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Story: Wiseman, William Saltonstall

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Wiseman, William Saltonstall


Naval officer

This biography, written by Denis Fairfax, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

William Saltonstall Wiseman was born probably on 4 August 1814 at Bombay, India, son of Captain Sir William Saltonstall Wiseman of Canfield Hall, Essex, England, and Catherine Mackintosh, daughter of Sir James Mackintosh, recorder of Bombay. William entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, on 6 September 1827 and became a midshipman in the Philomel in the Mediterranean. Subsequent postings took him to the South America, North America and West Indies stations. He was promoted lieutenant in 1838, and on 25 October that year he married Charlotte Jane Paterson, the daughter of Admiral Charles William Paterson, at Widley, near Portsmouth. There were two children of the marriage. On 1 July 1845 Wiseman succeeded his father as eighth baronet. He was promoted to commander in 1846 and captain in 1854.

In April 1863 Wiseman was appointed fourth commodore of the Australia station in succession to the ill-fated William Burnett who had drowned two months earlier in the wreck of the Orpheus on the Manukau bar. Since 1861 Governor George Grey, as part of his plan to deal with Maori unrest, had forcefully argued for a naval vessel to be permanently stationed in New Zealand waters. His relations with senior officers of the Australian squadron had become severely strained over this issue. To placate Grey, the Admiralty had instructed Wiseman to make New Zealand his squadron headquarters for a period. Arriving at Sydney from Portsmouth on 22 September 1863, Wiseman sailed the same day for Auckland.

Meanwhile, war had broken out. By July 1863 the Waikato campaign had begun and a 200-man naval brigade had been landed for operations in the field. Wiseman's arrival in the Curacoa brought the number of squadron vessels on the coast to six. More men were landed from the Curacoa, Esk and Miranda to augment the imperial forces for the invasion of Waikato. Wiseman personally commanded the flotilla of colonial gunboats which, manned by sailors of the Royal Navy, advanced up the Waikato River. These gunboats were of great importance in the outflanking of the Maori position at Meremere and the attack on the fortifications at Rangiriri. As the invasion proceeded, Wiseman was responsible for the establishment of a permanent naval base at Devonport, Auckland. The Royal Navy under Wiseman's command played a significant role in the Waikato campaign and was duly thanked by the New Zealand Parliament. Wiseman was made CB in February 1864.

In early April 1864 the men of the naval brigade re-embarked, only to be landed again to reinforce the British regiments at Tauranga. On 29 April a detachment of sailors and marines together with soldiers of the 43rd Regiment stormed Gate Pa, known to the Maori as Pukehinahina, after a heavy bombardment by the Royal Artillery and naval gunners. Entering the pa with deceptive ease, the British force was soon driven out with heavy casualties. While Samuel Mitchell of the Harrier, who rescued his dying captain, was recommended by Wiseman for the Victoria Cross, the naval brigade men from the Esk were accused in the New-Zealander of deserting their officers under fire. Admiralty reaction to Gate Pa was ambivalent. The participants were commended but the cautious principle of restricting naval involvement to assistance with communications, stores and the working of guns was reaffirmed.

In spite of the unfortunate events at Gate Pa, both the Waikato and Tauranga campaigns were notable for the fullest co-operation between the navy and army. Much credit for this was owed to Wiseman, who gave the vigorous leadership to the men of the squadron which ensured a whole-hearted naval commitment. Wiseman was also politically astute: he enjoyed cordial relations with Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, and was a match for the irascible Grey. 'Principally in recognition of his services in New Zealand in 1863–4', Wiseman was created KCB in 1867.

After 1864 Wiseman's duties took him away from New Zealand. Late in 1865, ships of the squadron were cruising in the Pacific Islands. The Curacoa, with Wiseman in command, bombarded a native village in the New Hebrides in retaliation for the ill treatment of a missionary. From the evidence of a catalogue for a public exhibition held in Sydney in November 1865, Wiseman appears to have amassed a large collection of ethnological artefacts and natural history specimens in a rather undiscriminating fashion. He ceased to be commodore of the Australia station in May 1866.

Wiseman was promoted rear admiral in November 1869 and was retired in April 1870. He served as a magistrate and deputy lieutenant for Middlesex County. The circumstances of his death were mysterious. He was staying in St Joseph, Missouri, United States, under an assumed name when found dead in his lodgings, on 14 July 1874. He was survived by his son William, also a naval officer, and his daughter Eliza, wife of Admiral H. M. Alexander.

How to cite this page:

Denis Fairfax. 'Wiseman, William Saltonstall', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w35/wiseman-william-saltonstall (accessed 13 July 2024)