Yesterday an interesting e-mail arrived in my inbox, reminding me of recent news releases about the discovery of a really, really old European woman's skull in the Wairarapa.
Originally, the skull had been rated 250 years old, suggesting that she had died about 1750. There was a lack of leeway in the dating, apparently, because those who lived on a sea-based diet aged more quickly than those who lived on land. Therefore, the date the unknown woman died could be extended to as late as 1800.
"Could I confirm it was possible that a European woman arrived in New Zealand on a whaleship in the late 1700s?"
Putting on my hat as a whaling historian, I had to say, regretfully, no. The earliest whaleship to drop anchor in the Bay of Islands (a long way from where the skull was found) arrived in 1805.
So how about another possibility? That she was one of the first two white women known to settle in New Zealand?
I certainly know that story, because I have published several versions of it, and described it for television, too. Two women convicts helped seize the brig Venus from Captain Samuel Rodman Chace, while being carried from the penal settlement of Sydney to the penal settlement of Hobart, and sailed with the brig to the Bay of Islands, where they were left behind with two male convicts, John William Lancashire, and Benjamin Barnet Kelly. One of these women was Charlotte Badger, who was described as having "a full face, thick lips, and light hair," while the other, Catherine Hagerty, was blonde, nubule, husky-voiced, "fresh complexion, much inclined to smile." Lancashire, Badger's swain, was a little, wizened fellow who had been a painter. Kelly, an American, was "about 5 feet 7 inches, pock-marked, thin visage, brown hair, auburn whiskers," and had been the first mate of the vessel.
A romantic story -- or maybe not. Lancashire and Kelly were both recaptured, and sent to London to be hanged. Catherine Hagerty died soon after the quartet landed at the Bay of Islands. Charlotte Badger, now described as "Australia's first female pirate" (though it was really Hagerty who incited the seizure of the brig), vanished from public record. However, there were rumors. Gossip reached Sydney that she was living with a minor Maori chief. Another tale was that an American whaling captain found her on the island of Vavau and took her on board.
It would seem remotely possible that another tale could be told, of her being taken to the Wairarapa, where she died and disappeared -- until her skull was found. So -- could this skull be Charlotte Badger's?
Not possible, I'm afraid. The brig Venus was seized in 1806, and Badger died some years after that, well outside the range of the carbon dating.
So, whose skull is it?
I said, Go back to the eighteenth century discoverers -- or maybe even earlier.
Not only is it an intriguing mystery, it's a great story, too. So it is little wonder that it has reached the shores of Britain.
Paul Chapman, in Wellington, reports today in the Telegraph (UK), "The discovery of a European skull dating back more than 260 years has cast doubt that Captain James Cook [who arrived here first in 1769] was the first Westerner to step foot on the shores of New Zealand."
The skull was found four years ago, by a boy walking his dog. At first the police thought they had a murder inquiry on their hands. Then they realized the age of the skull.
Dr Robin Watt, a forensic anthropologist called in by police who investigated the discovery, said yesterday: "It's a real mystery, it really is. We've got the problem of how did this woman get here? Who was she? I recommended they do carbon date on it and, of course, they came up with that amazing result."
An inquest was held last week in Masterton (provincial capital of the Wairarapa, and, coincidentally, the town where I will be helping out with a Books 'n Bubbles event on Friday -- will we be talking about books?). The coroner heard that the skull was definitely not Maori - the only race known to have inhabited New Zealand in the 18th century - and was almost certainly of European origin.
Abel Tasman sailed about parts of New Zealand in 1642, but had no women on board his ships -- or so the records say. Gareth Winter, the official Masterton archivist who was called as an expert witness, told The Daily Telegraph that the possibility of a hoax could confidently be ruled out.
Mr Winter said that Captain Cook recorded, in the log of his second journey to New Zealand aboard the Resolution in 1772-5, a tale told to him by a Maori chief of a ship having been shipwrecked many years earlier. Cook said the Maori told him that they given the ship's captain the name"Rongotute".
Early missionaries wrote of hearing the same story from Maori, who related that the survivors of the ship had been killed and eaten when they came ashore.They said that many Maori had subsequently died in an epidemic, possibly as a result of exposure to a newly introduced infection from Europe.
Not much to do with books . . . but there is a novel in it!