DAVIS, Charles Oliver Bond
Maori interpreter, Maori adviser, and writer.
A new biography of Davis, Charles Oliver Bond appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Charles Oliver Bond Davis, named after the Irish patriot, was born in Sydney in 1816, his father being an Irish stonecutter. The early death of his parents left Davis and his younger brothers under the care of a sister aged 15. Five years later, after her marriage to a Captain William Young, the couple migrated to Hokianga in the brig Tranmore, bringing with them Edward and Charles Davis.
Young, a man of faith and rectitude in the dubious environment of early Hokianga, appears for a time to have continued the education of his junior brother-in-law. A little later Davis became associated with the family of William Woon, helping possibly as a part-time tutor. From his first years in New Zealand he acquired and extended a commanding knowledge of Maori and may have attracted the attention of the officials present during the Waitangi Treaty negotiations at Hokianga. In 1842 he entered Government service as a clerk and interpreter, rising to the position of chief interpreter in the Native Secretary's Office from which he resigned in 1857.
Davis's knowledge of Maori, his personal sympathy with and understanding of the Maori outlook, in conjunction with his official position, led an increasing number of influential Maoris to turn to him for advice and assistance. In 1855 he published Maori Mementos, which comprised a collection of old songs, laments, and stories, together with a series of addresses presented by the Maori people to Sir George Grey prior to his departure from New Zealand in December 1853. Davis soon became involved in the affairs of the Waikato and attended, among other meetings, one at Ihumata in June 1857 to collect money for a Maori printing press. He also edited and issued papers in the Maori language. Advice which he gave to Wiremu Tamihana when that chief was rebuffed in his request for Government assistance in the erection of a flourmill, may have been a factor in developing Tamihana's support for the King movement. Although Davis in his evidence before the Waikato Committee in 1860 recalled the incident as occurring in 1857, it has been argued that the interview in fact took place two years earlier. In February 1857 Davis submitted a plan for a three-fold separation of native affairs into general administration, legal responsibilities, and land purchasing.
The next decade was one of frustration and difficulty for Davis. During the period of the Maori Wars, when the weight of public opinion was strongly against Maori sympathisers, Davis was charged with having published a seditious libel in the form of a Ngaiterangi satire on the Arawa. He was, however, acquitted. He was able to work with McLean during the latter's terms of office as Native Minister, preparing the ground for visits to the Waikato and elsewhere and assisting with Court work in Rotorua and Taupo. To McLean, to whom he expressed his indebtedness on a number of occasions, he dedicated his second major work, The Life and Times of Patuone (1876). In addition to his contributions to the Maori Messenger, Davis, as a versifier on religious and other themes, issued a number of his poems as broadsides as well as his Temperance Songs for the Maori (1873). He died at Auckland on 28 June 1887.
Davis appeals today as a man worthy of our interest and respect. He was a notable Maori scholar, but his finest achievement was the attempt to bring about a racial rapprochement by means of a rare Christianity and understanding of the Maori mind and mode of life. Had his example been followed by the leaders of the day, the problem of Maori-Pakeha relationship might well have been solved without recourse to war.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- New Zealand Herald, 29 Jun 1887 (Obit).