Letter 4

Sarah Harris to father William Hill and sisters. New Plymouth, May 1841

Left England for New Zealand November 19th 1840
My first letter from New Zealand

To My dearest Father & Sisters in England

It is with deep thankfulness to God that I am able to tell you of our safe arrival in New Zealand, after a long & monotonous voyage of more than four months without once seeing land.

Never my dear Father shall I forget our first night on board, when laying at anchor in Plymouth Sound, the dreadful storm, the terrible bump the vessel that broke from the moorings gave our back, the noise on deck. It was a fearful beginning. When my heart was bowed down with sorrow on parting with our dearest relatives & friends – when the unknown and uncertain prospects of the future would remind me that we were indeed strangers & pilgrims on earth. We had not been many weeks on our voyage when our dear Corbyn was taken ill with low fever. For eight days he would not eat anything, drink alone was all & medicine. He recovered rapidly after the fever left him. Dear little Katie took it & was dangerously ill with it. I had to engage a nurse for her & very fortunate I was in meeting with a nice motherly woman who had no very young children. She took charge of my baby to the end of the voyage & was very kind & attentive to her long after. About 8 weeks before we arrived in N.Z. I was taken very ill with Diarrhoea just before I expected my fourth baby. My illness was fearful & the weather was very stormy. I clung with all the strength I could get to prevent myself from being thrown out on the floor. In the midst of dreadful suffering my babe was born, a fine Girl. The Dr said nothing could save me but the birth of the child. Four days after I had by my wish the babe brought to me for the first time. I caressed her with the fondest affection when she began to seek for the natural nourishment, but alas there was none & I gave her back to the nurse. I was looking at her on the nurse’s lap when I heard her tell someone to send the Dr. He came & said the child is convulsed & was dying. Oh God had I killed my baby with too much love, or was it the want of food (for there was a great scarcity). Such thoughts as those dwelt on my mind so much that all hope of my recovery seemed hopeless.

The second night my dear husband was sitting by my bed holding my hand. We were both quiet, for some time there when I said, There, did you not hear? They are consigning our darling to the deep. No, he said, they are not, the baby is laying on the bed the nurse sleeps in.

The next evening one of the Emigrants who was a Methodist preacher on board & I believed a good man but very illiterate, came as close to my cabin as he could be allowed & prayed earnestly for my recovery.

I was asked if I was disturbed by him, he had such a loud voice. I said no, let him pray. And I believe God heard his prayers for I got better from that time.

At last the ship reached New Zealand. This was great news for everyone. Some Natives & their wives came on board. I did not see the Chiefs but their wives, two of them, came into my cabin & looked on me as I lay in the bed. They said much too pale in English. I heard they were wives of whalers.

The ship at last came to its anchorage & the passengers left for their new country. My husband went alone to prepare for me & the children & I was to stay on board until the vessel was ready to sail. A few days before we arrived the first mate, a kind & gentlemanly man, asked the Dr if I might have Some Porter. The Dr said if I liked but it was only to be a wine glassful. So the mate came himself with a bottle & tumbler & said the Dr said I might have it. He drew the cork, filled the tumbler & gave it me. I drank it all off with the greatest avidity & I continued to have it until I left the ship. That & the land air brought me round rapidly & at last the day had come when I & the children & nurse was to leave the good ship. When I was ready to be placed in the chair to be let down to the Boat, the first & second mate & the sailors came round me & asked to be allowed to shake hands with me. There was a little superstition with some of them for they said it was a Resurrection, my being alive. I gave my hand to all & received their hearty good wishes.

As the boat moved on I could see nothing but the beach & a great forest behind. I was greatly puzzled to make out where the houses were when I was told to look at a long building made of rapa [raupō] a kind of grass & Phormium Tenax (NZ flax). On reaching the shore one of the men rushed out to the boat, took me in his arms & carried me part the way up the beach. I felt shocked at such a proceeding, but it was very kind of him & a very common thing afterwards I found where there is no landing place,. At last Edwin came & assisted me to the long shed or warrie [whare] without doors or windows. When I arrived all was confusion, boxes all about, some open to get at blankets & sheets to divide the apartments. Some Natives brought tools & flax to make a bedstead, which being done a quantity of green fern was laid on the top on which was my mattress & bedding. Then I had my sleeping place enclosed with curtains & a table made of a box on which I placed a white cloth & looking glass etc.

