When 20-year old John Guard got nicked for stealing a quilt in 1813, he became one of 165,000 mostly illiterate English convicts whose punishment was a one-way ticket to Australia.
He was a young man in an era of Britain’s colonial and naval superiority, when the industrial revolution had displaced a great many workers and artisans. The underbelly of England, so meticulously chronicled in the writings of Charles Dickens, was a place of sweat-shops and child labour, grinding poverty and filthy living conditions, leading to an explosion in petty crime. By the 1770s, 222 felonies—many of them trivial—carried a death penalty. But lawmakers became increasingly uncomfortable with the gallows and began to seek more “humane” alternatives—they settled on sending felons to penal colonies like New South Wales.
However, overcrowding in prisons meant that those awaiting dispatch were regularly consigned to hulks—dank floating dungeons. One inmate described his lot:
“We Rise at 5 in the Morning, Breackfast at Six. All our Boats is Manned and all away by Seven. Our gang Convicts Twenty men are Guard by 7 Soldiers… We are Emploid in Drawing Large Stones and Unloading Vessels. Our Food is very Bad. We neer have any Fire. Our Shirts is very Damp so is our Rugan and Blankets. we are Allowed only 1d of soap Per week to wash our Stocking Hanchife and Skin. they allow no Coffee no Tea no Sugar no Butter no Greens no Potates. We get but Little Water and that we Pay one Penny Per Week. Six in my mess washed our SElves this morning only one Qt water. that is all Alowed us.. I have Six Pound of Iron on my Leg.”
Guard, who had been sentenced to seven years in the colony, spent the first part of his sentence waiting for transportation in the Newgate hulk on the River Thames. Eighteen months later he boarded the Indefatigable, a square-rigged three-master of 549 tonnes, joining another 199 convicts chained below decks. Conditions were harrowing. Fleas, lice, vermin, a pitiful lack of food and diseases like typhus, typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea made these interminable voyages perilous, as a number of accounts attest. In 1799, an outbreak of typhoid killed 95 of 300 convicts on the Hillsborough. Chaplain Richard Johnson recalled boarding the Surprize in Sydney, and seeing convicts, “without either bed or bedding, unable to turn or help themselves… the smell was so offensive that I could scarcely bear it… Upon their being brought up to the clean air some fainted, some died upon the deck, and others in the boat before they reached the shore… Some creeped upon their hands and knees, and some were carried upon the back of others.” Captain William Hill wrote later, “The slave trade is merciful compared with what I have seen on this fleet…”
But only two lives were lost on this particular voyage and Guard soon found himself assigned to Windsor, 50 km north-west of Sydney, which many regarded as the end of civilization. Wearing the distinctive chequered yellow and dark grey convict uniform, he broke rocks, felled trees and hoisted timber in the hottest place he didn’t know existed, for six days a week. Fortunately, this God-fearing colony observed His word from Exodus; “the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD the God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” For his labours, he would be lucky to receive the weekly minimum rations of 1.8 kg of salt pork with 9.5 kg of wheat with vegetables.
Punishment was severe. Insolence, disobedience, even murmuring could attract 300 lashes. As in England, convicts were flogged in public. Joseph Holt describes such a flogging in 1804; “The day was windy, and I protest, that although I was at least fifteen yards to leeward from the sufferers, the blood, skin, and flesh blew in my face as the executioners shook it off from the cats.” Serious offences, such as attempting escape, were punishable by hanging. Despite that, by the time Guard was released in 1820, around 10 per cent of his fellow convicts had already absconded.
Now Guard had to earn a living. Those who had been emancipated were encouraged to cultivate their own 30 acres, gifted by the government, but like many of them, Guard declined the offer. Such a small block of land was seen as uneconomical as much of the 90 tonnes of merino wool Australia exported to England in 1821–an export market responsible for most of Australia’s prosperity at the time–was grown on considerably larger estates. He could have returned to stone cutting, his occupation in England; but no, Guard fancied trying his luck on sealing and whaling vessels at Port Jackson.
Guard flourished at sea. By the mid-1820s, with ruddy face and black beard, John Guard the stonecutter became Captain Jacky, the sealer. He was strong enough, it was claimed, to have picked up a couple of crew by the scruff of the neck and simultaneously thrown them overboard. And from his first command, the barque Harriet, he made some tough calls. While sealing in the Auckland Islands, he met two escaped convicts, John Wilson and Mark Shaw. They had been rescued from their open boat by another sealing vessel, Sally, but quit the boat in favour of Harriet. As Guard was leaving the Aucklands, he discovered a rich seal rookery, and possibly to avoid the risk of Wilson and Shaw blabbing about it in the grogshops of Sydney, he abandoned them there. After months of eating only seal meat, Wilson died, but Shaw was rescued six months later, in April 1825, to tell the tale. In any case, seal numbers had declined sharply about this time and Guard had turned his attention turned to whales.
