The Grace Darling of New Zealand

Hūria Mātenga

With a rope around his waist, Henry Squirrel clambered down the bow of the foundering Delawareand disappeared into the pounding waves. It was just before 9 0-clock on a Friday morning in September 1863. A gale had taken away the Delaware’s jib and main anchor, forcing Captain Baldwin to drive his 241-ton brigantine onto the rocky and desolate coast near Wakapuaka in an attempt to save the lives of his charges. 

Smashed insensible against the rocks, the valiant chief mate was only just hauled back onto the deck as the winds howled through what was left of the masts and rigging. They laid him on a bunk in the forecastle and tried to bring him round. He spoke briefly but then relapsed and they moved his body to the deckhouse. No one else volunteered to try to get a lifeline to the shore. Without it all eleven aboard the ship were doomed.

But just then five figures appeared on the empty beach. Four Maori men and a Maori woman. Led by the woman, they plunged straight into the dangerous surf, making for a rock near the stricken vessel. They reached it and scrambled onto its slippery surface. The crew of the Delaware managed to throw them the weighted lead line used for calculating the depth of water. 

The rescuers swam back to shore, dragging the line to which the sailors had attached a long cable. Two men remained on the beach to hold the lifeline while the woman and the other two men again swam to the ship. They held themselves steady in the pounding waves helping the shaken survivors haul themselves to safety. One by one they struggled to the sand, alternately jerked into the air, then dropped beneath the waves as the ship rolled towards the shore then back towards the crashing seas.

Remaining aboard until the end of the rescue, Captain Baldwin was finally brought to the shore. Just as he was landed, the cable that had miraculously held as the crew and only passenger and crew were helped to safety, parted. But all was well. An amazing rescue had been carried out with the loss of only one life.

But an hour or so later, to the horror of everyone on the beach, they spotted the mate on the deck of the Delaware calling for help. He had recovered consciousness and was searching desperately for a way to escape the foundering ship. But no one could help him:

‘Those who had been saved frequently went down to the water’s edge, and gave him cheering words; telling him to hold on until the tide should turn, and that then he certainly would be rescued.’

Henry Squirrell managed to make his way along the deck and catch hold of the rigging. He held on but ‘At length fatigue, and, no doubt, the injuries received when in the water, caused him to loose his hold, he was washed overboard …’ [i]

As these grim events took place, the Maori rescuers warmed, fed and sheltered the lucky ten on the beach and in their pah. Next day the storm had blown itself out. Broken crates, torn blankets, shawls, saddlery and clothing strewed the sand for two miles. The battered remains of Henry Squirrel, the bravest man on the Delaware, were washed ashore as well. Captain Baldwin went to the beach: 

‘I went down and saw a dead body, and after cutting away his clothes which were then lying over his face, I was that it was the body of my chief mate. I assisted to carry his body up out of reach of the tide, where it now lies.’

The bravery of the Maori rescuers was highlighted at the inquest, especially that of the woman. Her name was Hūria Mātenga – Julia to the British settlers. She was given fifty pounds, as were her husband Hemi (Martin) and Rotate (Robert). The other two men received ten pounds each, considerable sums in that time. Each of the rescuers also received a gold watch and the deserved acclamation of the settlers. 

Inevitably, Julia was hailed as the ‘Grace Darling of New Zealand’, after the Longstone Lighthouse Keeper’s daughter who played a major role in rescuing survivors of the Forfarshire, wrecked off the Northumberland coast in 1838. Grace Darling was known throughout the British empire as a great heroine:

And like her, Julia, your name and deed will find a place in local history. Your brave act is one of which a queen might be proud. We present you with a watch whereon your children and their successors may read with pleasure an inscription which testifies to the esteem in which you are held by the settlers of Nelson.

Hemi responded in his own language, saying that the Maori wished only to save the lives of their shipwrecked European friends and had no thought of receiving any reward.[ii]


[i] Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, volume xxii, issue 86, 8 September 1863, an eyewitness account.

[ii] Alfred Sanders, History of New Zealand, 1642–1893, 2 vols, 1896-1899

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