porou, and he accompanied his tribe, a war-party 500 strong … to Kaipara (as an ally of Ngati-Whatua)…. The march of the Ngati-Porou contingent from the East Coast shows the hatred entertained against Hongi over his southern raids.” The Rev. J. Buller (Forty Years in New Zealand, p. 251) also accepts Rutherford's story.

T. L. Buick (Mystery of the Moa, p. 47) adopts Rutherford as a witness to the silence of the Maoris on the subject of the moa when they discussed the natural history of their country with their earliest visitors. He says that, although Rutherford moved about in a part of the country where moas formerly abounded, “he does not appear to have encountered … the fabulous legends of the mountain-dwelling moas so common among the inhabitants of the East Coast.” Four years later, however, Buick, in the course of a reply to Francis Edwards Ltd., of London, on the question of the authenticity of Rutherford's narrative, stated that he thought Rutherford had been in New Zealand, but in what district or how he came to be there he did not know, nor did he think it would ever be known. He added: “How much of fact and how much of fiction, how much of Rutherford and how much of Knight and Craik, goes to the make-up of his narrative, it is equally impossible to say.”

W. L. Williams (who, earlier, had accepted Rutherford's story) made the important point, in an address before the Auckland Philosophical Institute on 6 October, 1890, that the East Coast natives had no knowledge of Rutherford, but, on the other hand, they had told him about three white men who had voluntarily lived among them just after the period during which Rutherford claimed to have been held in captivity. It was his opinion that Rutherford's account of his personal adventures was a mere romance; that he knew nothing of the locality in which he professed to have resided for nearly ten years beyond the name Tokomaru; and that, whether the years which he spent in New Zealand were many or few, they were spent in the north, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Bay of Islands.

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On the other hand, if Rutherford had ever lived in or about the Bay of Islands, he would not have estimated the length of the journey which, he says, he made to the Kaipara district at as much as two hundred miles. Nor, in that event, would he have stated that the war-party to which he claims to have been attached allied itself with the opponents of Ngapuhi. It is also certain that, if he had lived in Ngapuhi territory, he would not have made the mistake of stating that Ngapuhi were defeated. Furthermore, if he had been acquainted with the Bay of Islands, he would not have felt it necessary to explain that Pomare had told him at “East Cape” that his place of residence “was in the neighbourhood of Mr. Kendall, the missionary.”

The fact that Rutherford places Hauraki Gulf between Kaipara and Aimy's domain affords the most reliable clue as to the locality in which he lived. Smith (Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, p. 88) holds that he might have escaped either from the Trial or from the Brothers when they were attacked at, or close to, Mercury Bay on 20 August, 1815. Bishop H. W. Williams pointed out to the writer that the names which Rutherford applies to the chiefs with whom he claimed to have lived are more in accord with those in use by the tribes which inhabit the areas adjacent to Hauraki Gulf. [Rutherford's “Nainy” certainly does bear a close resemblance to Marsden's rendering of “Aneenee,” of Thames]. He was of the opinion that Rutherford was a deserter from an English vessel, and he did not share his father's contention that he underwent tattooing in the hope that it might enable him to escape detection. Such an attempt at disguise, he considered, would have served to draw particular attention to him.

What further heightens the probability that Rutherford lived just below Hauraki Gulf is a statement on page 184 of The New Zealanders: “that many fine veins of coal make their appearance from the sides of the mountains in the interior of the northern island.” Nobody (it is added) had previously made reference to the existence of coal deposits in New Zealand. If Rutherford had lived on the East Coast, it is most unlikely that he would ever have heard of them. Probably, much of his story was hearsay. He might have obtained some of the material from Caddell, and he might also have run across Jacky Marmon. Quite openly, he confesses that he did receive some information in Sydney from a survivor of the Boyd tragedy, and, perhaps, he was enlightened upon some other matters by members of the Herd expedition, which arrived in Sydney whilst he was there.


The name “Tokomaru” does not appear on the map published in The New Zealanders.