EPITAPH FOR OLD SOPHIE
By Mike Subritzky
Sophie Elisabeth Subritzky (nee: Korber) is the Matriach of three very well known New Zealand pioneering families; the Subritzky's, Spanhake's and Wagener's. As well, she is also the blood ancestoress of the following well known Kiwis - Sir James Henare (last Commanding Officer of the 28th Maori Battalion), Sir Stephen Roberts (Australian, and Vice Chancellor of Sydney University), Richard Matthews ONZ (microbiologist), Bill Subritzky QSM (Evangelist), Alice Evans (author), Dame Miriam Dell (Champion of womens issues), Les Subritzky (New Zealand's first professional diver), Florence Keene (author), Bryce Subritzky (Speedway Champion), Captain Basil Subritzky (Subritzky Shipping Line), George Henare OBE (actor), Des Subritzky (Deputy Mayor of Dargaville for many years), Tau Henare MP (union leader and Member of Parliment), Sue Bradford MP (activist for the poor and later an Member of Parliament), Sophie Bird (child violin player).
Back in the 1940's, the author A.H. Reed toured the old gumfields of Northland, to do research for his book "The Gun Diggers". While at Houhora he visited Mount Camel and discovered the old Subritzky cemetery at the bottom of the mountain during his exploring. He rested beside Sophie's grave, leaning against the iron railing that surrounded it, and was so taken by the inscription "Her sorrowing sons" that he wrote down the information contained on the headstone in its entirety.
THE BEST OF MOTHERS FROM
HER SORROWING SONS
MAY SHE REST IN PEACE
DIED APRIL 1875
He was also puzzled by the Polish surname and wrote "I left this storied solitude with a resolve to learn something more about that BEST OF MOTHERS, SOPHIE SUBRITZKY"...who was this woman who was buried in an ancient and overgrown lonely graveyard, so very far from her European homeland?
Sophie Subritzky was born in the Kingdom of Hanover in the Year of Our Lord 1798. Her actual birth date is not recorded but she was baptised in the Uelzen Lutheran Church on the 25 April 1798. Her parents were Johann and Anna Korber, who were cloth makers, and she had a brother named Heinrich. Both parents died when she was very young, leaving Sophie and Heinrich to raise themselves; both were illiterate. Heinrich Korber became a shoemaker, and Sophie became a mercer.
In June 1812, the Grand Army of Napoleon crossed the river Niemen into Kurland and began the invasion of Russia. Included in this army were several legions of Polish Lancers. One of these legions contained two brothers who were Polish noblemen; they were Romualdus and Jan (John) Subritzky. The Subritzky's were the Lords of several villages in the North of Poland. After the defeat of the French at Moscow, Napoleon's Army was destroyed and basically entire Regiments disintegrated overnight. Sometime later the Subritzky brothers turned up in the Kingdom of Hanover where later, in 1817, Romualdus Subritzky married Sophie Korber after the reading of banns in the church of Saint Michael in the town of Luneburg. At the time of her marriage, Sophie was aged 19 and was described as being tall, buxom and attractive.
Romualdus and Sophie Subritzky had four children who later anglicised their Christian names and are known in New Zealand as Doris, Louis (sometimes John Louis), Henry, and John Anton. Just 16 years later, Romualdus Subritzky's war injuries caught up with him and he died leaving Sophie a widow at the age of 35. At that time of her life in the Europe of old, she was no longer a marriageable prospect, her life being all but over. Her daughter Doris not long after fell in love with a Hanovarian Guard by the name of Frederick Spanhake. In 1837, Fred Spanhake and his friend Cordt Bensemann were posted with their Regiment to England where they were members of the Hanovarian Guard of Honour at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Also while in England they learned of the settlement of New Zealand, and of the plans to send a group of selected German settlers to the Chatam Islands. This was later thought a dangerous idea by the English agents as possibly the Chatam Islands might then become part of the German Empire like Samoa, and shortly afterwards the destination was changed to the port of Nelson. On the 26th December 1842 a converted ship-of-war, the 'Saint Pauli', weighed anchor on the Elbe stream in Hamburg and set sail, bound for New Zealand with a ships company of about 20 sailors and 140 German settlers. The Captain was Peter Schacht. Among the passengers aboard the Saint Pauli were eleven members of three related families, Sophie Subritzky, widow of Romualdus Subritzky and her three young sons, her brother Heinrich Korber, his wife Maria and their two sons, and her now married daughter Doris and husband Frederick Spanhake, and their baby son Otto. They were described as being of 'good character and adequate means' with Sophie herself being described as a 'well dressed widow'. The three families were accommodated in the a'tween deck berths. There were also four Lutheran Missionaries on board and during the voyage they taught the children how to read and write which was in later years a real godsend to many of the families.
