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Trafalgar Night Dinner, HMNZS Philomel

Issue date: 
Friday, 20 October 1989
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

My task is to propose a toast to The Immortal Memory. I am honoured to have that privilege. What I want to do is to put that immortal memory into a New Zealand context, New Zealand as we were at the turn of the 19th Century and New Zealand as we are today.

In the late 18th Century, Pacific Islanders were dead keen to sail on ships and travel to distant lands. When Cook came to New Zealand in 1769, a Tahitian, Tupia, was on board. When he returned in 1776, Cook had with him the famous Omai, another Tahitian who had been taken to England where he became a celebrity in London society and Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait.

By the 1790s, spars for the Royal Navy, flax for rope, whales, seals and potatoes had become the basis of a brisk trade between New Zealand, New South Wales and further afield. Maoris, of course, were the traders and they were a common sight in Sydney before 1800. American captains were keen to have Maoris as crew because they had a natural aptitude for the sea. In 1804, Governor King of New South Wales had to draw up regulations for the care of Maoris who became stranded when they were paid off in Sydney and had nowhere to go.

Whaling in New Zealand waters began with whaling ships which carried convicts to New South Wales in the early 1790s. The monopoly of the East India Company forbade them to whale but that was disregarded when Australian and New Zealand waters were found to be teaming with whales. When wars in Europe caused dissension and unrest in Spanish American colonies, the whalers' interest in Australian and New Zealand waters intensified.

Between 1800 and 1806, whale oil to the value of 200,000 was taken from this region. In 1804, the American sealing ship Favourite took 87,000 skins from New Zealand and sold them in China. In 1808, 18 British and American whaling ships visited New Zealand. As it turned out, sperm whaling which was important in New Zealand waters, was a completely American development.

The references to Maoris travelling far afield are sketchy. As I have said, they crewed on British and American ships. John Savage, a physician, took Moehanga to England in 1805. There is a suspicion, but no record, of Māori sailors at Trafalgar. But 10 years later, Tahitians fought in the Waterloo campaign of 1815.

At the turn of the 18th Century the situation in New Zealand was evolving rapidly. Europeans were voyaging even further into Southern waters. They came to Foveaux Strait in 1804 and to the Auckland Islands in 1806. The first white women arrived in 1806. They were Kathleen Hagerty and Charlotte Edgar, two escaped convicts from New South Wales.

Our focus tonight is with 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar but my point is that much was happening in New Zealand at that time. Apart from the 200,000 or so Maoris who were here and who would have been puzzled to learn that their land had now been discovered, there were myriads of contacts between this strange and lonely land and the world at large.

I cannot find any concrete links between Trafalgar and notable New Zealand figures of the early 19th Century. Our first Governor, George Gipps, an Army man, was at one time Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty. Hobson and Fitzroy, the next two Governors, were both Naval Officers and Fitzroy was actually born in 1805.

Henry Williams, the doughty missionary of the Bay of Islands who with his son rendered the English text of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori, was a Midshipman at the bombardment of Copenhagen when the Danish fleet was seized. Williams was a difficult man at the best of times. One of his long suffering colleagues wrote, "It was often said that no missionary could ever live with him long in the same station save his brother and I believe it to be true, though I managed to dwell with him at Paihia nearly 8 years but there were not a few serious squalls during that period."

Following the Napoleonic Wars, Britain disbanded its military forces. Consequently officers were posted all over the world to keep them busy. Some, like Henry Williams, became missionaries. But even missionaries faltered. It was said of one who lacked Henry William's moral uprightness that "He was a great preacher but his weakness was Māori women."

But then reality is never simple and seldom what we imagine it ought to be. Shakespeare wrote:

"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues."

Consider that seventy-one of the Victory's crew at Trafalgar were foreigners recruited by press gangs, including three Frenchmen who found themselves fighting against their own country. It gives point to the definition of a volunteer as someone in the right place at the wrong time. Spare a thought for little William Doak from Edinburgh. He was aged 10 but if he was looking for some mates there were four boys of 12 years and six of 13 also on the Victory.

There were women at Trafalgar on ships of both sides. Some were wives of officers or official passengers. Some were girlfriends who relied on rations supplied by their men. They carried ammunition, tended the wounded and took their place if need be. Jane Townsend won a campaign medal but then lost it because she was on board unofficially. Other women dressed as men and fought as crew.

Things could be as confusing in 1805 as they were for me in Sydney two weeks ago when I realised that the person I had just kissed on the cheek at a welcome by the local Māori community was Carmen. Shipboard life gave birth to the well known call, "Wakey, wakey, show a leg." If the leg sticking out of the hammock was hairy then the odds were the owner was male. But if the leg was smooth and shapely then further investigation might reveal a female.

So the immortal memory we honour tonight is the human family in its richness and diversity, in its strengths and weaknesses. In this instance it is a crew of 663 officers and seamen, not counting the marines and the boys, locked into a life and death combat which left dead 54 of the Victory's crew including Lord Nelson.

But it is a memory and memories have the power to serve our needs at other points in our history. "Saturday October 21, 1899," wrote the New Zealand Times "will live in the pantheon of New Zealand's history." On that day, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson's death, the first contingent of New Zealand soldiers left for South Africa. The troopers had marched from their Karori camp down to Jervois Quay where a reported crowd of 40 - 50,000 greeted them with extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm and cries of "Bravo New Zealand." On the harbour was a convoy of steamers containing an estimated 10 - 20,000 people and bands which played patriotic music as the good ship Waiwera made its triumphal departure. Before the troopers left, Premier Seddon told them: "We shall look forward to your displaying bravery, decision and coolness, because coolness and determination must win in the long run." Robert Stout made the mistake of publicly hoping that the war would be won before the contingent arrived. There were shouts of "No! No!" Mere victory was not what people wanted. They wanted our boys to prove their mettle, to show themselves "neither children nor Gods but men in a world of men" as one commemorative souvenir publication put it.

Ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors came to these shores seeking opportunities and freedom not available to them in England, Ireland or the remote Pacific. The free and mobile society is one of our most precious ideals.

It is a society we are prepared to defend. The forces we combat are the forces of evil and compromise which human beings face in every age. They may take the form of social or economic forces in our midst as well as external forces which could threaten our territorial sovereignty.

In such circumstances we do what Nelson and the crew of the Victory did. We draw strength from our colleagues and we gain inspiration from the past. We hand on to succeeding generations our hopes, not our fears. We do the best we can.

Last updated: 
Friday, 20 October 1989

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