Tales these waters can tell

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    This Friday, Auckland’s yacht club fleets will race out of Auckland, most headed north to Mahurangi Harbour for the mesmerizingly beautiful classic yacht regatta that convenes there every Auckland Anniversary weekend.  

    On Sunday, after some serious racing on the Saturday, the same elegant A-class yachts, mullet boats, bridgedeck launches and yachts from every era of the City of Sails’ racing fleets will return past North Head to be home in time for Monday’s Auckland Anniversary Regatta.

    I defy anyone to try to tear down our bone-deep City of Sails tagline (though city council folly will occasionally try) but there’s more to us, buried in the last 178 years, that’s worth the celebration.

    Auckland was a powerhouse from its beginning; its trading schooners and flat-bottomed working scows, easy maritime access, vigorous pioneering architecture, gold fields and abundant trade all owing much to its magnificent harbour.

    History is often left to fossilise and lose its teeth in the prevailing culture of centralising and homogenising political will, but we still meet it in strange places – mostly through characters who catch our interest and give us different lenses over the years.

    My personal anthology includes Bishops Selwyn and Patteson, with the energy and secular abilities they brought to the new colony.

    As a young journalist who had grown up on the Devonport waterfront, I spent some months, in the early days of the Historic Places Trust, on a series of New Zealand Herald features that had me tracing Auckland through its historic architecture. 

    Into the world of mud, uncertain supplies, tent homes and tenuous postings to the raw new colony came the arching beams and tranquil spaces of Selwyn’s iconic, board and batten churches, the volcanic rock waterfront buildings of the Melanesian Mission, the remnants of Fort Britomart still visible in the University of Auckland’s grounds and the elaborate estates of the new financial elites of the 1890s and onwards.

    Ever since, it has seemed incongruous when our leaders, from Robert Muldoon onwards, argue for fiscal prudence on the grounds that we are a ‘small’ country while we live surrounded by a city where so much had been built at a time when the bulk of the proceeds of its trade were remitted back to Britain. 

    Despite that handicap, a period nearly as gilded with new fortunes as our own saw the building of everything from the great warehouses of the pioneer merchants to the Post Office, Customhouse and old Harbour Board buildings, Alex Wiseman’s Ferry Building, the Edwardian baroque of Devonport’s Esplanade Hotel and the grandeur of Auckland’s museum.

    Along the way I also gathered an affection for the artist Heaphy and the towering figures of Wiremu Hoete and the long-lived Patuone who remembered ‘Cook’s ship’ from his childhood and died in the Edwardian era at the probable age of 108.

    With their dignity, intelligence and ‘gentlemanly’ presence, they both strongly influenced the early tone of respect between Europeans and Maori but also had to come to terms with the acquisitiveness of later and less respectful European newcomers. 

    I also collected Captain James Bongard who crossed the ‘South Seas’ as the mate aboard the Earl of Pembroke’s chartered schooner Albatross in 1870, was first mate aboard the mission schooner Southern Cross when Bishop Patteson was killed in the Santa Cruz Islands and captained the third Southern Cross for 20 years, influencing the histories of Norfolk Island as well as Auckland.

    Among lesser-known founding figures was Captain William Daldy who put to sea at age 18 and arrived in the port of Auckland  as captain of his own schooner Shamrock on the day the port’s Customs House was opened on 1 July 1841. 

    An effective businessman and advocate in Britain for the colony, he bought the first railway engine for the province and was elected the first chairman when the Auckland Harbour Board was formed. In this capacity he was responsible for the acquisition by the Board of some 5000 acres of harbour bed, which provided the Board with a considerable asset. He was elected to the second Parliament as representative of Auckland, introduced the first Fencing Act and carried through a Bill for Auckland’s first provincial loan of £500,000.

    History may be written by the victors but it is the sheer mass of collective ingenuity and the contribution of countless individuals that make us great.

    Happy Auckland Anniversary to all our readers. • Liz Waters

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