Charles de Thierry: man of many lands, king of none
August 16, 2012 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry lead a storied life, and many of those stories are ones he made up. His family was associated with the French court, though there is doubt to his claims of noble lineage. In England, he met two Maori chiefs and an English missionary from New Zealand, and attempted to purchase a northern portion of New Zealand in 1820. He then sought to turn this land into a colony first for Britain in 1822, then the Dutch government in 1824 when the English offer fell through. The Dutch, too, turned him down, so in 1825 de Thierry made the same offer to the French government, and was similarly refused. Fleeing creditors, he left for America. In 1834, he traveled south, where he was granted concession for cutting the Panama Canal. That, too, fell through, and he sailed west, reaching Tahiti in June 1835, where he elected himself king of Nuka Hiva. The kingdom was never his, and so he continued west and south, arriving at his plot in New Zealand in 1837, where again he offered land up to France for a colony. His efforts to claim a colony and a kingdom came to an end in 1840, with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, sealing a deal between the British Crown and the Māori.

Born of in 1793 to French parents who were associated French court, the family left France to escape the French Revolution, first to the Netherlands, then England. It was in England that de Thierry's father, Charles Antoine de Thierry, assumed the title of baron. This was a title the younger de Thierry would claim for his own, too.

The family was close enough to nobles that during a visit to Edinburgh in 1796, Charles Philippe Hippolyte became the godson of the exiled comte d'Artois (later Charles X of France). In 1814, the younger de Thierry accompanied the Portuguese delegation to the Congress of Vienna, and in 1816 served briefly as an attaché at the French embassy in London. He married Emily Rudge in 1819, and the couple would have four sons and a daughter.

In 1820, de Thierry met the Māori chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato, who had traveled to England with missionary Thomas Kendall, who had returned to work on the book A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand (Google books). De Thierry, possibly posing as an exiled French adventurer, arranged for a purchase of a portion of New Zealand, with Kendall working as the intermediary between de Thierry and the Māori chiefs. De Thierry gave Kendall £800 worth of goods to buy "all the land from North Cape to Tauranga."

Depending on the telling, this purchase was made with 36 axes, or possibly 500 muskets plus powder and ball, though it could be that Hongi Hika convinced Kendall to take him to London, where he sold gifts to acquire at least 200 muskets, playing a pivotal role in the Musket Wars of from 1818 and the early 1830s.

However it worked out, de Thierry had the deed for 40,000 acres at Hokianga executed in 1822. According to the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand,
Thierry requested British protection for the colony he was then assembling in London, but was rebuffed by the Colonial Office. He next approached the Dutch Ambassador in London in February 1824 with a proposal to purchase Holland's “rights” in New Zealand for £50,000; in April with an offer “to secure to the King of the Netherlands the Sovereignty and possession of New Zealand, which would … ensure His Majesty a yearly revenue of upwards of Five Millions of Pounds Sterling”. He modestly suggested that his appointment as “Viceroy of New Zealand” would be a fitting reward for his services, adding that he was born in Brussels and descended from the Counts of Flanders.
This effort also failed, and in October 1824, de Thierry was in France, where his godfather was now king. Despite this fact, he had no more luck getting support for his colony-to-be in France, and was again "financially embarrassed." He returned to England to again attempt to gather a colonizing party, only to fall short of his goal. He headed to the United States in 1827 with his family.

Little is recorded about this period until de Thierry's family left from Virginia in 1832, possibly heading for Brazil, though de Thierry would later tell that New Zealand was always his destination. Thierry went through the Caribbean, gathering followers, subscriptions and supplies, stopping in Panama in December 1834. There, de Thierry received a franchise for a canal at Panama from General Simón Bolívar, the President of the Republic of (New) Granada. "Baron" Thierry was more enterprising than practical in his thoughts, and was unable to raise the required capital to make the necessary surveys and begin the work (Google books). Later, a more organized and qualified French group would actually start work on a canal, which the US would take over and complete.

