From Italy to New Zealand: A Family's Story
Gerard Hindmarsh has written a “true tale” of his grandparents who, in the early 1900s immigrated to New Zealand from southern Italy.
Below is Chapter 10:
The most exciting day of the week for me was Tuesday, around eleven o’clock to be exact. That’s when George Webber used to arrive at Waitai in his boat to drop off our mail along with the smallgoods that we always ordered the week before.
One of the men had to row out to get our canvas mailbag, which was padlocked at its leather collar, along with the parcels and a few newspapers. Vincenzo read me anything interesting from the papers, but it was only the letters from Stromboli that really got me excited. Barely a week went past without something from home.
Sometimes the news was all good, like when Vincenzo’s Poppa boasted of his best ever harvest of Malvasia grapes. Or my Poppa telling me he had a big new order for sails from a merchant in Messina. Or Concertta letting me know that her friend Marietta was pregnant for the tenth time; or that the Barnaos had chosen her to be the godmother again.
But sometimes the news was worrying, like when Vincenzo’s Mumma Francesca wrote about her increasing chest pains. She complained bitterly, but she described how she took some comfort by sipping an infusion of bay leaves boiled in water- the age-old Stromboliani remedy for indigestion. The doctor could not give any real diagnosis, but I suspected that the stubborn woman wouldn’t have taken one anyway.
‘A vecchina e brutta e carrongna: Old age is a bitch,’ she signed off that letter.
‘Look after yourself more, Mumma. You are so precious to me,’ Vincenzo wrote back, knowing how glad she would be to hear it, though it would be a couple of months before the letter arrived on Stromboli. Coming out to New Zealand had made my husband see his mother in a whole new light, and she began to show real appreciation for her both as a survivor and provider of love.
A son’s guilt, perhaps, but it was good to see. Vincenzo loved news of his sisters, too. Marherita was happy in New York with her rich new husband and, as usual, Maria Concetta was jealous of her sister’s good fortune.
But every letter from home was opened with as much apprehension as a happy anticipation. What news would it bring of our families, relatives and friends? I remember the drama, and the tears, when Domenico got a letter from his sister telling him the volcano had exploded on a Sunday afternoon and a boulder the size of a large pram had crashed through the roof of their family house, demolishing half the kitchen while everyone was sitting just outside in their bagghiu. ‘You are all so lucky to be in New Zealand, away from this scourge that terrifies us every day,’ the letter finished.
I myself hated the thin letters- you could tell as soon as you had them between your fingers which ones contained a single sheet of paper. Bad news for sure. Rosa always insisted on sorting the mail from the canvas sack first, then handed out the letter with such a smug smile. I hated that. And the worst was at the very beginning of the 1911, on the first mailboat to arrive since before Christmas.
It was a thin letter addressed in my father’s handwriting. I couldn’t open it for a good ten minutes, at least until I was away from Rosa’s prying eyes. My mind was full of dread. What could have happened? Who could have died? My life was tenuous enough without the prospect of another link severed- I had no intention of turning the event into a spectacle.
Sure enough, Poppa had written to tell me that Nonna had died in her sleep. How I cried and cried. For two whole months she had been dead and I didn’t know. Alla fine del mondo. Nonna was like a mother to me for all those years after Mumma passed away. That night I prayed to San Antonio de Padua and then wrote back to Poppa telling him how heartbroken I was. She could read that reply in another two months. Sharing grief by mail is such a strange affair.
But I have to say it was not just sad things that I got to write home about. Pelorus Jack, the white dolphin, accompanied us every time we went by steamer to the Pass, and every…time I saw him I became more fascinated by the whole way he could not leave the ships alone. The bigger and faster the ship, the more he seemed to enjoy riding the bow wave.
There was only one ship he would have nothing to do with, the S.S Penguin, because that was the ship on which a man once pulled a revolver and tried to shoot him. Several passengers set upon the man and disarmed him, then the captain ordered him to be tied up and locked in a storage locker until he could be handed over to the police in Nelson.
In fact there was nothing they could do but let him go, because there was no law to say you couldn’t shoot a dolphin- or anything in the sea, for that matter. But that’s when they brought in the first law in the world to protect a dolphin.
There was even a picture of him on the cover of a London newspaper. In New York, he was described as forty feet long, while another take saw him pop up in Sydney Harbour. The most interesting story I heard was how some German scientists, disguising themselves as ordinary travelers, entered New Zealand with the intention of kidnapping Pelorus Jack so they could cut him up for naval research.
Perhaps they wanted to find out what was so different about this dolphin so that they could train others to okay in the wake of enemy ships with mines attached to their bodies.
I often wrote to Poppa about Pelorus Jack, but there were things about our life that were difficult to explain. I remember wanting to tell him about the Wetekia Ruruku Elkington, that most wonderful woman I met at the axe-men’s carnival at the Pass in 1910.
What an occasion that was. D’Urville’s first social gatherings were held down at Ohana, the only place on the island with enough flat land to have a game of football. But then the picnics all got held across the mainland, and that turned them into big events.
For that first one, Antonino, Vincenzo and I had to leave Waitai at dawn because she wasn’t feeling well. Even then, when we reached the Pass it seemed everyone was there before us….
People had turned up from miles around. Bushwhackers from the mill, farmers and fishermen with their families, a minister from some bullockies and a passing drover. There were even a couple of townie visitors most conspicuous in their moleskins. The air was full of an aromatic tang- the incense of the manuka fire kindled under a huge copper.
Children ran shouting and playing through the blue smoke, and families settled under the shade of the giant kahikateas to unpack their picnic baskets. Then Wallace Webber, who we hardly recognized in his white shirt and best trousers, bellowed some warm welcome to start the day’s competitions.
At first I thought I would spend the time by myself. My English was truly pitiful and I barely knew a few dozen words, so at social events I relied on my husband to keep me up with what people were saying. Vincenzo was talking to a most handsome half-caste Maori man who he introduced as John Elkington.
I stood there beside my husband saying nothing while they talked, feeling shy like I always did in such situations. Suddenly my arm was tugged from behind, and I turned around to find the most beautiful Maori woman beckoning me to sit with her. She even called me Angelina. I wondered how she knew my name, until Vincenzo explained to me that she was John’s wife and they had recently settled at Whareatea Bay, very close to Waitai.
I don’t know what it is about some people you meet, or maybe it’s the circumstances you meet them in, but I immediately felt comfortable with this woman. I thought she was maybe a decade older than me, and around her came and went four small children, the eldest being no more than seven. As a mother she came across as so strong and determined, yet so kindly and compassionate with it.
One Italian and one Maori woman. How strange, but we became friends straight away. As the different sporting events and baking competitions were held, we sat under the shade of a lone totara and drank cup after cup of billy tea. At first our exchanged were simple. Lots of me pointing and Wetekia throwing me English words which at first I would only mime, all unsure, before throwing up my hands.
But she would make me repeat each one until it was at least understandable- the colour of our hats and dresses, the food we had brought along, some winning feat at the blocks or sack races, or asking to pass the sugar. She laughed a lot when she talked, flicking her long black hair in the process.
It was only a small thing, but I couldn’t help noticing how I’d packed out picnic in a wooden box, whereas she pulled hers from a small woven basket. Its handles made it easy for carrying, the open weave allowed spillages to escape and its shape made it suited to stowing in the boat. After I’d pointed to the basket, Wetekia made me practice my first Maori word out loud.
‘No, key-tae.’ She kept correcting me until I was pronouncing it properly and emphasizing both parts of the word equally. I wanted to give up, but she wouldn’t let me. She made me say it out loud until I got it: ‘Key-tae, key-tae, key-tae.’
She praised me lavishly when I finally got it. ‘Spoken like a true Maori,’ she said, ‘not like some Pakeha attempt it.’
For this ‘achievement,’ and perhaps by way of a welcoming present, she that day offered to make me a kete for my own use. ‘To start a friendship,’ she said. I think Wetekia was at first unsure if I had understood her, but the language between women is often subtle, and in the end my smiles told all.
After lunch, I couldn’t believe it when Antonino and Vincenzo won the prize of a leg of ham, donated by Wallace and Elizabeth Webber, for producing the best camp-oven bread. This was a spectacular feat considering their humble beginnings in the baking department.
When it was announced, both Wetekia and I jumped up, laughing and hugging each other. By the end of the afternoon, when it was time for us to leave, I felt that I had known her for years. Concetta once told me that isolated places bring together individuals in a way no other situation can. Just before we parted, I felt a longing to tell Wetekia about my situation at Waitai. I was desperate to tell someone how unhappy I felt there sometimes…
But I decided against sharing it. It was too soon for such confidences.
