Worldbuilding: Britain’s cannibal captain

My book Convicts - New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past is being published tomorrow by Penguin, and today I thought I’d share one of the stories. It had to be assembled from dissonant pieces of documentary evidence - an example of how non-fiction is also world-building. This story is a good one. Betrayal, deceit, murder, treachery. And more.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t perpetrated by a traditional convict. Though the man who did it should have been convicted – and would have been, if the British had been luckier.

His name  was John Stewart, captain of the brig Elizabeth which came to Australasian waters to trade in 1830.

This tale has been told before – but not the way I have in this book. You see, there is not one story – there are many. No two accounts match in detail, and the traditional histories inevitably give us one or another of the versions in an effort to find a ‘single’ or ‘final’ truth. Unfortunately it’s not possible to actually render things down so precisely; this tale has not one truth – it has many, and the more interesting part is matching the versions up against each other, revealing a good deal about how each witness saw events.

The general thrust is consistent, of course. The story began in the late 1820s when the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha – composer of the Ka Mate haka used now by the All Blacks – began extending his loose empire from Kapiti island, off the southwestern corner if the North Island, into the South Island.  He promptly ran into trouble with Ngai Tahu, the main iwi (tribe) of the region – itself a loose conglomerate, at the time, of other iwi. In 1830 this culminated in Ngai Tahu capturing and eating a Ngati Toa negotiating party at Kaiapoi.

That demanded revenge. Te Rauparaha, or one of his associates, came up with the idea of hiring a British vessel to take a hidden raid directly to Ngāti Rakiamoa chief Tamaiharanui, also one of the pre-eminent chiefs of Ngai Tahu and – Te Rauparaha considered – responsible for the treachery. The problem was persuading a captain to do it. But Stewart, it seemed, was the man. His price was a cargo of processed flax.

In November 1830 Stewart and his crew took the Elizabeth to Akaroa, on the South Island’s east coast, enviegled Tamaiharanui and his family aboard – and sprang the trap. Then they joined raids ashore. And then they sailed back to Kapiti with their prisoners and a cargo of human flesh. Some of it was cooked in the Elizabeth’s galley and eaten aboard by the Maori – and one story suggests that Stewart ate some of it. But whether he did or not is immaterial. The fact was that while Te Rauparaha was behaving scrupulously according to Maori values, Stewart had broken British law. Actually, he had not only broken it, he had jumped on the pieces and thrown them overboard.

The problem was prosecuting him. New Zealand was outside British jurisdiction. But Sydney authorities had a good go – a story as interesting as Stewart’s, and one that went all the way up to the Colonial Office in London. The British absolutely were not going to let their citizens get away with this sort of thing.

Stewart did, though. After the case fell over, Sydney authorities could not hold him, but he was washed overboard while rounding the Horn on his way back to England a few months later. Or maybe he collapsed and – reeking of rum –  was tossed over the rail by his crew. A better fate for a British cannibal, perhaps, if he was one. Those versions again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

4 comments on “Worldbuilding: Britain’s cannibal captain

  1. ljclayton says:

    Who needs fiction? Bizarre. Good luck for tomorrow.

  2. Indeed. He wasn’t the only one to stray in NZ waters then, either – though he was, perhaps, the worst. Thanks re-tomorrow!

  3. Team Oyeniyi says:

    Wow! That’s about all I can say!

  4. It was an extraordinary moment in trans-Tasman history. Matched perhaps in 1835 by Captain Harwood (‘Harewood’) of the Lord Rodney, who took Ngati Mutunga to the Chathams where they proceeded to slaughter the Moriori. Harwood always insisted it was under duress, but that didn’t explain why he made two trips.

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