180 years of solitude
For nearly two centuries, the origins of a Spanish whaler and trader who founded a dynasty on the east coast were a mystery. Manuel Jose’s descendants are New Zealand’s largest family, and have recently reunited with their Spanish relatives. This summer, the Spaniards journeyed to the east coast for the first time to connect with their Maori cousins, and with the culture that embraced their forebear.
It’s Boxing Day afternoon in Gisborne, and the atmosphere at the town’s small airport is alive with anticipation. Some 100 Maori are crowded into the terminal, where they hug, hongi, laugh, and find seats for the elderly. The excitement is palpable, but there’s nervous tension, too. Eyes keep watch on the runway, where the flight from Auckland is due to land.
On that flight will be a group of Spaniards from Segovia, coming to New Zealand for the first time to meet a huge Maori family they have accepted as relatives. The Spanish visit will give shape to a story that, according to east coast Maori who proudly call themselves the Paniora, or Spaniards, has been waiting 180 years to be fully told. It’s a detective story, but it’s also a story of the search for family, for connection, for belonging.
The story began when a tall, red-headed Spaniard appeared from the sea at Port Awanui, near Ruatoria, in the early 1830s.
Though the remote east coast port is completely deserted now, back then it was the site of a thriving Maori village. There were also the first stirrings of a European settlement to cater for occasional visits by whalers.
The Spaniard Manuel Jose was one of those early European visitors. Though there is no definite record of his arrival, there are later records of his existence, and oral histories abound about his dramatic entry into the community with whom he would make his home.
According to the colourful version told by Morehu Te Maro (known to everyone as Boyse), Manuel Jose arrived on a whaling ship, and was granted shore leave while it restocked. On the beach at Port Awanui, he saw Maori maidens gathering seafood in the nude. Entranced, he decided to stay. When he didn’t report back to the ship, his shipmates enlisted the help of the local British garrison to search for him.
“They searched high and low,” says Boyse, “but there was one place no gentleman was going to look. Manuel Jose was sheltering under the big hoop skirt of one of the local Maori women!”
According to the story, Manuel Jose hid beneath the women’s skirts for hours, until the ship left without him.
“Who wouldn’t want to stay after that experience?” asks Boyse.
The Paniora stories eulogise Manuel Jose as a particularly handsome and charming man. He would have needed that charm to survive on the east coast at that time, riven as it was by tribal conflict. Somehow, despite being unable to speak Maori—or, presumably, English—Manuel Jose managed not only to establish himself but also to flourish.
He was accepted by the local Ngati Porou tribe, married five of its women and became a successful trader. His five wives bore him eight children—not, you might think, a prolific number of offspring.
“Pretty pathetic, really,” says kaumatua Big John Manuel, one of Manuel Jose’s descendants. “I’d have done a lot better!”
But despite his limited progeny, Manuel Jose became the founder of a dynasty. In a tribute to enthusiastic breeding and exponential mathematics, his descendants now number around 14,000.
In 1980, the Te Araroa-based historian Bob McConnell and his wife, Vivienne (also one of Manuel Jose’s direct descendants), began the painstaking work of recording the whakapapa of the extended family. By 1990, they had registered 9000 family members. McConnell (84) says there are now at least 14,000 proven whanau members, making the Paniora New Zealand’s largest recorded family.
Manuel is likely to have come to the remote east coast settlement on a Peruvian-registered whaling ship, the Elizabeth, in 1833, according to McConnell.
“Family tradition has it that Manuel Jose named his eldest daughter after the ship he arrived on, and the ship’s log tells us that the Elizabeth had a crew member called Manuel,” he says.
For reasons that are unclear, no surname was ever recorded for Manuel Jose—they are both forenames in the Spanish tradition. In New Zealand, Manuel was adopted as the surname, and Jose became another collective noun to describe his descendants.
