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Check to Your King

Chapter Fourteen — Two and a Half Frenchmen

Chapter Fourteen
Two and a Half Frenchmen

Now there, at least, he might have kept his coat-tails clear of the barbed wire of ambiguity. After all, his papa-in-law was the Archdeacon Thomas Rudge of Gloucester, a dignitary of the Church of England. One might really think he did it out of spite. The next thing we find is that the Sovereign Chief has embroiled himself in the first serious civil war of religion to affect New Zealand.

The occasion of the strife is Monseigneur Jean Baptiste François Pompallier, Bishop of Maronée, Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania. (In effect, the long title means that the young Bishop is expected to make his headquarters in New Zealand, and in some unexplained manner, though not assisted by any great financial resources, to keep a fatherly eye on the unsophisticated heathen prancing on a thousand islands here and there in the Pacific.) Bishop Pompallier is provided with two junior colleagues, a priest, and a religious brother, when he arrives in New Zealand, disembarking at the Hokianga from the little schooner Raiatea, on January 10th, 1838. The Raiatea sailed again for Tahiti next day.

Since M. the Bishop and M. the Baron have never met before, there must be some reason, if one can only get at it, for the actions of the Sovereign Chief in ranging himself on a side which would not naturally be considered his own. Here are the only reasonable conclusions:

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M. the Baron arranged himself beside M. the Bishop (I) because the missionaries of his own fold, the Church of England, not to mention the Dissenters, had been rude to him, snubbed him, and opposed his land-claims. (2) Much more important, because the Bishop not only belonged to France, a nation of which Charles grew ever fonder as the English became more impolite, but because he brought with him personal letters of introduction which cannot but have been flattering to a man in the Baron de Thierry's position. The English were taking no notice of him at all, unless of such a disparaging sort that he would rather they had left his name out altogether.

One must not forget reason (3). Charles was essentially chivalrous. The lonely and dangerous situation of Bishop Pompallier at this time appealed at once to his generosity. He would scarcely have left a Long-Haired Israelite or a Mormon isolated under the same conditions. In the Bishop, he met a gentleman whom he could greatly admire, and whose purposes towards the native seemed to him exemplary.

Few others in the Hokianga agreed with him. There was a mere handful of Roman Catholics. One of them, Mr. Thomas Poynton, immediately placed a ship-shape boarded house at the Bishop's service, and when the natives of tribes converted to other sects became warlike and marched on to the premises, threatening to hurl the Bishop into the river, Mr. Poynton collected his own natives and scared the first lot back again. It was like the legend of the Grand Old Duke of York, but on a miniature scale.

From the letters which Bishop Pompallier brought to Charles, one can only assume that in France there was a complete misapprehension as to the extent and powers of the Sovereign Chieftaincy. Can it be that Charles lied to them a little? I cannot see why not; after all, he needed their money.

The first letter, a friendly note, was from Bishop Polding in Sydney. France was represented in the epistle of M. de St. Hilaire, Councillor of State, Director of Colonies, who, from the French Ministry of the Navy and the Colonies, addressed himself thus:

Monsieur the Baron de Thierry,

Sir, I deliver this letter to Monseigneur F. Pompallier, Bishop of Maronée, Vicar Apostolic for Western Oceania. Being informed that his mission will take him to New Zealand, I apprised him that he would find you in that country in a position to second his evangelical labours, and I pray you please to render to the honourable Bishop all the good offices which may depend on you. Serving page 124 religion and a Frenchman will, I am persuaded, Sir, be a great satisfaction to you.

I can give you news of your brother, who is attached here to the Department of Foreign Affairs,at present in Paris, but on the point of departing for St. Petersburg.

I would be very happy to receive from you, Sir, some token of your remembrance. And if I could be useful to you, I would very willingly place myself at your service.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Your most obedient servant,

de St. Hilaire,

Councillor of State, Director of Colonies.

Fair enough; but in Mr. Thomas Poynton's house–where he called on Bishop Pompallier three days after the latter's arrival – Charles must have rubbed his chin a little, perusing the letter. That the Bishop stood in need of protection could not be questioned. But how was the Sovereign Chief to afford it? (Did I mention it ? The envelope of St. Hilaire's letter bears the address “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand.”)