The children slept on the boxes placed close together. Some people lay on the ground but I could not, nor would I let the little ones, particularly as there was no flooring, nothing but the earth. I fancy how shocked you would have been, no door, no windows, no fire, & the natives coming in when they liked, particularly when we were eating. Notwithstanding my dear Father, I slept well that first night & when I awoke in the morning I found Edwin gone & two ghastly natives with their faces tattooed all over sitting down on the ground close to my bedside. How I felt or looked I cannot describe. I did not scream or speak but waved my hand to them to go away. But they would not move, so I gave up in despair of making any impression on them. I watched fearing they would take some of my clothes which they were handling to my disgust. Soon after Edwin came in. He looked quite horrified & soon sent them off. He had been to get the kettle boiled for breakfast. So I dressed & found the children all right & we took our first breakfast in New Zealand. Mrs F still did many kind things in the way of looking after the children. As she had a family of her own to attend to it was exceedingly kind of her.

My next trouble was now what were we to have for dinner. Could we I asked get some fresh meat? No – could we get eggs? – – No – was there any poultry, no. Were there any vegetables, only a few small potatoes about the size of marbles that the Natives would part with. So I bought some & with salt beef from the stores I made a good dinner. This was not a very cheerful beginning & the natives finding we were eating, I think four of them, came in & sat down watching every movement of our lips, opening their mouths wide for Kie ki (food). So Edwin takes up some potatoes in his hands & pops them into their open mouths so cleverly that we could not for a very long time get rid of this disagreeable intrusion.

The weather was beautiful & on looking outside I observed a great many Natives rubbing their noses together & making such a hideous cry that I was wondering what it was all about. They were almost nude with only a bit of matting covering their loins. Perhaps you will think it strange when I tell you the white people did not feel so shocked as they would have been had they been white people. Their dark skin & tattoed gave the appearance of tight dresses. I was told they were liberated slaves from Wicato [Waikato], taken in a war between them & the Taranaki’s. I believe we were all very sorry to see so many coming back as we thought there would be but few to contend with. The next thing I saw a native woman with one of my dresses on which Edwin had given her for a mat before I came on shore. It was a delicate blue thin material & looked so ridiculous, the back not meeting by four inches & nothing under, so the brown skin of her back was quite bare. I thought she looked far worse than in her native mat.

Now I think I have given you all the news up to this time, & if no vessel arrives I may have time to write my dear Emma to send with this. Trusting that your anxiety will be lessened by my letter & that you will keep you in good health is the sincere wish of your

affectionate daughter

Harris Family History. Compiled by various hands 1871-1934. Godfrey and Judith Briant Papers. Notebook, pp. [110]-[119].


My first letter from New Zealand
Sarah Harris wrote several letters to her father and sisters describing the voyage from Plymouth and her first experience of Taranaki. The preceding letter was sent to Plymouth with the William Bryan and bears the remains of two wax seals, red and black, perhaps indicating that it was forwarded to other family members. This version, copied into Sarah’s notebook (110-119) expands on some incidents of the earlier letter and adds detail not mentioned previously. It has a twin in the notebook (89-93), where Sarah appears to be using it as material for the memoir addressed to her children.

I had to engage a nurse for her
Notebook (90): ‘Engaged Mrs French to nurse Katie who was ill to the end of the voyage; dear Corbyn being strong got over it easily.’

About 8 weeks before we arrived in N.Z. I was taken very ill with Diarrhoea
The timing of Sarah’s illness and delivery varies from letter to letter. Notebook (89): ‘Six weeks before we reached N.Z. I was taken very ill with diarrhoea.’ Her letter of 20 April (#3) speaks of being unwell for several weeks before taking the pills that brought on Diarrhoea for eight days before the birth.