Two lucky breaks changed his fortunes significantly. The first came in 1827, when a blistering Cook Strait gale forced him to seek shelter in an uncharted inlet. There he found today’s Tory Channel, in the Marlborough Sounds, complete with natural shelter, fresh water, flat land and easy access to the whale highway in nearby Cook Strait. He wasted little time in establishing New Zealand’s first shore whaling station at Te Awaiti. But it didn’t all go his way. At times, his men’s diet was reduced to just whale meat and wild turnips, and they were regularly harassed by Maori, who torched their dwellings and threatened their lives.
The second break came in 1829, just after he became part owner and master of the Waterloo, a 66-ton schooner that employed 10 crewmen. It was anchored overnight in what is now Port Underwood, east of Picton, when Guard was woken with the boat shaking violently. He dashed on deck, dropped a lead-line, only to find the boat in seven fathoms (12.6 m).
He returned to bed only to feel the shaking begin again. Searching around the vessel, he found a right whale and calf rubbing barnacles off themselves on the anchor chain. The following morning, he saw seven whales and calves leave the bay. It was almost too good to believe. With financial assistance from Sydney, he established another shore-whaling station at Kakapo Bay, and commuted between there and Te Awaiti for several years. Guard delivered 2,300 litres of whale oil to Sydney in February 1830, the first time whale oil had been exported from New Zealand.
But the 1830s were also one of the bloodiest periods in the South Island’s Maori history. Te Rauparaha had been driven from Kawhia by Waikato, and was now mounting sorties from Kapiti Island. Armed with muskets, his people had already slaughtered, eaten or imprisoned most Maori in the Marlborough Sounds, and seized their lands.
Now he turned his sights on Ngai Tahu farther south, and often stopped off at Te Awaiti or Kakapo Bay en route. James Heberley witnessed Te Rauparaha’s 2000 triumphant warriors returning from Kaiapoi with 500 prisoners in May 1830, seeing “sixty or seventy canoes, the bow of each of which was decorated with dead men’s hands and heads… Te Rauparaha would send a party of slaves… to the bush to cut firewood and make a [hangi]… When everything was ready the chief despatched with his tomahawk the slaves who had fetched the wood and prepared the oven, and the remainder of the slaves were required to cook the bodies of their friends and serve up the joints in baskets.”
But Guard was on reasonable terms with Te Rauparaha and continued to live at Kakapo Bay. In October he took ten tonnes of flax to Sydney, where he married Elizabeth (Betty) Parker. When she arrived at Te Awaiti in November 1830, she was the first European woman in the South Island. Their first son John–the first Pakeha child to be born in the South Island–arrived on 1 October, 1831.
In a magazine interview in his later years, John remembered a telling confrontation between his father and Te Rauparaha. “Rauparaha stole a sheep, for which Captain Guard reproached him and called him a thief. At this, the old chief was furious, and brandishing a tomahawk, menaced his host with it. The Captain…drawing a line on the sand with the cutlass…informed Rauparaha that if he crossed that line he would shoot him dead. On this, Rauparaha, who was naked as the day he was born, retreated for a short distance and then ran towards the old skipper, bounding in the air, brandishing his tomahawk and foaming at the mouth like a boar. When he came to the line, however, he stopped dead. Several times he repeated this manoeuvre without going any farther.” Eventually, the heat dissipated and they became firm friends.
Regular threats from Ngai Tahu forced the Guards to seek refuge under Te Rauparaha on Kapiti Island for five weeks in 1831-32, but it was in 1833 that the residents of Kakapo Bay almost lost their lives.
The whaling season, between May and October, had been a good one. On 9 September, the Waterloo sailed for Sydney with 240 tonnes of whale oil under Captain Hall. Hall returned to Kakapo Bay in the middle of October to tell Guard that the Waterloo had been wrecked at Waikanae Beach. He said Maori had pillaged it, burnt the hull, and were about to kill all the crew when a friendly chief intervened to save them.
