Story: Davis, Charles Oliver Bond

Page 1 - Biography

Davis, Charles Oliver Bond

1817/1818?–1887

Interpreter, writer, land purchase agent

This biography was written by Alan Ward and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Charles Oliver Bond Davis was born in Sydney, Australia, probably in 1817 or 1818, one of five children of Irish migrants Ann Calder and her husband, Joseph Davis, a cutler. His parents named him after the Irish patriot leader Oliver Bond. On the death of Joseph and Ann Davis, their eldest child, Elizabeth, took charge of her four brothers. She and her husband, Captain William Young, brought Charles Davis and his brother Edward to New Zealand in 1830 or 1831, to settle in Hokianga with the Wesleyan mission. Charles, who had some formal schooling, was tutor to the children of the Reverend William Woon. He also acquired great facility in Maori.

In 1840 Charles Davis assisted in the meetings at Hokianga at which the Treaty of Waitangi was debated and signed. In 1842 he was appointed clerk and interpreter to the Auckland office of the Protectorate of Aborigines. When Donald McLean joined the protectorate in 1844, the two struck up a rapport; Davis liked to 'talk over Maori matters' with McLean, and showed him poetry he was writing.

When the native secretary's department was created in 1846 Davis remained as clerk and interpreter, assisting in the Auckland courts with land purchases and native affairs generally, and in the production of the official Maori newspaper Te Karere Maori ( The Maori Messenger ). He was by now well known to Maori in the Auckland area, who increasingly approached him to assist in commercial and land disputes. In 1847 his acceptance of a fee from some Maori clients brought him a reprimand from Thomas Beckham, resident magistrate at Auckland.

Complaints by settlers aggrieved by advice Davis gave to Maori clients, and his superiors' disapproval of his tendency to take time off for private work, culminated in a board of inquiry in 1855, and a summons over an alleged debt. Davis won that case but resigned from the Native Department about 1857 because of jealousies and factionalism. This did not, however, involve a breach with McLean, now native secretary and chief land purchase commissioner.

In 1855 Davis had published a biography of the chief Kawiti, and compiled Maori mementos, a translation of Maori songs and addresses to Governor George Grey. After leaving the Native Department he published a few issues of newspapers entitled Te Waka o te Iwi and Te Whetu o te Tau, believing in the urgent necessity of better informing the Maori people about settler and government intentions. In this context he became acquainted with Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi and Waikato chiefs, attending several of the meetings which culminated in the selection of the Maori King, and collecting money for a Maori printing press. These actions brought Davis further official suspicion and displeasure.

Davis defended his actions before a parliamentary committee in 1860. He genuinely liked the Maori people, respected them for their 'very high sense of natural justice', and considered them ill served by officialdom. However, while supportive of the Waikato leaders' efforts to better themselves, he was opposed to the nationalist tendencies of the King movement. He believed that the powerful anti-government feeling spreading throughout the tribes could be allayed by more efficient administration and better information, and that 'obedience to the Government…would be cheerfully yielded' if Maori knew that their interests were regarded. He believed that resistance to land-selling would come and go, and himself began to acquire land.

Davis remained out of official favour, although he was employed temporarily in 1862 with McLean in negotiations for the Coromandel gold lands. He considered the government's attacks in the Waikato and Tauranga districts to be unjust, and early in 1865 assisted some Tauranga Maori to publish a pamphlet critical of 'te Arawa mangai-nui' (the big-mouthed Arawa), who were then allied with the government. Davis was charged in the Supreme Court with seditious libel, the prosecution contending that the pamphlet would incite other tribes against Te Arawa. Leading Maori scholars gave evidence, mostly for Davis, and the special jury took less than half an hour to find him not guilty.

With the introduction of the Native Land Act 1873 Davis began a career as land purchase agent. With his patron McLean as minister for native affairs, he was once more given official employment. Once more he provoked controversy. Working with Henry Mitchell in the Bay of Plenty and Taupo, Davis made many 'preliminary agreements' with hapu he considered to be 'recognised owners' of land, paying deposits on over a million acres, 'thereby binding the Tribes, and shutting out private speculators.' He intended then to elucidate the customary title through public tribal meetings. This evoked a series of disputes and a steady flow of letters and telegrams to the Native Department from angered Maori. Davis protested the rightness of his actions, claiming that most opposition came from 'big-mouthed Arawa', Ngati Whakaue, who asserted that their supremacy gave them rights to land where they had no ancestral claims.

Davis's view was eventually supported by an investigating officer, G. S. Cooper, although both Cooper and H. T. Clarke, the under secretary of the Native Department, believed that Davis's purchases should have been confined to a smaller area. But Davis's methods accorded with those of his political patrons, J. D. Ormond and Donald McLean, who supported them until near-violence in 1876 forced McLean to suspend land negotiations. In the last analysis Davis, like McLean, would not let his scholarly interest in Maori and periodic concern for them stand in the way of government land purchasing. In 1875 he recorded his satisfaction at reducing a 100 acre reserve to 5 acres to prevent the Maori owners from privately letting an important mineral springs area.

Davis had meanwhile joined the temperance movement, and composed and published some Maori temperance songs. His best-known work, The life and times of Patuone, was published in 1876. In his last years he became progressively blind. He worked with Auckland charitable organisations and became more religious. He contracted bronchitis while attending faith healing services in an effort to recover his sight. He died in Auckland on 28 June 1887, leaving considerable sums to charities, notably the Salvation Army, and his Maori artefacts to the Auckland Institute and Museum.

Davis was described by his contemporary H. B. Morton as 'a diminutive man of mummified appearance with a thin squeaky voice, destitute of one atom of personal charm.' He remains a contradictory figure, gifted but lacking in judgement, frequently supportive of Maori interests but also using them to advance his own, contemptuous of official incompetence and hypocrisy, but a time-server for McLean. His writings are a worthy memorial to a more determined believer in a bicultural future than most of his contemporaries.