Michael Willis

Heritage in the gun

You find something, something old, something with a tale to tell. Who do you call?

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

“It’s the kind of beach where you find things,” says Dale Hedgcock. “Fishing floats, all kinds of things wash up. So I was always on the lookout.”

On this winter morning in 2021, the beach in question was a dull silver, misty and fraught with clouds of sandflies. Hedgcock picked his way to the waterline to hunt for pāua. Among the stony monochrome, a splash of orange caught his eye. It was unmistakably rust, and therefore an iron object. That piqued his interest. Flotsam was common enough, but this was no place for heavy, man-made objects. You could bet there would be a story behind any lump of iron you found in Taiari/Chalky Inlet.

Hedgcock called his brother-in-law, Mark Willis, over. They began removing the stones surrounding and covering the object. It was larger than they expected, and while it was heavily corroded, they recognised the shape that was emerging: It was a cannon. Once they had uncovered it, the pair heaved it on its end and let it wedge itself naturally between two boulders, where they judged it would be easy to find again. They were naturally pretty excited. There was going to be a story behind this, all right.

Though regularly visited by Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha coastal parties in earlier times, today Taiari/Chalky Inlet is as remote as anywhere in New Zealand, with access practical only by sea or by air. It is embraced by high mountains that are capped with snow most of the year round and heavily forested on their lower flanks.

Dale Hedgcock and his brother-in-law Mark Willis were looking for kōkako, pigs—and pāua for breakfast—when they discovered the cannon.

It was pigs, not treasure hunts or pāua breakfasts, that brought Hedgcock, Willis and their colleagues—all from Christchurch’s Willowbank Wildlife Reserve—to Taiari in June 2021. They were searching for a population of wild pigs in the area that, given the fiord’s isolation, may well be genetically distinct from others in the country. They were also chasing the grey ghost: previous searchers had sworn they heard the song of the South Island kōkako, thitherto presumed extinct.

Sitting around their campfire that evening, the men speculated on the origins of the cannon. Inevitably, they connected it to an intriguing find they had made on their previous expedition, three months before. Not far from where they sat, they had found a small cave in the cliffs—and, on a stone wall just inside the entrance, a partially-complete inscription apparently executed in charcoal. There was a drawing of a three-masted sailing ship and, underneath, a date and a list of names, which were just about decipherable. The date definitely began with the digits 18—, and what followed may have been a one, or a seven or a nine. At the time, they had wondered whether this was a castaway camp.

The cannon bolstered that shipwreck theory. To the men around the fire, it seemed more likely than ever that the cave was indeed the refuge of some group of hapless souls who had fetched up here in the early days of European contact.

Conversation turned to what they should do about their potentially significant discovery. None of the group had any clear idea about their obligations.

When the helicopters arrived to take them out of Taiari, Hedgcock and Willis told the pilots of their find, but swore them to secrecy. “We didn’t want to be the guys responsible for some fisherman coming in and swiping the cannon,” as Hedgcock put it.

When they reached civilisation, they also told Mike Willis, Mark Willis’s dad and Hedgcock’s father-in-law and a founding director of Willowbank. He emailed Manatū Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage to notify it of the cannon and its whereabouts and received an automatic acknowledgement. Ten days later, he received an email suggesting he contact the Southland office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (HNZPT). He duly sent an email, but never received a reply.

Meanwhile, photographs of the cannon and the cave inscription were posted on Willowbank’s social media, and this caught the eye of journalist Susan Sandys from the Ashburton Guardian. A few days later, the Otago Daily Times also ran a story. Soon, Willowbank was receiving messages from all over the country: from media, from amateur shipwreck and maritime archaeology enthusiasts—and from John Lucas, operations manager of the Te Anau office of the Department of Conservation (DOC), who was in high dudgeon. “It was not,” as Mike Willis puts it, “a good conversation.” Lucas read him the riot act, citing the law regarding historic places and heritage artefacts. He accused Willowbank staff of violating the tapu of the cave—and, by revealing its location, placing it at risk of further desecration by fossickers and souvenir hunters. The cannon should not have been moved, Lucas said, and to have moved it was to have unlawfully disturbed a valuable archaeological site. There was more in the same vein.

Due to climate change ramping up storms and erosion, such finds are likely to become more common. On a previous trip the group had come across a nearby cave which features a drawing of a three-masted ship.

Mike Willis had not, at this point, seen the Otago Daily Times article, but once he tracked it down, he was confused. There was nothing in the story, so far as he could tell, that would assist anyone who wanted to try to find the cave, and he phoned Lucas to tell him so. DOC was not mollified. In early August, Lucas issued a press release entitled “Agencies encourage a ‘look, don’t touch’ policy for all heritage sites”, which likened places of archaeological interest to areas of conservation significance and warned against “advertising” their existence and location. In the wake of it, Willowbank’s social media sites began fielding accusations of cultural vandalism. “Even the helicopter pilots were grumpy with us,” Mike Willis says, “because we’d told them to keep [the find] quiet and they were copping it from DOC for not telling them.” It was as though he and his colleagues at Willowbank had blundered into a minefield.

“It all left a very bad taste in a lot of mouths.”

[Chapter Break]

There was indeed a story behind the cannon’s presence in Taiari, but it wasn’t the story Hedgcock and Mark Willis thought it might have been. Using a few well-chosen search terms, Susan Sandys soon found a historical newspaper article in the Papers Past archive that explained everything. It seemed the cannon was left on the beach by the crew of the steamer Star of the South in late 1865.

Star of the South was an English-built, 147-ton iron steamship. She had been on the New Zealand coast for only two years when she came to grief. She was a familiar sight in Dunedin, Napier and Auckland and “an erratic caller” at Wellington, carrying livestock at first, but then general cargoes. She was the first steamer to service Hokitika, no doubt drawn there by the boom that was occurring on the back of the gold rush.

When she sailed from Dunedin at 4.30pm on December 11, 1865, she was headed for Hokitika—she’d steam south, round the bottom of the island, then up the west coast. Her cargo ranged from lobster and beer to mining gear and an iron safe, and on board were 16 passengers besides her master, Captain Charles Hodge, and six crew. The weather was foul and she was twice forced to take shelter. On December 15, again retreating from rough conditions, she struck an uncharted rock just off the south-east point of Ōteauau/Great Island, the largest of a chain of islands that divides the entrance to Taiari. Finding she was taking on water at a rate that the pumps couldn’t match, Hodge steered her for a beach and grounded her. The passengers were put ashore and shelter was constructed for them, and work began on getting her cargo off so that she could be made lighter and run further up the beach for repairs. Their situation wasn’t desperate, but it wasn’t good, either: Taiari was uninhabited and very seldom visited. They might be stuck there for some time if they couldn’t attract the attention of any shipping that might be passing by along their own originally intended route.

Once the cargo was offloaded, the ship’s purser, William Gannon, volunteered to establish a lookout post close to the entrance to the sound. A passenger, Thomas Skinner, offered to keep him company, and the two men, camping gear and supplies were loaded aboard one of the ship’s boats. For attention-seeking purposes, the steamer’s signal gun was also swung into the boat.

Gannon, Skinner and the cannon were rowed for two hours to the small, stony beach at the foot of a headland near the entrance to Taiari. The following day, they battled their way to high ground, where they planted a spar from which an upside-down ensign flew—a symbol of distress. “By the difficulty they had ascended and descended the hill,” the newspapers later reported, “they also ascertained that to carry to the summit the cannon they had brought with them as a signal gun was out of the question.” The cannon then dropped out of the historical record, presumably abandoned on the beach, to be dragged below the high-water mark by wave action for Hedgcock and Mark Willis to find a century and a half later.

Skinner and Gannon had endured bad weather and catastrophically voracious sandflies for six days when they spied a steamer making directly for them. So deliberate was its approach that, at first, they thought Star of the South must have been refloated. But as she drew near, they found she was William Miskin—with Captain Hodge waving cheerily from the afterdeck. William Miskin had also put into Taiari because of the bad weather, and soon stumbled upon the beached Star of the South and her castaway complement. Upon hearing their story, Captain Hepburn wasted no time in taking Hodge aboard and steaming to the relief of the lookout crew.