Four days after I had by my wish the babe brought to me for the first time
Notebook (90-91): ‘The dear baby was a fine healthy child & the great trouble was how was she to be nourished. I had none & baby’s food was not to be found among the ship’s stores & there was only one kind friend who had been nursing her child more than twelve months offered to nurse mine twice a day. It was gratefully accepted & on the forth day after she was born I had her brought to me as I had been too ill to have her before scarcely expected to recover. To have her in my [arms] to caress and admire with all a mother’s love was joy unspeakable, but saddened by the knowledge that the nourishment she sought could not be found. On giving her back to the nurse, I was shortly afterwards struck by the look of alarm the nurse gave. She sent for the Dr who said when he looked at her she is convulsed & was dying.
[the rest of this page features crossed out sentences, and pen has been written over pencil]
The death of a baby is always a great sorrow to a mother but the knowledge that my sweet babe was to be consigned to the deep intensified my grief so much as to throw me back so much that little hopes of my recovery remained
but the knowledge that my sweet babe was to be buried at sea intensified my grief & threw me back that there was little hope of my recovery.

The next evening one of the Emigrants who was a Methodist preacher
Probably William Edgecumbe, of whom Weekes notes 29 Nov 1840: ‘Edgecumbe, one of the emigrants, gets up a prayer-meeting and singing almost nightly.’ The prayer meetings continued: ‘Crossed the line about 6.30 p.m. It was intended to have had some fun among the sailors this evening, but Edgecumbe’s sermon was not over till late and it was not anyone’s wish to interrupt him.’ (29 Dec 1840).

My husband went alone to prepare for me & the children & I was to stay on board
Notebook (92): ‘My husband Mr. E. Harris, went on shore to see what accommodation he could get. He found that a long shed divided with mats & blankets was the only accommodation to be had. Three days after the nurse & children & myself went on shore as the boat was about to leave.’

At last Edwin came & assisted me to the long shed or warrie [whare]
Frederick Carrington had been unable to secure temporary shelter for the emigrants from local people at Moturoa. On 31 Mar, he ordered his survey staff to clear the whare they were living in and gave half his own whare to George Cutfield. Women and children slept under cover; sail-tents were erected for the men (Skinner 11-12).

Mrs F still did many kind things in the way of looking after the children
Mr and Mrs John French had one daughter, aged 10 months.

I was told they were liberated slaves from Wicato [Waikato]
Sarah refers to the 1832 siege of Pukerangiora near Waitara, after which captive Te Atiawa were taken north by Waikato. The Waikato force was unsuccessful in attacking Te Atiawa further south near Richard Barrett’s whaling station at Moturoa. Barrett and his crew joined with local people to defend the Te Atiawa position. A great slaughter occurred on the beach at Ngāmotu and Waikato retreated. Barrett and many Te Atiawa subsequently left Taranaki for the Kapiti coast and Cook Strait. Te Atiawa began to move north after selling their Taranaki land in Feb 1841 to the New Zealand company and to re-establish themselves in their traditional rohe [territory] on the northern coast. Waikato regarded these lands as conquered territory and theirs to claim rights over when the new Zealand company’s purchase was challenged by the Crown in 1841-42. Some Waikato chiefs released their Te Atiawa slaves after converting to Christianity and a second homeward move of Te Atiawa occurred as the Plymouth Company emigrants began to arrive in 1841.

Richard Barrett (c1807-1847) was a central figure in the New Zealand Company’s dealings with Te Atiawa. He married E Rangi, later Rawinia, a high-ranking woman of Te Atiawa. She was the grand-daughter of Tautara, niece of Te Puni and sister of Te Wharepouri (Te Ara). Barrett’s connection with local people and his whaling business were strong drivers in his argument that Carrington should locate the Plymouth company settlement in Taranaki rather than Port Underwood or Nelson (Skinner 6).
See Richard (Dicky) Barrett and Wakaiwa Rawinia