Rescue at Delaware Bay - roadside stories

In 1863 Hūria Mātenga became a national heroine after she swam into treacherous seas to save those on board the Delaware, wrecked off the coast of Nelson. All but one of the crew were rescued, and Hūria and her four Māori companions were rewarded by the government. Nearby Cable Bay is where New Zealand’s first telegraph cable came ashore.


Narrator: Just north-east of Wakapuaka, near Nelson, is a short road which leads to two bays – Cable Bay and Delaware Bay. Cable Bay was where a telegraph cable was hauled ashore in 1876 to connect New Zealand with the rest of the world. The other end of the cable was near Sydney, and from there telegraphic messages could be sent overland to Darwin, then eventually to London. For the first time, New Zealanders could hear news within a day of world events happening. However, it was not cheap to send a telegram to England – $100 in today’s money.

Delaware Bay is named after the American-built sailing ship Delaware, which sailed from Nelson bound for Napier in September 1863. The ship ran into foul weather which was, according to the captain, ‘as thick as a hedge’.

Early in the morning, the Delaware was driven on to rocks about 100 m from shore. The mate agreed to swim a line to shore, but was injured as he dived into the turbulent sea. He was hauled back on ship and left on his bunk for dead. Then five local Māori appeared on a beach at the foot of the cliffs.

One of them was a handsome woman known as Hūria Mātenga, or Julia Martin. The stranded seafarers threw a line and three of the Māori, including Hūria, swam into the stormy sea to recover it. One by one, the eight surviving crew and one passenger hauled themselves to shore.

Captain of the Delaware (actor’s voice): But for the bold and unwearied exertions of the Maoris I do not believe one man would have been saved from the wreck.

Narrator: As the captain, the last to leave, reached the shore, the frayed rope chafed on the rocks, broke and disappeared into the sea.

The mate had who been left on his bunk was seen on the rigging making frantic signals. But nothing could be done and eventually a large wave swept him away.

Hūria Mātenga, her husband Hemi, and their three companions were not forgotten. At a time when tensions between Māori and Europeans were high, their act was seen as heroic and humane. The Nelson community expressed their gratitude in a ceremony in the Town Hall.

Newspaper report (actor’s voice): Saturday last was the day appointed for presenting to the five natives resident at Wakapuaka pah [pā], who rendered such valuable assistance to the shipwrecked crew of the brigantine Delaware, the money granted by the General Government (from a fund set apart for native purposes), and the watches and chain purchased with the amount raised by public subscription in Nelson.   

Narrator: Each of the Maori rescuers was presented with a watch and chain. Hūria, her husband, and his brother were given £50 each. Hūria was singled out for particular praise.

Chair of Committee (actor’s voice): The satisfaction of having done a good action is a higher reward than any mere pecuniary recompense; and, while you live, it must always give you much happiness to reflect that you have been the means of saving human life. It must also give you pleasure to know that your heroism is acknowledged by others, not only here, but in far-off places; and it is our pride that Nelson possesses a woman capable of showing such bravery.

Julia, your name and your deed will find a place in local history. Your brave act is one of which a Queen might be proud; and we present you with a watch, whereon your children, and their successors, may read with pleasure an inscription which testifies [to] the esteem in which you are held by the settlers of Nelson.

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pat hennessy

Posted: 01 Jan 2012

From 5 to 7 yrs old i lived in the 1st house through 'the iron gate'. My father worked for Ira Heath. I went to school with the Stephens boys & we all knew the story well. There were children left at the school when we left. I remember a few occasions when our family crossed the mudflats when the tide was out & went to an island where Huria's grave was. Is this still there? I remember my time at 'the maori pah' very vividly & with great affection.