Strait’s history unravels

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Historian and author Lloyd Esler stands on the site of a former Ngai Tahu village on the Ocean Beach isthmus while pointing to Foveaux Strait.

SOME of the history of Foveaux Strait, its islands and people, will soon be easier to access thanks to an ongoing project by Invercargill historian and author Lloyd Esler.

Esler has been collating information about explorers, missionaries, various people of interest, James Cook’s influence and islands of Foveaux Strait including Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), Rakiura (Stewart Island), Ruapuke and possibly Centre Island with a brief focus on some early Maori history for his book, Foveaux Strait – The Early Years.

He hoped it would be finished and published by Christmas.

“I’m looking at the history of the area up to 1865… some of the explorers, whalers and sealers were rat bags”, which made good stories, he said.

He described his book as “an up-to-date version of John Hall Jones’ The South Explored“.

It would cover Foveaux Strait, south of Tautuku in the Catlins, to Puysegur Point in Fiordland.

“Southland [as a province] was established in 1853, Otago in 1844, and Canterbury in 1848. The purchase of Rakiura took place in 1864.”

He said he had been approached by several teachers, in particular as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had pushed for New Zealand history to be taught in schools next year, and Southland had been short of factual up-to-date information.

Esler said he would be exploring and researching as much as he could find, including previously published and unpublished works, Papers Past online and library and museum archives.

“I have read every book I can lay my hands on that covers Foveaux Strait up to 1865.”

As part of the project, he was currently “converting 30 photographs of men [of the era] to drawings”.

Because of the technology of the time and because most were “blurry”, Esler decided to present the images as sketches.

Although men were over-represented in the images, Esler said that was only because early photographs of women and Maori were not common.

At present, he only had one image of Eliza Wohlers, wife of John Fredrick Henry Wohlers, missionaries, farmers and teachers, who lived on Ruapuke Island for four decades from the mid-1840s to mid-1880s. Although based on the island, their various kaik (villages) on the island, as well as the Rakiura coastal settlements and other shore settlements from Bluff to Moeraki.

He said most of his research would not focus on Maori, saying it was up to Ngai Tahu to tell their history.

However, the paramount rakatira (chief) Tuhawaiki, was based on Ruapuke Island, and was a colourful and important person, having signed a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi on Ruapuke Island in June 10, 1840.

He also signed the sale of the Otago block (The Otago Settlement) at Otakou [Otago Peninsular] in 1844, two months before he drowned after being swept off his boat south of Timaru, at the place now known as Tuhawaiki Point. He also travelled to Sydney and sold blocks of southern land to settlers.

There were no known sketches of Tuhawaiki, which disappointed Esler.

As he was in “the final stage of the book”, Esler was keen to hear from anyone who might have photographs of Port Adventure, Port Pegasus, the Muttonbird Islands and the Puysegur Point light.

His next project would be the story of the Waiau River and Esler was also looking for books, photographs, slides, newspaper clippings and anything related to the Waiau and its catchment. He could be contacted on 021 176 6580.

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