Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Great Waikato Saurian Hunt of 1886

Six weeks of hunting for what some termed a taniwha, and others a scaly unwelcome visitor from the continent across the Tasman, began with a report by the NZ Herald of 29 September 1886. The Waikato Times on 30 September repeated the report:
“A report, the correctness of which is vouched for by Mr. Castleton, who owns and occupies a portion of which is known as Maunders farm, near Frankton, appeared in the Herald of yesterday, to the effect that a reptile, the description of which is almost identical with that of the alligator, was seen on Tuesday morning. The story goes that Mr. Castleton's son, a boy of 14, went down to a small creek which runs through the property, and that the strange animal came up out of the water and chased him. His younger brother, aged twelve, went down to the creek to satisfy the burning curiosity engendered by his brother's recital and "enjoyed” a similar experience.”
A Constable Wild went out to investigate with some settlers, but failed, at the time, to see anything at all. (Evening Post, 2 October 1886)

The Waikato Times from the outset was sceptical.
“Without wishing to cast suspicion on Mr. Castleton's boy's, whose tale the father implicitly believes, since he has been lying in wait to shoot the "monster," we may casually remark that not only are there no crocodiles in this colony, but there are no reptiles except the katipo and the mosquito. If the creature in question was larger than a lizard, and the lads said he was as large in girth as a calf, it will probably turn out to be one of Messrs Qualtrough and White's pigs.”
Two days later, the Times was still not convinced that this was much more than a wild goose/croc chase.
“CROCODILE OR WHAT? To be sure, the idea of a crocodile making his way unobserved from warmer latitudes across the ocean and taking up his residence in the vicinity of Hamilton is very laughable. Yet Mr. Castleton's boys declare that the beast which chased them up the banks of the creek running through the farm resembled the pictures they had seen of alligators more than anything else they can think of. They scout the notion of its being a pig, scornfully demanding to know whether they, seeing members of the porcine species daily, could be deceived by a pig. What adds to the difficulty of elucidating the story is the fact that both boys are evidently telling the truth, that is to say, they believe their narrative to be correct.

“On Thursday afternoon a representative of this journal visited Mr. Castleton's place and, in the absence of their father, who was working at the other end of the farm, the two boys took him to the creek and showed him the spot where the alleged monster was seen by them. The creek is that which falls into the Waikato at No. 1 Bridge. The course of the stream is exceedingly tortuous; the amount of water is considerable, and at short intervals there are pools ranging in depth from three to nine feet. The banks are perhaps 40ft. high. Along the side of a small branch creek a path descends to the water, and the cattle are wont to cross here to the paddocks beyond. It was at or near this crossing-place that the strange beast was, as they aver, seen by Mr. Castleton's lads. Both boys are bright and intelligent, and there is nothing in their manner or appearance to justify a suspicion that they have made up a yarn. Going down to the creek they related what they consider their uncanny experience with great circumstantiality and completeness of detail. They describe the animal as having a body about two feet long, with a thick tail about the same length, short thick legs, and long pointed head and long jaws armed with terrible looking teeth. Its motion when chasing them was a sort of amble, which one of the lads, going down on all fours, simulated. It was brown in colour, with scales on its back. The creature was first seen by the elder boy, Arthur, on Monday morning, and by both at different times on Tuesday.

“In the course of a conversation with Mr. Castleton subsequently, that gentleman said he was naturally sceptical in matters of this kind and, moreover, he knew that crocodiles and reptiles were not known in New Zealand ; at the same time ho was bound to believe the boys' story, because he placed the utmost faith in their integrity. In company with his man he had carefully searched the creek, but had found nothing, nor could he discover any strange footprints. That some animal of a kind not hitherto familiar to the boys had shown itself he did not doubt, and the only conclusion he could come to was that Shakespeare was right when he made Hamlet say "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of." All this sounds oddly, but, as we have already said, it seems impossible to doubt the bona fides of the boys. That they have been deceived we are bound to believe, but what manner of animal it was that led the two boys, at separate times, to the conclusion that it was an alligator, no less, we will not attempt to conjecture. The Maoris, of course, say it is a Taniwha; if so its capture would be a stroke of luck.

“It has been suggested that it is a lizard and, if the excitement can only be kept up, some rational beings may by-and-bye arrive at the conclusion that it is a giraffe.”
On 5 October, the Times reported:
“There is nothing new to report about the strange beast seen by Mr. Castleton's boys. On Sunday a large number of people visited the farm, and some beat the creek for a considerable distance, but nothing was seen.”
The Auckland papers, by now, were taking the story on with gusto. The Waikato Times, on 7 October, said briefly but possibly with a deep inner sigh,
“Auckland Bell says the alligator story from Waikato grows considerably larger. The "beast" has killed a child. It will next have devoured the whole population.”
The Otago Witness the following day reported that the Herald had published
“... amusing reports of an alleged monstrous reptile seen in a creek near Hamilton,” and that “on the authority of one of the masters of the Auckland Grammar School … “a creature something like a sea serpent was seen swimming up the Waikato river, lashing the water with its tail, which seemed to furnish locomotive and guiding power.”
By late October, the Auckland Star published information from a correspondent “that he is informed that the Maoris brought alligators' eggs some years ago from Australia and placed them near the Waikato River, and it is believed they have been hatched out.” A resident of Onehunga also even reported seeing an animal like an alligator in the Manakau harbour. (Evening Post, 27 October 1886)

