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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  • This is interesting however their are a few flaws Renee most definitely died younger then stated. I'll need to recheck the family records but off memory my great grandmother Renee died at either 19 or 21, when my grandfather Robert Knight the eldest son of Renee was just a tiny boy in his arms. Their father then remarried which I wonder if this is where the confusions lies as I believe his step mother died not that many years later as we used to hear of the tale of how he needed to return to the funeral and happened to catch a ride with a pilot on his small war plane which I believe he was in his teens at this age. And since Renee was about 17 when she had him this would make sense.

    Posted by Nicola Brooks, 31/10/2014 11:50pm (10 years ago)

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