Island of life and death

Goat reserve, Arapawa Island

Goat reserve, Arapawa Island

I was not especially enthusiastic about spending Wellington’s anniversary weekend on Arapawa Island. Arapawa is that piece of land you see on the right as you pass along Tory Channel on the interisland ferry, or on the left as you leave Picton. It always seemed to me a rather scrubby-looking place with plenty of burnt wind-swept gorse; and why, I thought, would you get out of Wellington in the summer to go to a place that has ‘Wellington weather’?

How wrong could I be. Without even mentioning the superb kai moana (scallops 20 metres off the beach, kahawai off the jetty and straight into the smoker, blue cod a bit further off) or the great company provided by my sister-in-law for her 60th birthday, or the fascinating bloke I met in the next bay, Mark Denize, I discovered that this was a place of powerful stories which went deep into New Zealand history.

Arapawa sheep

Arapawa sheep

The first concerned the very spot we were staying at – a reserve of 180 hectares which had been established to protect the Arapawa goats, sheep and pigs. This had been an initiative of an expatriate American, Betty Rowe. Tired of the Pennsylvania rat-race, she had dreamed of finding a deserted island in the South Pacific. At Arapawa she found it. Before long she had also befriended the local livestock, and when the Wildlife and Forest services decided to begin shooting all the introduced animals on the island to protect the indigenous flora and fauna, Betty went on the offensive. It turned out that the sheep, an extraordinary breed with dark brown self-shedding wool, were probably introduced by whalers; but the pigs and more especially the goats were descendants of animals left on the island by James Cook on his second voyage. The goats are thought to be the only survivors of the ancient breed of British goats. There is still a tacit war going on over the issue. Department of Conservation shooters sit outside the borders of the reserve shooting at roaming goats and pigs to protect the indigenous; while the trust cares for their ancient breeds.

The second story concerns Captain Cook himself. On his first voyage to New Zealand, Cook discovered a safe anchorage at Ship Cove and he came across to Arapawa to climb to a high point and first see the stretch of water, now known as Cook Strait. On his second voyage in 1773 he in the Resolution and his fellow commander Tobias Furneaux in the Adventure got separated while exploring further south for the fabled continent. Furneaux returned to Ship Cove and on a trip over to Arapawa Island at ‘Grass Cove,’ now known as Wharehunga Bay, 10 of his men were killed by followers of the local chief Kahura. Furneaux then headed home just before Cook returned to Ship Cove. Only later did Cook hear about the murders. So, on his third visit to Ship Cove in 1777, his crew expected Cook to enact summary justice on the Ngāti Kuia of Arapawa Island. Fearful of being caught in an intertribal conflict, Cook refused; so his men caught a local kurī (Polynesian dog), put it on trial for cannibalism, and burnt it at the stake. Anne Salmond, in her magnificent book The trial of the cannibal dog, interprets this as the moment when Cook lost the moral support of his crew – with fateful consequences later when he was killed in Hawaii.

The third story concerns one of the bays on the Tory Channel side – Te Awaiti. Here, in 1827, an ex-convict, Jackie Guard, set up the country’s first on-shore whaling station. There was plenty of killing on his beach. In 1834 Guard and his young bride Betty and their two children (the first Pākehā born in the South Island) headed back to Sydney but on the way home they were shipwrecked on the south Taranaki coast. Local Māori captured them and held them to ransom. Jacky was allowed to leave to collect the ransom of gunpowder. Instead he returned with a man-of-war, a schooner and about 50 soldiers from the 50th Regiment. Betty and her children were recaptured and the local iwi and their habitations were attacked and fire-bombed. It was the first military confrontation of British and Māori.

I had gone to Arapawa expecting a quiet weekend. What I uncovered was a place that told three engrossing and significant stories of bloodshed and death – but also of life.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Deb || February 10th, 2013

    Thanks for this blog about Arapawa. I visited there about 24 years ago and was able to catch blue cod off the rocks. It ruined me for fishing. The place was fascinating and I heard a few of the stories you did. It stuck in my mind vividly and when I started writing I used it as a touchstone for my first childrens book.

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