Although he won the respect of Ngati Porou, and had by 1850 become the leader among European traders on the east coast, the biography of Manuel Jose remains cloaked in mystery. With no surname, his descendants had no way of tracing their ancestor’s line, and that void in their family history was a source of pain and longing.
“Our whakapapa is what gives us identity, and roots us in our culture,” Manuel Jose descendant George Clarke told me. Sydney-based Clarke, tall and strong, with a booming voice and red hair, fits the description of his Spanish forebear well.
Despite the yawning hole in their whakapapa, or perhaps because of the mystery it entailed, Paniora have always been proud of their Spanish heritage. In 1981, they decided to stage a family reunion, to celebrate their Spanish blood. Photos in the commemorative book Ole Jose, produced by Vivienne and Bob McConnell, record an extraordinary event. Around 4000 family members flocked from all over New Zealand, and beyond, into the tiny east coast village of Tikitiki, two hours north of Gisborne, to take part in La fiesta de la decada—the party of the decade. Ten years later, they did it again.
As a Spanish-speaking journalist, I had heard about the east coast tribe who believed themselves descended from a mysterious Spaniard. I began to investigate, and the McConnells invited me to the third fiesta de la decada in 2001. When I went, I could barely believe my eyes.
Over a thousand people had gathered at the marae at Tikitiki to celebrate their Spanish ancestor. There was a cavalcade of horses, floats decorated with anything remotely Spanish, a running of the bulls (although the bullocks in question were more interested in ambling peacefully up the road), and—best of all—a ball where everyone dressed in Spanish costume.
The men wore black sombreros, white ruffled shirts and black waistcoats with red cummerbunds. The women were dressed in elaborate homemade creations based on Sevillian-style flamenco dresses, with strategically placed flowers. There were more frills and flounces than you’d find at a flamenco fair.
Sometimes, admittedly, there was a degree of confusion, and the idea of Spanish dress had been liberally interpreted. A few Peruvian ponchos and Mexican sombreros mixed with a tourist’s perspective of Spanish style, but this fiesta was not about orthodoxy. It was about joyfully celebrating what it is to have Spanish blood, about a huge whanau embracing difference, togetherness and the broadest possible idea of family.
This was a story that deserved to be told. Spanish colleagues and I managed to get funding for a documentary for Spanish television, and in 2005, I returned to the east coast with a film crew.
As we interviewed family members about Manuel Jose, we heard them lament again and again that they could not find out more about their ancestor.
“If only we had a surname,” said Vivienne McConnell then. “All we know is that Manuel Jose left Segovia, went to Peru and then came here. But without his surname, we can’t go any further. It’s so sad.”
It seemed Manuel Jose was destined to remain a mystery.
Everyone on the east coast agreed that Suey Maaka, Manuel Jose’s great-granddaughter and the kuia known to everyone as Aunty Suey, was the Paniora with the most knowledge of family history. She even remembered a few words of Spanish, though not necessarily what they meant.
“We had horses called Palomita and Golondrina,” she said. “I don’t know why we called them that!” (Palomita means little dove in Spanish, and a golondrina is a swallow.)
Yet one day, Aunty Suey brightened with a sudden memory. “My father said Manuel Jose was a Segovian man, and he came from Valverde.”
Valverde was a name that had endured in the family. One of Aunty Suey’s daughters bears the name, as does a family home in Te Araroa. But somehow, the significance of the name as a clue to their revered ancestor’s history had been lost.
Upon further investigation, however, we discovered that Valverde, which means green valley, is perhaps the most common name for a town in Spain. But luck was on our side—in the province of Segovia, there was only one town bearing that name.
Valverde del Majano is a small town of fewer than 1000 people, just 14 km from the ancient provincial capital, Segovia. It has just one church, which still contains the birth, death and baptismal records of everyone in the village for the past 200 years.
With the help of a local historian, Maria Teresa Llorente, my colleague Alvaro Toepke scoured the handwritten records.