With no fresh supplies, the residents of Kakapo Bay lived on potatoes, fish, and their nerves. A Ngai Tahu raid was expected at any time. With muskets loaded, lookouts posted, and frequent false alarms, they lived in fear for several months. Finally, in January the following year, the Hind arrived with fresh supplies and, more importantly, a means of escape. By the time Ngai Tahu raided Port Underwood they were safely in Sydney. A witness reported later that every station was completely annihilated. One of the Europeans taken hostage was Guard’s younger brother, Charles, who was later ransomed for muskets and tobacco. Yet this incident would pale in comparison with the fiasco that occurred after the Guard’s returned from Australia later that year.
Cape Egmont’s “bold shore”, as James Cook called it, wrecked its first European ship during a gale on 29 April 1834. Those aboard Guard’s Harriet Captain Jacky, Betty, their two children, John (two years old) and Louisa (6 months old), Guard’s whaling gang,Captain Hall and the 25 crew—all made it safely to shore near Okahu Stream. They managed to salvage 10 muskets and gun-powder from the wreck. Two weeks later, Ngati Ruanui and Taranaki attacked, and their meagre weapons proved futile against the 200-strong force.
Guard told officials later, “They struck one of the crew on the head with a tomahawk, and then cut him right in two. Another, named Thomas White, they cut down, and then cut his legs off by the joints of the knees and hips… We engaged them nearly an hour, and we lost altogether twelve men.”
Attackers tomahawked Betty Guard’s head and it is believed her bulky whalebone comb, the teeth of which remained embedded in her skull for the rest of her life, saved her by deflecting the blows. A Taranaki chief, Oaoiti, protected her and her children for the next five months as ransom goods. Guard and 13 others escaped north, “firing as we went” only to end up as prisoners, then slaves, of the Taranaki at Moturoa (New Plymouth). Guard claimed they “offered us some of our own people’s flesh to eat.” Betty, too, was offered joints of her half-brother.
In the first confrontation that led to this kidnap, a heavy whalebone comb deflected the tomahawk blows to Betty Guard’s head, saving her life but leaving its teeth permanently embedded in her skull.
Two weeks later, when Maori told Guard of an open boat that remained at the wreck site, he proposed “to allow us to go in the boat, promising to return with a cask of powder in payment for it.” They agreed, fetched the boat, and Guard’s crew spent a month repairing it with only a hammer, pocket knife, and a few nails. On 20 June, Guard, a Harriet crew member and four Maori set off for Port Underwood. The other prisoners, including Charles Guard, remained as ransom.
A week later, after being robbed of everything including their oars, they arrived at Port Underwood. Captain Sinclair, of Mary Anne, lent Guard a boat to get to Wellington and some goods with which to pay the ransom. In Wellington, Captain Morris of the Sydney-bound schooner Joseph Weller, agreed to secure the prisoners at Moturoa en-route. But the wind prevented landing there and Guard was obliged to travel on to Sydney. Once there, he began to reformulate his rescue plan.
Appealing to the New South Wales government for help, he told the Executive Council, “I believe if a ship-of-war were to go there, and a few soldiers landed, they could be got without ransom.” Just over a week later, two man-o’-war set sail on what was to be the first British military engagement with Maori: H.M.S. Alligator with Captain Lambert, Lieutenant Gunton, 25 rank and file of the 50th Regiment, plus Guard and his men; and the colonial schooner Isabella with Captain Johnson, Ensign Wright and 40 rank and file. Lambert’s orders from Governor Bourke said, “If the restoration of the prisoners should not be accomplished by amicable means, the Council recommend that force should be employed to effect it.”
The interpreter, Mr Battersbey, and the ships pilot, Mr Miller, landed at Te Namu pa (Opunake) on 12 September to demand the release of Betty and her two children. Bad weather forced both ships to seek shelter in the Marlborough Sounds until the 20th but they returned on the 16th and managed to pick up the two negotiators. Fearing for their lives, the pair had made extravagant ransom promises, despite the no-ransom policy assured to the New South Wales government.
On 21 September at Moturoa, a peaceful exchange was made for the four Maori who had accompanied Guard when he left three months previously, and the eight prisoners from the Harriet. While there, the surgeon on the Alligator, William Marshall, asked Guard how he planned to civilise Maori in the absence of Christianity. As Marshall noted in his book, Two Visits to New Zealand, he was alarmed by Guard’s reply; “Shoot them to be sure! A musket ball for every New Zealander is the only way of civilizing their country!” Marshall observed, “the reply [was] made in serious earnestness and a tone of…determination” and he was concerned, “that upon the uncorroborated testimony of such a man, an expedition was fitted out against New Zealand, likely to be fraught with disastrous consequences.”
