Page 1: Biography
Harris, John Williams
Trader, whaler, farmer
This biography, written by Philip Whyte, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in November, 2010.
According to family information John Williams Harris was born in Cornwall, England, in 1808. He joined the Royal Navy while still a boy, although ill health forced him to quit. He emigrated to Australia to join relatives in 1820 or 1821, and spent about 10 years there, working in a counting-house and on a sheep station. But it was his work with the merchant J. B. Montefiore's company which led to his arrival in New Zealand. Harris, George White and Tom Ralph were sent out on the company's ship Darling in February 1831 to establish a flax-trading business; they arrived at Poverty Bay in May of that year.
Harris established himself first at Awapuni Lagoon, in the lower reaches of the Waipāoa River, before moving to the west bank of the Tūranganui River later in 1831; he eventually purchased the trading post from Montefiore. Like many other Pākehā traders, Harris owed much of his success to his connections with Māori; he came under the protection of Paratene Turangi, and probably in 1832 or 1833 married Tukura-a-Rangi, a relative of Te Aitanga a Hauiti and Ngāti Porou leader Te Kani a Takirau. Tukura and Harris had two children, Edward Francis and Henry.
In June 1831 Harris made the first European land purchase in Poverty Bay, a section of a little more than an acre on the banks of the Tūranganui River. He purchased another block named Opou, near Awapuni, for which deeds were signed in 1839 and 1845; there he built his house. He leased nearby sections, and may also have owned land at Ruataniwha in Hawke's Bay. Harris was active in early pastoral farming and for 20 years had the biggest holding on the Poverty Bay flats, but claims that he was the first to introduce sheep, cattle and horses to the district have been disputed.
In 1837 Harris travelled to Sydney to purchase goods needed to establish the first whaling station in Poverty Bay. (On this voyage he took with him a bone from a large bird; in 1839 Richard Owen was to use this to verify the previous existence of the moa in New Zealand.) In association with Thomas Halbert, he established the station next to his store on the west bank of the Tūranganui River in 1837. He moved it to the Kaiti side of the river in 1838 and around the coast to Papawhariki in November 1838. In 1842 Harris retired from active participation in the whaling business to settle on his land at Opou.
The first Poverty Bay census in 1851 showed that Harris was the most substantial settler in the district. He owned five of the 20 weatherboard buildings and considerably more livestock than his fellow Pākehā. His acquisition of land had been facilitated by his care in maintaining good relations with local Māori. After Tukura's death, some time after 1851, Harris's association with her people continued to be mutually beneficial.
As a key person in the settlement, and a Pākehā who could move easily among Māori, Harris became a major source of information about Poverty Bay for the land purchase commissioner and government agent Donald McLean and was appointed an arbitrator in disputes between Māori and Pākehā, an indication of his standing with both races. During the 1860s he kept McLean informed on the movements of Māori belligerents in the district. His house at Opou was burned down during Te Kooti's raid of 1868. Harris's letters to McLean have been preserved and show him to have been a well-educated and literate man, unlike many of his fellow traders.
Harris maintained a good relationship with local missionaries Jane and William Williams, who sometimes held services in his house. At one time, however, they broke off the relationship because William could not 'countenance his mode of living and shameless practices'. Harris, wrote Jane, was living in a 'licentious manner.'
For the first 30 years of Poverty Bay's European settlement, Harris was its most prominent Pākehā citizen. One of his most important contributions was towards bringing other traders to the district, either as his employees or as businessmen in their own right attracted to a growing area. During the 1860s, competition from George Read forced Harris's own trading activities into the background.
On 30 December 1854, Harris married Jacintha Adelaide Hargraves at Auckland. She later moved back to Auckland with their two children, Harold and Bertha. Harris seems to have become increasingly depressed following this separation. He committed suicide on 4 February 1872, while on a visit to Auckland.