Saturday, January 10, 2009

The McLiver Saga

Image: Photo by Michael Rogers, 2001. Panorama of Norfolk Island. From Wikipedia.

In the 1890s, John McLiver (1845-1906) and his family came to live in Avondale. They were only here 15 years at most – but owned nearly four acres of land through which present-day Racecourse Parade runs down to the Suburbs Rugby Club and the racecourse land itself (NA109/56), and possibly also all the land (nearly 12 acres) from the corner of St Judes Street and Blockhouse Bay Road, running back to St Judes Church land, then behind the church along almost all of Donegal Street (both sides), then up to Blockhouse Bay Road. The holdings included a triangle of land between the railway and the unformed part of Layard Street, plus the southern side of Crayford Street East stretching back to St Judes Street. This bit of their local land history I have yet to confirm – I’m waiting on an application pack to come through from Land Information New Zealand, because all Deeds Index roads lead back to a lost set of three volumes, 20A. However, it appears likely that John McLiver lived in the old house at 153 Blockhouse Bay Road, recently renovated by the current owner who hasn’t changed the outer look of the old place much, except to improve what time has crumbled slowly away. [Update note: No, the property at Blockhouse Bay Road isn't associated with Captain John McLiver after all, but it was owned by his niece-in-law and nephew. More at the updated post link below.]

Because of that 15 year or so period John McLiver spent living in Avondale, I’ve gathered up the following of what is known about him and his clan.

A court case in 1856 is the reason why we know as much as we do about the background to the family’s arrival in New Zealand (Southern Cross 26/9, 14/11, and 18/11/1856). Our Avondale John McLiver’s grandparents, John (a carpenter who died around 1837) and Elizabeth (neĆ© McLean, c.1771-1860) were married at Islay, in Scotland around 1796. They had nine sons and three daughters in all, but only five survived to maturity: John, Hugh, Lachlan, Duncan and Agnes.

John McLiver (the eldest son) appears to have joined the Royal Navy. His family felt sure that he was on the HMS Thunderbolt when it sank in 1847 off what is now called Thunderbolt Reef off Port Elizabeth in South Africa, but the Admiralty denied he was on board. (In the 1890s, it was felt that John had just gone to America, and vanished).

Hugh (c.1818-1850), the second eldest, ventured to the wilds of Northland in pre-Treaty New Zealand around 1837, settling near Kororareka where he took up the carpentry trade, calling himself an architect (SC, 31/3/1849) and engaging in building a number of houses for the settlement. In 1839, he married Jane Buckland Critchard in Hobart, and brought her back to Kororareka. By 1842, he was doing well enough for himself that he sent for the rest of his family, including his widowed mother and siblings Lachlan, Duncan and Agnes. They arrived on the Duchess of Argyle, leaving Glasgow 9 June and arriving at Mechanics Bay 9 October 1842. The family lived at Kororareka until 1845 when, along with many others, they fled the Northland War. Hugh lost a great deal because of this, but continued to support his mother until he died.

In 1848, he decided to quit the colony and head to California and the gold rush there. His brother Duncan went with him. His wife Jane didn’t follow until early 1850, shortly before he died during a cholera outbreak at San Francisco 10 November 1850, and disputes over his will began almost immediately (whether or not Hugh and Jane were alienated from each other before he headed off to find "gold in them thar hills" was brought up in the later case). The original will, it appears, wasn’t fully witnessed – and apparently burned in a fire in Sacramento while in Jane’s possession. She claimed, under the terms of a copy of Hugh’s will, that his New Zealand assets were hers, but Hugh’s brother Lachlan in Auckland challenged this in a court case against a tenant of hers which was eventually settled out of court. Jane continued living in Sacramento until c. 1854, then travelled to Melbourne, before returning to New Zealand in time for the 1856 court hearings. She returned to San Francisco, where she died 21 June 1863.

Lachlan McLiver, meanwhile, married before 1845, and had seven sons and a daughter: John (b.1845), Finlay (b. 1847), Hugh (b. 1849), Archibald (b. 1852, died 1877), Lachlan, James, Charles, Isabella (who died in 1880).

In 1860, Lachlan was living in Hobson Street as a carpenter (Jury List). By 1863, he had a substantial timber mill at Pakiri, north of Leigh. (SC 21.11.1863) His son John was manager at the Pakiri Saw Mill by 1864, aged only 19. (SC 12.1.1864)

The McLivers moved from land-based trading to the sea in October 1863 when Lachlan purchased the Nile to convey his timber from Pakiri. This was most likely in partnership with long-time family friend and timber merchant Thomas William Brown in Auckland. The Nile was wrecked off Kawau Island on 5 January 1864, under the command of Captain Wallace. Lachlan may have thought, perhaps, that it was a better idea to put family in charge of his boats. By 1865, a “Captain McLiver” was in charge of the Sylph from Pakiri (one load – 40,000 feet of timber, SC 31.5.1865) A new cutter, America, was launched November 1865, and this ventured out to the South Sea islands. It was wrecked June 1866 at New Caledonia. In July 1866, undaunted, the family purchased the schooner Kate Grant for the Norfolk Island trade, and in November 1866, the schooner Dot for the Pakiri Mill. By now Lachlan was retired and based at the Scotia Hotel, operated alternately by either himself, T. W. Brown or Lachlan’s wife Ann until 1868.

A fire in Hobson street in August 1866 burned down Lachlan’s house (which he rented out). The fire originated in some hay under his old house (the inquest concluded there were suspicious circumstances, but nothing was proved -- SC 25.8.1866) In March 1867, Lachlan was fined for drunkenness, his wife took over the hotel in July, and Lachlan died at the Scotia Hotel, 23 February 1868, aged 47.

Two of Lachlan’s sons were mariners: John and Finlay. Which of these two, up to the mid 1870s, was a captain of any boat or ship which was captained by a McLiver is fairly uncertain, but they do appear to have operated in partnership. In 1867, John was 22, while his brother was 20.

From May 1867, the McLivers first came under suspicion of “blackbirding” – the kidnapping of Kanakas from Melanesia as labour recruitment for the plantations in Fiji. If John McLiver (who was master of the schooner Bluebell when it was wrecked in May 1868 -- SC, 2/6/1868) was also master a year earlier, then the accusations made by one of the Anglican missionaries on Norfolk Island referred to him:
“Mr. John Adams, of Norfolk Island, furnishes the following respecting the doings of an Auckland vessel, to hand per Southern Cross … " I am of opinion that the doings of the schooner Bluebell at the islands will not bear scrutinising closely, she having been engaged, after landing her cargo at New Caledonia, in the nefarious business of trapping the poor natives at some of the islands, to be sold at so much per head to some European or American at the Fijis. The captain of the Bluebell has openly made his boast here of how they were caught, how they were fed, and how they were sold. At one island where he attempted to take some he got the worst of it, for the natives rose upon him, and killed two of his crew — a man named Peter, a Dutchman, and the cook, a person belonging to Auckland. I believe Captain McLiver was very anxious to conceal this part of the affair, but the mate assured me that the two men were killed by the natives in defending themselves."
Nothing more was said about this in the papers. However, in 1870, Captain Finlay McLiver, master of the William and Julia, came under the spotlight (SC, 19/3/1870):
“An official inquiry was hold at the British Consulate [Fiji] touching the conduct of the captain of the schooner William and Julia, on her last voyage to the Line Islands. E. March, Esq., her Britannic Majesty's Consul, believing the captain's proceedings had been irregular, he, with several other gentlemen, went on board the William and Julia, and demanded from Captain Finlay McLiver the vessel's log, which was refused, as was also the ship's register, and all other papers that might throw light upon the proceedings of the vessel since she left Fiji some months ago. Captain McLiver was consequently summoned to appear before a Court of Inquiry, consisting of B. March, Esq., President ; and Messrs, J. B. Thurston, H. Emberson, and W. Edwards. The charges consisted of breaking certain Acts of Parliament, and being guilty of practices tending to promote and encourage a slave trade. It appeared, from the examination of Captain McLiver, that the vessel was owned by a New Zealand chief, and that he had had command for nine months in excess of his agreement ; that he sailed under no flag; that he did not know whether he was a British subject or not; and that he kept no log. It further appeared that on leaving the Line Islands he had on board four women natives, who he alleged belonged to some white passengers, but two of whom he disposed of to Mr. Leefe's overseer, at Nanau, and received a cheque for £20, as their passage money. The other two, according his own (McLiver's) evidence, were intended to be disposed of in Fiji for the benefit of the vessel. No written agreements were made with the women, but it appeared by the Captain’s evidence of verbal agreements, by which the women agreed to come to Fiji to serve as domestic servants, and under which verbal agreements he disposed of them to Mr. Leefe's overseer. The finding of the Court was that the whole proceedings of the defendant in connection with the conveyance of the women from Gilbert Island, are highly reprehensible, and tending to promote and encourage a most illegal traffic, and that Captain McLiver be removed from the command of the William and Julia, and George Frost appointed to navigate the vessel to Auckland, her port of register. — Fiji Times.
Both John and Finlay were implicated in correspondence from Fiji later that year:
The following letter, signed by a number of residents at Levuka, Fiji, was sent to a Mr. Leefe, at Nananu, and by him sent to the Fiji Times, from which we extract;

