Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Bully Hayes the Blackbirder

If I were inclined to become a smuggler of contraband—which I’m not, as the whole thing strikes me as being too much like hard work—this would certainly be the place to do it. It’s so isolated, so remote, so uninvolved with the rest of the world. And yet it’s also just a hop, skip and a jump to the voracious metropolis to the north. Provided you navigated the bar without mishap, all you’d need do is pull up at the jetty and off-load whatever goods you were importing. The only policeman in town would most likely be elsewhere—fishing. I swear you could deposit a boat-load of elephants on that jetty and there’d be hardly anyone around to notice, and anyone who was around would just offer to help you get them off. Of course, I’m not recommending anyone do this. Smuggling contraband, including elephants, is a low and disreputable occupation, with the exception of smuggling whisky during the Prohibition—then it was a point of honour and just plain good sense. Rather, my musings along this line are just a way of emphasising the beautiful, lonely remoteness  of this place. Also, it puts me in mind of W.H. Hayes, better known as ‘Bully’ Hayes. And I’ve been meaning to speak of him for some time.

Bully was born in 1827. Or 1829. You see, right from the get-go, Bully was mysterious and romantic. He died in 1877 when his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, shot him with a revolver, hit him on the head with an iron implement (a skillet, presumably) and then threw him overboard, to the very great distress of absolutely no one (indeed, Pete may well have been the recipient of rousing applause). Bully also died before then, but we’ll come to that in due course. Bully was someone you might describe as an adventurer. Also a liar, a cheat and a generally repellent sort of character. As a smuggler of contraband, his choice of cargo was mainly people, although he wasn’t averse to taking coconuts as well. He was, to use the nomenclature of the time, a ‘blackbirder’. He would visit the Pacific Islands and persuade, cajole, threaten, promise, lie and kidnap until he had enough  ‘recruits’ on his brig. Then he’d haul them off to plantations where they provided cheap labour. I don’t know if he enjoyed his work—sometimes we just have to take whatever’s available.

Still, to be fair, he hadn’t always been so bad, although he was probably never very good. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His dad plied liquor, an honourable enough profession provided you sell more of the stock than you drink. When Bully grew up, he went to make his fortune in Australia during the 1850s gold-rush. But while others found nuggets in the ground, poor old Bully just found dirt. With debts mounting as high as his dirt pile, Bully decided that it might be easier to find gold in New Zealand, so off he went to Otago. Instead of gold, though, Bully discovered the stage. He joined a troupe of vaudeville artists and toured the country. And he found love, a treasure much richer than gold, even if without the same utility. He married a widow, Rosa Buckingham, whose four sons were also vaudeville artists. In those days, it seems you were either looking for gold or doing vaudeville. He and his new wife opened a hotel in Arrowtown and called it ‘The United States’, but sensing that local sympathies tended more towards the Crown than the rebellious colonies, they renamed it ‘The Prince of Wales’.

Now, at this juncture, Bully might reasonably have expected to have settled into a pleasant and entirely unexceptionable life, seeing out his days serving up ale and the easy wisdom of a publican. And had he done so, he would surely have disappeared entirely from the pages of history. But anyone who’s been around the block more than once will tell you that you can have all the reasonable expectations in the world, but if Fate has something different in mind, you might as well relieve yourself into the wind for all the good those expectations will do you. And so it was with Bully. Although history doesn’t record the precise details, some happenstance set Bully at odds with the four vaudevillian Buckingham boys. Bent on vengeance, they wanted their pound of flesh, and they went after it in a particularly cruel manner—for a reward of £5, they invited anyone who could to cut off Bully’s . . . hair. Now, as history does record, the only noteworthy time that such an act, maliciously conceived, has been performed concerned the locks of the mighty Samson. It is, that is to say, an uncommon practice, but in the present instance it fit the bill—there was method in the madness of the Buckingham boys. Certainly, Bully’s hair, as far as we know today, was of little moment to his strength. Nor is there any suggestion that his hair was especially handsome, such that cutting it off would might have profoundly hurt Bully’s sensitivities. Rather, it was the case that Bully’s long locks concealed a dreadful secret—he was missing an ear! And why was he missing this most useful of appendages? Because it had been sliced off in California after he had been nabbed cheating at cards. O Bully, will your sins never be forgiven!

Humiliated before the world, made mock of even in the theatre, Bully gathered up the shabby remains of his reputation and left town. Finding his way to Port Chalmers, he acquired a brig and so began his wicked career as a blackbirder, a venture he got underway by abducting and then ravishing a young girl from Akaroa. By the late 1860s, Bully was, in the words of one report, ‘wanted by the police of nearly every country of the South Seas, on charges of almost every indictable crime on the calendar, from murder to common piracy.’ An exaggeration, possibly, but you get the idea. Then, in May 1868, it was reported in all the newspapers that Bully had met that most terrible of deaths—which is to say, an ‘untimely’ one. After a quarrel with his first mate, it was said, Bully had challenged him to a duel. Going ashore for this purpose in Fiji, the first mate had reportedly shot Bully, foolish enough to have gone ahead, in the back. The extent of honour among thieves and brigands and all the rest is well known, so no one would have been surprised by this. The only real surprise was that it wasn’t true. It seems it was just a story cooked up by Bully to throw the law off his tail. Indeed, it seems Bully quite enjoyed propagating tales of his own demise—a newspaper later wryly noted that Bully had turned up once again, in spite of the various reports of his ‘death by violence, shipwreck, and sundry other causes received from time to time’.

Now, you might reasonably say, this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Kawhia? Well, Bully wasn’t averse to trading of a more legitimate kind, and one day, finding himself in the vicinity of this port, he determined to offer the wares he was carrying to the local Maori. As the country was then in the grip of war, he knew there would be a healthy demand for what he had to offer—firearms and liquor, both of which, any soldier will tell you, are essential for the successful carrying on of warfare. Then, when business was done, Bully decided that this quiet little spot was just the place to give his Leonora a much-needed scraping and cleaning. So the boat was hauled from the water and his men set about removing the barnacles.

You can imagine, as a man wanted in several jurisdictions and known to be missing an ear, Bully must have been at least a little uneasy about having his means of maintaining his liberty immobilised in this manner. And, as it turns out, he would have been right to have felt such unease. Fleet of foot, as ever, word of Bully’s presence in Kawhia soon reached the military authorities in the Waikato. Less fleet but still admirably fast, the authorities dispatched a sizeable company of militia to bring the wicked Bully Hayes to justice. Admirably fast, but not fast enough. The men of justice had barely broached the crest of the hill whose great height affords such a vista of the harbour when they saw a boat, all its sails raised and trimmed taut, tearing through the waters towards the harbour mouth and its promise of freedom eternal.

And so the brigand Bully Hayes lived to scheme, cheat and steal his way around the Pacific a few more years yet. Until, finally, in 1877, Bully really did die, at the hands of his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, and no one really did lament his passing, for he really had been a proper scoundrel and now the world was a better place.


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