Petone historian says the famous Boulcott bugler account may be 'beat up'

BY SIMON EDWARDS
Last updated 16:53 17/08/2010
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BOULCOTT ATTACK: Historian Warwick Johnston says this famous engraving depicting Private William Allen being killed in the Boulcott Farm skirmish in 1846 is "completely out of proportion and totally inaccurate".

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It's an enduring image from the Hutt Valley's early European settler era: a huge Maori warrior hacks down brave bugler William Allen as he attempts to warn fellow soldiers of the attack at Boulcott Farm on May 16, 1846.

One account even says that when Allen's arm was lopped off, he held the bugle between his knees to sound the alarm before he was killed.

It's the heroic stuff of Boy's Own Adventures. Now the new Boulcott Farm Heritage Golf Club is considering marking the incident with a Bugler Allen hole on its revamped course (see page 32).

However, Petone-based historian Warwick Johnston says he's always had problems with accounts of that day.

In fact, the more he looks into it, the more he wonders whether it's a "colonial press beat up  a good Victorian story along the lines of 'we're the British Empire and this is a bunch of blood-thirsty natives'."

Mr Johnston says it's possible depictions of the incident were a distraction from the fact the British troops had been rather badly dealt to by the Maori, "or the need to show the utter ruthlessness of the rebel natives in order to get Governor Grey to send more British troops to Wellington".

His main reasons for questioning what has been in our history books are that accounts of the battle seem to differ, the image that usually accompanies the story  an engraving reproduced in Louis Ward's book 1928 Early Wellington, and many times elsewhere  is out of all proportion, and the fact that, for such an act of bravery, no medal was ever awarded, nor any mention in dispatches recorded.

Private William Allen was 21, not 16, when he was killed and his designation in the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment of Foot, The Steelbacks, was drummer, not bugler.

Mr Johnston's research indicates neither the 58th nor 99th regiments had buglers during their time in this region.

There are "constants" in all the reports, he says.

A picket, or outpost, of soldiers is set up near the banks of the Hutt River, close to Almon Boulcott's farm. A large force of Maori attack just prior to dawn.

The entire picket is killed, including Allen. In total, six British soldiers die in the skirmish.

It's not know how many Maori die there; their bodies were collected and taken away by women with the attacking force.

Louis Ward suggests Allen was struck down just prior to the initial attempt at blowing a warning and then tried again, only to be attacked a second time.

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James Cowan author of NZ Wars, 1922, says he was cut down before he managed to blow a warning, tried again and was hacked to death on the ground.

However four reports mention a warning had already been sounded by a musket shot.

Mr Johnston says the only eyewitness account, by Joseph Hinton of the 58th Regiment, in a chapter of the book Told from the Ranks in 1901, does not name the bugler but mentions the warning shot as alerting the soldiers. It does not describe Allen's death in any detail, but mentions wounds to both arms, neither cut off, and severe head injuries.

wants to track down is the book The History of the Northhamptonshire Regiment, by Lieutenant Colonel Russell Gurney.

Frustratingly, he can't get the copy from our national library for two years as those archives are in storage while a major building refurbishment is done.

His request to the Royal Anglian Regimental Museum is Cambridgeshire has so far not been answered.

The Maori fighters were armed with muskets; mere, clubs of bone; wood or pounamu; and patitis, a wooden hatchet which could have been mistaken for a tomahawk.

The account that Johnston wants to track down is the book, The History of the Northhamptonshire Regiment, by Lieutenant Colonel Russell Gurney.

Frustratingly, he can't get the copy from our National Library for two years as those archives are in storage while a major building refurbishment is done.

He has not yet heard from the Royal Anglian Regimental Museum in Cambridgeshire.

The Maori fighters were armed with muskets; mere, clubs of bone; wood or pounamu; and patitis, a wooden hatchet which could have been mistaken for a tomahawk.

But Johnston wonders whether this American Indian weapon is named because of its connotations of "scalping", to further promote an image of the savagery of the rebel Maori.

Another discrepancy in newspaper reports of the time is that Te Rangihaeta led the attacking party, implying the raid was by Ngati Toa. In fact the attack was led by Te Mamaku of Ngati Haua-te-rangi and Ngati Tama, from the Whanganui area.

"It has become clear over the years that Ngati Toa claims to sections of the Hutt Valley because of such actions as the Boulcott Farm attack are invalid," Mr Johnston says.

"Ngati Toa did not settle in the Hutt Valley; they have no marae, papakainga or urupa [here]."

Mr Johnson has done much research on Maori in the Hutt Valley, but a lot more work on this part of our history deserves to be done, he says.

- Hutt News

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