Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 35, 1902
This text is also available in PDF
(613 KB) Opens in new window
– 24 –

Art. III.—Foot-tracks of Captain Cook.

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 6th October, 1902.]

Plates I.-III.

I Read with very great interest the paper printed in vol. xxxiii. of the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” entitled “On the Tracks of Captain Cook,” by the late Professor E. E. Morris; and, having noticed his invitation for some one with local knowledge to fill in the gap caused through his not being able to visit Mercury Bay, I will endeavour to put together a few notes in regard to that place, though it is with some diffidence I follow after such an able writer; but now, alas! there is no chance of the subject being completed by him.

Some four years ago, whilst revising the trigonometrical survey of a portion of the Coromandel Peninsula, I was camped for several weeks about Mercury Bay, and in February of this year I was again in the same locality, so that I may claim a fair knowledge of the district.

After Cook's arrival at Poverty Bay, on the 9th October, 1769, he sailed as far south as Cape Turnagain, which he reached on the 16th October. He thence retraced his steps,

– 25 –

or rather his courses, northwards, calling in at several places along the coast; and on the 4th November was opposite the opening of a large bay, to which he subsequently gave the name of “Mercury.” He states, “My reasons for putting in here were the hopes of discovering a good harbour and the desire I had of being in some convenient place to observe the transit of Mercury, which happens on the 9th instant, and will be wholly visible here if the day is clear.”*

At the time of the “Endeavour's” visit there seems to have been a fairly large native population in and about the bay, but these people were nearly all exterminated some thirty years later in intertribal warfare, as will be related further on. The vessel remained eleven days in the bay, and, as a whole, the crew got on well with the natives, who showed Cook through some of their fortified pas, of which he has left very minute descriptions. During the stay some minor pilfering went on, and one native was shot by Lieutenant Gore. Captain Cook apparently, à la Gilbert and Sullivan, believed in “fitting the punishment to the crime,” as his comment on this incident will show: “When they [natives in canoes] first came alongside they began to sell to our people some of their arms, and one man offered for sale a haahou—that is, a square piece of cloth such as they wear. Lieutenant Gore, who at this time was commanding officer, sent into the canoe a piece of cloth, which the man agreed to take in exchange for his; but as soon as he had got Mr. Gore's cloth in his possession he would not part with his own, but put off the canoe from alongside, and the natives then shook their paddles at the people in the ship. Upon this Mr. Gore fir'd a musquet at them, and, from what I can learn, kill'd the man who took the cloth; after this they soon went away. I have here inserted the account of this affair just as I had it from Mr. Gore, but I must own it did not meet with my approbation, because I thought the punishment a little too severe for the crime, and we had now been long enough acquainted with these people to know how to chastise trifling faults like this without taking away their lives.”

One of the most interesting events in connection with Cook's visit to the bay is his transit of Mercury observations, and I have been trying to locate the exact spot from which they were taken. Unfortunately, Cook has not described the position with his usual minuteness, and recent testimony is rather conflicting. The best description of the event which I have seen is in Admiral Wharton's edition of Cook's Journal, page 150, which reads as follows:—

[Footnote] * Wharton's edition Captain Cook's Journal, p. 148.

[Footnote] † Loc. cit., p. 151.

– 26 –

“Wednesday, 8th, p.m.: Fresh breeze at N.N.W., and hazy, rainy weather; the remainder a gentle breeze at W.S.W. and clear weather…. At noon I observed the sun's meridian, zenith distance, by the astronomical quadrant, which gave the latitude 36° 47′ 43″ S.; this was in the river before mentioned, that lies within the south entrance of the bay.

“Thursday, 9th: Variable light breezes and clear weather. At 8 Mr. Green and I went on shore with our instruments to observe the transit of Mercury, which came on at 7h. 20′ 58′ apparent time, and was observed by Mr. Green only. I at this time was taking the sun's altitude, in order to ascertain the time. The egress was observed as follows:—

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

Internal contact at 12° 8′ 58′
By Mr. Green External " 12° 9′ 55′
By myself Internal " 12° 8′ 45′
External " 12° 9′ 43′

Latitude observed at noon, 36° 48′ 28″. The mean of this and yesterday's observation gives 36° 48′ 5½′ S. the lat. of the place of observation, and the variation of the compass was at this time found to be 11° 9′ E.”

Locally the place pointed out as the site of the observatory is on the promontory immediately above Shakespeare Cliff. Captain Gilbert Mair informs me that when he was there about 1862 an old Maori showed him a bare spot on this hill as the place where Captain Cook had his instruments. I have examined this spot, and I find that the surface soil has been removed for a few square yards, leaving the solid rock exposed; but whether this has been done by the hand of man or has been denuded by the wind and rain at this lapse of time it is impossible to say. Against this testimony Mr. Percy Smith, late Surveyor-General, to whom I wrote to see if he could throw any light on the subject, says that he was at Mercury Bay in the early” sixties,” and the Maoris working on his party pointed out a position on the sandy flat near the mouth of Oyster River (Purangi) as the place where the observations were taken. However, owing to the dispersion of the original inhabitants, I think it very doubtful if any reliance can be placed on native testimony given ninety years after the event, as it would be at that date, and about a matter that would hardly be likely to impress itself upon the-aboriginal mind in comparison with the many other incidents in connection with the “Endeavour's” visit. So that we are at last brought back to the log, and have to try what can be got from it and the surrounding circumstances.

We have a minor trig. station, marked “0,” on the point above Shakespeare Cliff, a few yards to the west of the

– 27 –

alleged site of Cook's observatory, and I have computed its latitude and longitude from the meridian and perpendicular distances derived through the series of triangles from the stone pillar on Mount Eden, Auckland. The position of the latter was very accurately determined in connection with the American Transit of Venus Expedition of 1882, and the longitude tested by time-signals with Sydney. I make Station 0 = 1at. 36° 49′ 37′ S., long. 175° 44′ 49′ E. Now, the mean of Captain Cook's observations is 36° 48′ 5½′ S., 175° 56′ E., and, applying them to the chart, it would place his position about a mile and three-quarters to the north and considerably to the east of Station 0; whereas if we accept the position at the mouth of Oyster River it would show a still greater discrepancy in the latitude. In regard to the longitude, it could not be expected that, with the appliances then used, it would be determined very accurately; in fact, it is a wonder that he got it to come in as close as he did.

From these considerations I am inclined to think the site above Shakespeare Cliff must have been the scene of his operations; and, indeed, from the position of his anchorage, it seems to me to be the most natural place an observer would select for such a purpose. It is situated on a little rounded knoll on the end of a plateau about 250 ft. above sea-level, with a clear view of the horizon, and is easily reached by a track leading up a gully from a small sandy bay immediately to the south of the cliff. Enclosed are a couple of photographs of this place, but, as the only plates I could get were of a brand I had never tried before, the exposure has not been too successful. I also enclose a map of the locality for reference to the places mentioned. (Plates I.-III.)

The following data, kindly supplied by Dr. C. Coleridge Farr, of the New Zealand Magnetic Observatory, of his recently determined variation of the compass at Mercury Bay are of considerable interest, as showing the large increase of variation in the past hundred and thirty years—that is, if Captain Cook's reading of 11° 9′ E. can be accepted as reliable; but Cook himself mentions about ironsand being plentiful on the beach, and it is possible his observation may have been vitiated from that cause. The mean of several readings in various parts of the district with the little needle attached to my theodolite, and after allowing for convergence, is about 13° 45′ but I would not put it forth as of any weight compared with the sensitive instruments used by Dr. Farr.

– 28 –

Magnetic Observations at the Township of Whitianga, Mercurybay, March, 1901, By Dr. C. Coleridge Farr.

Station A.—In a paddock just south of the township, in lat. 36° 50′ 15′ S. and long. 175° 44′ 13′ E. (9th March, 1901.)

  • Magnetic declination, 14° 22′ 19″ east at 10.02 a.m.

  • 14° 24′ 15″ " 11.08 a.m.

  • 14° 26′ 28″ " 12.15 p.m.

  • 14° 28′ 23″ " 1.55 p.m.

  • 14° 25′ 27″ " 4.49 p.m.

Horizontal magnetic force, 0.26737 c. g. s. units at 11 a.m.

  • Magnetic dip—Needle No. 1 = 61° 21′ 03′ at 2 p.m.

  • " 2 = 61° 19′ 57′ at 3 p.m.

  • Mean dip = 61° 20′ 30″.

Station B.—Just south of the Whitianga Cemetery, close to the ferry landing and about 3 chains from high-water mark; in lat. 36° 49′ 47′ S. and long. 175° 43′ 47′ E. (11th March, 1901.)

  • Magnetic declination, 15° 1′ 42″ east at 10.10 a.m.

  • 15° 4′ 17″" 11.15 a.m.

