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

LOST TREASURE IN THE CAVE OF DEATH – Part 1

 

Wreck_of_the_American_Ship_General_Grant

Sailing from Boston to Melbourne late in 1865 the 1000 ton barque General Grant lost a man overboard in a gale. The young William Sanguily and others among the crew, thought this was an ill omen. Their ship reached Melbourne without further incident then loaded for London. But then:

By one of those coincidences, which sailors dread, we took aboard part of a cargo that had been intended for the steamer London. This ill-fated vessel had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on her voyage out, and there were many gloomy prophecies that no freight of hers would reach London in any ship.

The superstitious sailors also noticed that the rats had left the General Grant, a sure sign of doom in the lore of the sea. Nevertheless, the General Grant set sail for England on 4 May 1866 with a load of sixty men, women and children returning home from the diggings and a crew of 23 officers and men. Among the wool and hides in the hold was the unwelcome but hugely valuable cargo of gold – four thousand ounces.

After five days of good running, the ship was blown westward towards the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island. Several days of thick fog eventually lifted and land was sighted. But later, the breeze died. Despite the efforts of the captain and crew, around 1 in the morning of May 14 the General Grant smashed into the rocky shores of Auckland Island. She was forced further and further into the pitch darkness of a large sea cave. Crewman Joseph Jewell described the scene:

… such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings as we passed in the cave for seven long hours. It was so dark that you could not see your fingers before your eyes, and there we were with falling spars and large stones tumbling from the roof of the cave (some of which went through the deck), and so we remained until daylight.

The helpless crew and passengers huddled at the stern of the ship, still free of the cavern slowly sucking in their vessel. At daylight the mizzen top gallant mast collapsed through the ship’s hill and she began to sink.

The scene at this moment was one of such utter misery as few men ever see, and fewer still survive to tell of. Every sea washed over the stern and swept the deck. The long-boat was crammed with all who could gain a foothold. It was partly filled with water, and several poor creatures lying in the bilge were crowded down and drowned before she was clear of the ship. Women clinging to their children, and crazy men to their gold, were seen washing to and fro as the water invaded the upper deck.

One wretch saw his wife and two children driven by him in this way without making an effort to save them, while the last man who got aboard nearly lost his life trying to persuade the mother to be saved without her children.

The boats were launched into a swelling sea but only a few were able to reach them, most being trapped aboard the General Grant. The lucky few watched helplessly as men, women and children were washed away and the ship disappeared beneath the heaving water, her captain waving farewell from what was left of the rigging as he went down with his ship.

The two boats with their fifteen survivors, including one woman, spent two miserable nights and days in search of a place to camp. They had little food, few supplies and no water. Their clothes were inadequate for the climate and some were without shoes. A landing was eventually made at a place known as Sarah’s Bosom on the ominously named Disappointment Island. Here they confronted the possibility of cannibalism if they were unable to make a fire. Fortunately, they were. Albatross and shellfish made a welcome stew. From that time the fire was never allowed to go out.

The survivors split into two groups, existing as best they could in huts erected by earlier shipwreck survivors and a failed colony. They suffered greatly. There was dysentery, cold and a form of scurvy caused by their survival diet. Passing ships were sighted but they were unable to attract their attention. In October they decided to prepare one of the boats for a desperate attempt reach the New Zealand mainland, almost 500 kilometres away.

On Boxing Day 1866 they finished refitting their boat. Four men volunteered to sail her and they left on 22 January 1867. But without a chart or compass they would need to be both clever and lucky to reach safety.

Eleven souls watched their four companions depart. James Teer, Patric Caughey, Nicholas Allen and David Ashworth had all been passengers aboard the ill-fated ship. Aaron Hayman, Cornelius Drew, William Ferguson, William Newton-Scott, William Sanguily (known as Yankee Jack’) and David McClelland were all sailors, as was Joseph Jewell who was accompanied by his wife, Mary.

They waited hopefully. The weeks passed with no sign of rescue.

The anxious waiting which ensued told more severely on us than all the privation. The feverish excitement of hope caused a cessation of labour one day, and blank despair rendered us helpless the next. One man would accuse the unhappy crew of deserting us, and curse their selfishness. Another would, sobbing, deplore their cruel fate, and realise the noble men who ventured on a hopeless task.

Six more weeks they waited …. See Part 2

NUMSKULLS, NINCOMPOOPS AND THE AGE OF FOOLS

SHip of fools Pieter_van_der_Heyden_Die_blau_Schuyte_1559

Ship of Fools – Pieter van der Heyden  (fl. 1551–1572)

In our current era of globalised stupidity it seems fitting to take a look at the folklore of fools. Pretty much every culture has them and the same tales of their stupidity often turn up in different traditions. The Turkish Hadji, the Italian Bastienelo, the Cambodian Kong, the Chinese Wang and the Arabic Djuna typify this class of heroism, which seems to be largely restricted to males. Hmm.

Numskulls, as these characters are often known, characteristically perform foolish tasks through misunderstanding a verbal communication or taking one too literally. The English Lazy Jack simply does whatever he is told, regardless of the circumstances. The Drongo is the Australian nincompoop, a heroically stupid figure who interprets whatever he is told literally. When the boss tells him to ‘hang a new gate’, the Drongo takes the gate out to the nearest tree and hangs it in a noose.

Jean Sot is a character in French and French diaspora lore. In the Louisiana French versions Jean is a fool who usually misunderstands instructions and shoots the cow instead of milking it. Or he may take what he is told literally and throw a dog named Parsley into the broth instead of the herb parsley, as his mother has requested. On other occasions Jean may remove and take with him a door he has been asked to guard and sometimes makes a fortune when he accidentally frightens off the robbers who have stolen it.

