Timber trader and Additional British Resident in New Zealand.
Thomas McDonnell was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1788. He joined the Royal Navy in 1804 and served at Walcheren, in the attack on the French fleet in the Basque roads, and in the blockade of American ports, before retiring with the rank of Lieutenant about 1815. He then entered the East India Company's service. During a visit to Sydney in January 1831 he purchased Sir George Murray and the Hokianga property where she had been built, and on 30 March sailed in her for New Zealand with his family, servants, and a party of settlers. For the rest of the decade his Te Horeke establishment was the principal timber-trading station on the Hokianga.
In July 1835 he returned to Hokianga from a visit to England with the honorary appointment of Additional British Resident. In the following December he captured the crew of the schooner Industry and sent them in irons to Hobart to stand trial for the murder of their captain at sea. This was the one conspicuous achievement of McDonnell's brief and stormy term in office (he resigned in July 1836), throughout which he was at loggerheads with Busby whom he sought to embroil in his feud with White, the Wesleyan missionary. Both European and Maori sections of the Hokianga population took sides in the numerous alarums and excursions that characterised that affair, from which neither of the principal antagonists emerged with any credit.
In either late December 1835 or early January 1836 McDonnell entered the Kaipara in the schooner Tui and, announcing that he acted by authority, declared the harbour tapu and claimed extensive timber rights. A few months later he considerably extended his Horeke boundaries and also acquired a large area of timber land at Motukaraka. In all these undertakings he was supported by the strong arm of Te Taonui. Nene, formerly White's ally, also joined the McDonnell faction when the ex-missionary departed for England on a visit in early 1837. It was this formidable alliance of McDonnell, Te Taonui, and Nene that gave de Thierry's colonising venture its coup de grâce in November 1837.
In 1839, on a further visit to England, McDonnell disposed of his lands to the New Zealand Company, but the deal later fell through. On yet another visit, in 1844, he gave evidence before the House of Commons Select Committee on New Zealand. He is often credited with having visited many parts of New Zealand (or with having circumnavigated both islands), but the improbability of his having done so is suggested by his highly inaccurate “Chart of New Zealand, from Original Surveys”, which was published by Wyld in 1834.
McDonnell's capacity for keeping the Hokianga on the boil in no way declined during the forties and fifties. Disputes with his fellow settlers (one of whom dubbed him “McDiddle”) alternated with furious dissensions with those tribes from whom he had made his 1836 purchases, or with whom he had subsequently had business dealings. Prolonged investigation of his land claims (during which he “insulted every magistrate ever stationed in the north”, to quote one of the many officials who suffered at his hands), revealed to the full the violent antipathy existing between McDonnell and many of the Hokianga tribes, and in 1858 he was granted land in the Whangarei district. This he quickly disposed of and retired to Auckland and, later, to Onehunga where he died on 13 September 1864, aged 75, from the effects of a fall from his horse. Colonel Thomas McDonnell was his oldest son; Spofforth, the “demon bowler”, a grandson.
by Ruth Miriam Ross, School Teacher and Authoress, North Auckland.
- O.L.C. files (MSS), British Resident's Papers, (MSS), National Archives
- George Hawke Journal (m/fm), Turnbull Library
- Historical Narrative … de Thierry, C. P. H. (MSS), Auckland Public Library
- Busby of Waitangi, Ramsden, E. (1942)
- Daily Southern Cross, 14 Sep 1864 (Obit)
- Great Britain Parliamentary Papers 556 (1844).