Saturday, January 8, 2011

A wind out of the mouth of hell....

I came to live in Hawke’s Bay five years ago. My mother’s family have lived here since 1858 but I am a new-comer. I had never lived ‘in the Bay’ before. So things like the weather struck me afresh.

I had no idea how cold it could get. I didn’t realise the impact of Napier having mountain chains at its back which, in winter, are often covered in snow. The winds from Antartica sweep up the island and coast over this snow, to add just that final chill factor to our wooden houses.

This is the misery that Colenso talked about so graphically when he said, vis a vis the Mission Station at Waitangi a few kilometres out of Napier, that the milk froze in the jug and water froze in his bedroom.

Two days ago there was an infernal wind. It was like putting your face into a furnace. The wind was harsh, constant and hot. It was impossible to find anywhere cool in the house. (Like many New Zealanders, we don’t have air conditioning.)

The front verandah was as cool as it got - and that was an itchy, restless, sweaty heat. All the time the Westerly wind kept up its monotonous force. Windows rattled. The weights within the windows banged against the wood. Doors slammed. Pictures on the wall rattled.

This hot wind dried out all the earth and battered the plants. The wind felt outsized, larger than human. Slightly inhuman, in fact.

This was the Westerly wind which was blowing when Colenso’s mission station house caught fire.

I listened yesterday, at 3pm, because that was the hour - and the day - the 8th of January - in 1853 - that his mission house began to burn. Or rather, when Elizabeth Colenso, his wife, came screaming down the path, to William’s wharetuhituhi (study). Their worst nightmare had begun.

The house was made of a combination of raupo (reed) walls and wood interior. Houses made of raupo were notorious for burning down extremely quickly - sometimes in a matter of minutes. (Think hay.) In fact even by the 1860s there was legislation about the construction of raupo houses - the first kind of dwelling most migrants had on coming to New Zealand in those very early days.

William, Elizabeth and the few inhabitants of the house (mainly female), and other women from the nearby Maori village, dragged out whatever they could. Since these people weren’t that familiar with European objects they often pulled out the wrong things. For example the village women tipped out all Colenso’s valuable lead type faces for printing and saved the wooden boxes they were stored in.

But the combination of that devilish wind and the heat from the blaze eventually forced them back.

Elizabeth - desperate but also practical - had rugs and blankets dipped into the nearby stream, to try to beat the fire with.

Only too soon their dwelling house was reduced to smouldering ashes. The heat was so intense the flames leapt along the wooden fences and burnt them too.

A heavy brass bell turned liquid in the fierce heat.

Grass withered and turned to ash.

Day turned to night.

William, his wife and his illegitimate son, Wiremu - and their few retainers - huddled in the unlined store, which was seperate from the house. They had little with them - some tea, no salt.

They began to penetrate deeper into the nightmare which surrounded them on every side.

Colenso had just been ejected from the Church the previous September, because of the birth of his son, Wiremu. Colenso was fighting to keep Wiremu. His other children - a daughter and a son by his wife Elizabeth had already left.

Nominally they were going away to be educated. Practically speaking they were taken away from him. He never saw his daughter again.

And even more humiliating, Colenso was up on a charge of common assault for kicking a relative of his Maori lover in the head.

It was rock bottom.

So two days ago, when that horrible wind took up - and the claustrophobic heat - and its feeling bordering on insanity - I thought of that day, so many years ago, when the Mission house burnt down.

To this day it remains a mystery: how did the fire start?

I have my theories and I’ll talk about them in my book, The Hungry Heart, which comes out next year.


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