" Sir., — We beg to inform you a statement is current in this port to the effect that Findlay and John McLiver, master and supercargo respectively of the British vessel William and Julia, did, some days ago, while at one of your plantations, sell two women, brought by them from the Gilbert Archipelago ; it was reported also the men named had on board her at Levuka two other women whom they kept secreted in the hold. Yesterday, the British Consul, attended by several gentlemen, boarded the vessel, and wished to interrogate the master. McLiver refused in a most insolent manner to produce any paper, and further stated he did not know his own nationality, and he did not sail under any flag. Two women were found in the hold, and it was ascertained beyond doubt that two more had been disposed of at your place. We are, therefore, determined to support consular authority in this matter, and preserve our own interests in the country, by putting an end to any nefarious practices, such as those of which McLiver Brothers are now charged, and which by their conduct here appear to be well founded. On the part of, and in the name of the European residents in Fiji, we call upon you, as the proprietor of the plantation where this act is said to have occurred, to furnish those explanations the subject demands. That no delay may ensue, we have sent the boat Tyro, and we would impress upon you the necessity of forwarding to this port the women and the person who is said to have received them, where they can be questioned by her Majesty's Consul.”
(Evening Post, 9/6/1870)

There are references to Melanesians being imported even to operate flax mills in New Zealand. The William and Julia was mentioned. (Evening Post, 10/6/1870) By 1871, the schooner was used for more innocent purposes, conveying coal to Thames. However, the McLiver Brothers were back out in the islands with a new schooner, the Nukulau. In 1871, the Fijian authorities questioned one of the McLiver brothers as captain of the vessel (possibly Finlay).

Then, in September 1872, Finlay McLiver was caught blackbirding again. (SC, 26/10/1872)

