Frederick Grosse, Killing seals in a cavern, 1868. Auckland City Libraries Heritage Collections, taken from Transgressing Tikanga by Trevor Bentley.

A historian traces stories of early settlers who were taken captive and sometimes killed

Tauranga historian Trevor Bentley presents 20 “captivity narratives” – first-hand accounts of early settlers captured by Māori – in his new book Transgressing Tikanga, and writes, “To take a Pākehā captive was tika, the correct response to a transgression such as the plundering of tapu crops and sites … It was a response to the violence, destruction and dispossession visited upon Māori communities by British and colonial troops, avaricious colonists and colonial governments, the legacies of which continue today.” One of the accounts was provided by sealer Joseph Price, who sailed from Delaware and arrived in New Zealand on August 21, 1821, to kill seals for their skins.

In six weeks we procured 3563 skins, and on the 11th of October we were taken by the natives of New Zealand, between 10 and 11 o’clock at night. They set fire to our huts, burnt our skins and the provisions we had left. They tied our hands behind our backs and we were marched by them to Looking Glass Bay, which was upwards of 150 miles. During the whole of this time we had nothing to eat but roasted fish which the natives subsist on themselves.

A tribe .. took us before their King and Queen and the moment we were brought before them, John Router, of London, was ordered to be killed. They tied him to a tree and two before and one behind him, with a club each, knocked him on the head. They then cut off his head and buried it. The rest of the body, [they] deposited in a kind of oven underground and roasted it, as a person would roast an animal. Of this they gave us to eat and having nothing else, we partook of it, which tasted very much like roasted pork.

Consider dear reader, what a state our mind must we be in at those awful moments. They tied the remaining five of us to a tree with fifty to guard us. The next day, James Webster was killed and roasted; the day after this William Rawson of New London was killed and roasted; and the following day William Smith of New York shared the fate of his unhappy companions. [The Boston Patriot added: “On each day the hands of the victims were assigned to the Queen, the feet to the King and the trunk to their subjects.”]

On the next day, from what we could understand from the chief, James West, of New York, was to die, but fortunately for us, the night previous to his intended fate, a heavy squall rose from the east with rain, thunder and lightning, which so frightened the natives that they all ran away towards the west, making such a yelling noise as I never heard before, leaving us under the tree.

We now untied each other, and walked away towards the beach where our boat was laying, which was about seven miles as nigh as we could guess. We now found our boat, two oars and the steer oar, with her masts and sails. We immediately launched her into the surf and happy for us, Providence directed us to depart so soon as we did, for we were not thirty yards from the beach, when 700 of the New Zealanders came in search of us.

We were in the boat three days, having nothing to eat, when we were picked up by the brig Maquary [Macquarie], Captain White, belonging to Sydney, New South Wales, where we were landed on the 10th of November, 1821.


Commentary by the author of Transgressing Tikanga, Trevor Bentley: Price’s narrative is a harrowing account. As captives and objects of revenge, the sealers were subjected to physical force and suffering. They were bound, marched overland, and endured the torment of witnessing the selection and execution of their companions, whose bodies were then dismembered, cooked and devoured. As well as being exhibited before the tribe’s rangatira, they also endured the jeering laughter of their captors during executions, and the humiliation of having to consume the cooked flesh of their shipmates.

Price and the other sealers were compelled to undertake an arduous journey over difficult terrain to the settlement of their captors. Keeping their hands tightly bound with cords of muka (flax), the Americans were fed a subsistence diet of dried fish. The tribes had a variety of terms for the special knots they used to bind their captives, the most common sometimes known as mokamoka. Price’s sealers were closely guarded, and had great difficulty in freeing themselves from their bonds.

They were also participants in and victims of a series of clashes between European sealers and Māori, known as The Sealers’ War (1810–1822), during which 43 sealers and 31 Ngāi Tahu were killed, and 13 sealers captured. Price’s sealing gang had been put ashore from the American sealer-whaler ship General Gates by the notorious Captain Abimelech Riggs. Noted for his cold-blooded cruelty to Māori and to his own crew, Riggs was also described as “a tall, thin, drawling, spitting and sanctimonious Yankee”.

Price and his gang were subjected to utu for crimes committed by Riggs and the crew aboard the General Gates. Tikanga Māori had its chivalry and hospitality, but when the hau or vitality of an individual and the tribe was damaged, the law of utu demanded that the transgressors, or their relatives or associates, be punished.

Sealers from Boston, New York and Philadelphia dominated the New Zealand trade, and therefore. When it was published in the Boston Patriot and Columbian Centinel, Price’s narrative served as a reminder of the dangers of sealing in New Zealand. Recycled in condensed third-hand accounts, the incident was transcribed in three English journals and periodicals between 1824 and 1842. These publications about England’s overseas territories provided general readers and prospective emigrants additional information about the indigenous Māori, while reminding them of what one writer wrote as the “threat posed by New Zealand’s cannibal tribes”.

Robert McNab brought Price’s narrative to the attention of New Zealand audiences in his book Murihiku (1909). Under headings such as ‘Cannibal Orgies’ and ‘Tales of Terror’, New Zealand and Australian newspapers used the incident to titillate their readers’ fascination with cannibalism. Twentieth-century authors began placing Price’s tale alongside other cannibalism accounts, including the crews of Marion Du Fresne (1772), Captain Cook (1773), the Paramatta (1808), Boyd (1809) and Sydney Cove (1810). James Belich has described how these incidents were used by historians and writers to create images of the New Zealand frontier as a place of chaos and danger.

Taken from Transgressing Tikanga: Captured by Māori by Trevor Bentley (Potton & Burton, $39.99), available in bookstores nationwide.

Trevor Bentley is the author of Transgressing Tikanga, and a writer and educator of Samoan and European descent. His special interest is the interaction of Māori and Pākehā in pre-Treaty New Zealand

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