Auckland: Gentleman settler

By John Roughan

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Captain William Symonds, (right), depicted in a lithiograph of an 1841 drawing by Joseph Merrett. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Captain William Symonds, (right), depicted in a lithiograph of an 1841 drawing by Joseph Merrett. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The grave of the acknowledged founder of Auckland, William Hobson, lies on a leafy slope in the old Symonds St cemetery, metres below Symonds St's busy motorway ramp. But the man whose name survives on the street and cemetery also played a crucial role.

William Cornwallis Symonds came to New Zealand in October 1839 to investigate a prospective settlement on the Manukau for a private enterprise, the Manukau Land Company.

Aged just 29, he was an Army officer who seems to have impressed everyone he met.

He went first to the Kaipara where the Ngati Whatua chief Ihikiera Te Tinana regarded him as forerunner of governors. John Logan Campbell
would later describe him as "every inch a gentleman" and even the wife of Hobson's Surveyor general, Felton Mathew, would grudgingly write well of him after he had been preferred to her husband for command of the vital site negotiation mission.

"He is a fine gentlemanly young man," she wrote, "who but for the mistrust and jealousy thrown around him by his equivocal position, would be an agreeable companion, barring his attachment to cigars."

Symonds had made an initial inspection of the Manukau site, which Ngati Whatua called Karangahape and the Manukau Company renamed Cornwallis
in his honour, when news came to him that northern chiefs had agreed to the Treaty of Waitangi. He suspended his plans and went to the Bay of Islands.

He arrived about the same time as Ngati Whatua delegates from an assembly at Orakei where Tamaki chiefs had resolved to invite the Governor to set up his capital on the Waitemata.

It is not known whether Symonds helped to prompt that invitation but it would have been in his company's interest.

When Hobson went to see the Waitemata for the first time a week later, Symonds and the Ngati Whatua delegation were on board his ship. By the end of the inspection, Symonds had been added to the official party.

His knowledge of the area was obviously valuable initially, but it was his personal qualities that led Hobson to appoint him an emissary for the Treaty to Maori at Manukau and places to the south.

When he was appointed in August to lead the founding team to the Waitemata there was an outcry from the Cook Strait settlements where the New Zealand Company believed the Government should be established.
They blamed Symonds' influence on Hobson and suggested an improper conflict of interest.

Symonds, given the title of deputy governor, successfully negotiated the acquisition of the site for Auckland and started the construction of Hobson's capital.

In the month before Hobson's arrival the deputy governor gave Logan Campbell a glimpse of his leadership qualities when the little settlement was seized by a sudden scare about the Maori who outnumbered them.

Writing in Poenamo, Campbell recalls that a Pakeha living with a
nearby tribe had brought word to him that another tribe, believing
a massacre of Maori had just occurred at Kororareka, were going to take revenge on the new capital. Campbell didn't believe it but sent the man to tell his story to officials. Soon the news was circulating among anxious knots of people in the street. Eventually, just as Campbell was tiring of waiting for the messenger's return, the deputy governor
stepped into his tent.

Campbell recalls their conversation.

Symonds: "Well, what do you think of our Pakeha Maori's story,
eh? Serious, very!"

Campbell: "Very. I almost feel as if I was half-digested already."

Symonds laughed and so did he.

But the officials were taking it more seriously and Symonds said he had agreed to organise a roster of patrols on the ridges for the next few nights and prepare a refuge on Barrack Pt, "a very defensible spot (where) we are to make a stand of dear life."

At that, Campbell writes, they had another good laugh. "Seeing that both he and I knew that the one desire of the Maori at that epoch was to get the Pakeha to come and live at their settlements, we might be excused for being merry."

The settlement depended on Maori for its food and sustenance during that first summer. Ngati Whatua, Ngati Paoa and others brought the produce of their gardens by canoe to Commercial Bay and sold it from flax baskets on the beach, roughly where Queens Arcade stands today.

Symonds probably already knew that the Waitemata settlement held far better prospects than the site he had inspected for the Manukau Land Company. When the time the first settlers arrived at Cornwallis in October 1841, he greeted them with the news that the pre-Treaty land purchase had yet to be legalised and no grant of land could be given
to them for the time being.

When Felton Mathew inspected Cornwallis he found it "rugged and mountainous" with soil "of the poorest and most sterile description and the greater part of it densely wooded". He predicted that the area had no future as a farming settlement but thought it might become a port.

Symonds did not live to read that verdict. On November 26, 1841, a messenger came across the Manukau from the south head seeking medical help for the wife of the missionary James Hamlin.

Though the day was windy and the sea rough, Symonds set out in a ship's longboat with four companions. The New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette would later report:

"A violent and sudden squall
struck the boat, which was observed to go down headforemost about a mile from the ship ... Owing to the dangerous sea running it was found impractical to proceed to the unfortunate men and those on the shore
were compelled to witness their unhappy fate."

Reference: From Tamaki Makau-Rau to Auckland, R.C.J. Stone, AUP, 2001.

- NZ Herald

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