If Manuel Jose had arrived in New Zealand in the 1830s and gone on to begin a family here, we guessed he must have been born between 1780 and 1820. Remarkably, given that Manuel is one of the most common names in Spain, in that wide arc of time only one Manuel had been born in the village, and he was the son of a Jose. Manuel Frutos Huerta was born in 1811. Could this be the Manuel Jose who emigrated to New Zealand?
Clearly, the evidence was flimsy and definitive proof was lacking. But the coincidence seemed felicitous enough to report back to my Paniora friends on the east coast.
I wasn’t prepared for the powerful surge of emotion the news generated. When I took the documentary, Beneath your Feet, to the east coast a few months later for its world premiere, the meeting house at Rangitukia was packed. There was jubilation, tears of joy, and little doubt in anyone’s mind that Manuel Jose’s origins had been found.
Connie Katae died last year, but in 2006, at 93, she was the oldest of Manuel Jose’s living descendants. Wringing my hands with tears in her eyes, she said, “It’s him, it’s him. This is a great day. I didn’t ever think I’d see it. We’ve found him!”
It all made sense to the Paniora. Manuel Jose had presented himself as a Maori would. He was Manuel, son of Jose.
However, the certainty of the Paniora, who had been longing for more connection with their Spanish whanau for generations, was not initially matched by their cousins on the other side of the world.
Manuel Frutos Huerta left Valverde del Majano some time in the 1820s, presumably to seek his fortune. At that time, the Segovian region, famous for its fine fabrics, was going through an economic slump, and work was scarce. Whether Manuel had reasons other than economic for leaving is unknown, but his Spanish family had no idea what happened to him after he left the village. He became just another emigrant who disappeared into the wider world without trace.
The idea that Manuel Jose may have established a life as far from home as it is possible to travel seemed bizarre and improbable to the Spanish cousins.
Spanish children learn at school that if they were to dig a hole through the centre of the Earth, they would arrive (somewhat hot and bothered) in New Zealand. New Zealand is the exact antipodes of Spain—our two countries both joined and separated by geography—a fact that makes Manuel Jose’s story all the more poignant.
Santiago Ayuso is the great-great-grandson of Manuel Jose’s sister, Magdalena. Tall and strong, with a ready laugh and a flair for storytelling, he bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the Paniora men. As Ayuso overcame his initial surprise, he became more excited about the possibility of an unknown branch of the family in New Zealand.
In 2006, Beneath your Feet was screened in Valverde, and interest grew as villagers saw images of a strange, faraway place and brown-skinned people who may be their extended family.
In 2007, I organised for Valverde del Majano to host a group of Paniora. Seventeen Maori travelled to Spain to see for the first time the place their ancestor came from and to meet the people they believed were their long-lost cousins.
It was a moving and significant communion for everyone involved, and the visit was widely reported by Spanish media. They found the Paniora Maori exotic, and could not get enough of the story.
For the Mayor of Valverde, Rafael Casado, and his
council, the attention was rare. Suddenly, Valverde del Majano was featuring on television, radio and in every major newspaper. In the flush of excitement, a return visit to the east coast was promised, and the idea of a sister city relationship with Gisborne was mooted.
In Gisborne Airport, on Boxing Day 2010, the long-awaited visit of a delegation from Valverde del Majano was about to become a reality. From the moment they filed, red-eyed, into the terminal, the Spaniards were embraced with open arms by the Paniora. Despite the fact that none of the visitors had travelled outside Europe before, that only three spoke any English and that even fewer of the Maori spoke more than a few words of Spanish, the airport resounded with laughter, excitement and cries of “primo” (cousin).
Later, on a hot, still evening, the Maori pulled out all the stops to welcome their long-awaited visitors. Groaning tables of local delicacies and a suffusing human warmth set the tone for the visit. Despite their jetlag, the Spaniards rose to the occasion, singing enthusiastically and dancing the jota, a folk dance from the Castillian plains.