But paramount over all disturbances, there is the delight of talking once again to a man of intellect and feeling, a gentleman and a Frenchman.

“Notwithstanding differences in religion, we have never, as yet, ceased to be friends, and when he comes to enliven my solitude, as he often does, I feel increasing admiration for the excellence of the man, whilst I must ever admire the mild, courteous, and amiable deportment, as well as the noble and truly catholic virtues of the Bishop. I have known him intimately for nineteen years, and I have not yet come to the end of his good qualities.”

From this little testimonial (written in 1856), one might have supposed the Bishop would be welcomed in New Zealand with open arms. But the rivalry between religious sects was at that time perhaps more bitter in the Pacific and the Tasman Sea than any-where else in the world. Sometimes the consequences were distinctly funny. There was the chieftain, William Repa. He was converted, in the first place, to Wesleyanism, but Bishop Pompallier weaned him to the Roman Catholic fold. However, when Bishop Selwyn came along, he made Repa an Anglican over the heads of his former conversions. After this, Repa turned “devil”, took three wives to illustrate his independence, and marched with the war-parties against the white men. Who can blame him?

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The last years of the 'thirties were a most trying confusion of religion and politics in the Pacific; inevitably so, for whilst most orthodox and dissenting missionaries were English, most priests were French, with a sprinkling of Italians and Spaniards. For a time, especially in New Zealand, the missionaries tried hard to maintain native independence, less because they adored the native and wished to see him for ever free than because their autocratic leaders had entrenched themselves in a power, sometimes in a very material prosperity, which could not be maintained were the country to pass under a European sovereignty. They were the gods of the independent native principalities. But a civilised and dependent country has no gods, and even its God is confined within a limited space.

This wish for native independence could not survive the beginnings of the struggle for power in the Pacific between two great maritime powers, England and France. In the islands, priest-baiting had furnished an excuse for the arrival of French war-sloops. At the time of Pompallier's entrance, the French admiral du Petit-Thouars paid a social call on Queen Pomare of Tahiti, and fined her 2,000 dollars for her treatment of the French priests driven back to Gambier Island. Rumours of similar French coups de foudre were everywhere. Naturally, the English missionary became Englishman first; to his already profound dislike of Roman Catholicism was added his resistance against possible French domination. His entrenchments had better pass civilly into English possession before France grabbed them.

Nobody could say that Charles hadn't extended an open hand to the Hokianga missionaries at first. Did he not implore them to become the magistrates of his Independent State? That they, very naturally, refused to do any such thing he might have forgiven; but not their opposition to his land-claims. Doubtless he was over-joyed when Bishop Pompallier's arrival gave him the chance to furnish them with a poke in the eye. Passing in his canoe from Mount Isabel, on that first visit to the Bishop, he was called into the little Wesleyan Mission Station at Munga-Muka. Here the Wesleyan leader, the fire-eating Rev. Mr. White, was presiding over a meeting of protest. For the first time, Charles was greeted by missionaries and settlers as a man and a brother. His voice was as good as another's, if he would but join them in protesting.

When the Baron de Thierry revealed that, despite the Archdeacon in his family, he was actually on his way to visit the Bishop, a storm broke out.

“Would I go near the Scarlet Woman? Near the agent of the page 126 Beast of Rome?… I was really pained by their deep groans, and vexed by their personalities,” he writes, with that exasperating superiority which did so much to get him generally disliked.

St. Hilaire, from the tone of his letter, concluded that the Sovereign Chief could put a brigantine, at the least, to watch over the Bishop. This was not to be, but Charles did what he could. A fast canoe, manned by one white settler and four Maoris, sped daily from Mount Isabel to the Bishop's residence, inquiring after his welfare. The entire garrison at Mount Isabel stood ready to render assistance if necessary.

It was not a navy or an army. But it was something.

On the third day after his visit, Charles heard that the natives were gathering, their warlike inclinations roused by pointed reminders about the Scarlet Woman and the “Children of Marion”. They meant, said the runner, to throw the Bishop and his two priests into the Hokianga.

