The Subritzky Family of Northland

New Zealand's First Polish Family

By Mike Subritzky

On the 26th December 1842 a converted ship-of-war, the three masted (380 ton) Saint Pauli weighed anchor on the Elbe Stream in Hamburg.  The ships captain was Peter Schacht and on board were 140 German settlers, 4 Missionary's and a ships company of approximately 20.  The Saint Pauli was bound for New Zealand.

Among the passengers on board the Saint Pauli were eleven members of three related families  Sophie Elisabeth Subritzky (nee Korber), widow of Romualdus Subritzky of Kurlandia, in the Commonwealth of Poland; hers sons Ludolph, Heinrich and Johannes Anton; her married daughter Sophia Spanhake and son-in-law Frederick Spanhake and their baby son Otto*; Sophie's brother Heinrich Korber, his wife Maria and their two sons Jurgen and Johann.  * On the night of the 20th January 1843 Otto Spanhake died of convulsions and was buried at sea.

During the sea voyage there were several enormous storms, an outbreak of lice off Cape Verde Islands and a number of cases of smallpox.  The Saint Pauli twice crossed the Atlantic ocean, first to the provisioning harbour at Bahia in South America, then back to the coast of Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and plunging deep into the great Southern oceans; making good use of the old trade route "The Roaring Forties".

The Saint Pauli dropped anchor in the heavily forested harbour of Nelson**, New Zealand on the 14th June 1843 after a voyage of 176 days during which time four young children had perished, seven couples had been joined in Holy Matrimony, one baby had been born and two passengers had jumped ship at Bahia, the reprovisioning harbour.  **This was the first shipload of German settlers to Nelson and the descendants of many of these families are still to be found in the region to this day.

In 1845 after great hardship, continual flooding, and dismal conditions in the fledgling settlement of Nelson, the three families walked off their land and took a passage onboard the Palmyra bound for South Australia.  The Subritzky, Korber and Spanhake families were not long settled in Adelaide when gold was discovered in the neighbouring state of Victoria.  Along with just about the entire population of Australia the Subritzky's took part in the "rush" of 1851.  They remained on the "diggin's" for several years, and then later decided that it would be far more profitable to move into the business of supplying the diggers, and together set up various business enterprises in and around the town of Maldon.  While in Australia Ludolph and Johannes Anton Subritzky married and began families, Heinrich was to marry much later in life after returning to New Zealand.

In 1859 the Subritzky brothers were made aware of the intended sale of Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand and also the opening up of the Mangonui area in the Far North.  Ludolph and Heinrich crossed the Tasman aboard the (steamer) Prince Alfred arriving at the port of Auckland on the 17th January 1860.  They were beaten to the purchase of Kawau Island by Governor George Grey so instead purchased the estates of Ohore (Houhora) and Awanui.  The original buy was more than eight thousand acres and shortly afterwards they leased a further twenty five thousand acres from the Government.  They were the first European settlers north of Kaitaia, their nearest neighbours being the Matthews and Puckey families at the Kaitaia Mission Station.

At the heads to Houhora harbour beneath the shadow of Mount Camel they built the Subritzky homestead which still stands to this day.  The homestead was built in the style of European farmhouses of the period but using local materials.  It was constructed between April 1860 and June of the following year, after which time they moved into business and began trading with the local Maori.  First using a 27 foot whaler and then later with the small schooner the Isabella, which was to become the first of their many ships.  In 1862 Ludolph returned to Australia and there chartered the 135 ton schooner Montezuma which he used to bring his wife and children to New Zealand.  Later the same year Sophie (Old Sophie as she is known in the family), joined them and in1868 Johannes Anton and his family sold up the brother's business interests in Maldon and sailed to New Zealand aboard the (barquentine), Prince Alfred.

In the Far North of New Zealand the Subritzky family ran a vast business empire, the hub of their operations being the "Mount Camel Station".  Within a short space of time they either owned or controlled almost all of the Far North from Awanui northward.  The township of Awanui was built by the Subritzky's as a safe port for their many ships.  They ran the Post Office and Hotel and owned the General Store and several Gum Stores.  They provided the land for a church and assisted in its' construction.  The influence of this family stretched far and wide and lasted well into the 20th century.  They imported cattle and developed their own breed of short horn.  They established flax mills and began processing fibres for sale and export; they were also heavily involved in the Kauri Gum industry.  The Subritzky's developed a shipping link with Auckland then later expanded across the Tasman and up into the South Pacific Islands.

Another family enterprise at the time was smuggling.  The Subritzky's formed a tight, self-contained little community, although they still maintained contact with the outside world with their own ships.  These ships would occasionally come direct from overseas to Houhora and land their cargoes at night.  The original Subritzkys were proud haughty men, accustomed to obedience and they saw no reason to search the country for excise men so they could pay duty on their own imports.  On one such occasion it is said that the family schooner Greyhound made a voyage to Australia.  On the return journey Johannes Anton brought back a car  one of the first privately owned cars in Auckland and the first in Northland.  It was a 1902 Oldsmobile and the locals nicknamed it "The Queen Street Greyhound".

This car and it's owner Johannes Anton (Captain John Anton Subritzky) has the colourful distinction of participating in the first 'drag race' along Queen street in Auckland; he was aged about 74 at the time.   There is no record of him beating his opponent, but both gentlemen were taken to Court and fined ten pounds each for racing down Queen Street and endangering public safety.  He also had the first recorded automobile smash in Auckland when his car collided with Tram Number 40 on the 12 October 1904.