De Thierry was not done yet, and on his journey towards New Zealand he stopped in Tahiti in June 1835, where he elected himself king of Nuka Hiva, which two decades earlier, Captain David Porter of the United States Navy tried to annex in the name of the US. Porter, the first American imperialist, renamed the island Madison's Island, and named the American military settlement Madisonville (Google books preview), in tribute to President Madison. Neither Madison nor Secretary of State James Monroe ever acknlowedged Porter's unauthorized annexation. De Thierry fared little better, raising a flag and mustering a military force, but Robert FitzRoy denounced de Thierry as an imposter and unfit to have a military force at his disposal.

FitzRoy was not de Thierry's only opposition of this sort. News of de Thierry's land claims and plans for a colony traveled faster than he did. De Thierry reached Sydney, New South Wales in July 1837, with British Resident James Busby striking the first three blows against de Thierry in a duel with quill pens, culminating in the 1835 Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, with support from 34 northern chiefs. Though Governor Bourke of New South Wales referred to the Declaration as ‘a paper pellet fired off at Baron de Thierry,’ the Declaration was a first step towards the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which formalized the British sovereignty over New Zealand, annexed the country, protected the Māori, regulated British subjects and secured commercial interests.

That was still five years away, and de Thierry had a colony to set up. He recruited colonists and money from Sydney, and sailed for Hokianga, arriving in northern New Zealand on November 4, 1837. Nene and Patuone denied the validity of Kendall's purchase of 40,000 acres, but Nene and Te Taonui granted Thierry 800 acres at Hokianga on condition that he give up his larger claim, much which was already claimed by other European settlers. His claim greatly reduced in size, de Thierry lost the confidence of his assorted colonists. Again down, but still not out, de Thierry sent inflated accounts of his success to France, still hoping to win support for his plans for a French colony. The Treaty of Waitangi ended de Thierry's hopes of being any sort of ruler in any land.

The Flagstaff War (also known as Hone Heke's Rebellion, the Northern War, the First Māori War and the War of 1845–46) sent de Thierry south to Auckland, where he lived in meager conditions until news of the California gold rush hooked him, and he sailed off in hopes of riches. His luck was now on a sour streak, as he was left behind with four other passengers, stranded Pitcairn Island for a month. Their ship, headed to Honolulu, stopped to get fresh water. The tides turned or the winds picked up, and the captain decided it was better to leave than endanger the ship.

But de Thierry did make it to California, though he only stayed for six months. He returned to Honolulu to work at the French Consulate until March 1853, when news of his wife's ill health took him back to Auckland, where he taught piano. In 1856, the New Zealand Government presented de Thierry with one hundred and six acres of land, in compensation for his claim of 40,000 acres. He continued to teach music until his sudden death on July 8, 1864.

If this story is too short, or lacking in narrative flourishes, you might well enjoy Check to your King, which reads like an enthralling historical novel rather than conventional biography.... [Also offering] clear insight into the relations between white men and natives, by Robin Hyde, the most common pen-name for Iris Guiver Wilkinson, one of New Zealand's major poets (1906 – 1939).

And you can read more of de Thierry's lineage at Lessels Website, a genealogy site for Lynly Lessels Yates. Note: many links lead to PDFs.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Marvellous! I cannot absorb this until I knock off work.

But in the meanwhile, enjoy this rather more scurrilous and inaccurate article about Hongi Hika.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:12 PM on August 16, 2012

This is a post of surpassing splendor and not just because it features someone with the name Hippolyte, which is one of the best names.
posted by winna at 3:26 PM on August 16, 2012

De Thierry gave Kendall £800 worth of goods to buy "all the land from North Cape to Tauranga.

That's some sweet sap-suckering right there. 150 years before Tauranga even had a harbour bridge!
posted by Catch at 9:15 PM on August 16, 2012

This presses my history nerd g-sport like... a well designed Japanese device.
For some reason I love NZ/Pacific history. Possibly because it is so overlooked.
posted by Mezentian at 6:32 AM on August 17, 2012

Mezentian, you will most likely love the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, part of Te Ara - the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The 1966 'paedia is more dense with historical information, where as the broader site has more day-to-day information.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on August 17, 2012

And then there's the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre collection, part of Victoria University of Wellington Library. It's an open digital library of New Zealand and Pacific Island documentary heritage material as well as new born-digital work and research from Victoria University. Though the site is searchable with Google, it doesn't rank well yet, so I only found it as I was half way through this post.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:30 AM on August 17, 2012

« Older as if he just fell asleep watching the game   |   Craig's Lift Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments