John and Kurapa Davis


We are inclined to think of New Zealand residents of the nineteenth century as being of either Māori or European background, but during the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a couple living quietly in Port Underwood, who came from a very different heritage. John Davis1 was a former slave of African American background and his wife Kurapa (later changed to Mary) was a Moriori from the Chatham Islands. Kurapa had also been a slave - to the Māori chief Matioro after the Ngāti Mutunga had invaded the Chatham Islands in 1835. Matioro had taken Kurapa and a number of other slaves to the Auckland Islands in 1842 when the Māori went to colonise that island.

Ani Davis and daughter Lucinda. Photo: Barry Holdaway from Joe Eyles collection
Click image to enlarge

At some time John Davis, working on an American whaler, met Kurapa and a relationship formed. A daughter Ani was born in 1847. Around the mid 1850's John and Kurapa made their way to Port Underwood, a place no doubt that John had visited previously on whaling ships. In 1856 John was granted seventeen acres of land in Hakahaka Bay and there they settled in peace and freedom.

In 1857 Dr. John Shaw published a book2 about his recent trip to New Zealand and other places, and here he told of a visit to John and Mary. After climbing the hill out of Whatamango and descending on the other side he had his first view "of a little hut, surrounded with little patches of cultivation, situated on a flat surrounded on three sides by some magnificently timbered hills."  They made him welcome and the next day John Davis took him by canoe to visit the Guards.  His words to describe the Davis' were "...the husband came in and most cordially shook me with his hand, as black as coal, with a face of jewells. Yes, gentle reader, I was then in the company of two individuals whose blood contained the savagism of three distinct races, in a miserable cottage, . . . .the attention and hospitality that I received from these poor people made me solemnly feel the truth of the Scriptural declaration, that God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth." (Some believed that John Davis had Native American blood as well as African American.)

Ani Davis and daughter Lucinda. Photo: Barry Holdaway from Joe Eyles collection
Click image to enlarge

Hospitality to passing visitors was common for this kindly couple. Between 1853 and 1861 Antoine Garin, the Catholic priest from Nelson, made at least seven trips to Port Underwood. Visits from the clergy were not common to this isolated area, so the settlers welcomed them, of whatever faith they followed. In February 1853 this priest stayed two nights with the Davis couple and he baptised their daughter Ani, although they were Wesleyan.4 Then John Davis took the priest to Ocean Bay in his waka. In February 1855 the priest visited again and John accompanied him to Whatamango.5 The next month he made a return visit and stayed overnight, before John took him in his waka to visit the Guard and Flood6  families. The mentions of the Davis' hospitality continue through the Garin diaries.

Kurapa died in 1884 and was buried in Hakahaka Bay. John died in Picton Hospital and was buried in Picton Cemetery, in September 1886.7 The story of this family particularly appeals to me because their great-grand-daughter Rene Mary married a brother of my Grandmother. Sadly she died aged twenty-eight, but left four little sons who survived into adulthood.

2010 (Updated 2018/ May 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Knight, H. (1992) Of one blood: the story of a Moriori family [manuscript held ATL]
  2. Shaw, J. (1858) A Gallop to the Antipodes. London: J.F.Hope
  3. Garin, Antoine Marie, 1810-1889. Diaries. Nelson Provincial Museum
  4. Garin p.76
  5. Garin p.76
  6. Garin pp.84-85
  7. Knight

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  • Black Jack (John Davis) is the grandson of John Davis and Kurapa Davis and lived out his days in Raglan. I went to Hakahaka Bay, Port Underwood in the Marlborough sounds and was lucky enough to find someone who showed me the Davis property which still had the original cobb house within the existing house. I was blown away to to come so close to my great, great, great grandfather and grandmothers home. Kurapa was the daughter of nanuku who was one of the Moriori chiefs on the Chatham Islands. She was taken by the Maoris as a slave and later meet John Davis who was an American whaler and I believe a slave who had jumped ship. John Davis owned most if not all of Hakahaka Bay I have seen proof of this too. Feel free to follow my family tree on my heritage site. These people did and still do exist and should be remembered.

    Posted by Lindsey knight, 19/07/2021 3:57pm (3 years ago)

  • Rene is my great grandmother and I was always told by my grandfather(Stanley) and my Mother she was 28 when she passed away.

    Posted by Nicki MacKinnon, 29/06/2020 7:43pm (4 years ago)

  • PS: It is also highly relevant that a number of states had outlawed the slave trade before John's Birth (1817). Around 1817, the Southern States were (finally) beginning to follow suit. Georgia outlawed the slave trade in 1817 and in 1819 the US declared it a capital offence. Please be careful how you label people without the relevant context. Perhaps I will blog this.

    Posted by Pare Hayward, 29/09/2018 4:57pm (6 years ago)

  • Kia ora, I have been collecting information about the Davis' as I have had a number of their descendants show up as my DNA matches. Some of my known cousins are showing up with traces of African in their Ethnicity Estimates as well. I see your reference to John's possible Native American ancestry (which you refer to as Red Indian), Michael King made a similar remark. I do hope that someone explores this in due course, because having Native American Ancestry has the potential to change the story of his origins dramatically. He may in fact have been born a free man and an earlier forebear have been in captivity. This work would be better minus the racial nuances as well, particularly the last line, where the comment is made that the 4 sons became worthy citizens - the mind boggles at the thought entrenched in such a statement. Be that as it may, I am appreciative of the context that I have gained from this account. Thank you E.Mallett. Ed. Thank you for your comment. I will read through that sentence and amend as necessary

    Posted by Pare Hayward, 29/09/2018 4:39pm (6 years ago)

  • Kia ora, I was amazed to find this information on John and Karupa as I am related and have only found bits of info the past 2 yrs of researching them. Thankyou E.Mallet for this story. My mums mum on her deathbed told of our relation Black Jack Davis (John Davis) who had gold mined in Roxburgh and has a creek their named after him. Any info about John, Karupa and Ani Davis I would appreciate. Me rongo (Moriori 'with peace'), Chris.

    Posted by Chris Boyd, 11/11/2017 7:38am (7 years ago)

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