The Taranaki Herald reprinted another NZ Herald report on the croc hunt on 6 November:
“The Hamilton correspondent of the Auckland Herald says :—"All attempts for the present to capture the saurian monster have been abandoned since Friday night when some persons sat up in the loft of the slaughterhouse, but saw or heard nothing of it. This has-been determined on in consequence of the inconsiderate conduct of a large number of people who, armed with guns, anxious to capture so valuable a prize, have been beating the cover afforded by tea-tree, furze, and flax on Mr. Castleton's land, and the thick cover along the edges of the creeks, so that the animal, whatever it is, must be so thoroughly scared that it is not likely to leave its haunts far, even at night.

“Food of course it must have, but as there are more than a hundred pigs roaming about the open land beyond the slaughter yard, and many of these are sows with litters, it can easily supply itself without venturing up to the slaughterhouse. Indeed, of late, a large number of young pigs have been missed, sows returning home with one or two less each time. As soon as the excitement has cooled down, the sliding doortrap will be again raised at night and the bait set.

“Public opinion is at variance whether the animal is one escaped from a travelling menagerie or an amphibious creature, but the evidence is decidedly in favour of the latter. The natives think that it will turn out to be the meme, or mimi, a creature of the lizard tribe, which is very rare, being somewhat larger than a big dog, and which runs after people, snapping at them with its mouth, but runs slowly, as was indeed the case with the Castleton's boys.”
A week later, the creature in the minds of those still hunting for it took on another form – that of a Bengal Tiger, while the Times remained extremely doubtful.
“… as for the Royal Bengal Tiger, the leopard, or the cheetah, for it has been supposed to be all these things, if such an animal escaped from a menagerie, we feel sure the circumstance would have been made public. Setting aside the value of such an animal for exhibition purposes, it is absurd to suppose that the circus people should be so destitute of all the finer feelings of humanity as to allow so dangerous a creature to despasture itself on the youthful population of New Zealand without uttering a note of warning. It is worthy of remark that nothing was heard of the so-called tiger until his presence in the neighbourhood was suggested in the Herald.

”After what has happened, we are convinced that nothing is wanting in order that the Castleton boys may discover a sea serpent save a hint that such a monster might be taking his spring bath of fresh water in the Waikato river. Still and notwithstanding all this there are certain people who are ready to swallow anything that is marvellous. It is the duty of the Government, acting through the police, to succor all such weakminded members of the community, though to do so may involve a considerable expenditure. The Saurian business should be sifted to the very bottom, and the guilty parties when found should be made to suffer pretty smartly. We commend the subject to the earnest consideration of Inspector Kelly.”
The Waikato Times went on to report:
“Little that is fresh has transpired since our last in regard to this terrific monster. Several people declare they have seen the tracks of the beast. We have been shown several very carefully prepared diagram from which it would seem that the animal might be anything from a hippopotamus to a turkey, but certainly not a tiger, and still less a crocodile. The joke, whoever is at the bottom of it, is being well kept up, and doubtless the inventive genius of the projectors is capable of further "manifestation".

“The episode has been productive of no little amusement, not only in Hamilton, but in Auckland. Some clever individual has prepared a series of pictures illustrative of the story, which may be seen attached to the notice-board of Gwynne's Hotel. The first picture is the counterfeit presentment of a billy-goat, which is said to be 'the only saurian." Next comes an elaborate cartoon, representing a huge monkey depositing one of the Castleton boys into the jaws of an enormous crocodile (the creature is more like a shark, by the way), underneath which runs the legend, "The really sorry-un, the boy who would tell stories." The series concludes with the likeness of a donkey, who is described in the letterpress as "A constant leader of the Waikato District News (Herald's). Well stuffed."

"The notice board is adorned with other pictures relating to the same absorbing topic, and all have proved to be a great source of attraction during the last few days.”
After all this japery, the Saurian Tales died away, only to be revived briefly, a year later, by an astounding report published in the Herald, according to the Otago Witness of 11 November 1887.
“According to the New Zealand Herald, the mystery of the Waikato saurian monster, which developed from an animal of the alligator species to one having the head of a tiger, has been cleared up. The Castleton boys after all were not drawing much on their imagination. The following was received from Raglan by telegraph and published by the Waikato Times :— " The capture of the Hamilton saurian monster off the south head of Raglan Harbour was effected this (Friday) afternoon by a Kopua Native named Rawini, who put two bullets through its head. It measured 12ft long, with a girth of 6ft, having two large screwlike propellers in its tail. On being brought to the wharf it was found to have a head like a leopard, two rows of formidable teeth, 12 in a row. Its skin, resembling grey silver cloth, was taken off carefully with the legs and head. On opening it, two pouches were found full of birds and feathers. It has been purchased with a view of having it stuffed and exhibited."
“Evidently someone,” the Otago Witness mused, “has been hoaxing the papers in Auckland. “

An update here.

1 comment:

  1. Oh that is just brilliant. I gotta post this one on the Mad Bush Farm blog. The Great Hunts of...shall continue. Great Post Ice.