The voyage to New Zealand was anything but uneventful, for once the ship had sailed down the Elbe river and into the North Sea the heavens opened and the ship sailed directly into a huge storm. Conditions in the a'tween decks was appalling with overcrowding, very little space and seasick passengers everywhere. As well, anything that hadn't been tied down and lashed securely was either smashed to pieces or turned into a dangerous projectile. Although Captain Schacht was in command of the ship, the passengers were under the direct control of the New Zealand Company agent John Nicholas Beit. Beit has the distinction of being written into the pages of New Zealand history without a single person having a kind word to say about him. For the most part he was quarrelsome, rude and unscrupulous. While the passengers were sick during the storm, he took the opportunity to reduce their rations to almost half the bill of fare and did not re-establish them back throughout the voyage. Smallpox broke out on the ship as it sailed down the Atlantic and the ship's doctor J.F. Goder showed great judgement in containing the outbreak and saving many lives.
In mid January, Sophie's grandson, baby Otto became sick and on the night of the 20 January his conditioned worsened. The doctor woke the Rev. Wohlers late that evening and informed him that the Spanhake family had need of him. Wohlers clambered down into the dimly lit a'tween deck where he found the family huddled together. Sophie was nursing Otto and his parents were grief stricken with sorrow. Otto was stiffened with cramp and had convulsions. The Rev. Wohlers gave them what comfort he could, and not long afterwards baby Otto died. Sophie then handed Otto's body to the Bosun and it was prepared for burial at sea. Otto was sewn into a canvas covering (traditionally a sailor's hammock), and a ship's cannon ball was placed at his feet. Sophie gathered up her family and they made their way to the quarterdeck, where at dawn the Rev. Wohlers gave a short service and Otto's tiny body was committed to the deep. Otto Spanhake's funeral was the first during the voyage, there were to be three others.
The ship actually crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice during the voyage, and hove to for several weeks at Bahia in South America, where two of the passengers who had suffered enough of Beit's injustice jumped ship. On the 27 March 1843, the 'Saint Pauli' again set sail, crossing the bottom of Africa and then plunging deep into the Southern Oceans and making good use of the old sailing route, the roaring forties. One day whilst sailing south a hullabaloo took place between two female passengers in the a'tween deck. Beit was informed. He ordered the offending woman be summoned and report to him on the Poop Deck. Presently an elderly, and well dressed widow reported to him; it was Sophie Subritzky. Beit questioned her as to her reasons for creating such a disturbance to the peace, and Sophie replied that she had fallen in love with one of the male passengers and had decided to become engaged. Her daughter, who was already married, had objected because of her age and so she had "boxed her ears". Beit informed Doris Spanhake that she had no power to prevent her mother from marrying and shortly afterwards Sophie was married for the second time. She was aged 45.
On the 12th June, the coast of New Zealand was sighted and two days later, on the 14th June 1843, the 'Saint Pauli' sailed into Nelson harbour. The voyage had lasted 176 days.
In Nelson the German settlers as they were called, were accommodated in the New Zealand Company barracks while waiting for Beit to release the land and titles that they had paid for back in Hanover. Unfortunately Beit deserted the settlers and left them to fend for themselves. There was work in the town of Nelson, building roads and the like, but no actual money was available for payment, and so the menfolk were paid in rations; salt pork and ships 'hard tack' biscuits. Sophie and her family had been in Nelson for about a month when one afternoon they noticed all of the English settlers gathered in small groups crying, wringing their hands and showing mortal fear. No-one in the family spoke any English and it took some time for them and the other Germans to realise that the Maori had gone on the war path in the Wairau and had slaughtered Captain Arthur Wakefield and about 20 of the leading citizens of the town, including the local Magistrate. All of the men and Sophie's eldest son Louis assisted in the building of Fort Arthur as the frightened citizens of Nelson town prepared for an attack by Te Rauparaha and his warriors. Eventually peace was restored but over the next two years there were many alarms. The various German families sent many deputations to John Beit requesting to have either their land given to them or their money returned, but Beit refused and on one occasion he stated "that the land was too good for them". This made Sophie's blood boil and her, and a large group of women descended on Beit's house with the intention of stoning himthe women were stopped by the timely intervention of one of the Lutheran Missionaries.
