Early settlers did not fully understand the hazards posed by New Zealand waterways and death by drowning came to be known as 'the New Zealand death'.1 A role in which Māori distinguished themselves, and to which they seemed to be particularly well-suited by their knowledge of New Zealand waters, courage and physical prowess, was rescuing people in distress.
One rescue occurred in September 1844, when there were serious floods in the Nelson region, and the usually unthreatening Maitai (Mahitahi) became a raging maelstrom:
"In one instance a few days ago, the lives of a labouring man and four children were saved by the courage and intrepidity of a Maori, who rushed across the foaming torrent at the most imminent risk of his own life, to a wooden house in which they were, and rescued them from inevitable death - as in less than an hour afterwards, the force of the current completely broke up the building and swept away the whole. The Maori nearly lost his own life by the attempt - we raised a subscription immediately for the gallant fellow. The Natives have often been instrumental in saving the lives of persons in this way, and I have always found them very prompt in rendering assistance in all cases of the least danger."1
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The best known Māori rescue in the region was the dramatic deliverance of the crew of the Delaware when the ship was driven onto rocks at Wakapuaka on 4th September 1863. Huria Matenga, her husband, Hemi Matenga, and Hohapata Kahupuku swam out in extremely stormy seas to grasp a line thrown out by the crew. They returned to shore to secure the line to a large rock and then entered the water again and again to assist the crew to make their way to land by means of a second stronger rope attached to the line. Shortly after the Captain, the last of the nine to make the journey, reached the shore, the rope frayed and disappeared into the sea. All were saved apart from chief mate Henry Squirrell who was injured and left for dead on the ship. Other Māori from Wakapuaka assisted on shore.
In paying tribute to their conduct, Captain Baldwin, master of the Delaware, said that: "but for the bold and unwearied exertions of the Maoris, he did not believe one man would have been saved from the wreck".2 Huria Matenga became a national heroine as a result of her great bravery.
At a packed official ceremony presided over by the Superintendent of Nelson, supported by her father Te Manu, chief of Wakapuaka, Hemi was presented with a specially inscribed gold watch by the citizens of Nelson and £50 by the Government. Her father Hohapata also received a silver watch from Nelson and £50 from the Government; two other helpers, Eraia and Kerei, received silver watches and £10 each. The watches were purchased from public subscriptions in Nelson and the Government's contribution came, ironically, from the Native Reserve Trust Fund which received rents from Māori-owned land. At the ceremony the rescuers were congratulated on the goodness of their hearts and the clearness of their heads, and there were speeches about good relationships between the races. Huria Matenga became known as New Zealand's Grace Darling.
The bay in which the tragedy occurred has since been known as Delaware Bay. More than 2000 people attended Huria Matenga's tangi. A painting of Huria Matenga by Gottfried Lindauer, unveiled a year after Huria's death in 1909, is held in the Suter Gallery, Nelson.
Updated April 2020
Sources used in this story
- Eileen McSaveney, 'Floods - New Zealand’s number one hazard', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/floods/page-1 (accessed 30 March 2020)
- Stephens, Samuel. Journal 25.9.1844.; Mitchell, H. & J. (2007) Te tau ihu o te waka, v. 2. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation, p.222
- Ingram, C & Wheatley, P. (1974) Shipwrecks - New Zealand disasters 1795-1950. Wellington, N.Z. : Reed, p.78 ; Mitchell, p.223
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Further sources - Maori Rescues
- Duff, A.(2000) Alan Duff's Maori heroes. Auckland, N.Z. : Random House New Zealand.
- Ingram, C & Wheatley, P.(1974) Shipwrecks - New Zealand disasters 1795-1950. Wellington : Reed.
- Mitchell, H&J (2007) Te tau ihu o te waka, v. 2. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation, pp221-227,
- Rikihana, Queenie (2006) Manawa hine : women who swam against the tide. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed
- Nelson Examiner (1863, September 8, 12, 22; 1863, October 13; 1863, November 17)
- Newport, J.N.W. (1973) Cable and Delaware Bays. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(6) 24-28
- Olson, D. (1988) Huria Matenga and the wreck of the Delaware. Historical Journal (Otaki Historical Society), 11, p.93-9
- Stephens, S: Letters and Journal. Nelson Provincial Museum: Bett qMS (4 volumes typescript). Unpublished
- 1863 The wreck of the Delaware : today in history. Retrieved from NZ Ministry for Culture & Heritage, NZ History Online:
- Cowan, J (1953) Huria Matenga, the Brave Swimmer. In Hero stories of New Zealand. Retrieved from NZETC:
- Matenga, Huria Te Amoho Wikitoria. (2007) In An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, McLintock, A. (ed)(1966) Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
- Ormsby, Mary Louise.(2007) Matenga, Huria 1840-1842? - 1909'. Retrieved from : Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: