As I have lived on the West Coast of the North Island for the past 10 years, I was unfamiliar with the history of Hawke’s Bay when moving here in late-2011 to take up the position of Assistant Curator. Having always been interested in modern military history and the stories of regular citizens turned soldiers, I was keen to dive into the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust in search of any and all archives which would satisfy my curiosity. I had worked with the weapons collection at the Whanganui Regional Museum in the past and I was soon talking to a colleague with a similar interest, Cymon Wallace, who pointed me to a collection of letters written to and by Captain George Preece, a man who immediately piqued my interest.
Captain Preece wearing his New Zealand Cross and New Zealand Medal. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2534.
George Preece was born in Coromandel in 1845, the son of James Preece of the Church Missionary Society, and Marie Anne Williams, a school teacher. In 1847 the Preece family was sent to set up a mission station at Ahikereru, deep in Te Urewera. In this remote location the Preece children grew up speaking Māori. For George, this knowledge was to secure him an important role in the Colonial Forces as a military interpreter, while his knowledge of the area was to prove invaluable during the numerous campaigns against Te Kooti from 1869-72.
George joined the military in 1868 as an Ensign under Colonel George Whitmore. He was to prove critically important in the first assaults with Major Ropata against Mokeretu and Ngatapa Pā in Poverty Bay. As a result of his actions at Ngatapa, Preece was promoted to Captain in 1870 and received the New Zealand Cross in 1876.
Preece’s New Zealand Cross, one of only 23 originals ever awarded. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 56/57
This medal, one of only 23 ever awarded, held in the collections of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust along with his Colonial Auxiliary Medal, New Zealand Medal, accompanying original award documents and correspondence, forms one of the most complete collections of a New Zealand soldiers effects.
While George Preece appears at first glance to be an obedient and dutiful soldier, his personal and occupational letters reveal a personality that did not shy away from controversy. One letter, written during the pursuit of Te Kooti to Donald McLean, then Defence Minister and dated 27 March 1869, shows George’s almost virulent hatred of his superior, Colonel Whitmore, for writing against Mclean in the editorial section of Hawke’s Bay newspapers. McLean was a long-time friend of the Preece family, James having recommended him for the government position of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in 1842. Preece writes of Whitmore’s “highly coloured reports” of the rout of Te Kooti’s forces, even going as far as saying that “you can have no idea how many false reports Colonel Whitmore sets about you and the underhanded dirty way he does it.” However, this attack in the Press corroborates James Hawthorne’s published account of Whitmore in 1869, A Dark Chapter in New Zealand History, calling him names which are too provocative to print even 140 years later!
George’s outspoken voice carries on into his career as Resident Magistrate in Hawke’s Bay. In a letter from T W Lewis, Under-Secretary of the Native Department in Wellington and Preece’s superior, George is reprimanded for speaking out of turn to the press on a civil matter which had come under his jurisdiction.
Letter to Preece regarding government regulations on communications with the press, dated 17 May 1883. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 25452
Just three months before this incident he had been accused by Lewis of indiscretion in the handling of the will of Chief Karaitiana Takamoana, allowing an improperly skilled person to handle the case. He was informed that his action to send this ordinary citizen, a Mr Sheehan, to execute the will was ill-advised “in view of the notoriety which the Omaranui and Waipawa cases have acquired in the Napier district.” George appears to have read the attached government regulation, ‘Communications not to be made to the Public Press’, as Lewis’ later letters do not mention any further controversies, referring only to the mundane business of issuing firearms licenses to Hawke’s Bay Māori. There was, however, a spark left in the old soldier. After entering retirement, George moved to Palmerston North and, still full of courage and tenacity at the age of 70, attempted to re-enlist in the army upon the outbreak of the Great War.
The interpretation of personal documents almost 150 years old is an immense mental challenge. George’s letters jump from military matters, to politics, to family, and back again all within the space of as many paragraphs. Identifying the obscure historical figures he mentions and interpreting events without the help of other information sources creates a veritable minefield for misunderstanding and confusion. However, as an historian, methodically piecing a puzzle together through a thorough investigation of these primary resources and coming to new conclusions of a historically important figure is immensely satisfying. As I work amongst these personalities of the past, the objects they owned and the letters they wrote, I hope to cross paths with many more that prove to be just as colourful as George Preece.