There is only one way in which the Baron can meet this sort of crisis: mounted upon his witch's broomstick, his quill pen. This time the entire household is pressed into service, copying out duplicates of the circular, which he then distributed – whether they wanted it or not – to the white residents of the district.


Being informed that an attempt is to be made by residents of the Bay of Islands and by others of this River to drive away from this Island Monseigneur F. Pompallier, Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania, Bishop of Maronée, the Baron de Thierry appeals to their sense of justice and humanity, as well as to their best feelings as Christians, that they may pause before they commit an act which must inevitably occasion much loss of blood, and which would bring the severest punishment on the native race, who can never be suspected of such measures but at the instigation of the whites. The Baron de Thierry makes this appeal under the persuasion that all men, of all nations, have a right to worship God in their own manner. New Zealand is not a British land, and no British subject has the right to persecute the subjects of another nation whilst they live after the usages of civilised society. The Baron's right to interfere in the matter would be sufficiently founded upon principles of humanity, if a more immediate reason had not been offered in the shape of an official letter from France.…

And more in the same vein. Whether his circular, signed with that flourishing “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand”, and sealed in black with the dear little prancing lion accepted by H.M. Customs page 127 Offices in Sydney, had any effect but to decide the settlers more finally that the Baron de Thierry was the damnedest of all damned souls, is to be doubted. Meanwhile, owing to a combination of events, the expected attack on the Bishop did not prevail, though twice the natives were heated to boiling-point.

In the first instance, Thomas Poynton's boarded house – where Bishop Pompallier had dedicated a room as chapel, and was baptising at a steady rate every convert he could get hold of – was threatened by a hostile party. Methodists by persuasion. These natives were disarmed by the courteous refusal of the Bishop and his priests to take any notice of their threats. Then, on the banks of the Munga-Muka, the Rev. Mr. White and his natives had a brush with Thomas Poynton and his, confined to verbiage on both sides. Mr. Poynton's party being of superior strength, the battle went to him by default, as already related.

Then the Bishop himself took a hand. He was reported to be picking up Maori at record speed. At first, the results of this were disconcerting to himself, for he discovered that the long name with which he was everywhere addressed by the natives meant “Anti-Christ”. The little mission press at Paihia, learning of his impending arrival, produced a printed pamphlet about him under this title. Since he himself possessed no press, he remained “Anti-Christ” for a considerable time, but did his best to wean the innocents on to “Episcopo” instead. “Pikopo” was the best their tongues could make of it.

Then he was diplomatic with the downright hostile. Those who came to execute war-dances remained to fall in love… perhaps not so much with the Bishop as with the Bishop's blankets. They were superb. More brilliant by far than any rainbow. Striped rosy, purple, vivid green, orange. Something to intoxicate the average Maori even more surely than the thrill of battle.

In Pompalleranian blankets, the tribes stalked through their pas, as vain as peacocks, and twice as harmless.

Failing in any success in their scheme to duck the Bishop, the white settlers had to find some other outlet for their annoyance. This, naturally, proved to be Charles.

From that time onwards, his position grew steadily worse. Regarding the land ceded by Nene, one Maori claimant after another popped up an insatiable head, explaining that he had a right to be consulted. Acres here, acres there, were whittled off. Of course, the settlers were putting the natives up to this game.

Then there were the depredations on his remaining estates. He would hear an axe ring among the blue-grey kauri trunks in the page 128 Long Bush, and know that in the heart of the forest whites and natives were felling timber, which would be rafted down-stream under his very nose. His flock of goats had settled down cheer-fully as Crusoe's, and the boys were chaperons to the rabble of turkey chicks, fowls, and ducklings. But there was never a night when some two-legged fox did not invade the hen-houses. White men of the baser sort helped themselves as they pleased. “And they set on the native dogs,” mourns Charles, “to worry my poor goats.” The Maoris had a sly humour in their sins. Many a time he would strive to see the faintest trace of remorse in some stolid brown face, as the possessor, having lugged in a stolen pig from the Long Bush, tried to sell this to Charles at his own back door. The animals themselves turned rebel. Charles had brought some fine breeding-sows from Sydney, which did their duty by their Chieftaincy, and littered; however, when kept in pens, these aristocrats raged and devoured their piglets, and when Charles released them they roamed into the Long Bush, there to be ravished and devoured.

