History – Grave tales

By Maureen Young

Stored in the archives of the Warkworth and Districts Museum are several old maps of the Mahurangi River mouth showing a small islet bearing the name Cowdie Island, Motu Cowdie or Motu Kauri. It is intriguing that kauri would ever have grown on what is now known as Grants Island, a steep, dry little islet topped by tall, rangy old pines trees, but the old names point to it having been there once. The island would originally have been connected to the mainland and the pre-European vegetation of the mainland would have persisted on the island for some time. A visit to satisfy my botanical curiosity showed that there were 14 species of native plants there, making up 37 per cent of the flora. The most common of these was the coastal five-finger, and also included were mangroves growing on the wave platform.

William “Tar” Grant was a Scotsman who arrived on the Mahurangi in 1842. He worked as a sawyer and built two ships on the beach near the island that bears his name. He purchased the land there and turned to farming, but there is no indication that he actually owned the island. He married a local Maori woman and founded a well-known local family.

His brother James followed him to New Zealand and took up adjoining land.
Some interesting facts about Motu Kauri are found in the book Jade River, written by R.H. Locker. A young lady who visited the island in 1888, while waiting for the Rose Casey (the steamer plying the Auckland to Mahurangi route) observed, “There are three graves on the top of this island where some shipwrecked people are buried”.
There is some doubt about the identity of the people buried there, but the following makes a good yarn. Two early settlers, Ranulph Dacre and Gordon Browne, commenced squaring spars and preparing masts on the Mahurangi in 1832, but this enterprise suffered a setback in 1834 when HMS Buffalo sailed into the river, and  Captain Sadler “took forcible possession of the standing trees, placing the broad arrow on them”  (the broad arrow indicated that the trees were claimed by the Admiralty). Local Maori were persuaded to work the timber and later Browne complained that “our natives were so enriched and spoiled by Buffalo last year that they positively refused to work, and while I have spars in my own neighbourhood I am obliged to go to other parts for them where labour is available”.
The Buffalo made two more voyages to New Zealand, and was eventually wrecked on Buffalo Beach, Whitianga. A tale likely to relate to the visit of Buffalo is that two convicts, who had come as labour, rebelled and killed their guard and were promptly executed. The burials were on Motu Kauri (Grants Island). There is now no evidence of the presence of these graves, but an eroding midden is evidence of pre-European Maori occupation.

History - Warkworth & District Museum