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New Zealand's History Gets Personal.

Samuel Deighton, one of my eight great-grandparents, was the first colonist to step ashore from the ship Aurora at Wellington harbour, New Zealand, in January 1840, and after he did so, he shot a pigeon, we were told. That snippet of family oral tradition was all I knew. The record of everything else our ancestor did was lost.

About 30 years ago, my bookworm aunt Ruth MacLean began to look into early settler history books, held at the local library and museum, to see if Deighton was mentioned. She found a number of paragraphs detailing aspects of his life. She copied these by hand, researched Samuel's brothers who also sailed to New Zealand as colonists, collected birth, marriage and death certificates to produce 30 foolscap pages of notes.

When I showed an interest, about 27 years ago, Ruth offered to give me a copy. A few weeks later she provided a copy--30 handwritten pages. Her cousin Beryl Trewavas had a version of this typed up and published for the 1990 celebrations (marking 150 years of English settlement), as a collection of notes and photocopied photos, in a stapled-together book entitled "Samuel Deighton in New Zealand 1840-1900."

Perhaps I had a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations, and Deighton's story remained an unrecorded part of New Zealand history. So I decided to continue the research. In 2006 I visited National Archives in the capital city, Wellington, where I found 38 of Samuel Deighton's letters and other archived material, and to the Alexander Turnbull Library, there to find the reminiscences of his brother Richard Deighton, and several photos. A further 74 letters appeared during internet searches of the McLean papers, held at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Some of these digitised copies of handwritten letters were already transcribed; I transcribed the remainder.

The letters mean little without the context. I searched biographies to find out exactly who were Ihaka, Ropata, and "poor old Kopu", mentioned during Deighton's time in Wairoa. The next step is to find out what they were doing, and for that I went to James Cowan's History of the New Zealand Wars Volumes 1 and 2, and James Belich's The New Zealand Wars. Land history came from Alan Ward's Rangahaua Whanui Reports National Overview, commissioned by the Waitangi Tribunal, and other tribunal reports.

Since Samuel Deighton's letter record starts in 1859, and since Samuel and Richard had already been in New Zealand for 19 years, I researched numerous details of New Zealand Company activities in Fatal Success by Patricia Burns, and Adventure in New Zealand by Jerningham Wakefield in a bid to flesh out the scant details I had of the 1840-1859 years. Early settler history came from Old Whanganui by T.W. Downes, and Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa, by Thomas Lambert.

While researching this topic, I could imagine what a detective working on a cold case may feel like. Snippets of information could spark scenarios that would later be dismantled by details in printed accounts, found in a series of searches of the Papers Past archive of newspaper reports. The most-readily available material came from obituaries, which like numerous 19th century eulogies, read like Boy's Own Annual adventures. While some of this was evident in Deighton's letters, a different picture appeared as the letters were set into their historical context, revealing a story of perseverance and some unsung courage. Deighton helped create, and worked in, a disorganized colonial administration, faced arrogant British superiors, and encountered treachery from friends, both British and Maori.

If my book, The First Colonist, began as an attempt to rediscover the life of my great grandfather, Samuel Deighton, it developed into a 60-year overview of some key aspects of 19th century New Zealand history because he lived and worked in the hotspots of the sovereignty wars during the 1860s. He became an interpreter at Wanganui, for the court and for land surveyors. He became resident magistrate of Wairoa where he fought in the campaign against Pai Marire-Hauhau religious rebels, then the guerrilla fighter Te Kooti. He became magistrate and Native Land Court judge in the Chatham Islands, the home of the Moriori people, where he heard land claims and wrote the only dictionary of the Moriori language.

Little thought is given to the scale and boldness of the New Zealand Company scheme to colonize New Zealand. Colonisation, which has been pejoratively dubbed "colonialism," was a process whereby European nation states established colonies on other continents, mainly in the Americas, Oceania and Africa, to increase wealth, expand power, or propagate political or religious beliefs. The official colonisation of New Zealand started in 1839, quite late in the period of colonial expansion. The British Colonial Office was reluctant to take on the costs associated with maintaining yet another colony, but plans by the New Zealand Company to colonise the distant territory pushed the British government into annexing New Zealand, which became the southern-most nation in the Pacific.

Both Samuel and his older brother Richard held orders for land bought from the New Zealand Company. A land order cost 100 [pounds sterling]. Samuel Deighton's job as an interpreter in 1842 earned him 91 [pounds sterling] a year. That would be equivalent to possibly US$37,500 today. In return, each land-order bearing colonist expected to gain title to 100 country acres and one town acre.

Similarly, little thought is given to the impact the influx of colonists from the United Kingdom had on New Zealand. Debate continues over the legacy of the New Zealand Company. Without company propaganda and organisation it is unlikely that the 57 ships and 8600 emigrants, most of who were of good character, would ever have come to New Zealand. From May 1839 to January 1843, the company disposed of 244,619 acres of land for settlement. Besides establishing settlements at Wellington and Wanganui, the New Zealand Company started New Plymouth, Nelson, and Christchurch.

Deighton wrote more than 100 letters to native secretary Donald McLean, who was also the chief land purchase commissioner. These give insight into land purchases, as well as the complex relations between some Maori chiefs and colonial military leaders during the sovereignty wars.

Why write this history of the first colonist? New Zealand is unique in that history is not explicitly taught to all students. Therefore, many have little grasp of key aspects of our past. Students today study less New Zealand history at school than they did in the past. In the 1966 School Certificate (exam for 15-year-old students) history syllabus at least a third of the 18 topics examined each year were New Zealand topics.

In the absence of a clear, factual, account of New Zealand's brief history, a grievance industry has grown exponentially. Claimants with a Maori ancestry have manipulated history to justify mega payouts for alleged grievances. Nineteen years of Treaty of Waitangi settlements has resulted in the handing over of cash and assets worth around $1-billion to a number of newly created tribal elites. Knowledge of history is important since without the facts anything can be claimed.

Since colonialism has become a dirty word, isn't quaint to be writing about white colonist history? Not at all! The book is about English settlers and Maori inhabitants, and how their joint efforts built the foundations of the society that we have today. For instance, as settlers and Maori worked together building huts by Wellington harbor in early 1840, relations between settlers and local Maori inhabitants were at their best. The lines of separation between the races were hardly apparent at all.

And while the New Zealand sovereignty wars of the 1860s have been cast as a struggle between land-hungry settlers and noble but increasingly downtrodden Maori, the situation that Samuel Deighton lived through showed that it was largely a struggle between those Maori seeking a future tied to the benefits of western civilization and those who wanted to drive the white-skinned newcomers into the sea.

Mike Butler graduated in English Literature from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He worked for 18 years as a newspaper journalist, mostly as chief sub-editor of the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune in Hastings. He is a contributing writer for the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, has had a number of articles published in various newspapers and magazines, and has been a contract writer for the New World Encyclopedia. His first book, The First Colonist, is published by Dunmore Publishing, Wellington, New Zealand, 2010. The First Colonist has 227 pages, is paperback, illustrated, and costs around $30. It is available at your online bookstore or at
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Title Annotation:CULTURE; colonist Samuel Deighton
Author:Butler, Mike
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:May 1, 2011
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