So, far from being a story of protracted survival, privation, perhaps even lonesome death on a desert shore, the story of the cannon of Star of the South was relatively prosaic. All hands were rescued. The cargo was all water damaged: some was written off, some was auctioned. The steamer herself was sold for £2600 to a salvor, who succeeded in refloating her and putting her back into service.

When found in 2021, the cannon was heavily rusted, but could be expected to survive almost indefinitely as long as it was submerged and buried. But the fact that it was exposed in the inter-tidal zone meant that it would deteriorate rapidly unless recovered and conserved. Members of two amateur maritime heritage groups—the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group and the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand—offered to assist with both the retrieval and the conservation of the cannon. The offer included free use of a helicopter.

Dale Hedgcock was keen to remain involved and volunteered to personally direct a retrieval party to the spot, especially after DOC personnel who visited the area late in 2021 reported that the cannon could no longer be seen. But DOC, which had assumed control, declined all such offers of assistance. In March 2022, a small group of DOC and HNZPT personnel flew in and, using Hedgcock’s detailed instructions, located and retrieved the cannon. It was taken first to Te Anau, where its condition was assessed. Then it was transported to Wellington, where it is to undergo conservation.

[Chapter Break]

So much for the cannon. It turns out it was the cave that touched such a tender nerve in official circles, because not only does it contain the sailing ship drawing and list of names—almost certainly left by sealers during a spell of occupation in the early 19th century—it also contains rock drawings made by Māori, either before contact with Europeans or soon afterward. Both sets of inscriptions were noted in an archaeological survey carried out in the 1980s, after which it was assigned a New Zealand Historic Places Trust category A rating, the highest level of significance.

There are a number of such sites: Māori frequently visited and periodically lived in Taiari, and in the wider vicinity of Te Rua-o-te-Moko/Fiordland, dating all the way back to famous early explorers. Heritage here encompasses both archaeological evidence and oral histories embedded in landscape features and names. The ancestor Tamatea Pokai Whenua got a drenching at the entrance to Taiari, and laid out his clothes to dry on the island known as Te Kākahu-o-Tamatea (Tamatea’s clothes; Chalky Island). Further up the fiord, the great navigator Māui leapt ashore at Te Tapuwae-o-Māui (Māui’s footstep; Divide Head) and slipped over—creating Moana-whenua-pōuri (Edwardson Sound) and Te Korowhakaunu (Cunaris Sound). Visits to the region to gather resources such as kākāpō and takiwai (a type of pounamu) were common in pre-European times. Today, Ngāi Tahu’s southern rūnanga are kaitiaki of these histories, while Ngāi Tahu fishermen working the southern coast keep day-to-day connections alive.

Captain James Cook was the first European known to have visited (or, at least, sailed past: contrary winds meant he didn’t dare enter, but he named Taiari “Chalky Inlet” for the distinctive white rock of its islets and cliffs). Taiari was later a hotspot in the sealing trade. Gangs of men would be set ashore, often for months at a time, to hunt New Zealand fur seals. These gangs often left mementoes of their stay, such as the cave drawing in this story. There was plenty of interaction between European sealers and Māori in the vicinity, ranging from marriages and alliances through to the shedding of blood.

By the middle of the 19th century, with seals and whales all but hunted out, the whaling station at neighbouring Preservation Inlet was abandoned; rumours of gold proved false and Europeans found fewer and fewer reasons to visit Taiari.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the first of several archaeological studies to comprehensively record the sites that told of this rich history was mounted. Most have since been documented. True to their word, DOC and HNZPT don’t broadcast their existence. But fishermen and hunters who frequent the area know them and may well know of others—not that they will let on. As the Willowbank group can attest, official reaction to any suggestion that a site has been approached or tampered with has tended to discourage the sharing of information.

Of course, there are reasons for official sensitivity. There is a long and ignominious history of interference with heritage sites, including wāhi tapu. Perhaps the most infamous example was the exploration of Mary Island in Southland’s Lake Hauroko in 1967 by outdoorsman and amateur historian John Hall-Jones. In a burial cave on the island’s eastern side, Hall-Jones disturbed the remains of a Ngāti Māmoe woman (known locally these days as “the Lady of the Lake”) who had been ceremonially interred in an exquisite cloak. He published descriptions, including measurements of her bones, in a book that featured a photograph on the cover. This was offensive to local Ngāi Tahu, and alarming: it was feared that the publicity would lead to unwanted attention. A steel grille was placed over the entrance to the cave to prevent fossicking and pilfering.

