One of the great characters of New Zealand sport, Paul Thomas Silva overcame the loss of an eye in the First World War to compete successfully in national wood-chopping events for over 20 years. He was born at Mungatu, Okupu, Great Barrier Island, on 9 December 1897, the son of Polly Mary Tobouch (also known as Mary Botolvn) and her husband, Domingo Silva, a farmer. His mother was born in Fiji; his father was a Brazilian of African descent who had arrived in New Zealand around 1867 and is said to have worked for Sir George Grey on Kawau Island. After attending Whangaparapara School, Paul probably worked at the Kauri Timber Company’s mill on Great Barrier before moving to Auckland, where he found work as a seaman.
In December 1914 Paul Silva enlisted as a private in the Auckland Battalion, New Zealand Infantry Brigade. He arrived in Egypt in March 1915 and on 25 April took part in the Gallipoli landings. Three weeks later he was shot in the face and spent three days unconscious on a hospital ship. He received severe injuries to his jaw and his left eye, which was removed before he regained consciousness. He spent most of the remainder of the year recuperating in Maltese hospitals.
On 30 December 1915 Silva, along with an Australian lighthorseman and a Scottish private, appeared before a British court martial at Valletta, Malta, facing charges of mutiny. The three men had been identified as ringleaders in an incident at Sliema camp a month earlier when between 300 and 500 convalescent soldiers had besieged five Maltese militiamen in the camp’s cinema, and refused all orders to disperse. Silva was defended by a ‘soldier’s friend’, who emphasised his good service record and pointed to the poor image that could result from an overly harsh sentence against a man with dark skin. In January 1916 Silva was sentenced to 11 months’ imprisonment with hard labour at the detention barracks on Malta. After serving four months, his sentence was commuted as an act of clemency by the island’s governor. He was transferred to the convalescent camp at Spinola before being sent to the New Zealand Kit Stores staff base in Bulford, England. In October 1917 he was classified unfit for active service and in March the following year he returned to New Zealand.
On his return Silva worked in bushcamps throughout the King Country and Taupo regions. Although not tall, he was immensely strong, and during this time he took up competitive wood chopping. His first win was probably in the ‘big chop’ at Gisborne in 1921, and for the next 29 years he was to compete successfully, mainly in the standing chop, but also in the underhand chop, double-hand wood-sawing and the springboard tree-felling chop. At this time classic handicap events were more important than the national championships, where the prize money was minimal and the best axemen often chose not to compete. Silva won three classic handicaps and was placed second or third in 12 others; he also competed in Australia from about 1929 to 1931. His first major success was in the St Patrick’s handicap at Taihape in 1926, when he won the 14-inch standing chop. He was placed in the New Zealand championships in 1939 and 1950, and won the prestigious Freyberg Cup in 1948 and 1950.
In the early 1930s Paul Silva apparently took up farming in south Auckland. During the Second World War he was manpowered to Taupo, where he worked in a sawmill, and by 1946 he was working for Huka Timbermills. Around 1954 he began contract work building log bridges on Department of Lands and Survey and hydroelectric development land in the Taupo area. The bridges – which could be over 100 feet long – were made from Australian gum-trees which Silva selected and purchased before felling. Apart from assistance to haul the 14-inch-thick logs to the required site, he made these structures entirely on his own. By July 1960 Silva, aged 62, had made over 300 bridges.
During his time in Taupo he lived with a housekeeper in a house he had built himself. He never married, but brought up his housekeeper’s daughter after her mother remarried. Ever ready with a cheerful smile, and with a distinctive black patch covering his missing left eye, Silva was described in the Taupo Times as ‘one of the best-known identities in the town’. In later life he went on several trips to Europe, sometimes accompanying his nephew New Zealand Olympic Games representative wrestler John Da Silva. In the early 1970s Paul Silva retired to Tauranga. He died at sea while returning to Great Barrier Island on 31 December 1974.