Historical potholes of Great Barrier Island

In the great scheme of things, historical research is a minor part of human endeavour. No matter who carries it out though, amateur or professional, there will almost always be the odd error(s), - more or less.
An Auckland maritime writer called Forbes Eadie, writing under the pen name ‘Lee Fore Brace’, has a reputation for mixing lots of novelty and fiction with fact when he wrote of the vessel Mermaid coming into Great Barrier Island in the late 1790s. There are many other examples, though not so blatant. Most errors probably result from a lack of rigour, and who can't be accused of that?
(1) The Great Barrier Island By A. E. Le Roy
(2) Auckland Heritage Festival 20 September, - 5th October, 2008.

In considering the following article by A.E.Le Roy, which I first read some years ago, it has become increasingly apparent that there are many errors of fact within it. Rather than remaining obscure, the article has in recent years become instantly available on the internet, and republished without much-needed critical comment. The downside of this is that it tends to perpetuate and create myths. Storytelling is for kids, history is for everybody. A society that doesn’t know its own history has no future. Let’s try and get it right. So, here goes…..   


The Great Barrier Island
By A. E. Le Roy

Published in the ‘Journal of the Auckland-Waikato Historical Journal’  Issue No. 32 April 1978      

This island is some fifty to sixty miles from Auckland, at the entrance to the Hauraki Gulf. It is known for its fine, rugged scenery, its steep rocky cliffs alternating with sheltered harbours and wide sandy beaches. It is still a paradise of native bush and birds and largely unspoiled because of its relative isolation and the stormy seas and dangerous currents which often make access difficult. It was discovered by Captain Cook, who liberated goats and pigs there.

Captain Cook ‘rediscovered’ the island, rather than ‘discovered’ it; and never landed here, or let pigs and goats go.

Since those far off days it has had a varied and interesting history. These are some of the main events.

From 1820 or even earlier there was whaling on the coasts of the island

There is no evidence of this going on around Great Barrier Island in the 1820s.

and old inhabitants remembered (about 1890) that there had been a huge capstan in Nagle Cove which was used to lift sailing ships

far out

out of the water for the careening of their hulls.

Careening usually occurred on a full moon with big tides by placing the vessel on the beach and letting the tide go out..

Horses were used to work the old wooden capstan and some of the very early residents there were probably used to do repairs to some of the whalers.

Very seldom. The American whaler ‘Majestic’ is the only whaler that comes to mind, and that was in the 1840s.

There was a renewal of the whaling industry on the western side of the island by the Hauraki Whaling Co. as recently as 1960,

The renewal of whaling is a misnomer, it was never renewed.

the harpooner being Charles Heberley, a member of an old whaling family and his wife Ruby, a great grand-daughter of John Guard, the famous whaling pioneer of 1827 in Tory Channel.

In 1838 the Maori owners of the island sold it to the American adventurer, William Webster, of Coromandel, and his partners, Jeremiah Nagle and William Abercrombie,

The Maori owners of the island were compelled to sell the island after a battle in which those who came to their assistance lost many men in battle.

who started the mining of copper in Catherine Bay.

There has never been any copper mining in Catherine Bay.

It was they who organized the building of the large 400-ton ship “Stirlingshire”

Its registered tonnage was 409 ton and that is not related to its actual weight.

 at Nagle Cove in Port Abercrombie. This barque, which had two decks and three masts, was built by John Gillies and Robert Menzies;

It was built predominantly under the supervision of Robert Menzies. After an economic recession intervened, more money was procured to finish the vessel, and in doing so, John Gillies was employed in charge for 3 years until January 1849.

they used the natural bends of the pohutukawa for ribs

pohutukawa was not used for ribs, rather, the bends obtained from where the tree branched provided ‘knees’ to strengthen the connection of various beams to the hull.

and kauri carvel planking from the island forests.

It is highly probable that totara was used below water rather than kauri, just as the Maori has done for many centuries. It lasts a helluva lot longer than kauri.

Much gear for this ship, the largest built in New Zealand at that time, was brought out from England on Captain W.F. Porter’s brig in 1841

There is absolutely no mention that any gear for the Stirlingshire was brought out from England on the brig Porter. It may have been obtained in Sydney. The informant was an 11 year old boy. sails, anchors, chains and ironwork - as Captain Nagle, who superintended the building of the ship was related to the mate on Captain Porter’s brig.

