THE MAORI GRAVE ON MARIA ISLAND
On the 16th november 1846 five Maoris arrived on Van Dieman's Land on the ship Castor under sentence of transportation for life. They had all been tried by a Court Martial in New Zealand on a charge of rebellion. On their arrival it was decided that they should be sent to the penal settlement at Port Arthur, and this decision brought forward considerable criticism in the Press. The editorial column of the Courier, 25th November 1846, pleaded that they should not be subject to the criminal influences that would inevitably corrupt them if they were placed amongst other European convicts.
“We have visited and, with the aid of an interpreter, have conversed with the five Maoris, now in the Penitentiary, under sentence of transportation to Port Arthur. They seem to be simple minded men with apparently but an imperfect conception of their real position, and with none of the humiliating consciousness of crime. They are by no means deficient of intelligence, though unwilling to express freely any opinion on the hostilities in which they were engaged, or on the justice of their sentence; except so far as to assert that they were only ‘fighting those who came against their country’, and to disavow all participation in the murder with which they were charged. They have all been under Missionary instruction, and seemed to feel a grateful exultation in announcing that they could read the ‘Book of Books’, copies of which, in their own language they possess.”
The article also mentions the execution of a native chief after the same uprisings.
It may have been the result of this and similar comments that moved the Administrator, C. J. La Trobe to write to the Secretary of State on 30 November, 1846 indicating that he did not feel justified in placing these Maori prisoners in the same category as other colonially-convicted men (precedent would have required him to send them to Norfolk Island), that he wished to keep them separate from other convicts, and that he had directed that they be sent to Maria Island.
The Courier rejoiced to hear of this decision (28th November, 1846): according to editorial comment it was proposed to send the Maoris to Maria Island “under the separate supervision of an individual many years a resident amongst the tribe and well acquainted with their language.” It went on to say that it believed that their case was to be brought under the notice of the Home Government with a view to having their sentences altogether remitted.
The Maori on Maris Island, according to the spelling in convict records, was Mohepa Te Unmroa; he was a labourer, 6ft. lin. in height, about 25 years old, of dark brown complexion, large long head, black hair, whiskers and eyebrows, broad visage, high narrow forehead, dark hazel eyes, large nose and mouth, and a small chin. His face was tatooed on the left side. The other four men were Te Waretita, Te Kumete, Matuma, and Te Rahui. None of them had any offence recorded against him while in the Colony.
It seems to be questionable whether he was a Maori Chief as some people believe.
On the 28th December, 1847, the New Zealand Governor wote to the Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania (Van Dieman's Land) quoting from despatches from the Secretary of State and expressing his opinion that the Maoris should be repatriated. Lieutenant-Governor Denison in reply on the 21st March 1848 said:—
“I was the better pleased in being able so to do (comply with the proposal), inasmuch as one of the five had been carried off by consumption a few months since, and the others had some time past evinced symptoms of despondency which have, I feel convinced, already acted injuriously upon their health and which would before long have caused them to follow their companion.”
Mohepa had died at Darlington, Maria Island on 19th July 1847.
On 7 April 1848 the official acting for the Colonial Secretary of New Zealand wrote to the Colonial Secretary of Van Dieman's Land acknowledging the letter received from the Comptroller-General of Convicts here, indicating that a passage to Auckland had been provided for the four remaining Maoris on the Lady Denison, and stating that the natives had arrived safely.