Always in the mornings the blockhouse door would open, and, as early sunlight crept silverly across the lintel, there would appear a slight figure, dark curls loose over its dressing-gown. A sober command: “Drink this, Papa.” It was admitted that Isabel's coffee was a masterpiece. The child was not domesticated… too much of a dreamer, though she had such a coaxing way with plants that Charles swore they put their green heads out of the ground to look at her. But his morning coffee was a solemn rite. Always, as she stood beside his sofa-bed, he would watch for her quick, anxious glance, which said, “I understand. But perhaps today will be a lucky one.”

A campaign of petty persecution, of offences so small that taken individually every one of them is a joke, and the man who complains against it a mean fellow, devoid of any sense of humour; this type of stratagem is about the last suited to improve the nerves, common sense, or stability of the sensitive. The more they prodded, with their little pieces of stick, the more entertainingly he behaved, proving by his lashings of the tail, hispawings of the earth, that they had been right in treating him as a dangerous madman.

Charles began to lose his head. With him, that could mean only one thing. He talked too much… this time, about the handsome things the French would do for him, the moment they got wind of his treatment.

Perhaps he believed it. (How often does the persecuted child threaten his tormentors with a policeman?) At all events, he made page 129 speeches about it, lots of speeches… to his native friends. squatting around the flagstaff; to the white settlers when he could manage to buttonhole them. The French ships would sail up the Hokianga, their theme-song a combination of “God Save the King” and “Pop Go the British”. Above all, they would restore his prestige by giving him the royal salute.

Naturally, this interested both settlers and natives. From the first, it had been their idea that the Baron was a secret emissary of France. Now, with French warships prowling at large about the coasts, the natives declared freely that the French were going to land, and force the chiefs who had withheld the debatable land-claims to hand them over.

At the time when things were at their worst on Mount Isabel, another Frenchman, just as lonely, and perhaps in greater personal danger than Charles, was placed by the intervention of a third in a position of safety.

Word came that the French corvette L'Héroine, captained by Cécille, stood off the northern coast, heading for the Bay of Islands.

In Sydney, Cécille had heard rumours of the Catholic Bishop's situation. It was reported that the threatened attack on the mission had been successful, obliging the Bishop to spread his sails for New South Wales. Cécille wasted no time. Leaving word in Sydney that, should the Bishop take refuge there, it would be safe for him to re-embark immediately for New Zealand, where L'Héroine would have cleared up his difficulties, the French captain headed for Kororareka, chief settlement of the Bay of Islands.

The approach of the corvette plunged both the de Thierry household and the Hokianga settlers into a whirlpool of speculations, doubts, and hopes.

“They're making it a test case… more French generals riding on dragons, or this time it might be on a sea-serpent. But, oh, Emily, if Cécille will only come!”

“Yes,” she said quietly, looking from Mount Isabel's windows to the far shine of the sea below. “If only.…”

She went out, and the door closed almost noiselessly. Yet the sound re-echoed somewhere in his heart. Sunset was a great pavilion of royal colours, the sea below an empty blue carpet, unrolled to the feet of the glowing hills. His fancy painted it with the ship, moving under full sail.

“Why shouldn't she come?” he asked himself childishly. “Why shouldn't she come? I am a good Frenchman.” France was everything now. Lieutenant McDonnell had quite cleared up his position in regard to England. Before the “ex-Assistant British Resident” page 130 had stolen away his emigrants, his papers very frequently referred to himself as an Englishman; never afterwards, though he was still inclined to flourish his long-extinct commission in the 23rd Light Dragoons under one's nose.

Meanwhile, at Cécille's invitation, Bishop Pompallier made his way overland to Kororareka, sleeping the night at Benjamin Turner's grog-shop.… “A wild place, frequented by savages,” he wrote, years later. The Hokianga, for all its heathen ways, was milk and water compared with the activities of the Bay of Islands.

Where the waters deepened into milky jade, fortified islands thrust up their topknots, tufted bush parting over the earthworks of old Maori trenches. A few miles up the Bay, within spearshot of the mission station at Keri-Keri (“the Place of the Rumbling Waters”), stood the carved war pa of Hone Heke, Shunghie's nephew. The pa in old days was a living blood-stain, soaking into the clear waters. Under the eyes of the missionaries, whose stone blockhouse was built like a fortress, in Shunghie's time had shot in the red-ochred war-canoes, laden with bound and living captives. These were butchered for the cannibal feasts within full sight of the mission station. Girl-children grew up in houses where the blinds were always drawn, for fear of what they might see across the riband of water.

There was more than brown man's custom to reckon with in the Bay. Here captains from whalers and trading-schooners put in, drinking rum and arrack at the peak-gabled taverns, and frequenting the native brothels. Runaway ‘prentice boys, bold after six weeks’ clearance of the ships they had deserted, poked their noses out of their rat-holes and rubbed shoulders with unkempt, bearded men, escaped convicts from Botany Bay and Van Diemen's Land. White grog-shops at Kororareka ran in competition with the native brothels. Handsome Maori women of middle age, their breasts swelling against the gaudy cotton bodices of striped scarlet and orange print, herded the deer-eyed, slender wilderness girls into the upper rooms pent beneath the high gables. Kororareka was a sleepless, restless town, life burning with a hot scarlet flame behind its shuttered windows.

Captain Cécille himself came ashore in the ship's long-boat to breakfast with Bishop Pompallier in the tavern parlour. The French flag flew gaily over the Bishop's head, as he left L'Héroine after his first visit; and as the long-boat neared shore again, the corvette's guns rattled in a military salute. Cécille, aware that the eyes of white settlers and native chiefs were watching his reception of the Catholic Bishop, was doing the thing in style.

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With the fresh breeze swelling the cloud-sails on that vast blue, Bishop Pompallier relaxed for a moment the iron discipline under which he had locked away hesitation and fear. For long months, since in the Vatican the Pope had placed the episcopal ring on the finger of a young priest from Lyons, he had put childish things away.

He must be no longer a Frenchman, no longer even a human being. He, the pilgrim in a strange and pagan country, must be only the symbol of his spiritual authority. He had forced himself to seem immune from ordinary weakness. In the Wallis Islands, hostile natives had boarded the little ship on which he journeyed. He had stood side by side with a giant native determined on his murder. He had never once turned his eyes to the tomahawk brandished in that man's hands, his lips had never uttered the plea for mercy. He compelled himself to think, “This is nothing.” As a man, he was helpless, unarmed, to be smashed to pieces and cast aside like a toy by these savage children. But if the tomahawk in that moment had swung, splitting his skull, spattering the deck with the human body and brain, that which dominated body and brain must still have endured.…

For a moment he was in France again, and could remember the voices of his mother and sisters, calling his name. A long-bearded sailor from L'Héroine came to him, and asked for his first Communion. Forty-eight years old, and a sailor since childhood, the man could neither read nor write. The Bishop's heart stirred at finding this simplicity after the desert of quarrelsome days.

Eighteen of the sailors on the corvette desired to make their first Communion; others among the crew, sun-tanned fellows who had spent years afloat, came with them to the Holy Table. Bishop Pompallier gave them instruction twice a day, either aboard the ship or on shore. The few who could read painstakingly guided the others. It was a strange sight, that little knot of jerseyed men sitting on Kororareka's pale, wind-sifted sands, whilst before them shone the broken opal of the sea, and behind slanted the peaked gables of the unclean houses.

When the Bishop finally celebrated Mass aboard L'Héroine, there were over three hundred people present, many of them Protestants. Cécille and his officers, in full uniform, stood erect and motionless. At the Elevation of the Host, a squad of gunners knelt bare-headed, and the sound of the corvette's drum echoed along the wild shore. The sailors who had been prepared for Communion now came forward and knelt in a half-circle about the altar. The glance of their eyes, the roughness of the tanned and page 132 bearded faces, brought tears to the eyes of the man who served them.

The visit of L'Héroine meant a considerable improvement, in security and in prestige, for Bishop Pompallier. He busied himself with finding a place in the Bay of Islands where he might establish a central mission. For long years, an old two-storeyed house in Kororareka was to harbour him and his priests. In the meantime, the Hokianga mission moved out of Thomas Poynton's boarded house to a new refuge, a house built at Papakauwau. He took possession of this in June, his approach heralded by a salvo of musketry. The heart of the house was its little kauri-wood chapel, where were unfolded, for the first time since his arrival, beautiful old tapestries from the Flemish looms.

