At Karaka Bay

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Karaka Bay

Photographer: Henry Wright. Maori group at Karaka Bay, ca 1890. 1 /1-020634-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

 I have long been intrigued by this photograph. Most of the time it hangs in my National Library Scholar's Room. I have taken it down now, so I can include it in my Capital Characters; Wellington Portraits from Then to Now exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

It shows a group of late-nineteenth-century residents of Karaka Bay, about whom we know very little indeed. There is nothing in local histories of the area. It is likely that some were related to Mata Te Nahi, the wife of the early Wellington pilot, Worser Heberley and used that connection to establish a base near the Worser Bay pilot house.

Karaka Bay, like the rest of the Miramar Peninsula, had passed into European ownership in 1840. Elsewhere in Wellington, as the Waitangi Tribunal Wellington Tenths report makes clear, Maori communities had been eased out of areas claimed by the new colonists. Karaka Bay, however, remained very remote from the town, with no road access and hardly any Pakeha homesteads. There was no immediate pressure to move. Several other photographs of the time show large gardens, and raupo shelters. It was also a fishing base.

By the 1890s, though, the road, and commercial subdivision, had reached Karaka Bay. After the Seatoun Road Board received complaints from the new arrivals the Maori residents were told that the keeping of pigs and the drying of fish were illegal “nuisances”. Very soon the settlement had gone.

The man at the back is the Wellington pilot William Shilling, and the Pakeha woman is probably the daughter of the photographer, Henry Wright. Wright was a Wellington businessman of wide, and sometimes eccentric, interests, perhaps best-known now for his much-reproduced and much-derided 1902 pamphlet in which he urged “epicene women” to give up electioneering and instead “cook their husband’s dinners, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which nature designed them.”

He was a gifted amateur photographer, too, who created many striking images of Wellington people and landscapes, like this one. It is a fine group portrait, although  his main interest is the unknown woman with the child, and her display of traditional kaitaka cloaks with very fine taniko borders.

Much of Wright’s work was unknown until 1976, when 435 of his glass-plate negatives were discovered in the basement of a Newtown house and donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

(My thanks to Morrie Love and Neville Gilmour of the Wellington Tenths Trust for passing on their knowledge)

This short piece, since slightly rewritten, was first published in  FishHead magazine, May 2015

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