In 1845, after two years of misery and hardship in the settlement of Nelson, Sophie and her extended family simply cut their losses and sailed to the German settlement of Klemzig just on the outskirts of Adelaide, in Australia. There, life rapidly improved for Sophie and her family. Shortly afterward her second husband left and Sophie reverted back to 'Subritzky'. Fred and Doris Spanhake moved to the Barossa Valley where he enlisted as a Trooper while Sophie's brother Heinrich Korber and his family moved to another German village at a place called Hanndorf. Sophie's sons Louis, Henry and John Anton all found apprenticeships as butchers. Life could not have been better for her and the next five years of her life were a settling period.
In 1851, gold was discovered in Victoria and Sophie along with her sons, joined in the rush and spent the next three years of her life travelling from one rush to the next on the 'diggin's'. Tented towns sprang up overnight, and then disappeared just as quickly as new strikes were discovered anywhere in that rich gold area of Victoria between Geelong in the south to Eaglehawk in the north. They were exciting times make no mistake, as more and more fortune seekers arrived on the goldfields there was less and less law. Bushrangers, 'ticket-of-leave' men, and other low-life's lurked behind every gum tree; cases of robbery under arms was almost a daily occurrence. Sophie was there throughout all of this period of history living and working alongside her sons and their wives. In 1854, after the strike at Tarrengower was over and the diggers had moved on Sophie and her family decided that with children in tow (Louis and John Anton had married), and John Anton's wife Betsy heavily pregnant they would put down roots and buy some land. They and a number of other families purchased a number of blocks of land and then built a town that they called Maldon. John Anton became a member of the first town council. They then set up several business enterprises and later made more money selling implements and produce to the diggers, than they ever made on the goldfields. By 1860 when the Subritzky's moved back to New Zealand and purchased a large farming block in the Houhora region of Northland they were an extremely wealthy family.
Sophie arrived at Houhora in 1861, to find that her sons had built a large solid homestead made out of a mixture of stone, a local cement and swamp Kauri. They were the first European settlers in the Far North of New Zealand, their nearest neighbours being the Matthews and Puckey families at the Mission Station in Kaitaia. Sophie was now aged 63 and spent the remainder of her life at Houhora. There were no roads in the North at that time, the main highway from Auckland ended at the bottom of lower Queen Street so the Subritzky's purchased a small schooner named the 'Isabella', and this was to lead to a long family association with coastal shipping which has lasted to the present generation. She was one of the first women in New Zealand to establish her own brand name and manufactured and sold "Mrs. Subritzky's" brand of herbal medicines.
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 the entire North, from Awanui northward. The township of Awanui was built by the Subritzkys as a safe port for their many ships. They ran the Post Office and hotel and owned the General Store. They provided land for a church and assisted in its construction. The influence of this family run by the matriarch Sophie Subritzky stretched far and wide and lasted well into the 20th century. 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 cargo at night. Sophie's sons who regarded themselves as Polish nobles, were described as proud haughty men, accustomed to obedience and saw no reason to search the country for excise men so that they could pay duty on their own imports.
The last 14 years of Sophie's life were probably the most interesting and sometimes exciting too. Many stories have been handed down about when the family were pioneers in Houhora, here are two of the best. Within sight of the homestead there were four occupied Maori Pa, and the local tangata whenua often traded with the family. On one occasion Louis asked a chief where was the best place to go fishing to which the chief replied that they could fish anywhere except in one particular area which he pointed to and informed them that it was "Tapu". With English being the second language of both the Maori and the Subritzky's mistakes were bound to happen. Louis thought that the chief had pointed to the fishing ground and so next morning bright and early the brothers went fishing, and not surprisingly caught a large amount of fish. Early the following morning several large war canoes were sighted laden with warriors yelling and chanting in unison as they paddled into the harbour. They drew up on the beach in front of the homestead. Without hesitation the family moved into the homestead and began breaking open powder, the women calming the children and loading the muskets. The Maori settled on a grassy area not far from the homestead, and there held a korero. Meanwhile, inside the homestead, the family were in a dilemma what should they do? Obviously the local Maori were not happy, and things were starting to look decidedly hazardous. Then Louis got a bright idea. He grabbed a powder keg and yelled to Henry to take a broomstick and follow him. Together and as calmly as possible they marched outside and into one of the outbuildings. The Maori, deep in korero, paid them little attention. Presently the brothers reappeared wheeling out onto the lawn a mysterious-looking object of modern pakeha technology bearing a faint resemblance to an artillery piece. It was in fact a sausage machine! It was portable, having two wheels, with a hook-up device which tended to resemble the trails of a cannon; protruding from this setup was a long hollow tube through which the entrails passed before being twisted at the bottom and coming out as a long string of sausages. The long hollow tube tended to resemble the barrel of a field gun and it was this subterfuge that the brothers were counting on. In any event it worked. Startled, the Maori watched as Louis and Henry poured powder, rammed it home with the broomstick, and twiddled and turned make-believe knobs and other baffling bits and pieces of pakeha magic.
Then, talking to each other, taking aim from behind the cannon, they shifted it a little bit left and a little bit right until finally the barrel pointed menacingly straight into the centre of the now uneasy group of warriors! Some of the Maori were not convinced, but several of the older ones remembered the former battles that the Ngapuhi had had against the "red-coats" and reminded the younger warriors of the devastation a cannon fired at close range could do. Henry stood ready by the sausage machine while Louis went forward and negotiated with the warriors. Eventually peace was restored and the Maori withdrew to their canoes they considered that their show of force had restored their mana and they also received assurance from the strange talking pakehas that the Tapu would never again be broken and indeed it never was.
Another time, a fierce-looking group of young Maori warriors came down to the homestead. They had watched at a distance until the menfolk had sailed out of Houhora harbour on the 'Isabella' bound for the sea port of Mangonui and had then come down to scare the Subritzky women into giving them some money or trade items as payment for the land. As they approached the homestead one of children raised the alarm, at which everyone of the family ran inside to the safety of the house all that is except for Sophie who stood on the front porch and waited as they approached. The warriors, many of them heavily tattooed, made an awesome sight as they walked towards the lone elderly woman standing on the porch. About twenty metres from her they stopped and Sophie then spoke in heavily accented English, "Vat do you vant?"
"More Money", replied the Maoris.
"For vat?" asked Sophie, staring down at them with her hands on her hips.
"For the land", they replied.
"For da land!" yelled Old Sophie, "I'll give you for da land!" and with that she jumped off the porch and ran over to the chopping block that was nearby, wrenched the axe out of it and proceeded to chase the startled Maoris around the yard, all the while yelling, "I'll give you da more money, cum unt ze here!"
The warriors withdrew in great haste having decided that discretion was the better part of valour, all the while yelling to each other, "te wahine porangi!" (she's a crazy woman). And there was Sophie in her long black dress chasing after them with the axe and yelling at them in a mixture of broken German and English.
From that day onward Sophie Subritzky was held in the highest regard by the warriors for having proved herself in battle she was considered to be their equal.
In 1875, Sophie Subritzky died at Houhora at the age of 77 years, after a full and most interesting life. She had been born in the same year that Admiral Nelson achieved his famous victory in the Battle of the Nile. She had known much joy and sadness during her lifetime and also deprivations of extreme hardship during those early days of the settlement named Nelson, and she died in her twilight years at a time when her children had achieved great prosperity. She had outlived her husband Romualdus, daughter (Doris Spanhake died in childbirth in the Barossa Valley in 1849 - she was 31 years old), and several of her grandchildren. She had ruled her family in a no-nonsense fashion and had remained fit and active throughout the whole of her life - indeed even in her seventies she is remembered for being able to lift the anvil that stood in the family smithy!
She was held in the highest regard by the local Maori population who mourned the passing of their treasured "Mata" (Mother). They gathered at the homestead and informed the Subritzky family that the elders wished to take her remains to the marae so she could be honoured with a tangi. The family respectfully declined the honour and a Christian service was held at the homestead from where her body was taken by boat across the harbour to the base of Mount Camel where she was interred in what is now known as the Subritzky family cemetery.
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 such an influential dynasty. Her story itself is quite typical of the sheer grit and determination of many of the pioneering women who came to this country, and shaped the history of early New Zealand.
Today she has more than three thousand descendents, both Pakeha and Maori, and many of her female descendents are named in her honour (her Maori descendents are often called "Te Paea") and she is always referred to within the extended family as "Old Sophie".