William Field Porter

This person is the father and captain of the brig Porter, his 11 year old son of the same name is William Field Porter Junior who is the informant.

remembers seeing flocks of goats on the Barrier and that butter and cheese were made from the milk. The “Stirlingshire”, which cost over £5,000, was finally launched in 1848; it traded across the Tasman

It did not trade across the Tasman, it crossed that ocean once in ballast, and never returned to New Zealand again.

and around the world and was probably the first kauri-built ship to arrive in London docks. Since then many other ships have been built on the Barrier and all the men on the island are excellent boatmen

I agree, every last one of them. Yes, all of them.

- they had to be, since the sea was their highway.

This first sale to Webster was disallowed,

It wasn’t a sale just to Webster, he had partners.

but in 1844 it was sold again to Sir Frederick Whitaker who was probably attracted by the copper as he had been to Kawau Island.

So simplistic and leaves out so much.

It was he who named the main harbour Port FitzRoy, after the Governor at that time. There were only a few scattered settlers for some years - military pensioners and a small number taking up 40-60 acre free grants.


I could go on but I’ll leave it at that- except to say that there is not one shred of evidence that the brig Tryphena was ever built at Great Barrier Island.

Don Armitage February, 2009.
Auckland Heritage Festival 20 September, - 5th October, 2008.


Auckland City’s weekly give-away rag the City Scene goes out to a sixth of a million households. It says:

            “Auckland City Council runs the festival to encourage people of all ages

            to celebrate and learn about our city’s unique natural, social and built heritage.”


I have grave doubts about one, two-year old, and possibly older infants celebrating anything other than a full stomach. However, for the moment, I’ll assume the festival is aimed at people who are reasonably literate, at least mildly curious and have the means, which many do not, to attend particular sites where celebrations of our heritage are going on.

            One of the first jobs must be to ensure that meaning of ‘heritage’ is clearly understood, rather than leaving it to some vague process of osmosis.

By visiting a couple of well-known word-meaning sources, at least there is a starting point.



            1. An old copy of Websters: n. [Old Fr. Heritage, an inheritance, from heriter; LL. Heritare, to inherit, from L, heritas, inheritance, from heres, an heir.]

                                    1. property that is or can be inherited.

                                    2. (a) something handed down from one’s ancestors or the past, as a characteristic, a culture, tradition, etc.

                                        (b) the rights, burdens, or status resulting from being born in a certain time or place; birthright.

                                    3.  in the Bible,

                                        (a) the chosen people of God; Israelites;

                                        (b) the Christian Church. As being Lords over God’s heritage

                                                                                                                        -1 Pet. V. 3.

            2. A more modern Encarta MSNonline dictionary:

                                    1. something somebody is born to: the status, conditions, or                                    

                                                                  character acquired by being born into a particular family or

                                                                  social class
                                        Respect for education was part of their Scottish heritage

                                    2. riches of past: a country's or area's history and historical buildings and sites that are considered to be of interest and value to present generations

                                                 (often used before a nounthe town's heritage trail

                                                            3.    something passing from generation to generation: something that passes from one generation to  the next in a social group,

                                                                   e.g. a way of life or traditional  culture
                                             The celebration of Passover is part of the Jewish heritage

                                    4. legal inheritance: property or land that is or can be passed on to an heir



The most relevant meaning appears to be Encarta-MSN’s second meaning:

                                       riches of pasta country's or area's history and historical buildings and sites that are considered to be of interest and value to present generations


Since Auckland is not a country, though is an area, the meaning can be further pruned down to: 

                                        riches of pastan area's history and historical buildings and sites that are considered to be of  interest and value to present generations


                                City Scene has already said it also includes our natural heritage.

                                Therefore ‘Heritage’ appears to = ‘Riches of the Past’  

                                And ‘Riches of the Past’ = Auckland’s

                                    - history  …………… .of interest and value to present generations

                                    - historical buildings….of interest and value to present generations

                                    - sites………...………..of interest and value to present generations

                                    - aspects of nature ...... .of interest and value to present generations


There is a further point one can make to clarify this brief discussion on what is heritage in the context of the upcoming ‘Heritage Festival’.  That is to consider the essential difference between ‘history’ and the other three elements, namely ‘historic buildings’ aspects of nature, and ‘sites’.

If one has no, little or a poor understanding of or access to the history of the area, in this case Auckland, and in our case Great Barrier Island, then the other elements may be of fleeting interest but little enduring value.


An appreciation of our history arises across a rich landscape from the story-telling around the campfire, to encouraging the sort of research, discovery and interpretation that leads to new appreciations of our past, and is carried along by the enthusiasm, relevance, method and encouragement by which it is transmitted to new generations.


The net has meant that never before in human history have the facts and knowledge of our past been so accessible.  Three examples from innumerable choices come to mind:


The National Library has recently put online most of NZ’s early newspapers- searchable and free to anybody with access to a computer. Eventually, the records will be available after 1909. Some may already have become available.