Hearing that Betty and the two children were now at Te Namu, Guard and his men supported by 30 military personnel went ashore there on 28 September. Oaoiti met them, expecting to hand over the captives on payment of the promised ransom made by the two negotiators. Instead, Guard and his men seized him, bundled him into a boat and onto the Alligator. Marshall attended him and found, “ten [wounds] inflicted by the point and edge of the bayonet over his head and face, one in his left breast…intended to [be] a mortal thrust; and another in the leg.” Seeing what happened, Maori fled Te Namu with the captives and made for Ngateko and Orangituapeka pas, known collectively as Waimate Pa, at the mouth of the Kapuni River, 30 km south. Two military parties immediately gave chase, unsuccessfully. The English spent that rainy night in Te Namu before torching it the following morning.
Two days later, both ships were anchored off Waimate pa. Boats were sent in to negotiate but a friendly Maori welcome soon turned threatening. The English retreated, but not before landing a Maori who had voluntarily boarded Alligator at Te Namu. This was fortunate as he could report that Oaoiti was still alive and the Maori reconsidered their plans to kill the captive Guards in retribution.
After lengthy debate, they decided to trade Betty and Louisa Guard for Oaoiti, and the exchange was made without incident the following day. Later, however, during negotiations for the return of Guard’s son, the Alligator was fired at by Maori. Lambert now ditched his “amicable means” of rescuing the boy and resorted to the Executive Council’s recommendation that “force should be employed.” Both vessels were manoeuvred as close to shore as possible and discharged 306 round, grape, and case shot. Marshall observed that at one time, “A…native…held up…the little captive boy, while…he repeatedly waved the white flag.” But the bombardment continued for three hours, reducing Waimate to matchwood and killing one person.
It was a hard act to follow but after sheltering from bad weather in the Marlborough Sounds for another week, Lambert prepared for the final showdown. On 8 October, six weeks into the operation, he landed a six-pound carronade, six officers, 112 men, including Guard and his whalers, each with 70 rounds and four days’ provisions. Maori approached almost immediately to announce the boy would arrive shortly. Marshall, who was onshore, witnessed a procession of six Maori returning the boy, who “appeared perfectly at his ease, seated astride the chief’s shoulders.” A moment later, “I beheld the youngster in one of the seamen’s arms…running…as fast as his legs would carry him.” For good reason. The English had cut the throat and shot the Maori carrying the boy.
Hoping to bring an end to hostilities, Maori returned Guard’s 2-year old son. But those who accompanied the boy were set upon and slaughtered by revenge-seeking Harriet crewmen abetted by British military.
At this juncture, as one of Guard’s men told the Sydney press later, “The crew of the Harriet, finding the child safe, now determined on having ample revenge on the murderers of their shipmates, and…we fired upon them; the soldiers on the hill, supposing that orders had been given for firing, commenced a discharge of musketry upon them.” Over the next few minutes, despite the English flying a flag of truce, they discharged 1890 musket balls, 50 musket flints, 140 pistol balls, and the carronade spent 36 Fynmore tubes and one barrel of gunpowder. The Maori scattered or fell. Marshall wrote, “Ensign Wright…hurried along the line, breathless with haste, and crying to the men at the top of his voice, to cease firing; for some time he was entirely disregarded, and not only generally disobeyed but, in some instances, laughed at; nor, until several dead bodies were seen stretched on the sands, could the united efforts of himself and the other officers put a stop to the frightful tide of slaughter.” Now that the boy was safe, the British torched Ngateko and Orangituapeka Pa, and reached Sydney on 14 November 1834, some six months after the Harriet had founded.
The Harriet Affair, as it came to be known, caused intense controversy. While the Sydney press said everybody from Governor Bourke to Lambert “are entitled to the highest praise”, James Busby, the official British Resident in New Zealand, called it “frontier chaos”. An 1837 Committee of the House of Commons condemned the use of excessive force.
Barley a month later in Sydney, having caught his breath, Captain Jacky had paired up with the owner/master of the Blackbird for a sealing venture. The enterprise started with a charter, which was to take William Colenso and New Zealand’s first printing press to Paihia for the Church Missionary Society. The Society was a strong critic of English behaviour in the Harriet affair and, on this 21-day crossing, the clergy thought Guard “most unpleasant”. The sealing enterprise sank as Blackbird returned to Sydney to repair damage sustained on the crossing. Meanwhile, the Sydney Times milked the Harriet affair and raised at least £38 on behalf of the Guards appealing “to all such as are blessed with hearts to commiserate such great and unparalleled distress.”