Archaeologist and distinguished scholar Professor Atholl Anderson (Ngāi Tahu) is unapologetic for the code of silence over the existence and location of wāhi tapu. Speaking on behalf of Te Kaitiaki Rōpū o Murihiku, the body that represents the four Ngāi Tahu rūnanga with mana whenua status in Taiari, he says this is maintained at the request of iwi authorities. “DOC has a major focus on wildlife and ecology, with fewer resources devoted to heritage concerns. Heritage New Zealand is largely ineffective on the ground. Museums have no spare capacity, and local bodies have no active programmes of mitigation as opposed to recording. The problem [of managing access to sites of heritage significance to Māori] falls, consequently, to local Māori rūnanga.”

In the absence of any effective tools to manage public interaction with vulnerable sites, rūnanga have chosen to keep information, as far as possible, under wraps. The 1983 survey of the Taiari cave noted that there was evidence that some minor fossicking had already taken place. Rumours abound that local tourist operators used to take curious punters to the site, with no real assurance that their curiosity was kept within proper bounds. The fear that the wrong kind of attention might be drawn to the cave by publicising its whereabouts is fully justified.

[Chapter Break]

Official caution is one thing. Official disdain for amateur engagement, and the tendency to assume bad faith in the general public’s interest in heritage sites and artefacts, is quite another. Internationally, there is a stark divide between governments officially entrusted with the preservation of heritage and “treasure hunters” interested in exploring it. Shipwrecks have an enduring fascination. Even when they do not contain actual treasure, they can be rich in archaeological significance: quite apart from their own stories and the stories of those who perished or survived in them, they can be time capsules of their era. For this reason, there are whole suites of legislation designed to protect them. In New Zealand, any wreck that predates 1900 is automatically designated a heritage site, and any modification without the necessary permissions or supervision is prohibited. Plenty of “unauthorised modification” of wreck sites has gone on down the years, and still goes on, which has cast wreck divers as cowboy souvenir hunters and cultural philistines.

The trouble is, much (if not most) of the technical expertise and equipment required for the highly specialised work of locating and exploring sunken wrecks is in private hands. Arguably only the Navy has capacity in this regard, and poking about wreck sites is hardly its core business. Hence, most of what we know of New Zealand’s underwater heritage has been gleaned by amateurs, deploying their own money and manpower and shouldering the financial and physical risks involved in underwater exploration. (The driving motivation, as it has been for amateur naturalists, citizen scientists and self-motivated explorers since time immemorial, is good old-fashioned human curiosity, together with an addiction to the thrill of discovery.)

Jack Fry, aged 90, is New Zealand’s acknowledged expert in maritime artefact conservation and will be working on the cannon.

Pulling in the opposite direction are those with a professional stake in our heritage: academics and government heritage workers who are (quite rightly) anxious to ensure that any interference with historical sites and artefacts is done properly. The prevailing attitude among dedicated wreck divers is that once alerted to a wreck, the authorities will take control and shut down exploration.

The tug-of-war involved is illustrated by the experience of those who took part in the recent discovery, documentation and identification of SS Ventnor off the west coast of Northland. A sophisticated, wholly privately funded and operated expedition used side-scan sonar and magnetometer technology to locate a candidate wreck. A remote-operated vehicle was used to conduct a video examination, which seemed to confirm the vessel’s identity. This was then explored by “technical” divers, using the specialised, mixed-gas technology required to reach the great depths involved. The divers captured video and retrieved artefacts and thus were able to confirm that the wreck was indeed Ventnor.

