Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dueling in downtown Wellington

What's now New Zealand's capital city was a wilder place a century and a half ago. On 25th March 1847, Dr Isaac Featherston and Colonel William Wakefield fought a duel at Te Aro, Wellington.

Dr Featherston was an Edinburgh-educated medical man who became a newspaper editor and later a politician. He arrived in Wellington in May 1841 on a ship owned by the New Zealand Company (a group planning to colonise New Zealand on a so-called systematic basis, creating “a perfect English society”), and was singularly unimpressed by the place, as he expressed in an editorial on 24th March 1847:

“Did those mud hovels scattered along the beach, or those wooden huts which appeared every here and there … represent the City of Wellington? Where were the hundreds of acres of [quoting from the Company's marketing] ‘fine fertile land which shall produce such astounding crops?’ ” His own investment, he said, was no more than “a useless swamp worth nothing”.

Colonel Wakefield, the Company's Principal Agent in New Zealand, took offence at this, seeing it as an implication that he was a thief. The two gentlemen met for honour to be satisfied. Featherston fired first and missed; Wakefield then fired into the air, announcing that he would not shoot a man who had seven daughters. That appears to have been an end to the matter, at least as far as regards pistols.

Dr Featherston lived till 1876, but Colonel Wakefield died the year after the duel, aged only 45, of an apoplexy.

The story of the Wakefields and the New Zealand Company is a complex and contraversial one, but Wakefield's personal history reads like the stuff of melodrama, with an abducted (on behalf of his brother) heiress, a betrothal that ended tragically when his fiancee died while he was in jail (for his role in the abduction), leaving a baby daughter; service as a mercenary in Portugal, and later with the British Auxiliary Legion in Spain (he was knighted by Queen Isabella). With such a history, fighting a duel seems almost inevitable.

1 comment:

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