National Archives, the repository for old Government records, has embarked on major initiatives to digitise and free-up the ease of availability of those records.  


I want to emphasise two things:

Our potential to find out more about our history and communicate it throughout our society has never been greater.

There are consequences, social and economic, to knowing more about our history, and the conversation locally hasn’t yet begun in any substantive way.


The engineroom of history is the people, not Auckland City. It can only facilitate, as indeed it is doing with this Festival.


Auckland City is a corporate body- it does not think.


In the front of the centennial book on the  history of Auckland City Council, ‘Decently And In Order- The Government of the City of Auckland 1840-1971’ by G.W.A.Bush,  there appears the following quotation from a Lord Thurlow:


                                    ‘Did you ever expect a

                                          corporation to have a conscience,

                                    When it has no soul to be damned,

                                          and no body to be kicked?’


And in fact, this sentiment is backed up by simply going to Auckland City’s website to find out what information it makes available to the world about a small part of the territory the corporation administers.

            Despite regular reminders maybe a year apart, the website persists in telling the world the following:

This is the largest island in the Gulf as well as being the largest offshore island of the North Island. Lying 90 km northeast of Auckland it stretches north to south for some 40 km, and has an area of 285 square kilometre, more than half the size of the Auckland Metropolitan area. The highest point Mt Hobson is only 621 metres, and the surface of the island is very rugged with narrow ravines, steep cliffs, jagged pinnacles with a deeply indented coastline. Much of the island is covered with second generation native trees with pockets of regenerating native forest and in the north remnants of the kauri forest, most of which was saw-milled at the end of the 19th century. Aside from its many natural wonders Great Barrier Island is also home to the remains of the last operating whaling station in New Zealand and of the famous Kaiarara Kauri Dam.

Mainly farming based, the small population of 1100 is clustered in scattered settlements around the coast, namely Port FitzRoy and Okiwi in the north, Okupu and Tryphena in the southwest and on the east, Claris and Oruawharo (Medlands). Residents have to provide their own power with generators and the island is gaining a reputation as a centre for environmental technology.

A haven of peace and tranquillity, wilderness and rare bird life, the major tourist attractions include the scenic drive over some of the 65 km of metalled roads, walks on good tracks through the Department of Conservation maintained forests and native bush, long white surf beaches, fishing and diving in almost ideal conditions, and for boaties, idyllic and well sheltered anchorages at Port Abercrombie, Port FitzRoy and Whangaparapara.

Regular day ferry trips depart several times weekly with the option to cruise the coastline or take a bus trip from Port FitzRoy to Tryphena. Air travel is only 30 minutes to Claris (central) or Okiwi (north) and accommodation ranges from camping grounds to conservation huts and motels to up-market holiday lodges.


Great Barrier Island Visitor Centre phone                (09) 429 0033        
Department of Conservation (Great Barrier Island) phone                (0...       

Getting there

Fullers ferries

And on Wikipedia, a search of “Great Barrier Island” comes up using Auckland City’s website as a reference. References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Great Barrier Island Aotea brochure, Back (from the DOC. Accessed 2008-06-04.)
  2. ^ a b Area Unit populations in Auckland City, 2006 Census, Statistics New Zealand.
  3. ^ a b c Great Barrier Island (from the Auckland City Council website)
  4. ^ Radonich, Milan (2006). "The land based Nationals winter Comp" (PDF) p 24. New Zealand Fishing Coast to Coast.
  5. ^ a b c Great Barrier Island Aotea brochure, Front (from the DOC. Accessed 2008-06-04.)
  6. ^ Centenary of Pigeon Post (from the New Zealand Post website. Accessed 2008-06-04.)
  7. ^ Unknown article name - New Zealand Gazette, Thursday 14 August 2003

Riddled with error over the years, the website illustrates more confusion about how the city see itself, by including the following map of the Hauraki Gulf with, very strangely, the metropolitan area of the City marked in grey, and the outer gulf, which is all part of Auckland City, marked in green,-  just as are all the adjacent parts of the nation outside Auckland City boundaries. It appears Auckland City still has not come to terms with who it is. But as Lord Thurlow seemed to intimate, a corporation does not think like an individual.


By now, you might be getting worried by the City holding a heritage festival about which it has no strong foundation upon which to provide any leadership as to the making sense of it all. However, the essential thing to remember is the facilitative role that the City can provide by way of funds and a rough streetmap as to how people can come together to advance and enrich their heritage.



 Don Armitage 2008.