The worst days were over. In some part, they would return again… shortage of funds, political crises, enmity, misunderstanding. But he had his feet on the soil. Later comer than the missionaries of other creeds, he had, despite his disadvantage, planted a tree that would grow.

The last months of King Pokeno's little chieftaincy. There he sat, waiting for the help which obstinately refused to come. Every day he watched the narrowing bright blue of the Hokianga, hoping against hope that he might see L'Héroine's sails moving there, and knowing perfectly well that he himself was to blame for his isolation. Cécille's letters were more than courteous. They one and all addressed him with the “Sovereign Chief” in a conspicuous position. Only, as it happened, Charles had quite fatally committed himself, both with white men and natives, over that infernal royal salute. The first French ship to arrive in New Zealand would give him the royal salute.… Ah, for his own part, they might take away their royal salute and bake it in a pie, if he could only sit down again at table with civilised men, after this existence! On the other hand, was it possible to back down?

There he sat on Mount Isabel, and the rising tide of British power swirled higher about his footstool.

“King Pokeno doesn't abdicate,” said Charles, and sat on.

“The desire which you express, my dear Baron, to make known to the officers of the French Navy the beautiful river and fine country over which your sovereignty extends, that they may give an account of them to their Government, comes from a good Frenchman, and no other sentiment could have been expected from you. But I do not share with you, M. le Baron, the fear of ever seeing England take possession of this country, either by force or by stratagem. A few adventurers might ardently wish it page 133 for their own private ends, but I do not believe that the loyalty of the British Government would give way to such an enterprise against an inoffensive people. The English have already too many colonies, which enervate the Motherland, and increasing their number would not be to increase their strength. It is evident to everyone that that great power, the forces of which are scattered all over the globe, rests but on a naval engagement. The example of Spain is there to prove that. Two great maritime nations are, moreover, interested in New Zealand's remaining an independent country, and if they so will it, so it will be.”

Charles writes again offering to take as settlers any sailors who do not wish to return to France. Cécille, making up from his own crew the deserters from his sister-ship, the Ganges, and shorthanded by the loss of more men lent to a French vessel in distress on the high seas, refuses the offer.

“I am sorry, M. le Baron, that the etiquette to which your position compels you should have deprived me of the pleasure of seeing you on board L'Héroine, but you are too well informed of the nature of things not to know that it does not belong to one who is simply a Captain in the Navy to take the lead in what does not come within his instructions.… It is then with much regret, my dear Baron, that I find myself deprived of the pleasure of seeing you. However, I am returning to the Bay of Islands at the end of the season, that is to say, in August; so I do not altogether lose the hope.”

One Frenchman assists another. The example of Bishop Pompallier is there to prove it.

On the other hand, is Charles de Thierry a Frenchman? Born in London, after all.

But, say the English, the perfect type of French agent and aggressor.

But, say the French, not our responsibility.

About half and half, then; and furnished with no assistance from either side. One cannot blame them. Leaving the wishes of great maritime nations out of the question, Charles belonged in his heart to a remarkable little nation of one.

June is the bitterly cold month of the year, midwinter, when all the evanescent gorgeousness of pohutukawa and rata abandons the grey boughs, shivering miserably in a shroud of driving sleet. Sea, sky, and earth are all overcome by the profound discomfort of remaining alive. Never come to New Zealand in June. Neither the animals nor the people have learned how to hibernate. For another thing, the buildings are all draughty, and the inhabitants cannot be taught to build proper fireplaces.

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Isabel's garden showed the first pale and frantic streaks of despairing daffodils, brought from half across the world. Her moss rose, wet as a suicide from London Bridge, had just managed to survive. (Charles once wrote a poem to “Her mossy rose”; but his poetry is so bad that one dares not quote it.)

There was little shipping in the Hokianga that month, and no more need to keep an eye on it. He had let a friend go past. No sunrise nor sunset would ever produce the white sails whose eyrie was France.