THIERRY, Charles Philip Hippolytus, Baron de
A new biography of Thierry, Charles Philippe Hippolyte de appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
De Thierry was the eldest son of Baron Charles de Thierry de Laville (whose devotion to the royal cause during the revolution necessitated the family's withdrawal from France), and is generally said to have been born in London. But though he frequently claimed he was English born, it seems certain that his birth occurred before his parents arrived in London from Europe in November 1794. He may have been born in Brussels; but Grave, Holland, seems most likely to have been his birthplace, probably in January or February 1793.
After attending the Congress of Vienna as secretary to the Portuguese Marquis of Marialva, de Thierry served for a short period in a British cavalry regiment – the 23rd Light Dragoons – and in 1816 became an attaché to the French Ambassador in London. In 1819 he studied theology at Oxford, changing to law at Cambridge about the time of his marriage to Emily, eldest daughter of Archdeacon Thomas Rudge, of Gloucester.
Two months' acquaintance with Hongi Hika, Waikato, and Thomas Kendall at Cambridge in 1820 rekindled de Thierry's boyhood passion to visit the scenes of Cook's discoveries in the South Seas. He arranged for Kendall to purchase land for him in New Zealand, but his assertion that he gave Kendall £800 worth of goods to buy “all the land from North Cape to Tauranga” and his allegation that the missionary appropriated the major portion of the goods to his own use cannot be accepted unreservedly.
A block of land at Hokianga was purchased by Kendall in August 1822 from the chiefs Muriwai, Patuone, and Nene. According to the deed, 40,000 acres were bought for 36 axes. In December 1823 Thierry requested British protection for the colony he was then assembling in London, but was rebuffed by the Colonial Office. He next approached the Dutch Ambassador in London in February 1824 with a proposal to purchase Holland's “rights” in New Zealand for £50,000; in April with an offer “to secure to the King of the Netherlands the Sovereignty and possession of New Zealand, which would … ensure His Majesty a yearly revenue of upwards of Five Millions of Pounds Sterling”. He modestly suggested that his appointment as “Viceroy of New Zealand” would be a fitting reward for his services, adding that he was born in Brussels and descended from the Counts of Flanders. These fantastic overtures were terminated by de Thierry's imprisonment for bankruptcy in July; by October, however, he was in France, where he made equally extraordinary proposals to the French Government. In spite of his connections with the Court (Charles X was his godfather) these met with no success, and in the latter half of 1826, finding himself again financially embarrassed, he returned to England. After yet another unsuccessful attempt in London to fit out a colonising expedition he went to the United States, where he remained for several years. Then followed a Caribbean interlude: drifting from one West Indian port to another he was joined by a motley entourage, with whose collaboration he now proposed to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, in addition to founding a colony in New Zealand. As part of this grandiose scheme he assumed the title, “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand”.
On 1 June 1835 he sailed from Panama with his family. A call was made at the Marquesas, where, intoxicated by his first taste of the South Seas, he proclaimed himself king of Nukuhiva. Tarrying in Tahiti for over a year, hopefully waiting for reinforcements which never came from his Panamanian collaborators, he forwarded to New Zealand a bombastic announcement of his intentions. Busby responded with a promise of “the most spirited resistance of the whole population”, and organised his Declaration of Independence. De Thierry retaliated with an accusation of republicanism, and left Tahiti for Sydney. There he engaged a large body of settlers (68 on his own authority) and sailed for New Zealand on the Nimrod. Arriving at Hokianga on 4 November 1837 he was derisively greeted by a royal salute; within a few days, due largely to McDonnell's successful intriguing, the majority of his colonists deserted, and his title to the land, allegedly purchased by Kendall, was repudiated.
Whatever the financial resources that had sustained him throughout his wanderings, de Thierry was now penniless. Settling at Tarawana on the Waihou River on a few hundred acres given him by Patuone and Nene, he assured visitors to Mount Isabel – named after his beloved daughter – that an armed vessel, daily expected, would soon put him in possession of his 40,000 acres. As much of this land was now claimed by other European settlers, such talk was not well received. His courageous championing of Bishop Pompallier (de Thierry himself was a Protestant) and his increasingly open avowal of French sympathies following official British colonisation added to his unpopularity.
In 1845 he settled in Auckland, where for a time he earned a living as a music teacher. In February 1850 he sailed for California, two of his sons having preceded him to the goldfields, but on the way was marooned for a month on Pitcairn Island. After six months at San Francisco he took charge of the French Consulate at Honolulu until March 1853, after which he returned to Auckland and interested himself in the processing of Phormium tenax (q.v.). Shortly before his death (Sir George Grey paid him for it), he wrote his autobiographical Historical Narrative of an Attempt to Form a Settlement in New Zealand. He died in Auckland on 8 July 1864 reputedly at the age of 71. The title of baron was carried on by his eldest son, Charles Thomas Frederick, from whose second marriage (to Marata Te Moananui) many Maori de Thierrys are descended.
Notwithstanding its many Ruritanian absurdities, de Thierry's colonising philosophy was not entirely without merit, and the ridicule and distrust which he aroused during his lifetime to some extent resulted from misinterpretation of his self-bestowed titles. Although he styled himself “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand”, the only sovereignty he claimed was that of his supposed 40,000 acres at Hokianga, contending (to quote Grey) “that within those limits, until a regular Government was set up, he could exercise the rights of a chief”. Ironically, his more unscrupulous stratagems do not appear to have been generally known.
by Ruth Miriam Ross, School Teacher and Authoress, North Auckland.
- O.L.C. files (MSS), National Archives
- Historical Narrative… and other Thierry Papers (MSS and TS), Auckland Public Library
- Misc. E. A. 1/1 (p/stats), National Archives
- New Zealand Herald, 11 Jul 1864 (Obit)
- Bulletin de la Sociét des Etudes Oceanniennes (1931)
- Revue des Deux Mondes (1882)
- New Zealand, Martin, S. McD. (1845)
- Busby of Waitangi, Ramsden, E. (1942)
- Historical Records of Australia, Watson, F. (1914-25).