Story: Thierry, Charles Philippe Hippolyte de

Page 1 - Biography

Thierry, Charles Philippe Hippolyte de

1793–1864

Businessman, coloniser, music teacher

This biography was written by J. D. Raeside and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry claimed that he was born in April 1793. He was the eldest son of Charles Antoine de Thierry, or Thierry, a French merchant mariner, who had settled at Versailles as an equerry at the French court, and his wife, Marie Louise Pierrette, or Louise Antoinette, de Laville. By April 1793 the family had reached Grave, in the Netherlands, in flight from the consequences of the French revolution, and Charles Philippe Hippolyte was probably born there. In November 1794 the family travelled to England, where Charles Antoine de Thierry assumed the title of baron.

The Thierry family led a wandering life in straitened circumstances in southern England. In 1796, during a visit to Edinburgh, Charles Philippe Hippolyte became the godson of the exiled comte d'Artois (later Charles X of France). In 1814 he accompanied the Portuguese delegation to the Congress of Vienna, and in 1816 served briefly as an attaché at the French embassy in London.

Thierry married Emily Rudge, probably on 8 May 1819 at Gloucester. They were to have four sons and a daughter. He enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, the same year, and later claimed to have transferred to a Cambridge college, where in 1820 he met the Maori chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato, and the New Zealand missionary Thomas Kendall. Thierry arranged for Kendall to buy 40,000 acres at Hokianga on his account, for payment of 36 axes. His ambition was to settle a colony on this land. The deed was executed in 1822. After failing to enlist the support of the British government, Thierry approached the Dutch government in February 1824, proposing that it annex New Zealand and appoint him viceroy in exchange for his deed. While this proposition was being considered, Thierry was imprisoned in London for debt.

In 1825 Thierry went to Paris, and offered the French government his Hokianga land for a colony, on condition that he be appointed governor. He claimed that New Zealand chiefs had appointed him sovereign chief of the islands. Dumont d'Urville was instructed to look discreetly into Thierry's standing in New Zealand, and reported that his claims had no real foundation. His credibility was further compromised when a Paris bazaar in which he was a partner went bankrupt in 1826, and he had to flee to England to escape his creditors.

Early in 1827 Thierry and his family left for America. Little is known of their activities until in 1832 they sailed from Virginia, possibly destined for Brazil, although Thierry later insisted that his goal was always New Zealand. After an interrupted progress through the Caribbean, gathering followers, subscriptions and supplies, Thierry reached Panama in December 1834 and applied for a concession to cut a canal. Losing interest, he sailed for Tahiti in June 1835, electing himself king of Nuka Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands, on the way. In Tahiti he recruited a military force, and met Robert FitzRoy, who denounced him as an impostor, and as an unsuitable person to have a military force at his disposal. He alarmed James Busby, British Resident in New Zealand, and the missionary community by issuing manifestos stating that he intended to establish his authority as sovereign chief by force.

In July 1837 Thierry reached Sydney, New South Wales, where he recruited colonists and money, and sailed for Hokianga, in northern New Zealand, on the Nimrod, arriving on 4 November 1837. Nene and Patuone repudiated Kendall's purchase of 40,000 acres, but Nene and Te Taonui granted Thierry 800 acres at Hokianga on condition that he give up his larger claim. His ragtag colonists rioted and scattered and Thierry settled on this smaller grant. He failed to prosper but sent inflated accounts of his success to France, still hoping to win support for his plans for a French colony. This prospect was finally thwarted by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

During the war of 1845–46 in the north of New Zealand Thierry moved to Auckland, where he lived in poor circumstances until 1850. He sailed for the goldfields of California but failed to make his fortune. Returning to New Zealand, he called at Honolulu in December 1851 and was appointed to the staff of the French consulate, where he served for nearly two years.

In May 1853 Thierry left Honolulu and returned to Auckland to pursue his land claims and eke out a living teaching music and tuning pianos. His wife died in Auckland in 1856. He became a friend of Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier and Governor George Grey, and between 1854 and 1857, at Grey's urging and with his financial support, began an autobiography in which he presented himself as the principal pioneer colonist of New Zealand, idealistic and misunderstood. In business he experimented in flax processing, and manufactured millboard. By 1860 he had achieved some degree of financial success. He died suddenly in Auckland on 8 July 1864.