Massacre at Onawe (extract)

An extract from ‘Massacre at Onawe’, a short story based on notes taken from a book by Beverley Basset-Broad called “Walk with me to Onawe”. An historical guide to the Head of the Bay and Onawe Peninsula, Akaroa Harbour, South Island, New Zealand.

James ‘Worser’ Haberley picked up his journal and gazed thoughtfully at the scuffed, black cover with its bent corners and frayed edges, his mind full of unwelcome images. As was his normal routine at the end of each day, he had retreated to a quiet spot on the deck of the whaler, to write his personal account of their daily toils and observations. His dark, brooding eyes surveyed the hills and cliffs, of the thin fingers of green-tufted land that punctuated the blue waters of Marlborough Sounds, off the north-east coast of South Island New Zealand. The whaler had anchored there the previous evening to make minor repairs to the hull and rigging, before they headed northwards, back to the safety of their winter anchorage on North Island. The waters off the east coast of South Island were known for their rich fishing grounds and abundance of shellfish. They were also a main migration route for the Southern Right Whale; so called because its size and abundance of whale oil and blubber made it the easiest, or ‘right one’ for whalers to harpoon and process in any one of the shallow, limestone bays that abounded along the coastline.

Haberley took out a quill pen and placed an inkpot carefully on the wooden box next to him. His tanned, steady hand opened to the next free page. He started to write. ’10th May 1830: at anchor off Marlborough Sounds, we sighted 60 to 70 large war canoes heading north for the winter. We counted upwards of 2,000 natives including women, children and around 500 prisoners. This confirms rumours that the warriors of Te Ruaparaha have spent the summer raiding Maori settlements on the east coast of South Island. The brightly painted war canoes were heavy in the water, a sure sign they were loaded with plundered food and meat. Their colourful, wooden sides crudely decorated with the blood, heads and hands of their defeated foes.’ Haberley paused as he remembered the gory sight; the cabin boy retching over the side as the stinking boats passed by; grown men looking away and pretending not to see; but most of all the gruesome, leering, painted faces of the natives, their eyes staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious of the whalers and everything but the sea in front of them. Even at the young age of 21 years, Haberley was already inured to extreme violence and brutal cannibalism. He seemed to delight in describing these gory happenings in a clinical and unemotional manner; whilst his fellow whalers did not understand how he could be so seemingly unmoved by what he saw.


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