Nga rangatira katoa, e kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei, tēnā koutou katoa.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, warm greetings to you all.
I specifically acknowledge: Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith and Chris Brown, Patron and President of the Edwin Fox Society respectively; Your Worship Alistair Sowman, Mayor of the Marlborough District Council; and Colin King, MP for Kaikoura; - tēnā koutou katoa.
Thank you for inviting me here today to see the work done by the Edwin Fox Society. Your work, which is recognised at an international level by the World Ship Trust, has preserved an important part of our heritage.
As 21st century citizens living in a fast-paced, future-focused society we sometimes ignore the past or think it irrelevant. Some of our important buildings and relics have disappeared because people have deemed them not worthy of protection. Their loss is greater than we realise. After all, it is our past that shapes both our present and our future. The historian James Burke said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you are.” The loss of our relics, our taonga, our treasures has implications for our sense of national identity.
Fortunately, there are those who see value in something that others may dismiss as being beyond repair. A group of people here in Picton, realised that an abandoned coal hulk rotting at its Picton moorings, was more than just another ship. Together they set in motion a process that has ensured the rescue and preservation of one of the few remnants of a very important chapter in New Zealand’s history – the means by which emigrants of the 19th century arrived in this country.
The sea and the ships that sailed on it have played pivotal roles in the development of New Zealand. Our ancestors travelled here across the oceans. Like many of you, I can point to seaborne arrivals in my family history. In my case, there are the Te Arawa, Aotea, Mataatua and Takitimu waka on one side; and the sailing ship, Katherine Stewart Forbes, on the other. That former connection was reinforced to me recently when I visited the island of Mauke in the Cook Islands, where the people of the Mataatua waka are reported to have originated hundreds of years ago. The latter connection is one I have with many other New Zealanders whose forebears arrived 160 years ago.
Until the time of the modern passenger liner, lengthy sea journeys were often perilous and arduous affairs. I’m reasonably certain my forebears who came by sailing ship would agree with one William Manning, a passenger on the Edwin Fox in 1875, who described the journey as, “122 days of misery, anxiety, discomfort and semi-starvation.” It was a real test of strength and character for the many thousands of people who made the passage.
Not only for the fact that our forebears sailed here has the sea played such a large part in our national consciousness. As the writer John Mulgan once said, “New Zealanders are all the time standing on the edge of these seas. They spend their lives wanting to set out across the wide oceans that surround them in order to find the rest of the world.”
The history of the Edwin Fox is 160 years of seafaring in microcosm. If these planks could talk, the stories they could tell would give us an insight into a different world. The stories of being built in Calcutta. The stories of carrying brave young men to war in the Crimea. The stories of the desperation of convicts being transported to Australia, and the stories of the hopes and dreams of young settlers seeking a new life on the other side of the world.
This vessel’s story is also one of change. With the advent of steam, sailing ships vanished from the seaways. And so, too, the Edwin Fox’s role changed to that of a refrigerator ship. That represented not just the end of an era in shipping, but the beginning of a new one for New Zealand’s economy. It was a time when our coffers were bolstered by the returns from shipping our lamb overseas.
The vessel’s final transformation was to be as a coal store, and ultimate abandonment in the 1950s. The shipping industry had moved on, and the Edwin Fox was an unwanted relic.
Those who went on to form the Edwin Fox Society thought differently and we have cause, today, to be grateful for their thoughtfulness and ambition. Some of them are here today, others will remember the initial push to rescue and restore the Edwin Fox, and will have witnessed what happened in the 34 years before she finally made it here into the dry dock. It was a long process and definitely an exercise in perseverance.
Some of the driving forces behind the Society, people like Norm Brayshaw and Harry Stace, are no longer with us. I’m sure though, like you, they would be quietly satisfied to know that the preservation of the Edwin Fox has been judged to be as worthy of recognition as that of some of the world’s most well-known historic ships – vessels like the Mary Rose, the Cutty Sark and the HMS Victory.
The World Ship Trust Award certificate calls the Edwin Fox ‘a well-travelled ship’. The ships logs reveal this to be true. The names of a multitude of exotic destinations are listed - Bangkok, Sebastopol, Guam, Shanghai and Cuba to name just a few. Built in India by British interests, it was only in later years that she came to be in New Zealand so we cannot claim her completely as our own. She is part of the history of many nations. She is the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia. As a maritime historian has pointed out , Edwin Fox is an extremely rare and valuable vessel that just happens to be in New Zealand under our care.
It is that care and stewardship that is being publically acknowledged here today. I thank all of you who have been part, and continue to take a part, in the ever-evolving story of the Edwin Fox. This ship is history in hard copy, and a treasure that we should all be proud of, now and in the future!