Page 1: Biography
Ngati Kura; riverboat skipper
This biography, written by Morvin T. Simon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Andrew Anderson, universally known as Andy, was born on 17 October 1895 at Pipiriki on the Whanganui River. He was the son of Andrew Joseph Thomas Anderson and his wife, Tarakura (Te Rakura) Niu, of the local Ngati Kura (Ngati Kurawhatiia) iwi. His father had trained as a draughtsman in Dunedin before taking a contract in the 1880s to deliver mail by canoe on the Whanganui River. In 1892 he started working as a deck hand on the river steamers of A. Hatrick and Company. By the time Andy was born his father was a master mariner, skippering steam vessels between Wanganui and Pipiriki. He died in a canoeing accident at Mangaio rapid on the Whanganui River in 1897, a month before Andy’s second birthday.
Andy was educated at Pipiriki Native School and at Wanganui. From early spring until autumn he helped cultivate the crops with other local Maori on their farm at Te Ao Marama, about three miles up-river from Pipiriki. During these months he travelled to school in Pipiriki each day by canoe. He became fully fluent in both Maori and English. Around 1910 he became a deck hand on the steamers, and his work soon impressed Alexander Hatrick, the owner. Among the skills Andy acquired were an understanding of the characteristics and peculiarities of the different vessels, their loading capacities for freight and stock and – just as importantly – how to calm and settle animals being ferried.
On 26 October 1915 Andy Anderson enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was attached to the third Maori Contingent as a private and served with the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in Egypt, then in France from 1916 to 1919. In September 1916 he was wounded in action and spent some months recuperating. On 17 December 1918 he was awarded the Military Medal for ‘acts of gallantry in the Field’. He returned to New Zealand in May 1919 and on his discharge in June resumed steamer work for Hatrick’s. He was to continue working the river for the remainder of his life.
On 9 July 1919, in Wanganui, Andy married Emma Whitianga Ratana of Ngati Tuera and Ngati Pare. Initially the couple lived with Andy’s mother, upstream from the Pipiriki wharf in a home known as the ‘stilt house’ because of its high foundation piles; they later moved into the ‘twin house’, a company property, before finally settling in Reone Te Maungaroa’s house at Pipiriki about 1937. Emma was the cook at Pipiriki House, a tourist hotel owned by Hatrick’s. The couple did not have any children, but in 1923 they adopted Haehaeora (also known as Sally) Potaka, the seventh child of Kura and Charlie Potaka.
Andy Anderson never acquired his captain’s certificate, yet he became one of the foremost authorities on the Whanganui River, particularly the middle section between Retaruke and Pipiriki. A skilled navigator, he felt the very pulse of the river at every turn, ‘knew every rock and snag … the reason for every ripple in the water’, and was renowned for piloting his boat at night by the line of the hills against the sky. In spite of his extensive knowledge he had several accidents on the river, the most serious on 6 May 1940. Anderson was skippering the Ohura , loaded with 214 animals, from Ramanui to Pipiriki when the boat began to list to starboard as it negotiated the difficult Ngaporo rapids. He ordered the crew to straighten out the stock to equalise the load, but the cattle moved to the right of the after deck, causing the boat to list still further. The sheep followed the cows, just as Andy was attempting to beach the boat on a shingle bed, and the vessel capsized. Andy was a strong swimmer and he and his nephew, also called Andy, managed to reach the shore, hanging on to the tail of one of the cattle, but the engineer and the two deck hands drowned.
Andy Anderson was one of the last of the Whanganui River service’s captains. The fleet of hard-working vessels diminished as road services improved and tourist numbers declined. By 1958 he was skipper of the only boat in regular service on the river.
Anderson also had a superb knowledge of bushcraft and of native plants and their properties, which he passed on to his younger kinspeople. He was a skilled hunter and was called ‘dead-eye’ by some of his colleagues because of his prowess with a rifle. A keen fisherman, he set eel weirs and gave eels and fish to people along the river. On the evening of 16 August 1958, while going to clear a weir at the foot of a ‘steep, muddy zig zag track down the cliff face with a sheer drop into the river’, Anderson lost his balance and fell into the water. He was probably knocked unconscious in the fall because he did not cry out. His companion raised the alarm at Pipiriki, but a search was unsuccessful; his body was found a month later, caught under a log. He had been taken by the river he loved. He was buried at Pipiriki; his wife and adopted daughter survived him.
Andy Anderson’s skill as a riverboat captain, his knowledge of the river, and his kindness and generosity made him a legendary figure among residents along the Whanganui River and to tourists who travelled there. His passing signalled the close of an era: within a few months the riverboat service ended.