When she sank, Ventnor was carrying the exhumed remains of around 500 Chinese miners that were being repatriated to be laid to rest. While the expedition took care to involve Chinese interests in their project, alongside Māori— because some of the human remains that washed up on the Northland coast were cared for and buried by Te Rarawa in their urupā—the crew had neglected to consult the New Zealand Chinese Association. It heard of the expedition’s activities from locals, and approached HNZPT with allegations that Ventnor had been found and was being pillaged by divers. The official response was swift and hostile. Although Ventnor sank in 1902 and was therefore not subject to automatic protection, the wreck was gazetted as a heritage site, effectively preventing further “modification”. It was the first time such a measure had ever been taken. The misinformation and mutual suspicion were eventually ironed out and the orderly exploration of the site was able to resume, but the episode left, in Mike Willis’s terms, a very bad taste in a lot of mouths. The danger is that similar private expeditions will be conducted on the quiet in the future, in order to avoid official sanction. And, meanwhile, the effort to explore, conserve and document our heritage stands to suffer for the lack of official willingness to exploit the enthusiasm, expertise and resources in the private sector.

The Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand marine artefacts conservation lab is onboard Wellington’s floating crane, Hikitia. The weight of the cannon was a golden opportunity for trainee operators needing hands-on experience with the lifting gear.

Inadvertent discovery of heritage sites or artefacts is rare, but it does happen. And due to sea-level rise and extreme weather events associated with climate change, it’s likely to happen more often. Quite apart from those actively looking for heritage artefacts (such as wreck divers and researchers, for whom new technologies are opening up fresh frontiers all the time), anyone walking along a beach or riverbank might well stumble across an item of historical importance. Things that have long been buried are more likely than ever to be uncovered or washed up. Should you be the person who stumbles across such an item, what you do next is not necessarily common knowledge.

Vanessa Tanner, manager of archaeology at HNZPT, urges anyone who finds something of potential significance to photograph it, note its location and report it. HNZPT is a good first port of call, regardless of whether the find seems to be associated with Māori or Pākehā heritage. Māori have a special affinity for their taonga: artefacts have their own spiritual significance—their own mana—that is intrinsically bound up with the mana and identity of the people themselves. It is therefore for Māori to decide how such items should be handled. HNZPT can quickly link finds with those under whose rohe they fall. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage will also deal with taonga tūturu (protected objects that whakapapa to te ao Māori and embody mana, tapu, and mauri) but has no jurisdiction over items of European heritage.

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While Pākehā artefacts—a 19th-century cannon, say—may or may not have a spiritual dimension, their significance arises from their ability to tell, or at least contribute to, our greater story. It is vital, for the extent of this contribution to be fully realised, that the archaeological context in which an item is located is preserved, not to be disturbed apart from by trained archaeologists. After all, an artefact whose provenance has not been recorded is little more than an ornament.

Maritime heritage is far more fraught. The legislative framework for dealing with shipwrecks and their cargo was demolished in the 1990s, in anticipation that new measures guided by international law would replace it. So far, this hasn’t happened. There are grey areas regarding the whole business of the salvage and clean-up of the aftermath of a wreck: for example, whereas once we had an officer known as the Receiver of Wrecks (the equivalent to an old British position), this office was abolished in 1999. Nothing has taken its place, and it is recommended that anything you might find relating to a shipwreck, unless it identifiably pre-dates 1900, should be handed over to the police. It would be worth trying this just to see their faces!

If history is our story, then heritage artefacts are syllables in which it is told. Now that we are, as a nation, becoming more comfortable with telling our story, there will likely be a renewed interest in our heritage items. Without a well-constructed and widely understood legal framework for the protection of heritage sites and artefacts, the danger is that natural human curiosity will give rise to the kind of gross cultural and archaeological insensitivity that the “Lady of the Lake” suffered. But in the absence of a more collegial attitude among officialdom —the kaitiaki of our heritage—amateur exploration will occur on the quiet, and finds such as the Taiari cannon will go unreported, to the detriment of heritage itself. We need to devise better ways of handling our taonga, and we need to ensure that we are united in our respect for them, and equally committed to cherishing them.

And what, you might ask, of the cannon? At the time of writing, it was about to undergo conservation treatment, ironically as it seems, by a volunteer member of the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand. Jack Fry, aged 90, is New Zealand’s acknowledged expert in metals conservation. Once he has worked on the cannon, it is expected to be returned to Te Anau to be put on public display.

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