Some cultures have so many fools they have to keep them all in areas or towns designated for the purpose. In ancient Greece those who lived in the province of Boetia were treated as hopeless hayseeds and hicks. The English town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire has been the focus of numskull tales since at least the fifteenth century. One story told of the Wise men of Gotham is that twelve of them went fishing in a boat but returned in a state of great despair believing that one of them had drowned. They knew this because they could each only count eleven fishermen: each forgot to count himself.

Other fooltowns include Chelm or Helm in Poland, where even the intellectually-challenged Berel the Beadle seems like a mental giant; Altstätten in Switzerland, and Emesa in what used to be Persia. Other towns of clowns are found in Pakistan (Buneyr) and Sri Lanka, (Kadambawa), as well as in Japan, Finland and elsewhere.

In German tradition, the inhabitants of Schwarzenborn and Mutschingen are said to be foolish, as are those of the mythic German town of Schild. Here, the people were so stupid they built a council house without windows but were unable to understand why it was so dark inside. Eventually they realised that no light was able to enter the building, but instead of putting windows in, the people of Schild tried to carry beams of sunshine into the building. This did not improve the lighting and so they next took the advice of a passer-by to take the roof off, richly rewarding him for his assistance. This was fine and the people of Schild were very happy – until it rained. They had to replace the roof and consider what they might do next.

Groping around in the darkness of the council house, one of the fools noticed a small beam of daylight lancing in through a crack between roof and wall. After looking at the light for a while and giving the matter a good deal of thought, he suggested to the others that it might be possible to brighten the building by adding some windows. After considering this suggestion for quite a long while there was general agreement that it just might be worth a try.

Many of these tales are more or less affectionate and the characters in them often much loved. What is there to like about stupidity? Perhaps folk fools are reflections of ourselves. With rare exceptions, few of us are actually fools, we just sometimes do foolish things. It’s all part of being human and if we can find a way to weave an enjoyable and witty yarn around foolish deeds of trivial as well as gargantuan dimensions, we will, just as we have done for thousands of years.

What a pity that foolishness seems to have now broken out of folkloric fantasy and into reality.

Wise_Men_of_Gotham_1_-_WW_Denslow_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_18546

William Wallace Denslow’s illustrations for Three Wise Men of Gotham, from a 1901 edition of Mother Goose

 

 

 

PIED PIPER STILL PIPING

From a window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633), thought to be the earliest representation of the legend.
 
A well-known story of German, and now global, tradition is a constant reminder of what might happen if a helper is not properly rewarded for his assistance. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the ambivalent focus of an enduring medieval legend. In 1284 the town of Hamelin in Saxony is disturbed by a plague of rats. The piper, dressed in motley, hence the term ‘pied’, pipes the rats into the River Weser where they drown. But the people of the town refuse to pay him and so he pipes their children inside Koppenberg Hill, from where they have never emerged. Only one lame child, too slow to keep up with the others, survived.
 
This is the most familiar version of this enigmatic legend today, though its original form, as far as can be known, was a little different. One of the earliest and most significant accounts of the event is the fourteenth century version appearing in the Latin chronicle Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain) and written by a monk known as Heinrich of Hereford. This account has nothing about a plague of rats but simply tells of a handsome and well-dressed young man appearing in the city on the Feast of Saints John and Paul (26 June). He went through the streets playing a magnificent silver pipe, attracting about 130 children to follow him out of the city to the execution ground known as Calvary. There they all vanished without trace. Heinrich gives an earlier written source for this information and also refers to the testimony of an eye-witness relayed to him through the witnesses’ son.
 
As well as the absence of the rats and the reluctance of the townspeople to pay the piper’s fee, there is nothing ‘pied’ about the piper in Heinrich’s version of events, and no children returned. By the mid-1550s, though, an account written in Bamberg elaborated the story with such details as the threat of the piper to return in three hundred years and take more children away and the return of two naked children, one blind and one mute. Another account from around the same period identifies the piper as the devil and the fate of the children a result of God’s retribution for human sin. The return of the one lame child seems to appear first in the English translation made by Richard Verstegan in 1605.
 
The detail of the rat plague is first heard of in the Swabian Zimmer Chronicle of 1565. However, it is known that by this time there were other legends involving rat and mouse-catchers attached to other parts of Europe and it may be that these became mixed with the basic Hamelin story. By whatever and various ways the story evolved, it was already a popular item of print entertainment by the early seventeenth century and, in one version or another, continued to attract the interest of poets like Robert Browning (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, 1842) and of folklorists like the Brothers Grimm as well as carrying on a busy life in oral tradition, including a number of German folksongs.
 
This disturbing legend has attracted a good deal of scholarly speculation through the succeeding centuries. Some suggest the legend is derived from the eastward migrations of young Germanic peoples during the thirteenth century. Others relate the story to the disastrous Children’s Crusade in which many children left their homes, never to return. There are also suggestions that the story is related to the medieval dance epidemic known as ‘St John’s Dance’ or ‘St Vitus’ Dance’ or to a major bubonic plague outbreak. Others have looked to mythological and historical sources for enlightenment and explanation.
 
Whatever its source, the tale has been continually in oral tradition and, later, in literature, theatre, children’s books, advertising, cartoons, political propaganda, films and, of course, in the tourism industry of the city of Hamelin. The many-faceted legend of the Pied Piper is largely due to the ambiguity of the piper’s character, both good and evil, and the ingratitude and stupidity of the burghers of Weser. As well as all the other many uses to which the tradition has been put, in the end it is perhaps primarily an appealing moral tale about just rewards (‘you must pay the piper’s fee’) and being careful about which processions you follow.
 
 

From Graham Seal and Kim Kennedy-White, Folk Heroes and Heroines Around the World