One of my longer-term research projects is the transcription and editing of the Thomas Laslett journals. He was a Timber Purveyor with the Royal Navy - helping meet the imperial fleet's insatiable need for masts and spars. A highlight of his career was the four timber-gathering voyages he made to the northern coasts of New Zealand between 1833 and 1843. The first two expeditions, on the HMS Buffalo, were to the Northland forests of Whangaroa and Mahurangi, then Tutukaka and Ngunguru. The third was to the coast near Tairua, but was cut short when the Buffalo was wrecked near Whitianga. In 1842, on the HMS Tortoise, he returned to Tairua and departed a year later with a full load of kauri spars. Throughout these voyages Laslett kept a detailed and lively journal, sometimes illustrated with plans and sketchs. There is no other account like it.
I thought it would be interesting to visit Laslett's various camp sites and my first such excursion was two weeks ago. On my way to Auckland I detoured across to Te Karo Bay, just north of Tairua. This was where Laslett and the crew of the HMS Tortoise set up camp in 1842. It is a DOC heritage site now, featuring the white-picket-fenced grave of William Sampson, a sailor who drowned while bringing stores ashore. It is a lovely little beach and picnic site too. I was struck, though, by how much more historical interpretation could be provided, with the new information now available in the Laslett journals.
Here is Te Karo Beach today:
Te Karo Bay, May 2014. The top photo shows the Sailor's Grave. The lower photograph is taken from near the grave looking across the stream. The 1842 Maori camp site was on the far bank, about where the present-day carpark is. The camp of officers and crew would have been out of sight, just to the right of the photographer.
Laslett's year at Te Karo takes up more pages of his journal that any other of the other expeditions. He describes the working and social life of the camp, the sometimes fraught comings, goings, and inter-hapu tensions of Hauraki Maori, and the complex logistics of moving huge kauri spars from the forest onto the HMS Tortoise anchored offshore. You can read more about his journal in my article on the Portfolio page of the website. Blogs need to be short, though, so here I will let Laslett's pictures, rather than his words, do the telling. Perhaps the single most useful document for understanding Laslett's Te Karo Bay is his plan of the shore camp, inserted in his journal, showing the Maori huts on the left, the tents, sheds for the officers and ship's crew on the right, and the completed spars stacked by the beach.
The beach at Tekaro. Pen and ink with wash, 200 x 315 mm, Thomas Laslett journals, MS-Papers-8349-3-059, Alexander Turnbull Library
In the National Library of Australia collection are two sketches of the camp. The artist was previously unknown but we have now identified him as Laslett. Here is the first of them, looking across to the camp of the officers and crew, from the Maori camp on the southern side of the creek. Laslett has taken some artistic licence here, squeezing the landscape a little to fit his composition:
Establishment of crew of HMS Tortoise in forest, New Zealand, 1842. Artist: Thomas Laslett, Ink and wash 221 x 274mm, NK1112, National Library of Australia
With the help of these documents Laslett's Te Karo Bay certainly came alive for me. There are other contemporary accounts from the officers of the HMS Tortoise, but none of them provide the shore-based descriptive and pictorial colour of the Laslett journals. I have passed the information on to the local DOC office, too,hoping that it might be used to enhance the interpretative story around William Sampson's grave site.
Other illustrations include a 1843 map of the Tairua river and coast. You can see that here. And below is another map showing the forests inland above Te Karo Bay, where Maori and ship's crew gangs were cutting down, trimming and dragging out kauri spars:
Plan of the forests of Tekaro and Teporawa. Pen and ink, 200 x 315mm, Thomas Laslett journals, MS-Papers-8349-3-075, Alexander Turnbull Library
It was from somewhere high above Te Karo Bay that Laslett sketched the scene below, the second of the two held at the National Library of Australia, and one that has been previously published. It shows the Tairua river mouth, and the ship's cutter dragging a raft of spars towards the HMS Tortoise anchored in the shelter of Slipper Island:
View in New Zealand- HMS Tortoise loading at Wakahou near Tairua river, 1842. Artist: Thomas Laslett, Pencil 252 x 334mm, NK1114, National Library of Australia (Better quality image available shortly)
Finally, I cannot resist including this image. I have featured it before, in an article about the journals, and in an exhibition. Laslett's recording of this small cross-cultural encounter at Te Karo suggests something about him, and the attraction of his journals. He was endlessly curious about the new world around him, and his writing about it is relatively free of the cultural judgmentalism that marks many other diaries and journals of that time.
Laslett's caption to his drawing says "A native friend who had been watching me while I was making the sketch to the left asked for the loan of my pencil and permission to try his hand at an illustration in drawing a canoe. The above is an illustration of his work". Pencil drawing, 191 x304mm, Thomas Laslett journals, MS-Papers-8349-3-167, Alexander Turnbull Library