Marleina te Kanawa, an educationist from Raglan, responded by teaching the visitors Maori action songs, which they attempted with gusto, hands swirling and hips swaying. There was laughter, embraces, gesturing and communication that refused to be limited by language.
The east coast may be one of New Zealand’s most geographically remote and economically deprived areas, but it is also one of the regions most connected to Maori tradition. Ngati Porou hospitality and organisation are legendary, and the Spanish visitors were treated like royalty: driven about in fleets of vans, provided with sumptuous feasts at each marae they visited, showered with gifts and given a first-hand insight into the life their ancestor knew. The programme included sheep shearing, the laying down of a traditional hangi, and a visit to Manuel Jose’s memorial at Taumata.
The visit involved a huge feat of organisation for the small east coast–based committee who worked on it.
“There aren’t many of us left here on the coast,” says Annee Maaka, secretary of the Manuel Jose Committee. “A lot of our old people have gone, many of the younger ones aren’t involved, and the families who are here don’t have much money. But what we do have is spirit. We knew we could rely on the family to make it work.”
And work it did, the euphoria of connectedness growing visibly between the Spanish and the Maori.
The biggest family group amongst the Spanish contingent were the Gils. Siblings Carmen, Sagrario, Fuencisla and Nico and their nephew Alberto (at 29, the youngest of the group) were all descended from Manuel Jose’s sister Magdalena.
“We signed up for this trip the moment it was suggested,” said Carmen Gil. “We knew it would be unique and important, but we had no idea it would be so moving. The emotion and sense of family here is overwhelming. It’s a pity we can’t communicate better, but we all do as much as we can without language. That’s why song and dance are so important!”
Mayor Casado, his wife Juani and daughter Vanessa had come for a different reason. The mayor was here to sign a sister-city accord between Valverde and Gisborne at the historic Pokai marae, 15 km down a dirt road from Ruatoria.
Gisborne’s Maori-speaking mayor, Meng Foon, was proud that this was the first sister-city accord between New Zealand and Spain.
“Maori know that strength lies within families,” says Foon. “Having this formal relationship between two families, two peoples, brings us much closer together.”
The agreement covers a wide range of possible links between Gisborne and Valverde: cultural, social, economic and touristic, including a scholarship that will assist five to eight young people a year to study English in New Zealand and hopes of a similar commitment from Gisborne.
The mayor is optimistic about economic links, but recognises that tourism between the two towns is likely to provide the most activity.
Since the visit in 2007 launched the relationship, Valverde del Majano has been firmly on the radar of travelling Paniora. “It would be a rare month that we don’t get a visit from someone in the Paniora family,” said Casado, “and that will surely increase.”
The Spaniards brought with them a special gift: an elaborate family tree, filling in Manuel Jose’s Segovian family connections from his birth till the present. It’s a priceless taonga for the Paniora.
“This is unbelievable, huge,” said Ginger Walker (72) of Te Araroa. A direct descendant from the line of Manuel’s first wife, Tapita, Walker has the now-greying red hair, strong build and extroverted manner his whanau attribute to his Spanish heritage.
“They have restored our whakapapa. Manuel Jose’s legacy is still growing. It makes us so proud. Our family history is complete at last,” he said.
In the soft light at Pokai marae, Paniora Maori stood shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish. It was hard to tell which culture was which. Some of the Maori arguably looked more like the popular conception of a Spaniard—dark, with flashing eyes and high cheekbones—than did many of the Segovians, with their pallid winter complexions. (It was three degrees below zero when they left home.)
Manuel Jose’s descendants have long discussed the characteristics they inherited from their exotic ancestor. Aquiline noses, a fine brow, red hair (still a distinctive feature of some Maori Paniora), a delight in music and a love of horses (they are often called Ngati Kapoi, or the cowboy tribe) are all traits they attribute to their Spanish genes.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that these people are our family,” says Walker. “You just need to look at us, and at them. You can see it, you can feel it.”
