Asia,  New Zealand,  Phoebe

Sarah Higgins

Sarah Sharp Higgins in her early 80s Photo Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library
Sarah Sharp Higgins in her early 80s Photo Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Sarah Sharp was born on January 30th 1830 in Kent, England. Her mother Mary Ann died when Sarah was an infant, possibly as a result of childbirth and her father remarried when Sarah was about nine or ten. Her step-mother died in childbirth after only a year, the baby dying too, leaving Sarah’s father Stephen with five children to look after. Whilst he was out trying to obtain work, Sarah spent her days with her grandmother, and received a limited education until around the age of eleven where she received lessons in sewing and reading.

Following the death of her step-mother, Sarah’s father applied to join the call for emigrants to the new colonies in New Zealand. The New Zealand Company fronted by Edward Wakefield, were advertising for skilled labourers, joiners, farmers, builders and so on to apply for assisted passage to their colonies in the Nelson area. Stephen Sharp was initially turned down as he was a widower. The company were more interested in young couples, starting out on their married life, perhaps with small children or older couples with grown or nearly grown children who would provide not only the skills but the next generation of colonists. Single people were not encouraged unless they were skilled in a particular area, and came as part of a family unit, perhaps a domestic servant.

Stephen Sharp sought and received assistance for his application, from doctors treating his older daughter, Susannah, who was sick. They sent a letter to the company stating that they were unable to help her further but their medical opinion was that the fresh air in New Zealand would be of benefit to her health. Stephen was accepted and proceeded to sell his belongings to raise his passage and that of his children. He left one of his sons behind and took his other four children and set sail on board the Bolton in 1841. Sadly, Sarah’s sister died on the long journey which took nearly five months, and was buried at sea. They arrived at Nelson in March 1842.

Once there, Sarah, now the only female in the family and so the home-maker, was required to learn the domestic skills necessary to run the home, cooking, cleaning and laundry. She also had to actively participate in trying to cultivate the small patch of land that they had been allocated, in an effort to grow vegetables and cereals. Conditions were quite rudimentary and harsh in their new settlement; houses had to be built, communal buildings and roads, a task for which the young physically able men were employed in the first instance. Sarah took the initiative on her domestic duties and visited local neighbours to watch them cook and perform household tasks and learn from them.

The foundations of the settlement were built on a false premise; the New Zealand Company had made promises of land they had allegedly acquired in a deal with the local Maori population. They sold the land in increments to English prospects, many of whom had no intention of making the journey to claim their holdings. The settlers that did arrive were given this land, whilst the company held out in the hope that further land could be gained. The land was nothing like the rich agricultural land the settlers had been led to believe they would be given, it was swampy and filled with ferns that would need clearing. Huts had been improvised as temporary housing, but were woefully inadequate for purpose and it was left to the newly arrived colonists to improve them.

Lambton Harbour, quite likely where Sarah landed as a settler, and her first sight of her new home.
Lambton Harbour, quite likely where Sarah landed as a settler, and her first sight of her new home.

The company hit further difficulties in 1841 when the British Government stepped in and declared the Treaty of Waitangi, preventing the further purchase of land from the Maori and casting doubt on the legitimacy of that already gained. In 1843, negotiations between Captain Arthur Wakefield on behalf of the New Zealand company and the Maori which intended to side-step the treaty deteriorated leading to the descent into violent confrontation at Wairau during which the daughter of one chief who happened to be the wife of the other, his nephew, was fatally shot. A short but bloody skirmish ensued during which 22 European men were killed as well as three other Maoris. The Chief cut out the tongue of the interpreter, John Brooks, claiming he told lies. Others were injured.

Sarah Higgins witnessed the aftermath of this incident, and recalled it years later in her memoirs. Her interpretation was delivered in the simplistic nature of a child, expressing horror at the incident and how horrific it had been, seeing one of the surviving casualties with a badly broken arm. But what affected her, directly and the group as a whole was the loss of their leader, Captain Wakefield. His death forced the end of employment of the working force. Building stopped, the men weren’t paid and food became scarce. Coupled with their growing hunger and dire situation was the fear that they were stranded thousands of miles from their homeland, with no means of escape, under threat of further attack, and that they faced the loss of their new homes, which they were still struggling to consolidate.

Luck to a certain degree was still on their side. Henry Spain, dispatched by the British government to investigate and ascertain the legalities of the situation – whose reticence in making himself available in due course prior to the Wairau incident – ruled in favour of the Maoris and confirmed that the representatives of the New Zealand Company, led by Wakefield had acted inappropriately and provoked the attack, whether by accident or by a rash show of force. Although his findings astonished the local council, it was later felt that his report erred on the side of appeasing the Maori, and thus preventing the chance of further conflict. As a result, the Maori offered help and advice to the settlers in Nelson, selling them a small amount of provisions where money was available and giving them guidance on where they could find naturally growing fruit, berries and grains. Despite this, many of the settlers including Sarah’s family were forced to move along to another colony, Spring Grove, not too far away, where conditions were viewed to be better, and the chance of employment stronger, and begin again.

The Wairau Memorial commemorating the 22 European dead.
The Wairau Memorial commemorating the 22 European dead.

When the worst of the situation was over, her father was discovered to have skills that were favourable to a farmer in the vicinity, who gave him work as an overseer training and managing his workforce, necessitating his absence from home for six days a week. Sarah went out to work in Richmond with a local family as a live-in domestic help; her employer was of a slightly higher social status and able to employ staff to perform certain chores. Sarah was to remain in this position for over a year, during which time she caught the eye of a young man, Sydney Higgins, who worked as a sawyer in Spring Grove. Sydney and Sarah married in 1849, and set up a one roomed home on their own land which they slowly extended then moved to a bigger home, including a dairy. They had eleven children who all survived to adulthood.

Sarah worked in the home, and in the small dairy that they built up, learning to make butter and cheeses to use and to sell. They grew their own crops and raised pigs and cattle. She took in disabled boarders to raise extra income, and also went out to work assisting a local doctor, until eventually setting up in her own right as a midwife, often assisted by her now grown daughters, during the course of which it is known she delivered around 350 children. Following the death of her husband in 1903, Sarah continued to live independently, although later in a cottage built on land owned by her son, close to his own home. When all her children had left home, Sarah finally learned to write, out of necessity at the age of 74, to enable her to keep in contact with her children. In her 80s she wrote the story of her life.

Sarah Higgins died at the age of 93 in September 1923. Her story, although simple, is a powerful account of life as one of the first settlers in New Zealand at its inception into the British Empire, a life which covered its history almost through to its redefining as a British Dominion, equal to that of Britain herself, in 1926.