I hoped Pelorus Jack would come alongside, but Vincenzo said it preferred the grinding wake of the larger screw ships and never made a habit of accompanying smaller boats. As spray off the top of the whitecaps began to break over the bow, I began asking my husband all about Wetekia, to find out anything he knew. Typical Vincenzo, he started by telling me about her husband, and how he used to come over to the farm and help with the shearing if they needed it.
But he was too distracted from telling me more by a small willy-waw just beginning to form way out to starboard. If the weather got any worse, he told me, we’d divert into Catherine Cove and stay the night there at Ernie Flowerday’s cottage. I had never met this eccentric English fisherman- all I knew about him was that he was apparently obsessed with trying to breed a black rose, which he was convinced would make him rich.
But we were sure he would have thrown his door open to a couple in need- that was the expected thing.
As we passed tiny Stewart Island, Vincenzo made the decision to press on. If he had to, he’d reef the sail down another set. It seemed ages since I’d asked my question about Wetekia, perhaps because I’d gone off into a daydream when my husband drifted off on to the weather, but he hadn’t forgotten. ‘I remember Wallace Webber telling me she is a Maori princess, something like that,’ Vincenzo said.
What! I’d just spent the day with a princess and no one had told me until now? I thought about Wetekia’s face and the way she remained poised and proud, even when she sat there. Nothing ruffled her, certainly not her kids, who’d just played around almost unnoticed. She didn’t seem to need the attention of her husband either…not like the way I did. Yes, I thought, she could be a princess.
The wind died down a little, and Vincenzo pointed out the new Elkington cottage as we passed Whareatea Bay. At the southern end, Howard and Louisa Tarlon from Christchurch had just settled in their newly built house with their five strapping sons. Their bay looked so calm, out of the weather-you could tell by the smoke going straight up from a small fire nearby, probably just Howard burning a pile of undergrowth.
Everyone seemed so desperate to clear the bush from around their houses. Vincenzo told me that Captain Cook had anchored there in 1770, refitting his Endeavor with timber sawn from the bush and water from the creek that flowed into the bay. I had heard of Cook, or course, who hadn’t, but his name meant little to me compared with the likes of Magellan or Malaspina.
Lots of Maoris once lived there too. There is a big rock that protrudes into the bay- unclimbable, you’d think, by looking at it from out at sea, but on the landside it has worn footholds leading right to the top where you can see right out into Admiralty Bay and Cook Strait. It would have been such a good lookout, especially if you were expecting an invasion.
Vincenzo kept coming up with more bits of Elkington family information. He told me that the local Maori people didn’t call him John; they called him Ratapu, which means ‘sacred son,’ something like that. His mother was Maori, but his father was English, descended from Elkington of Bath who fought alongside Sir Francis Drake when they defeated the Spanish.
Wetekia herself was especially famous for her seamanship. Vincenzo had seen her rowing back from Nelson on the steamer. Wallace had told him she often rowed to Nelson.
Anything to do with boats was generally left to men. Not so, it seemed, with this Maori woman.
Back home I told Rosa all about my meeting with Wetekia. Of course, she had met her on several occasions when she’d visited Whareatea with Antonino, but she shared Antonino’s underlying distrust of the natives. ‘Be careful,’ she advised me, ‘Wetekia is a wonderful woman who would help you at the drop of a hat, but Antonino tells me they are not all like her.’
I didn’t bother arguing. Rosa was my cousin, which made us equals. But she was my senior in age, and, more importantly, wife of Antonino, undisputed boss of the farm. The two Moleta brothers may have been equal shareholders in the farm, along with Domenico, but Antonino liked playing his trump card as business manager of the place.
When Rosa’s urging and support I had begun to suspect, Antonino had somehow begun to subtly take on the role of the boss in our private lives too. Little by little, week by week, Antonino’s opinion always seemed to carry a bit more weight.
This pecking order was something that had slowly begun to grind for me. In that first year, I bit my tongue, for I was only young, still in my teens and new to the place. But as time went on I found myself less able to hold back. There was no one I could really talk to about this, but I suspected now that Wetekia might be someone I could confide in. She had promised to come and see me soon, and that was good, because lately I had been feeling sick and eating strange foods. Rosa guessed that maybe I was pregnant, but he had the nerve to say that perhaps I was just copying her, because she was five months with child herself.
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