New Zealand’s first European visitor was a Dutchman, Abel Tasman, in 1642, followed over a century later by the famed English explorer, James Cook, in 1769. Yet the land was sparsely settled until the late 19th century. In the 1870’s land was allotted by lottery to new colonists from England in George Vesey Stewart’s Katikati settlement on the north island near Tauranga. The opportunity drew George’s brother, Hugh Stewart, his wife Adela, and seven-year-old son Mervyn, who arrived in 1878 to establish a home and estate, Athenree. Captain Stewart had retired from a respected career in the British Royal Artillery, having served in India, the Caribbean, and other lands.
The vicissitudes of life in colonial New Zealand were revealed at length by Hugh Stewart’s wife, Adela, who published in 1908 her experiences in a 200-page book, “My Simple Life In New Zealand.” By “simple,” she assuredly did not mean easy or carefree, for life was hard and modern conveniences were scarce or non-existent. Outdoor chores were often delayed because “rain came down in absolute torrents.” (p.164) The family had to simply do without the luxuries we take for granted today, and frequently invented or improvised whatever they needed. To the end of their time living there, they had no electricity, no telephones, no trains, roads were poor and the nearest doctor or dentist at least 35 miles away on a winding bumpy road by horse and buggy past a devouring pit of quicksand! They were forced to do their own doctoring; rheumatic gout, for example, was cured by Sulphur tablets. (p.116) The land they purchased by lottery was poor for growing crops, and they were advised to sell it and buy in a better area, which they regretted not having done.
The Stuarts, both husband and wife, were born to well-to-do families, and Adela was schooled in Paris. Colonial New Zealand was undoubtedly a bracing new experience for them both. There was plenty of excitement during their nearly 30-year stay; they survived earthquakes, a volcanic eruption, and a fire that nearly burned down their house. Adela remarked, “How I lived through these times is a mystery.” (p.115) They frequently threw house parties for as many as 100 guests who sampled her baking and danced the night away to Celtic music until 5 am. Adela was quite proud of her cooking skills, and her book contains a number of her own recipes, such as beer, wine, cider, candied fruit, tomato sauce, and even vinegar from honey.
Eventually they realized they were “not growing younger and felt it.” (p.130) Beset by health problems and advancing age, they finally sold their Athenree estate and sailed with a few valuables to England in 1906. Their New Zealand house through the ensuing years fell into decay until local preservationists purchased and beautifully restored it a few years ago. They now offer house tours and have reprinted Adela’s book: www.athenreehomestead.org.nz
My own interest in Captain Stewart and New Zealand was stirred nearly thirty years ago when I purchased a collection of old British-Israel books from an English bookseller and found this inscription stamped inside the covers: “Capt. H. Stewart, J.P., Athenree, N.Z.” His name repeatedly came up in my reading, as he was a fairly regular writer and correspondent for B.I. journals to the end of his life.
The Stewarts were introduced to British-Israel teaching by a distinguished neighbor. Mervyn wrote, “Not long after arriving in New Zealand my father came under the personal influence of Sir George Grey and learned from him to glorify God for His goodness to the children of men. How dear the identity was to him (to them both) you know, as proving the faithfulness of the Eternal by His own chosen means.” Sir George Edward Grey (1812-1898) was a prominent governor of New Zealand, and a longtime British-Israelite.
Hugh Stewart helped establish a formal New Zealand B.I. organization on April 22, 1898 and served as its Vice-President. A transcript of the meeting recorded, “Capt. H. Stewart said: I am truly rejoiced to see such a gathering to inaugurate what I hope will be the New Zealand Anglo-Israel Association…As to our position, Jeremiah 32:41 declares that the restoration of Israel to the possession of the land of their birthright is a matter which will occupy the whole heart and soul of the Almighty. Shall we then be backward in using such means as may be within our reach to spread the knowledge of our inheritance? I assume, of course, that all who are here this evening are aware of Our Identity, but should any be in doubt about finally accepting it I can confidently assure them that not a single fact in history, not a single argument drawn from the holy Scriptures will be found to antagonize our views for a moment. Men may be found to say they disbelieve it, it is true, but these are often unacquainted with the Bible, or find it convenient to disbelieve the Bible also. The utter rottenness of the case of our antagonists will best be understood by studying the report of the Conference between the Prophecy Investigation Society and the Metropolitan British-Israel Association, reported a year or two back in the ‘Covenant People’, and since issued in pamphlet form. May I now suggest a mode of operations in country districts, like my own, where there may be, at first, no one skillful enough to give attractive lectures—the plan we have adopted in the Association of which I am Hon. Secretary, and which has resulted, under God’s blessing, in a continual growth for the last ten years, is to merely attempt a reading club for British-Israel literature. We have now six ‘Banners of Israel’ and four ‘Covenant Peoples’ circulating in our small population. Let anyone wishing to spread Identity knowledge hand a ‘Banner’ to a neighbor; if he reads it, he is sure to be interested, then propose to him to pay 1s. or 2s. a year for the privilege of reading it, and you will be surprised to find how soon a considerable proportion of your settlement will want to join in. These remarks were very favourably received.” (BOI xxii:454)
Hugh passed away in April 1909, and Adela Stewart sailed back to New Zealand in February, 1910, to conduct a book lecture tour. Unfortunately, she fell ill on the voyage and died on the night of her arrival. She was sadly buried in the local cemetery not far from her Athenree home.
In “The Covenant People” Journal in 1909 a memorial notice for Hugh was recorded by Rev. W.M.H. Milner, “Oxonian,” compiler of the valuable book, The Royal House of Britain: “A very consistent and helpful British-Israelite passed away just after Easter in the person of Capt. Hugh Stewart, R.A., late of Athenree, N.Z., and for some time prior to his decease, resident at Falmouth. He and his son, Mr. Mervyn J. Stewart, have both been very zealous members of the small British-Israel Association recently formed for the Helston and Lizard district…Born in 1841 he had served in the Royal Artillery from 1862 to 1878 in a garrison branch. He was highly commended for his professional work, and left the service to go to New Zealand with his parents and family. When the Editor [Oxonian] was settled in Scotland, ten to fifteen years ago, Capt. Stewart was one of his best colonial correspondents. One great beauty of ‘the Identity’ is that it makes friends of many whom distance severs, and who only come face to face in later life, or beyond the veil. It is a strong bond of fellowship. His son writes us: ‘I love to think that the study of the Identity got my father to be confirmed at over fifty years of age and he was always thenceforward a regular communicant—even this Easter he wanted to go.’ A good life, well lived, safe in the arms of Jesus.” (p.215) Amen!