Flashback: Legendary sheep rustler James Mackenzie nabbed

Unveiling of the James Mackenzie statue in Fairlie in 2003.
JOHN BISSET/FAIRFAX NZ

Unveiling of the James Mackenzie statue in Fairlie in 2003.

He was James, John or Jock and, Tom Hunt reports, he was the man who gave a stunning New Zealand spot its name.

The quintessentially Kiwi story of sheep rustler James Mackenzie is punctuated by curious names.

There is a man called Seventeen and a dog called Friday. There is a farm overseer - surname, Sidebottom - and a mountain named Misery.

The Mackenzie Pass in Mackenzie Country gets its name from legendary sheep rustler James Mackenzie. Photo
DAVID WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

The Mackenzie Pass in Mackenzie Country gets its name from legendary sheep rustler James Mackenzie. Photo

Alongside them, Mackenzie would seem mundane if it weren't for his 19th Century escapades - some of dubious base in truth - that saw a large and picturesque chunk of New Zealand's South Island named after him.

Drive through the vast landscape around Tekapo or Twizel today and you are in Mackenzie Country, named after the apparent sheep rustler with penchants for feigning an inability to speak English and "a peculiar habit of putting his hands behind him, and snapping his fingers".

It was March 1, 1855 - almost 161 years ago - when Mackenzie apparently struck first.

A statue of James Mackenzie and his dog Friday in Fairlie.
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

A statue of James Mackenzie and his dog Friday in Fairlie.

Two Maori shepherds, named Taiko and Seventeen, lost their flock of 1000 sheep and traced it to Mt Misery.

Seventeen ran to tell farm overseer John Sidebottom  that "the Scotch-man" had taken the sheep.

For three days they traced the flock and on March 4 they found it, and Mackenzie, whom they captured.

Cathy Barr, in her biography of Mackenzie in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, notes that he denied the theft.

Ad Feedback

He claimed that he had been hired to drive the sheep to Otago.

He escaped that night - in what would be the first of multiple escapes - and walked 100 miles to Lyttelton, where authorities captured him 11 days later.

He was tried, found guilty of sheep rustling, and sentenced to five years hard labour.

By June that same year he had escaped, and been caught, at least twice more.

A Lyttelton Times reward notice from May, 1855, suggested many more escapes.

"[Mackenzie did] "on the 10th instant succeed in effecting his escape and is still at large."

A reward of £50 - close to $6000 in today's money - was offered for the capture of the man described as being 5ft, 11 inches tall.

"Hair, light; eyes, small and grey; nose, large and aquiline; face, long and thin; body, square and muscular.

"At the time of effecting his escape he had on a brown wide-awake [Quaker] hat; cloth waistcoat, check shirt, marked with a broad arrow, and numbered, corduroy trowsers, a pair of worsted socks, no boots of shoes.

"Speaks English imperfectly, feigning generally that he only understands Gaelic."

In the reward notice, Lyttelton Sheriff Charles Simeon deemed it worth noting that Mackenzie "has a peculiar habit of putting his hands behind him, and snapping his fingers".

He was found after his last escape, in June, placed in irons, and carefully watched, Marr's biography says.

Here he would have served his hard labour - and no doubt tried to escape again - if it were not for a lucky break.

In September, 1855 Christchurch got as new resident magistrate, Henry Tancred, who investigated the case and found the police inquiry and trial were seriously flawed.

Mackenzie was pardoned in January 1956.

Details of his life from there are uncertain - he possibly moved to Australia. In fact, most details of his life are uncertain.

The correct spelling of Mackenzie is unclear and he was referred to as James, John and Jock, Marr wrote.

He had at least one alias, John Douglass, and was possibly born in Scotland in 1820, which would have made him in his mid-30s during his escaping spree.

The lack of detail did not damage his reputation.

"His rebelliousness and the triumph of his pardon won popular sympathy in a frontier society still engaged in establishing its social and political norms.

"The legends themselves reflect this.

"They emphasise his supposed superhuman strength, the feats of his fabulous dog, his extraordinary ability as a shepherd, drover and thief, and his rebellious spirit."

That legend lives on today in Mackenzie Country.

Visit Fairlie, the gateway ot Mackenzie country, and there in the centre of town, outside L&L Hardware and the reasonably famous Fairlie Bakehouse, James Mackenzie and his dog Friday are immortalised in bronze.

The statue was unveiled in 2003 and Fairlie Community Board chairman Owen Hunter said there were some in town - "they didn't want a statue of a thief in the main street" - opposed to it.

"Some of them reckon he was just driving sheep for other people."

Like so much about Mackenzie - his name, his origin, what languages he spoke, whether one man with a dog could herd 1000 sheep - there is even doubt about the relevance of the statue on Fairlie's main drag.

"Some reckon he didn't come through Fairlie," Hunter said.

Realistically though, "it has to go somewhere."

 - Stuff

Comments

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback