New Zealand's History Gets Personal

By Butler, Mike | The World and I, May 2011 | Go to article overview

New Zealand's History Gets Personal


Butler, Mike, The World and I


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. …

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