Close-up view of NZ history up for sale

By Andrew Stone

Officer's scrapbook and journal record eyewitness battle accounts.

Art+ Object managing director Hamish Coney with the journal of the officer and civic leader Henry Balneavis. Photo / Natalie Slade
Art+ Object managing director Hamish Coney with the journal of the officer and civic leader Henry Balneavis. Photo / Natalie Slade

A colonial scrapbook and journal assembled by an officer who was at critical battles in New Zealand's early history go under the hammer next week.

Documents collected by Henry Colin Balneavis, stuck in a now-ragged blue scrapbook, give a rare eyewitness account of conflicts in the Bay of Islands, Waikato and Wanganui. For the past 140 years, the archive has been held by descendants of the Belgium-born Balneavis.

The family have decided to sell the collection, which includes a striking image of six Maori warriors brandishing muskets and taiha and led by a young woman holding a mere.

The drawing, dated 1847, is signed by John Gilfillan, a colonial artist whose wife Mary and three of their six children were slain by a raiding party on their Wanganui farm that year.

Other compact artworks in the 120-page scrapbook include a watercolour by artist Joseph Jenner Merrett and a detailed sketch of Kawiti's heavily fortified pa at Ruapekapeka in Northland.

Merrett's painting depicts a tall Maori with a full moko, three feathers in his hair, and clasping a mere.

The items are part of a collection of rare New Zealand books, artefacts and artworks being sold on December 6 by Art + Object in Newton.

A soldier, historian, civic leader and even model-maker, Balneavis rubbed shoulders during the later decades of the 19th century with the young colony's administrators, and mixed with the ruling set.

He seemed to enjoy the frequent dinners held for officers and politicians, as his archive includes several seating plans for as many as 40 guests.

Born in Ghent, Belgium, Balneavis spent his early years in Malta, where his father was Governor. Images of Maltese life feature in the early pages of the scrapbook, with columns cut from the pages of contemporary newspapers.

Family milestones are faithfully recorded: the assiduous Balneavis cut and pasted newspaper notices of the marriages of his daughters - guests at Jemima's wedding in 1873 needed 12 carriages - and the death of a two-year-old grand-daughter in 1875.

One of the rare documents in the scrapbook is a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi printed in English and Maori. It was produced in 1844 by the Government Printer, Christopher Fulton, and only a handful of the 50 issued remain.

Granted a commission on account of his father's imperial service, Balneavis sailed to New Zealand in 1845 as an officer in the 58th Regiment.

He arrived with a detachment of soldiers to reinforce British troops whose morale had been dented after the sacking of Kororareka, the site of present-day Russell.

In his 258-page handwritten journal, Balneavis writes about two key battles in the northern wars.

In the assault on a formidable fighting pa at Ohaeawai near Kaikohe in 1845, British forces under Henry Despard pounded Te Ruki Kawiti, whose warriors used cleverly designed palisades to inflict heavy casualties on the troops - 74 wounded and 36 killed in barely five minutes before the retreat sounded.

At Ruapekapeka, Balneavis commanded the advance picket, a small force backed by deadly artillery.

On this occasion, the British fared a little better, after Kawiti's fighters abandoned the pa and fired from the cover of bush.

The scholar in Balneavis admired the clever fortifications.

"The Ruapekapeka Pah was found a most extraordinary place," he wrote, calling it a "model of engineering" with underground passages, bunkers and storerooms.

He pasted a sketch of what has been called the "bat's lair" in his archive, and made a scale model which he sent to London for the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.

In the second half of his career, Balneavis was admired as a skilled violinist, held rank in the Auckland Militia, married Meri Makarina Hineahau, raised a family of five and was made district sheriff.

He was fluent in English, Arabic, Maltese, French, Italian and Maori, and could also converse in Greek, German and Spanish.

He died, aged 58, in 1876. Flags flew at half-mast on the day of his funeral, and Auckland Choral Society members sang his favourite melodies at his graveside.


Art auction

When: Thursday, 1pm rare books, including the Balneavis archive. 6.30pm artefacts.

Where: Art + Object, Newton.

- NZ Herald

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