At the end of the 19th century, New Zealand was in the grips of a severe depression and this saw a considerable decline in the family fortune.  Crippling land taxes were imposed on the large estate owners and this forced the breakup of the majority of the Mount Camel Station.  In 1898 the homestead*** was sold to Ludolph's married daughter Lousia Wagener and has remained ever since in the care of the Wagener family.  ***In 1991 the Subritzky Homestead was named a National Historic Place.

The shipping interests of the family have remained to this day. Subritzky Shipping Line which operates a passenger and vehicle transportation service between the port of Auckland and the Islands in the Hauraki Gulf, is the oldest privately owned shipping company in New Zealand.  Captain Brett Subritzky is a sixth generation Master Mariner  father to son that stretches from the days of sail down through steam and diesel to the modern Hamilton jet, which is fitted to the Port Kennedy.  In all some 22 members of the family have attained the rank of Master Mariner, some being 'Foreign Going', and others 'Home Trade'.  Another well-known family member was Les Subritzky, New Zealand's first professional scuba diver.  During the 1950's through to the 1970's Les was a household name in New Zealand and twice held the record for the deepest dive in Australasia.  He also has the distinction of leading the very first diving expeditions on many of the shipwrecks that dot the New Zealand coastline.  The Subritzky family have also followed the heritage of their Polish warrior ancestors and to date some ninety members of the family have served in the New Zealand Armed Forces.  They have served in every major conflict that New Zealand has been involved in, and have shed their blood for their new homeland on the battlefields of Chunuk Bair (Gallipoli) and the Somme(WWI), Crete and Monte Cassino (WWII), to the Tet Offensive in the Republic of South Vietnam.  More recently, Driver Pamela Subritzky served on Peacekeeping Operations in the Sinai Desert, and in 1998 Gunner Danny Subritzky completed a Tour of Duty on Peacekeeping Operations in Bosnia with the NATO Forces.

Nowadays the Subritzky family flourishes from Auckland northwards, where they have strong blood ties with the three most northern Maori tribes; Ngapuhi, Te Rawara and Te Aupouri.  Their descendents, both Pakeha and Maori number more than three thousand, and as unbelievable as it may seem, all are known to each other  the family even today is very closely knit.  In 1993 almost all returned to a large family gathering held at the Old Subritzky homestead to celebrate their 150th anniversary in New Zealand.  They are prominent in shipping, seafaring, farming, the legal profession, the military and also the tourist industry.

The Subritzky, Spanahake and Wagener families are now almost legendary in the Far North, and as well the Subritzky's in particular are a well known and respected family in the Auckland region.  Their settler forebears of the original family have now passed into the pages of history.   Romualdus Subritzky is buried in the Church of Saint John, in Luneburg (now modern Germany). Old Sophie lies in the Subritzky family cemetary on the slopes of Mount Camel across the harbour from the family homestead.  Ludolph and his wife Maria lie together on Sophies right in unmarked graves; while to the left of Sophie in a ruined grave lies her son in law Frederick Spahhake.  Sophie Spanhake, Frederick's wife and Old Sophie's daughter died in childbirth on the Australian goldfields and lies buried in the Barossa Valley; she was aged 31.  Heinrich and his wife Mary-Jane are buried side by side at California Hill cemetary Awanui.  Johannes Anton and his wife Elisabeth are buried together in Saint Saviour's churchyard at Kaitaia.

Historically the Subritzky (Polish spelling = Zubrzycki) family can trace direct descent from the ancient Tartar Princely House of Subotai (Golden Horde).  In 1495, King John Albert of Poland ennobled an ancestor 'Fiedz the Tartar', into the Polish nobility and awarded his descendants the everlasting right to bear the Coat of Arms "Kusza" (On a red shield, a silver crossbow pointing downwards).  One of Fiedz the Tartar's offspring settled in the Minsk district and was called "Obdula Zubr" (Obdula the Buffalo).  His children were baptised and became Christians, and from then on were called Zubrzycki (a monogenetic nickname).  They owned several villages in Northern Poland including the villages of Sobocz and Zubr, which are located in the Minsk district, near the Russian border (now in modern Latvia).  Romualdus Zubrzycki-Kusza and his brother Jan, are said to have joined Napoleon's Grande Armie in the war of 1812, and after the defeat in Moscow they were unable to return to their home town, and so instead struck out for the relative safety of the Kingdom of Hanover.  On the 25th December 1843 when Sophie and her children signed onboard the Saint Pauli their surname was entered onto the shipping register as "Subritzky" and in New Zealand it has been spelt as such to this day.  The ancient history of the Subritzky family is well documented and appears in numerous Polish armorials.  (The Subritzky family also have a strong oral tradition of being descended from the Polish noble family Sobieski-Janina).

In 1999, the Subritzky family was one of eight families chosen to be representative of the spirit of the true New Zealand pioneering family and were featured in several 'Millennium Projects' including the official television series 'New Zealand  Our People, Our Century' and the official history publication.  Little did the widow, Sophie Subritzky realise when she set sail for the Antipodes all of those long years ago; with three small sons, and married daughter, that she would become the matriarch of a dynasty that would play such a significant role in shaping the history of northern New Zealand.

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