With Flying Fish secure at anchor in Te Wahapu Bay near the New Zealand township of Russell, I am feeling especially blessed as a priest in the Anglican Christ Church prints a mark of ashes across my forehead.
In this lovely old church, history comes alive from the earliest years of Māori and European contact in the Bay of Islands. Musket holes from the 1845 war between them still mark the exterior of the church. Russell, then called by its original Māori name of Kororāreka, was a rough seaport known as “The Hellhole of the Pacific.” Brothels and grog shops lined the waterfront. Gunshots could be heard across the bay.
Missionaries felt that Kororāreka needed a little bit of religion. They purchased land in 1834 from Māori chiefs and agreed that Māori and Europeans should have equal rights of burial. The fundraising subscription list for the church still survives with names of missionaries, settlers, traders, and explorers including Captain Robert Fitzroy and Charles Darwin of H.M.S. Beagle.
Legend has it that Kororāreka is named after a soup made from the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) which was given to a Māori chief wounded in battle. Feeling better, he was believed to have said, “Ka reka te korora – How sweet is the penguin,” leading to the town’s name. Today, little blue penguins still come ashore after dark on the beach at Russell to nest under the floorboards of waterfront buildings.
Among the graves in the churchyard are those of Tamati Waka Nene (a Ngapuhi chief largely responsible for the Māori’s acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi and peace with the Europeans), Hannah King Letheridge (the second European girl to be born in New Zealand, despite her grave marker stating she was “The First White Woman Born In New Zealand”), and men from H.M.S. Hazard who fell in the battle in 1845.
But on this day as the Anglican priest dips his finger into a glass bowl of ashes–the charred remains of local New Zealand palms–and presses a cross over my bowed forehead he says, “From dust you came, and from dust you will return.”
I understand these earthly sentiments of the Anglican Ash Wednesday but my feelings of mortality fall more in line with a verse written on the original oak headstone of the perished seamen from H.M.S. Hazard. Situated on the grounds of Christ Church in Russell, it marks the final resting place of six men who died defending the town formerly known as Kororāreka.
On that headstone are the words of 19th century poet Felicia Hermans: “Go, stranger! Track the deep. Free, free the white sail spread! Wave may not foam, nor wild wind sweep…”
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019
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