  • 15° 6′ 50″" 12.18 p.m.

  • 15° 8′ 49″" 2.0 p.m.

  • 15° 6′ 35″" 4.30 p.m.

Horizontal magnetic force, 0.26917 c. g. s. units at 11 a.m.

  • Magnetic dip—Needle No. 1 = 61° 16′ 26′ at 3 p.m.

  • " 2 = 61° 15′ 1′ at 3 p.m.

  • Mean dip = 61° 15′ 44′.

Dr. Farr, in his letter to me, remarks, “The declination undisturbed should be about 14° 35′ E. There must therefore be magnetic rocks in the district affecting us, and, if so, it will be difficult to compare Cook's result with ours unless one knew the exact spot of the work and reoccupied it.”

That Cook had a keen eye for the quality of the soil in the places he visited will be acknowledged by any one who has read his account of and seen the country to the south of the Whitianga River. It has a thin sandy soil overlying rhyolitic rocks, with patches here and there swept bare by the wind. The vegetation for the greater part consists of stunted fern and tea-tree, and altogether this part of the district has a most desolate appearance.

Cook's trip up the Whitianga, which he named “Mangrove River,” is thus described: “The next day (Tuesday, the 10th) I went with two boats, accompanied with Mr. Banks and other gentlemen, to examine a large river that empties itself into the head of the bay. We rowed four or

– 29 –

five miles up, and could have gone much further if the weather had been favourable. It was here wider than at the mouth, and divided into many streams by small flat islands, which are covered with mangroves and overflowed at high water. From these trees exudes a viscous substance which very much resembles resin; we found it first in small lumps on the sea-beach, and now saw it sticking to the trees, by which we knew whence it came. We landed on the east side of the river, where we saw a tree upon which several shags had built their nests, and here, therefore, we determined to dine. Twenty of the shags were soon killed, and, being broiled upon the spot, afforded us an excellent meal.”* This incident throws a strong side light on what must have been their ordinary fare when they could describe birds of that class as making “an excellent meal.”

The two following extracts have even a stronger bearing on the same subject. During Cook's second voyage, on returning from the Antarctic seas he was very ill for some weeks, and he says, “When I began to recover, a favourite dog belonging to Mr. Forster fell a sacrifice to my tender stomach. We had no other fresh meat whatever on board, and I could eat of this flesh, as well as broth made of it, when I could taste nothing else.”

This is somewhat similar: “4th March, 1770.—This day the weather was more moderate than it had been for many days, and, being one of the inferior officers' birthday, it was celebrated by a peculiar kind of festival: a dog was killed that had been bred on board; the hindquarters were roasted and a pye was made of the forequarters, into the crust of which they put the fat, and of the viscera they made a haggis.”

In these days of quick passages and fresh provisions it is hard to realise with what iron tenacity of purpose Cook and his men must have been endowed to battle along for month after month and year after year facing all the perils of unknown seas, thousands of miles away from any base, and living on such provisions as they must have had to put up with.

When I was at Whitianga the shags were still nesting in trees in the locality where Cook describes that his crew had such an excellent meal. The “viscous substance” mentioned was, of course, kauri-gum. There are extensive kauri forests on nearly all the branch streams which flow into the Whitianga, and the gum had, no doubt, been washed down

[Footnote] * Hawkesworth edition, vol. ii., “First Voyage,” p. 338.

[Footnote] † Hawkesworth edition, vol. i., “Second Voyage,” p. 275.

[Footnote] ‡ Parkinson's Journal, 1st ed., 1773, p. 122.

– 30 –

and stuck in the roots of the mangroves, though it seems strange that a botanist of Banks's eminence should have fallen into error about its source.

Oysters were very plentiful at the time of Cook's visit, so much so that they got them by the boatload from the Purangi, and it was named “Oyster River” for that reason; but from some cause or other the oysters have almost completely disappeared. This seems the more strange as there is no large population at Mercury Bay to destroy them. Some of the settlers to whom I spoke on the matter attributed it to the sawdust thrown in the water from the kauri mills; but if that is so it could only apply to the Whitianga, as there are no mills on the Purangi.

In 1897 I rowed through the archway in Te Putaoparetauhinu, the small island on the north side of Mercury Bay, which is described by Cook; but at that time I did not know its history, and when last in the district had no opportunity to go over and take any photographs. There are, however, good pictures of it in both Hawkesworth and in Parkinson's Journal, though in the latter it is located in Queen Charlotte Sound. I expect this error has arisen owing to the confused state of the papers which Parkinson's editor had to work upon.

