Having a grave time, wish you were here 4 Sep 2012
When I was in Auckland a while back, I got it into my head that I wanted to track down the grave of William Hobson. [Let it be noted that not everyone in our party wanted to be there. However, moving right along...] Most people don’t know who he is, or was, let alone where he’s buried. In fact, he was an Irish national, a Brit and a Kiwi rolled into one, and while he should by rights have his name in neon lights in every town in NZ, he seems to have rolled out of our national consciousness and into a quiet spot under some trees off Karangahape Road in Auckland.
Everyone is aware of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed on 6 February 1840 between the Crown and the tribes of New Zealand. Representing Queen Victoria that day was Captain William Hobson. Most of us know him by name only and have no other sense of him apart from being The Man on the day of the signing.
Hobson was born in Waterford, Ireland. As a sailor in the Royal Navy, he served in the Napoleonic Wars and the war against the United States (1812 – 1814). He even helped escort Napoleon Bonaparte to the remote island of St Helena in 1815. Over many years, he fought battles against pirates and slave ships, was captured, tortured, and contracted yellow fever.
Ahoy, Australia and New Zealand!
When he was 32, Hobson married Eliza Elliott, a sonsy Scotch lassie he met in the Bahamas. They settled back in England and had four daughters and a son. He then was given command of a trading ship with the happy name Rattlesnake which helped establish the colonial settlement now called Melbourne. Next up, he and William Busby did a lot of preparatory work in New Zealand and back in London for a Treaty with the New Zealanders.
Stroke of bad luck
The Treaty was signed in 1840. Sadly for Hobson, he had a stroke a few weeks after the signing and he was left paralysed down his right side and affected by slurred speech. Even so, a year later Hobson was appointed New Zealand’s first governor. Given his health, it would have been nice if things had been easy for him in the new role. Nothing was ever easy in those days and he seemed to live a non-stop soap opera featuring murders, grumbling colonials, inter-tribal warfare, cannibalism, bureaucratic incompetence, greedy property speculation, and a maddening lack of resources. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him awake at night, the hare-brained settlers in Wellington initially wanted to be an “independent” New Zealand, even concocting their own flag. The audacity of the bounders! [Even today, Aucklanders and Wellingtonians aren’t always on the same page, but that’s another story.]
Nasty media types
Then, to add salt to his wounds, the newspapers of the land were sticking the knife into him just about every other day. He continued to suffer from sicknesses he had picked up the tropics, and when he had his second stroke in 1842, it was curtains. Just 49 years old, he was buried in Auckland. Eliza and the kids went back to Britain the following year to live at Stoke, Devonshire. Poor old William had not been governor long enough to become a giant in our history, so a kind of historical amnesia joined the leaves and dust piling up on his lonely grave.
Stage and screen
I guess one day someone will make a movie about him, but up till now much of the real colour of his life and times has stupidly been drained from our imaginations. I do, however, have a sentimental link to Hobson. My own father, Morrie, in his only known stage appearance, played Captain Hobson in a school production in Auckland in the 1930s, so that adds to my curiosity about him.
Losing the plot
On the day I looked for Hobson’s grave, I found it, in the historic Symonds Street cemetery that dates back to the 1840s. To call it laid back doesn’t really do it justice. Records show that even in the 1870s, people were complaining about the cemetery going to rack and ruin. A hundred and forty years on, you’d have to say they still have a good case.
Hobson lies in one of the oldest plots of all, with overgrown concrete and marble lying low on the ground. The trees in the surrounding area were so old they formed a kind of high canopy above us, creating a chasm-like milieu, mixing stagnancy and silence. On one level his last resting place looks unkempt and forgotten. On another level, it is also humble, at peace, embodying a sense of the impenetrable past, and merging into the landscape. Some people find settings like that spooky, but I don’t. It just depends how you look at it. It’s not as if there are wolves howling or anything. The sombreness goes with the territory.
As my wife Marie and I stood at the graveside, the peace was slightly shattered by three men, possibly under the influence, having a slurred, unintelligible discussion while reclining on a nearby tomb. That, plus the engulfing shade, soon spurred us back out into the blaring light of upper Queen Street.
A sudden flash of light in Symonds Street
All that was several months ago. Since then, the local Council has announced plans to spend $1.6mil sprucing up the cemetery and doing something positive about the people who currently sleep rough in the area. I hope they also give the story of William Hobson, a long-suffering but largely forgotten servant, a bit of a dusting-off, too.
Photo caption: A photo [New Zealand Herald, about 1937] of Auckland schoolboys re-enacting the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. My father Morry Doyle, better known for his rugby skills than stage work, is Captain Hobson, standing with plumed hat on. He didn't end up in Hollywood but he was later an All Black triallist.
Photo credit: Martin Doyle
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