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Rushes, rats, cats and orcas.

Text provided by Mark Alloway.

From the Memoirs of Cameron Buchanan – resident Great Mercury Island 1859 – 1873.

Note: AHUAHU – Great Mercury Island is just across the waters from Opito Bay.

In the year 1859, I, being an infant of about 12 months, was taken to Ahuahu (Mercury Island) by the Cutter “Start”. The Island which has an area of 4000 acres was leased by my father from the Crown Lands Board for five pounds a year. It was a splendid harbour, well sheltered and three to four fathoms (5.5 metres approx) of water. At the time a large fleet of sailing vessels was engaged in carrying timber from Tairua and Mercury Bay to Auckland. In rough weather, quite a number used to put into the harbour for shelter, so we were not so lonely.

Prior to settling, my father had engaged some Māori to build a three-room house of Raupo walls thatched with rushes. It cost 30 pounds. The house was quite comfortable but there was the ever-present threat of fire because of our use of kerosene lamps and whale oil night lights floating in tumblers. But it never caught fire. The kitchen was a detached wooden building about 30 feet (9 metres) away with a large iron stove and a chimney similar to a steamer chimney. Like other settlers, we had a large camp oven out in the open which was used to bake bread and bake wild pigs and goats.

The first incident I can remember is in connection with rats, by which we were over-run. I was about three years old at the time and used to sleep in a wooden cot. I used to wake up at daylight and watch the big grey rats running about the floor. Unfortunately, I leaned too heavily on the rail of my cot. The result was I fell on my head amongst the rats. Perhaps that is why I have such a thick skull now. After this, Father and Mother would take me into their bed. We later got two cats from Auckland and to our great relief, they soon cleared out the rodents.

When several vessels were anchored in the harbour, we had a visit from a school of Black Fish, (orcas – killer whales) a species of whales about 20 to 30 feet (7 to 8 metres) long. The crews of the ships, seeing visions of wealth in oil, quickly manned their boats and with great shouting and splashing of oars, drove many of them into shallow water where they were soon stranded and died. The skippers of vessels sent Billy Auston in his cutter to Auckland with the idea of getting try-pots and barrels in order to secure oil which was considered very valuable.

Billy got these things alright and also some refreshments in the shape of bottles of rum and several kegs of beer. He then set sail for Islington Bay (also known as Drunken Bay) where he anchored for the night. All hands went on a spree which lasted a week. Then they sobered up and made for Mercury Island. But a heavy, contrary wind was blowing, and it took them four days to beat down and make it. When they arrived, the whales were in such a state of decomposition as to be useless. Their teeth and bones were laying on the beach for ten years.

Caption: Drunken Sailors.


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