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John Rutherford, the captive sailor who became a Maori chief

Posted in Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 22 May 2013

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This edited article about New Zealand originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 263 published on 28 January 1967.

Maoris, picture, image, illustration

Maori warriors by Angus McBride

“Hoist your sails or you’ll be murdered!”

The crew of Captain Jackson’s trading ship gazed in wonder at the speaker of these dramatic words who had paddled out in a canoe from the shore of the pleasant New Zealand bay where the trader had just dropped anchor. A light-skinned native, he wore the feather cloak of a Maori chief and his face and body were tattooed, yet he spoke perfect English.

Obviously it was no time for questions. Sailors climbed up the masts to set the sails while others heaved on the capstan to raise the anchor.

Only when the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand was dwindling astern did the captain turn to the man who had given the warning.

“And who, sir, might you be?” he demanded.

“My name is John Rutherford,” came the reply. “I am the only survivor of the Agnes, and for the last few years I have been a Maori chief.”

The tattooed man then told how, in 1816, at the age of 20, he had come to the Pacific in the American brig Agnes. After being battered by gales, the ship reached the coast of New Zealand at the place called Poverty Bay.

Here the crew began repairing the storm damage. From the beach Maori canoes were paddled through the long rollers until they clustered round the brig. Signs of friendship were given, and soon the visitors were climbing aboard the Agnes with gifts.

For a moment the Maoris and crew laughed together in a friendly fashion. Then suddenly the Maori leader whipped out a jade axe from under his cloak and clubbed the captain. His followers immediately attacked the surprised crew.

After the Agnes had been looted, the Maoris took a dozen trussed prisoners ashore. The next day the prisoners were divided and led away in different directions. Rutherford and another sailor were taken by a chief called Aimy to his fortified village.

“I’ve heard tell of what they do to prisoners,” muttered Rutherford’s companion grimly as they were marched through the dark green bush. “They’ll tattoo us, then cut off our heads and dry them. Traders pay good prices for smoked tattooed heads, which they sell as novelties in England.”

At the thought of England, young Rutherford had to choke back his tears. It seemed that he would never see the land of his birth again.

At the village, the captives were tied down to stakes for the tattooing. But a gasp of admiration rose from the Maoris when Rutherford’s shirt was ripped off. Like many sailors, he already had several impressive tattoos on his body, and these his captors viewed with respect. Here was a man to be reckoned with.

Carefully a priest drew intricate patterns on Rutherford’s face with charcoal. Then began the agonising process of tattooing, the skin being cut with a sharp shell knife. Purple dye was then rubbed into the incisions.

As Rutherford almost fainted with pain, a Maori girl bent over him and moistened his lips with water. Her name was Toya, and she was the daughter of Chief Aimy.

One of the effects of the tattooing was to cause temporary blindness, and the fevered sailor lay in a hut for three days. During that time Toya looked after him.

When he could see again, Rutherford could not recognise his reflection. His whole face was a mass of blue lines and whorls. He looked exactly like a Maori warrior.

As he had predicted, Rutherford’s friend was killed after the tattooing had healed, but Rutherford himself was spared. The Maoris were greatly impressed by him, partly because of the tattoos he already had on his body, and partly because he had never cried out during the tattooing process. This, to the Maoris, was a great sign of courage and manhood. They believed that such a noble prisoner gave prestige to the tribe, and they dressed him like a chieftain. Meanwhile he began to learn the language from Toya.

Plans were made to make war on a neighbouring tribe, and Rutherford was sent with the young warriors. He fought so well alongside his captors that he was welcomed back in the village as a hero. From then on he was always included when the elders of the tribe planned war, as he had an organising ability which gave Aimy’s people a great advantage over the other tribes.

Although the Maoris were a fierce and war-like people, they had their own strict code of chivalry which the Englishman greatly admired. And when they were not at war, he found them good-humoured and generous.

One day Aimy called Rutherford to his hut.

“White warrior, soon I must go to the Land of the Spirits,” he said. “All my sons have been slain in battle, therefore I want you to marry my daughter so that when I die you will be the chief of my tribe.”

A few months later Aimy died and Rutherford was proclaimed chief. For the next nine years he ruled over the tribe. Sometimes he led them into battle and his fame spread throughout the North Island. His life in England was now nothing but a distant memory.

Then one day a panting messenger arrived at the tribal meeting-house.

“Mighty chief, a great canoe with wings has come into the bay,” the messenger cried. “The warriors want you to lead them against it so they may capture it and the pakehas who sail in it.”

Pakeha is the Maori word for a European, and Rutherford realised that he was being asked to attack his fellow countrymen. Vividly the looting of the Agnes came back to his mind.

“I shall go out to them alone in a canoe,” said Rutherford. “I know the pakeha tongue and I shall tell them we wish to trade. Then when I signal you, come out in your canoes with your weapons well hidden . . .”

He took his wife Toya to one side and told her of his secret plan.

“You will not return,” she said. “But I shall not betray you.”

“It is true that I must warn the sailors, for they come from the same land as I,” Rutherford said, “but someday I shall return for you.”

Then he paddled out to the ship and gave the warning. He was taken to Tahiti, where he got a passage on a homeward-bound sailing ship. As he could not hide his tattooed face, he decided to earn his living by it when he reached London. He joined a travelling fair and was billed as ‘The White Maori’. Sitting in a tent, he would tell of his adventures as a chief of South Sea cannibals.

Then one day John Rutherford, the White Maori, vanished. It has never been established what happened to him, but it is most likely that he embarked on a Pacific-bound ship so that he could return to his beloved wife in faraway Poverty Bay.

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