The large fort to the west of the island archway, which was also visited, is called Wharekaho. Cook gives a long description of this place, going into details of measurements of the ditches, palisading, fighting-stages, &c., and states, “The people seemed to be prepared against a siege, having laid up in store an immense quantity of fern-roots and a good many dried fish; but we did not see that they had any fresh water nearer than a brook which runs close under the foot of the hill, from which, I suppose, they can at times get water, tho' besieged, and keep it in gourds until they use it.”*

These precautions did not avail the defenders, or perhaps they got more careless later on, as the following narrative, for which I am indebted to Captain Gilbert Mair, will show: “The numerous people spoken of by Captain Cook as inhabiting Mercury Bay district at the time of his visit were Ngatihei, the descendants of Hei, one of the chiefs who came in the ‘Arawa’ canoe. About the end of the eighteenth century, or commencement of the nineteenth, the most prominent warrior in these parts was Tuterangianini, who had led successful forays right down to Hawke's Bay. Being at enmity with Ngaiterangi, the Tauranga natives, one of their priests resorted to sorcery to bring about his death. He performed a ceremony called ‘ahitapoa’ (fire to make boils)

[Footnote] * Wharton's edition, p. 154.

– 31 –

on an altar, with the result that Tuterangianini was stricken with boils, from which he never recovered. His tribe, Ngati-tamatera, sent a war-party to attack Ngaiterangi, but finding the latter too powerful they returned without effecting anything. On reaching their own district they were taunted by the women, so they set off to Mercury Bay and attacked their own relatives, the unoffending Ngatihei, besieging them in the great pa Wharekaho, on the north-west end of Buffalo Beach. Being unable to take the place by assault, they cut off the water-supply and sat down before the fortress, intending to starve out the garrison. After several weeks (or months) had passed, and the Ngatihei were famine-stricken, the fort was taken by assault, and it is said a thousand of the unhappy captives were taken to the little beach below Peneamine's house and there slaughtered. A few escaped to the small fort on Te Putaoparetauhinu (Cook's archway), from which they could not be dislodged; but this numerous people was practically destroyed. Rahera and Erana Tanui, two women of rank living at Whitianga, are representatives of Ngatihei.

Haora Tupaea is a chief of Ngatitamatera, now living at Paeroa. He is about sixty-seven or seventy. The bodies of the slain Ngatihei were not eaten by the victors on account of their near relationship. Even at the present time the remains of hundreds of skeletons may be seen at Wharekaho, where the massacre occurred.

“Te Rohu was also a famous warrior, for he led the Thames tribes in an attack upon Ngaiterangi in 1828, taking Te Papa Pa and killing Koraurau, the principal chief, with three hundred of his people.

“The late Mr. Gilbert Mair, while in charge of the mission schooner ‘Herald,’ visited Te Papa and spent the night there two days before it was attacked.”

Before leaving the bay Cook had the ship's name and the date cut on one of the trees near the watering-place, and, after displaying English colours, took formal possession of the land for His Majesty King George III. I think this spot must have been at one of the little rivulets which flow into the east side of the Purangi near its mouth, but the marked tree must long since have disappeared.

Mercury Bay is an ideal place for any one who is fond of boating and sketching to spend a summer holiday. It can be reached twice a week from Auckland by steamer, and there is

– 32 –

also a fair riding-road from Coromandel. The coast-line is broken up into innumerable picturesque headlands and islands, with many little bays of glistening white sand ensconced between, upon which the long ocean swell gently rises and falls. On the north side, especially when the pohutukawa is in bloom, the blaze of crimson fringing the beach makes a picture long to be remembered by any that have seen it. Other points of interest are the hot springs which come up in the sand, below high-water mark, a few miles from the south head of the bay. The wreck of H.M.S. “Buffalo” lies just to the north of the entrance of the Whitianga River. The vessel was wrecked in 1836, and in 1897 the ribs were just awash at dead low water, spring tides.

From Mercury Bay the “Endeavour” proceeded round Cape Colville, and, after sailing up the Hauraki Gulf, came to anchor a few miles from the present Thames Township. I had intended dealing shortly with Captain Cook's trip up the Thames River, but Mr. E. G. Moss, of Paeroa, who is also an enthusiastic admirer of our hero, tells me that he has been collecting data and photographs for some time with a view of writing a paper on that subject, so that I feel that I would be “jumping his claim” if I followed the foot-tracks of the great navigator any further.