“The Nukulau returned into Levuka harbour from a "labour cruise," on Thursday, September 12, under the command of Findlay McLiver, with 116 souls on board. This vessel had been absent upwards of three months, having indeed left Levuka harbour upon this last cruise during the first stay of H.M.S. Cossack. It is alleged of the Nukulau, and other trading vessels, that mock religious services were held on board that vessel, by which instrumentality natives were decoyed on board, induced to assemble in the hold for the worship of God, and, when a large number of them were thus congregated together the hatches were suddenly battened down, and the good ship sped her way on to Fiji with her living cargo of human captives. … Upon this last voyage, the Nukulau, instead of making, in her return trip, direct for Levuka, first put into Nandi, for the purpose, it is alleged, of gaining the latest news in reference to what, if any, steps had been taken by the Cossack for the suppression of slavery. Nandi is about 100 miles from Levuka. After communicating with the shore, the vessel came into Levuka on Thursday afternoon, at five o'clock, on September 12. When espied by the Cossack, we on shore witnessed some unusual movements taking place on board that ship of war. Large numbers of seamen were drawn up on the forecastle, officers were seen rushing to and fro, the bugle was sounded frequently, and the launch was manned. Preparations were thus made in order to meet any emergency which might arise, and upon the Nukulau's attempting to cross the bows of the Cossack, with all sail set, she was hailed, and ordered to tack about and anchor under the stern of that British man-of-war. Simultaneously a lieutenant from the Cossack jumped on board the Nukulau and courteously requested McLiver to accompany him, in order that Captain Douglas might be afforded an interview. This McLiver was compelled to do and, as soon as he reached the Cossack, he learned to his dismay that he was a prisoner. As soon as these acts became known the greatest excitement prevailed. On Saturday two other men were arrested, and duly placed on board the Cossack. Their names are Scott and Martin. The last named is sometimes called the Portuguese, and both of them are charged with being implicated in the bloody deeds of which McLiver is accused. … A Naval Court however was held on board the Cossack on Wednesday, September 18, of which Captain Douglas was President, assisted by Lieutenant Taylor and Captain Harley, of the barque Duke of Edinburgh. This was instituted in order to investigate the charges of murder and kidnapping which had led to the arrest of McLiver, Martin, and Scott. Two days were occupied in this inquiry, and at the close of the proceedings it was made known that the Court had decided to remand the three prisons to Sydney for trial. Some of the charges upon which McLiver, Scott, and Martin have been arrested are for outrages committed during the first half of the year 1871. Although the primary charges may be for offences committed so long aero, nevertheless it is more than probable that in Sydney other accusations will be preferred against the prisoners. McLiver it is said left New Zealand about three years ago with a schooner called the William and Julia, the property of a Maori chief. Besides the three prisoners before named, no less than six aboriginal natives have been sent to Sydney with them on board the Cossack. "
“At the Sydney Water Police Court, on October 23, Finlay McLiver, John S. Scott, and Nicholas Harris (alias Martin) were charged with assault on the high seas. … the charge was one of assault upon a person unknown on the high seas, alleged to have taken place in the middle of last year. …The Nukulau, in which the prisoners were, sailed for Florida Island, where they arrived on Sunday morning, some time in June or July last year. The natives of the island came off in canoes in great numbers, and, when they got alongside the ship, harpoons, pump breaks, and other heavy materials were thrown into the canoes, upsetting them, and throwing the natives into the water. The natives were swimming about, and the ship's boats picked them up, and they were taken down into the hold and imprisoned there. This state of things continued from Sunday morning and Friday evening, during which time they picked up 85 natives. The vessel then sailed for Port Resolution, one of the Solomon Islands, where prisoners in the same way picked up 112 natives. The ship then sailed for Ronbians, where six natives were shot and a lot taken on board. He would also be able to show that there were firearms on board the Nukulau, about two dozen muskets, and also cutlasses, leg irons, and other implements for securing the natives and preventing their resistance. Some of the natives were taken on board the ship chained in couples. The vessel he believed was painted like the mission schooner ' Southern Cross,' which went to the islands shortly afterwards. … Prisoners were remanded until -November 1, bail being extended.”
(SC, 1/11/1872)

The Police Court, however, refused to accept depositions from the natives without an interpreter (and there was apparently none available), so the case was dismissed. From this point, Finlay seems to have decided to leave the sea behind him, and join his brother Hugh, involved with mining at Coromandel and later Te Aroha.

John McLiver maintained his maritime career, however. In July 1881, he was in charge of the Norval to Noumea, he purchased the Christine in 1882, intially as a cargo ship, then as a whaler. He sold her in 1894 (Poverty Bay Herald, 10/9/1894). He joined Hugh with some mining business involvement in 1896 (Observer, 25/7/1896), but he was residing at Avondale from 1890 (electoral rolls).

In 1867, he married Almira Emeline Christian (1847-1918) on Norfolk Island, a great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, and settled the island at Ball Bay, an area of the island where many of the Christian family descendants had land (and which was directly on the other side of the island from the Melanesian Mission). It’s believed that he brought his family back from Norfolk Island in the mid 1880s to New Zealand.

Captain John McLiver’s lively story ended on 11 October 1906, when he and his wife came out from Auckland Hospital after visiting a friend. He complained suddenly of not feeling very well, sat down by the roadside, and expired.

A further, related post here.


  1. John McLiver and Almira Emeline Christian were my 3rd great grand parents. All seems very accurate according to everything my family elders have told me. Great job!

    Luke Evans, Mesa, Arizona, USA

  2. Kia ora. I was wondering if you could give a source or reference to this statement - "This was most likely in partnership with long-time family friend and timber merchant Thomas William Brown in Auckland."
    Thank you

    1. After 11 years -- haven't a clue. If you find that such isn't the case, get back to me and I'll do an edit.