In the 1830s Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was the most populous European settlement in New Zealand. Notorious for its grog shops and for the wild behaviour of its rougher inhabitants (some of whom were escaped convicts from New South Wales), the township was regarded by missionaries in the area as the local equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps they exaggerated the settlement's sinfulness, but Felton Mathew, a surveyor not a clergyman, also described Kororareka as ‘a vile hole, full of impudent, half-drunken people’.
Nevertheless the town - or, more accurately, a homestead at Okiato a short distance away - became New Zealand's first seat of government after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840. This was only a temporary measure until the preferred site at Auckland could be developed. In the early 1840s, however, a British flag flew from the hillside overlooking Kororareka. For Ngapuhi leader Hone Heke this symbol of British authority was a sore provocation.
Although Heke had signed the Treaty, he soon regretted what he saw as the loss of chiefly prerogatives to British jurisdiction. In protest, he had his men cut down the flagstaff at Kororareka four times between July 1844 and March 1845. Fierce fighting ensued between Heke's warriors and British forces and eventually the township was sacked. A few settler families later returned to the area, but Kororareka (renamed Russell) was no longer one of the colony's leading centres. It survived mainly as a trading post for visiting whalers.
The unsigned watercolour painting shown here has been attributed to the English artist John Barr Clarke Hoyte (1835-1913), who arrived in Auckland in 1860. He painted and taught art in the city until 1876, then moved to Dunedin for three years before settling permanently in Sydney in 1879. Art historian Michael Dunn comments in New Zealand painting: a concise history: ‘Hoyte is essentially an exponent of the picturesque landscape where topographical interest remains high but is always subordinate to an effect of light, deep space and atmosphere.’
The date of the Kororareka watercolour is uncertain. In spite of the tranquility of the scene, Hoyte would have known the troubled history of Flagstaff Hill. To a modern sympathiser with cetaceans, the size of the American whaling fleet is not only startling but somewhat distressing. The Americans were keenly aware in the mid-nineteenth century that humpback, sperm and southern right whales pass through New Zealand waters on their seasonal migrations to and from Antarctica.
Once part of the collection of the Old Colonists Museum, Hoyte's watercolour came into the Library's care when the museum closed in 1957.