Te Karo Bay, 1842

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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 2014

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.

TeKaro 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:

Tekaro camp sketch 1842

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:

Forests at Tekaro

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:

Tairua scene NLA

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.

Waka drawings

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


  • On 05 Jun 2014 Jonathon Harper says:
    Interesting story, David. Hopefully it will get out into a weatherproof plaque there. I like that area...
  • On 04 Jul 2014 Anne Stewart Ball says:
    Great to see your blog on Te Karo or Sailors Grave. Yes it would be nice to see interpretation boards with information such as you have presented. The grave has been maintained over the years by the British and New Zealand navies.
  • On 16 Aug 2015 Mark Beach says:
    Thanks David. I have a property at Te Karo Bay and found your blog hugely informative and interesting. Makes me want to read up more on the history of the area.
  • On 04 May 2017 ross duder says:
    David, thanks for your summary & illustrations of events surrounding HMS Tortoise at Te Karo bay in 1842 as recorded by the british admiralty's Timber purveyor Thomas Laslett in his last of journal of his 4 voyages to northern New Zealand.All His journals are a valuable if not uniquie insite into the geophysical & working conditions & social circumstance surrounding early Kauri Riker topmast spar extraction for the Royal Navy. They were made & faithfully recorded by an critically observant man with an eye for detail & the skill & discipline to record it. PS I am Geat Grandson of Thomas Duder Able seaman on HMS Buffalo previously involved in this hard & dangerous work before she was wecked.

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