Memory of drowned pioneer lives on
Nineteenth century New Zealand was a tough place for settlers trying to eke out a living in a less than hospitable country. Hopes of a land of milk and honey turned out to be wildly optimistic. But worse, the lack of roads, bridges and infrastructure made it a very dangerous place to travel.
The story of Harriet Bassett - what brought her to New Zealand, and her short and hard life in Marlborough - is what makes this particular story truly tragic.
You could say that the plaque on the little wooden park bench at Tuamarina Cemetery says it all.
‘‘In Memory Bassett …’’
‘‘Who came to the new land in the immigrant ship Carnatic in 1875, and was tragically drowned crossing the Wairau River 4 Sept 1876. The pioneer women who with their courage, fortitude, and faith helped to develop all that you see before you.’’
Bassett left behind a husband and three children, as well as her dreams of starting a new life with the man she sacrificed everything for. Coming from well-to-do Baptist family, Bassett had become estranged from her family after marrying Joseph - a man considered well below her station.
But it was true love, and New Zealand was supposed to be a fresh start for the young family.
It was September 4, 1876 and Bassett had been asked to assist her husband’s employers – Mr and Mrs Furby - on a trip from of Harriet Renwick to Blenheim.
There was a drive-on ferry for horse and vehicles, but Mr Furby decided not to pay the toll and cross the Wairau river at the end of Hillocks Rd.
The horse stepped in a hole, spooked and reared up, the trap tipped on its side and all three occupants fell out into the river. The bodies of the horse and the Furbys were found the same day. But it would be weeks before they found Bassett’s body.
Bassett was buried in an unmarked grave at Tuamarina Cemetery. No one really knows where she is interred, so a seat was erected by her descendants in remembrance.
‘‘She’s my father’s mother’s mother,’’ says Bassett’s relative Terry Ford who, along with his cousins, erected the park bench. ‘‘Three people drowned in the river in the same town. It was a big thing for those days.’’
Ford also wrote a short essay about the incident and Bassett’s life for Memories magazine in May 2013.
‘‘I think it’s the same as anybody else that reads that story,’’ said Ford.
‘‘I think what a bloody shame how sad it is that they’ve been through all that with so much promise and then, in the space of a few minutes, the whole thing’s wrecked.
‘‘It was something that took generations to recover from. It seems so sad that it’s not recognised in some way, which is why we decided we’d do something and eventually settled on the seat.’’
Bassett was pregnant with her third child John when the family began the 98-day journey to New Zealand on the Carnatic. She would spend most of her time in the sick bay in appalling conditions. Hygiene was second to survival and rationing was portioned carefully.
Since the Carnatic was a cargo ship, space was restricted. To make a few extra bucks, the ship was quickly converted to a people mover.
On January 8, 1875, they saw land at Cape Farewell and anchored in Picton. The family quickly learned about hard times, but husband Samuel managed to find farming work in Renwick with the Furby family.
Two weeks later their son John was born.
‘‘What people don’t realise you see, that these kinds of things can have effects for years,’’ says Ford.
‘‘When [Bassett] drowned, the family was split up. It was a problem because there was Samuel with two girls and the son, John ... he’d only be about 18 months by that stage. And he wasn’t able to look after them as a family… Children were a fairly expensive business ... and they weren’t earning their keep.’’
Abandoned, Bassett’s 18-month year old son John would go on endure some tough times.
‘‘John [Bassett’s son] was tragic,’’ says Ford. ‘‘We lost complete track of him, and it wasn’t until I managed to get a hold of a death certificate ... He went off with a family somewhere, presumably did grow up as semislave labor on the farm somewhere, and they shifted down the coast. He’s buried actually in Hokitika, but he died in his early 30s I think. He must have a had a pretty rough life.’’
Ford says that the seat is not just in memory to his long lost relative, but also to the thousands of forgotten pioneer women who helped build New Zealand.
‘‘That’s the most important thing we want to say. Let’s not forget those women who built this country. Who gave us everything we have today.’’
Terry Ford next to the park bench remembering his great great grandmother Harriet Bassett at Tuamarina Cemetery.