The Harriet affair

It was April of 1834. Jacky and Betty Guard had been visiting Sydney with their two children. They were now on their way back home to Cloudy Bay in New Zealand on board their ship the Harriet. They were nearly there when a Southerly gale blew up, and they ran aground at the mouth of the Okahu Stream near Taranaki.

Everyone managed to reach the shore safely in one of the ship's boats. But what were they to do now? They managed to retrieve two more boats, and they also had ten muskets, a few sails which they made into tents, and some provisions. But trouble was just around the corner.

Jacky Guard, a whaling captain, could be a cruel and racist man. He and his men had often robbed, and occasionally even killed local Maori who came to sell produce. So when a group of Maori found Guard and his party shipwrecked, things got nasty.

Jacky Guard later told the story from his point of view:

'On the 1st of May we were visited by about 30 natives, who appeared aware that we were completely in their power .... . On the 7th a whole tribe of about 200 natives came to us and treated us very roughly, and plundered us of all we had saved from the wreck, saying they meant to kill us. On the 10th, at day–break, we mustered to meet our fates as Providence might decree, resolved to sell our lives as dearly as possible, the natives having made their ovens hot to bake us, and told us they would eat our hearts. At 8.00 a.m. the natives rushed us and killed two of our men; one they struck down with a tomahawk, and then cut up into joints. We now saw their full intention, and immediately commenced firing on them ... but our little number fast decreasing, and our stock of cartridges getting short, and they so very numerous, we were completely surrounded... .We then thought it prudent to effect a retreat, there only then being 14 of us; we fought our way through them and gained the beach, leaving some behind who were unable to follow us, who all afterwards fell victims to the inhuman savages, with the exception of Mrs Guard, whom they stripped stark naked, twice cut down with a tomahawk, and would have split open her head with the blows but for a large comb in her hair, which in some degree averted its force, and a little boy, two-and-a-half years old, and one girl, six months old, whom they made prisoners of.' (1)

Jacky Guard and six of his crew escaped to get help, leaving behind Betty Guard, her two children, and several other sailors. The escapees made their way towards Moturoa, where they met a second party of Maori who helped them. After an exhausting journey, most of it in a small, leaky dinghy, Guard and his group reached Wellington's Port Nicholson on 30 June. Back then this area was virtually uninhabited, so Guard then took a boat to Sydney to seek aid from the colonial governor there.

He urged the Australian Government to mount a rescue operation, with fighting talk: 'I think that the nine men would easily be obtained from Mataroa; but that the woman and children could only be obtained by paying a ransom, which could be done through the Mataroa tribe; the name of the other tribe is 'Hatteranni' [Ngati Ruanui]... . I will not rest here, if a force is not sent down to intimidate them... . If a ship of war were to go down and threaten to destroy their huts, I think that they might be induced to give up the prisoners. Their 'pars' [pa] could be easily destroyed by fire.' (2)

The next move was up to the authorities.

As for what was happening to Betty Guard and her children in the meantime, accounts differ. The Sydney Herald later reported, in sensational style, that her captors had first attempted to cut her throat so as to lick her blood. They then stripped her and her children naked and would have killed them but for the intervention of a chief's wife, who took pity on them. The two children were then thrown on the ground and trampled, before the youngest, Louisa, was returned to her mother, and the oldest, John, was carried away into the bush. However, other accounts suggest that Betty Guard was treated well while she was a captive, and that she lived with the chief Oaoiti as his wife.

Arranging the rescue took four months. Finally, on the orders of the Executive Council of New South Wales and Governor Bourke, two naval ships sailed from Sydney's Port Jackson on 31 August 1834. The operation did not win unanimous support. One member of the council, who disagreed with the expedition, expressed concern at Guard's character: 'The Colonial Treasurer has casually been informed that he was formerly a convict, and that his dealings with the New Zealanders [Maori] have, in some instances, been marked with cruelty.' (3)

Once the Australian ships reached New Zealand, the captors released the eight surviving Harriet sailors. However, Betty Guard and her baby were still being held at Te Namu Pa. Soldiers attacked and burnt the pa, but Betty Guard was taken by the occupants to another, more easily defended pa, at Waimate.

The chief Oaoiti had been taken hostage and was being treated with brutality by Jacky Guard and his party. Finally, Betty Guard her baby were released in return for him, however, the Guards' little boy John remained captive in the hands of another, less co-operative, tribe. The two ships bombarded this tribe's pa and canoes for three hours, then on 8 October more troops arrived with a six pounder gun. Eventually the boy was grabbed off the back of an old chief who had carried him down to the shore. The chief was then shot, and a full-scale battle broke out.

Rough seas stopped the Australian ships from leaving, and the crew, in particular Guard and his Harriet sailors, took many more Maori lives. It was this part of the whole affair that later resulted in a committee of enquiry at the House of Commons in England. There was much criticism of the handling of the incident, and most people agreed that excessive force had been used against the Maori.


(1) Grady, Don. (1978). Guards of the Sea. Christchurch: Whitcoulls. pp 61–62.

(2) Grady. (1978). pp 63–64.

(3) Grady. (1978). p 65.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.

  • Grady, Don. (1978). Guards of the Sea. Christchurch: Whitcoulls.
  • Grady, Don. (1990). Elizabeth Guard 1814–1870 in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. vol. 1. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs.
  • Griffin, R. H. (1966). Captain John Guard c1800–1857: an address given by Mr R H. Griffin to the New Plymouth Historical Society on Monday 28 November 1996. New Plymouth: New Plymouth Historical Society.


The rescue of John Guard, then a child of three years of age by Captain Lambert of H.M.S. Alligator
by C Watson
pen, ink, watercolour
Neg No: B.038013 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
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