Grief revisited the Guards in 1835 with the death of their one-year-old daughter, Louisa, but later that year, Betty gave birth to their second son, Thomas. By March 1836, they were back in their home at Kakapo Bay. Edward Wakefield visited them and describes in his book, Adventure in New Zealand, a typical whalers house; “Composed of reeds and rushes woven over a wooden frame—or…a wattled hurdle made of supple-jack covered inside and out with clay, and the roof is thatched. A huge chimney nearly fills one end of the house—and generally swarms with natives, iron pots and kettles, favourite dogs, and joints of the whale’s backbone, which serve as stools…some fine hams, bacon, and fish [are] up the chimney. Bunks with neat curtains line…the sides of the house. A large deal table and two long benches stand in the middle of the hard earthen floor. The rafter support spare coils of rope, oars, masts and sails, lances, spades and harpoons…Two square holes in the wall serve as windows, with wooden shutters for the night…The [houses have] great cleanliness and neatness.”
During the 1836 whaling season, the industry’s peak, Port Underwood had six shore-whaling stations, 80 boats and employed 500 men on the boats; generally escaped convicts, ex-convicts, pirates and adventurers from America, France, and Africa, who lubricated their hard work with hard liquor. Visiting in 1839, James Crawford wrote in his Recollections of Travel in New Zealand, “Arrack rum…must have been poisonous. Many deaths must have resulted from the use of it.” When Wesleyan missionary Reverend Samuel Ironside arrived at Kakapo Bay in Christmas 1839, he despaired. “There was no law; everyone appeared to do that which was right in his own eyes…drunken, wretched orgies…a most disgraceful state of things.” Despite this, Wakefield noted, whalers where unfailingly hospitable and a stranger, “was always welcome to a share of the meal, a drop of the grog, and a seat on a stool.”
But as whales numbers declined, so did the whalers, and Guard boiled his last whale in 1846. By that time, however, he had his mind on other things. With the entrepreneurial instinct that marked all his days Guard saw the new value in land and had set the wheels in motion some seven years earlier.
In 1839, Colonel Wakefield arrived in the Tory, sent by the New Zealand Company to purchase land for its intended settlement. He was looking around Pelorus Sound, named after the Pelorus exploration the previous year, for which Guard had been the pilot. The Tory employed him similarly. But this time the wily Guard pre-empted Wakefield, and with his business partner, James Wynen, paid £500 to Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata for 20 miles of land on each side of the sound. Then, as Wakefield sped to Wellington after hearing missionaries were negotiating to purchase Port Nicholson, Guard pre-empted him again by claiming to buy what is now the Petone flat, from Korokoro to the Hutt River, “for consideration [of] various services rendered”. Guard’s 1.2-million acres of land deals were dubious and Land Commissioner William Spain eventually disallowed his Port Nicholson purchase in the 1840s, while the Pelorus Sound claim lapsed in 1880. Yet Guard retained his purchases on the western shore of Port Underwood. In 1840, he witnessed the biggest land deal in New Zealand’s history.
Major Thomas Bunbury had only gathered 18 South Island signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi when the HMS Herald called into “Guards Cove.” But with Guard as host, and after some debate, he secured another nine signatures within 48 hours, and that was enough for him. The Herald’s log reads, “June 17. P.M. at 2. The island called Tavai Poenammoo or Middle Island of New Zealand… having been ceded in Sovereignty by the several Native Independent Chiefs…was accordingly taken possession of and formerly proclaimed.”
Two years later, the Wairau Plains were ready for settlement and an official party of 12, including future premiers William Fox, Alfred Domett and Edward Stafford, came looking for a port site. They visited the Guards and Port Underwood. Captain Frederick Moore wrote that they enjoyed a “capital dinner” of roast kid, goose, tongue, ham and “a good plum pudding”, washed down with bottled porter and brandy, and they slept under sails and blankets on the Guards’ earthen floor. However, in their 1848 report they favoured Waitohi (Picton); and said that while Port Underwood was excellent for shipping, the necessary road would be too expensive to build over the coastal rocks that were, “split and shattered into every variety of ruggedness”.
It was 101 years after John Guard died on 9 November 1857 that work finally began on the road. Betty had died on 16 July 1870, not before burying four of their eight children. They rest in a plot on family land at Kakapo Bay where their great grandson, John, and his wife, Narelle, still live today. He says, “I believe it’s the longest European land tenure in the South Island in the same family. I am honoured to live on the same property as my ancestors.” Even in 2007, with a road that’s unsuitable for caravans and a port superseded by Picton, Kakapo Bay still feels remote. When I ask John how he thinks Captain Jacky and Betty had slugged it out, he replies without hesitation: “Sheer guts and determination kept them here.”