Suey Maaka’s health is not good these days, but her family were determined that she wouldn’t miss out on something as momentous as the first visit by the Spanish family. Seated in her wheelchair, and adorned with an embroidered Spanish shawl, she was wheeled into Te Rahui marae at Tikitiki.
She immediately pointed to Santiago Ayuso, whom she had never met.
“I know that boy. Bring him here.”
She stroked Ayuso’s face, and said, “I know you. You’re my boy.”
“She recognises me,” said Ayuso, tears lining his face. “And I know her in some deep way too. She could be my aunt.”
If anyone had doubts about the veracity of the evidence that joins the Spaniards to this Maori whanau on the other side of the world, they were not voicing them. It would be easy enough to verify a genetic link between Manuel Jose’s family members in Spain and those in New Zealand through DNA testing, but no one in the family was suggesting that testing be done. There would be little to gain, and much to lose, if scientific testing showed that the family in Valverde and the Paniora were not, in fact, related.
As this visit progressed, the feeling of kinship built. It became increasingly clear that the strength of this connection lay not in any genetic link, but in what families on both sides of the world wanted, and needed, to believe. Both were searching for connection and belonging. Both were very willing to suspend any disbelief to enhance the warm bonds of family.
A mutual delight in being together was evident everywhere on the visit.
Santiago Ayuso told the Paniora at Pokai marae, “You welcomed our ancestor with so much love—and now you are doing the same to us. You were unknown to us just five years ago, but every day you become closer to our hearts.”
Keri Kaa, a UNESCO commissioner who lives in the east coast settlement of Rangitukia, has watched with interest the growing pride the local Paniora community take in their Spanish ancestor.
“Paniora consider their Spanish blood to be exotic. I think that’s because they think of Spain as a place that’s full of colour and romance, where everyone can dance and play the guitar. That’s not true, of course, but they have used their scant knowledge of their Spanish ancestry as a way of marking themselves out. It’s been a rallying point for the family; it brings them together.”
It’s an interesting observation, because, as Kaa explains, the same has not been true of other non-Maori ancestors.
“My father had an English grandfather called Carr, but we weren’t proud of him. We even changed our name to make it sound more Maori!”
Kaa believes that the Paniora don’t realise that they are creating new traditions, which are being adopted into the family’s culture.
One such tradition became clear on New Year’s Eve. All of the Spaniards and more than a hundred Maori gathered to celebrate at Te Araroa’s Hunting and Fishing Club.
Spanish tradition demands that, as midnight approaches, a gong must sound for each of the 12 seconds before the hour, and everyone must eat a grape at each strike. Grapes were transported from Gisborne, a large frying pan acted as the gong and the raucous countdown and grape-eating ceremony proceeded with due hilarity. The Maori watched and absorbed.
“You can bet we’ll be doing this every New Year from now on,” said Annee Maaka.
Later, the warm air filled with the sound of rhythmic clapping and stamping feet. A huge pair of bull horns was produced, and the Spaniards obliged with a caricature of a bullfight, to resounding cries of “Ole” from the appreciative crowd.
The bullfight and Spanish dancing merged seamlessly into a singsong with “La Bamba” and any chorus that featured “Ay ay ay” being particularly favoured. It was a cultural exchange at its most simple and powerful.
If the Paniora felt that they had at last had a chance to meet the family they had been missing for generations, for the Spanish, the visit involved rediscovery of family values that they felt their society had largely lost.
“Who amongst us knows their great-grandparents’ names?” asked Santiago Ayuso. “We were a very family-oriented people in the past, but modern life has destroyed that. Here, the Paniora have shown us what family really means. They’ve demonstrated a way of life that will change us forever.”
The visit demonstrated, too, that family is something that can transcend geography and culture—and is beyond rational analysis. The Maori Paniora and the Spaniards they welcomed as whanau are connected, because that is what they want and need.
“The circle has been joined,” said George Clarke. “We’re united as a family, and that will endure no matter what.”