Dunedin spends $3900 for sham shackles

BUYER BEWARE: Auctioneer Kevin Hayward displays the controversial shackles.
BUYER BEWARE: Auctioneer Kevin Hayward displays the controversial shackles.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull paid almost $4000 ratepayer money on a set of supposedly historic leg-irons, which it now appears were used to shackle camels.

Cull brokered the withdrawal of the hand-forged leg-irons from a public auction in the city earlier this year, following a public outcry as it was believed they may have been used to shackle political Maori prisoners brought to Dunedin to do hard labour in the late 1800s. 

Vendor Steve McCormack told auctioneer Kevin Hayward of Hayward’s Auction House that in the 1970s he and his brother hacksawed the shackles out of a harbourside cave on Dunedin's Portobello Rd.

The cave was believed to be one of several used to shelter Maori political prisoners from Taranaki’s Parihaka village and surrounding villages sentenced to hard labour on the construction of Portobello Rd in the 19th century.

But further investigations suggest the leg-irons most likely shackled camels in the Middle East in the 20th century and could have been brought back to Dunedin by a returning serviceman.

A report by Toitu Otago Settlers Museum has concluded McCormack’s recollections of where, when and how he removed the leg-irons from the caves ‘‘do not stack up’’ against historical records, and were ‘‘increasingly doubtful’’.

Findings from interviews carried out during the investigation showed the leg-irons were made in the early-20th century and that cave where McCormack said he found them was used as a powder magazine storage facility and then for other types of storage, the report said.

The cave never housed the Maori prisoners, it said.

The report also contained an old photograph of the interior of the cave showed no physical evidence of the leg-irons being removed from the wall of the chamber.  What was more, the cave was ‘‘always securely locked’’ from the 1960s, the research showed.

‘‘Simply put [McCormack’s] account is not credible,’’ the author, Sean Brosnahan, one of the museum’s curators who carried out the research, said.

Cull, who paid $3900 out of his discretionary mayoral fund for the shackles, said he decided to buy them based on an earlier report, which said it was possible they had been used in the cave on Maori prisoners. At the time there was no reason to doubt McCormack.

The mayor had ‘‘no regrets’’ about buying the leg-irons at the time ‘‘to address the concerns and sensitivities of the runanga whose tupuna might have been affected’’.

‘‘I recognised the sensitivities of it and have no regrets about doing that,’’ he said.

Cull didn’t know what the city would now do with the shackles, saying they may be retained by the museum as curiosities.

McCormack rejects the the latest report and insists he retrieved the shackles from the cave.

‘‘I just sold them as a pair of leg-irons and next thing you know I’m stepping on Maori rights and everything else,’’ he said.

‘‘To be quite honest you get quite sick of it. I’m not tricking anybody.’’

Hayward’s Auction House principal Kevin Hayward said at the time the outrage and bad feeling around the items ‘‘just wasn’t worth it’’.

‘‘All I know is Steve McCormack found them in those caves and I believe that he did,’’ he said yesterday.

He said it was as yet not certain the leg-irons came from the Middle East.