Ngāti Apa

Thomas William Downes

Thomas William Downes was a Whanganui historian, ethnologist and writer with an immense love and respect for the Whanganui River, the people and wildlife, past and present, who lived within its valley. As a writer, he attempted to record as much as he could about the history of the Whanganui River, believing it would otherwise be lost.

2. Downes

T.W. Downes, circa 1910.  Unknown photographer. Ref: P/J/37

Born in Wellington, Downes moved to Bulls with his family in about 1874. He showed early interest in history and never lost his enthusiasm, although he made his living by other means. In 1910 he published a paper, “Early history of the Rangitikei and notes on the Ngati Apa” in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. This article reflected his work and interests while he was growing up in Bulls.

Downes had moved to Whanganui in 1898 with his wife Margaret. In 1921 he was appointed Supervisor of River Works and Ranger for Domain Lands for the Wanganui River Trust. His annual salary was £100. It is said that Downes knew the full length of the river better than any other European. He travelled up and down the river repeatedly, made friends and paid attention to the oral histories of tangata whenua. He documented a version of the early history of the Whanganui district in his book, Old Whanganui, published in 1915. He used the “h” in the Whanganui of the title, believing it to be the correct spelling of Whanganui dialect.

1. Expedition

 Thomas Downes on an expedition to inspect Wanganui River Trust works. Photographer: F J Denton, 1908
T W Downes is in the centre of the photograph with his feet dangling in the water.  Standing behind him is George Marriner, the Curator of the Wanganui Museum. On the far right is photographer Frank Denton, who took this image using a remote cable fitting so he could be in the photograph. The men were voyaging in a motorised canoe, the Stewart, owned by the Wanganui River Trust. Ref: UWR/S/219

This major work was followed in 1921 by his History and Guide to the Wanganui River. This publication, surprisingly, did not employ the “h”. A final book, River Ripplets, was published much later on in 1993.

Downes was also a busy and gifted artist. He painted many scenes from history, using his knowledge and imagination. One that survives is in the Museum collection, a large oil painting titled Retaruke Reach, Wanganui River, a work of large proportions and undisguised romanticism. He created illustrations for his own and other’s books and was in great demand for painting and lettering illuminated addresses, often presented to people of civic importance as a token of respect and thanks.

3. Illuminated address

 Illuminated Address to James Crichton Esq. In 1904 this illuminated address was created by T W Downes as a tribute to James Crichton “In appreciation of your sterling worth as a Citizen …” Ref: 2017.26

Downes was elected to the Wanganui Museum Board of Trustees in 1910. He served for two periods, from 1910 to 1918 and from 1923 until his death in 1938. While on the Board he facilitated the purchase of a number of taonga Māori and was responsible for negotiations involved in the lending or gifting of many treasures from the region. He also made personal gifts to the Museum of Pacific Island artefacts that he had purchased at auction, photographs and archives.

A modest, quiet and unassuming man, Downes dedicated forty years of his life to the recording and preservation of Whanganui heritage. He was still employed as the supervisor of the Whanganui River Trust when he died in Whanganui on 6 August 1938.

Libby Sharpe is the Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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What did the giant eagle look like?

The most commonly seen resonstuction of Harpagornis, attacking adult moa, with plumage like an Australian wedge-tailed eagle. Pic: John Megahan / Wikipedia

The most commonly seen resonstuction of Harpagornis, attacking adult moa, with plumage like an Australian wedge-tailed eagle. Pic: John Megahan / Wikipedia

New Zealand was once home to the largest eagle in the world, Harpagornis moorei, often known as Haast’s eagle. I’m not a fan of that name: Julius von Haast was the Director of the Canterbury Museum and the first to scientifically describe the eagle, from bones collected from a North Canterbury swamp, in 1871. But getting an eagle named after yourself seems a trifle vain, so I prefer to call it the New Zealand eagle or the giant eagle, both of which are more descriptive.

Harpagornis is a marvellous name: “grappling-hook bird”, for its enormous clawed feet. What its Māori name was we’re not sure: pouakai and hokioi have both been recorded, but by the time written transcripts were being made the eagle had been extinct for centuries and had entered the realm of legend.

Wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax). The largest eagle in Australia, and capable of taking down a kangaroo, the wedge-tail has a typical eagle skull and head feathers, relatively short compared to a New Zealand eagle. Photo: Sam Schmidt / Flickr

Wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax). The largest eagle in Australia, and capable of taking down a kangaroo, the wedge-tail has a typical eagle skull and head feathers, relatively short compared to a New Zealand eagle. Photo: Sam Schmidt / Flickr

Recent examination of its DNA shows that the New Zealand eagle was most closely related to the Australian little eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides), the smallest eagle on that continent. Its ancestors were blown to New Zealand and increased in size tenfold within a million years, an extraordinarily-rapid increase. Giant eagles weighed about 10kg in males and 14kg in females, nearly half as large again as the largest eagles alive today. They were big enough to kill adult moa—we’ve found the claw marks in moa pelvic bones. And they would have been very capable of killing humans too, which is probably why they were wiped out quite quickly, along with moa, soon after Polynesians arrived in New Zealand.

One account of the eagle, collected by Sir George Grey from a Ngāti Apa elder around 1850, describes it as living in the mountains, having red, black, and white feathers with a red crest, and being as big as a moa. The problem with this account is that giant eagles never, as far as we know, lived anywhere near Ngāti Apa in the Whanganui or Manawatu area. All the fossils we’ve found are from the eastern South Island and Southern Alps. So this centuries-old tradition is unlikely to be based on eye-witness accounts.

3. attenboroughOlder reconstructions of the giant eagle, based on this 19th century description, show it with lurid red plumage and a pointed crest. Its closest relative, the little eagle, is a rather more inconspicuous rusty brown. Most recent depictions give it the brown plumage of an Australian wedge-tailed eagle. Almost none of the reconstructions, however, get the head right: the giant eagle had an extraordinarily long skull, half as long again as you’d expect from a bird its size. The recent David Attenborough documentary set inside the Natural History Museum included a computer-animated Harpagornis, but it was really just a scaled-up golden eagle, with long narrow wings and a too-short skull.

(Attenborough was rather guilty of exaggeration when he described the eagle, in breathless voice-over, as having “a beak the size of a butcher’s cleaver”. Its beak is actually about 7 cm long, the size of my little finger or a paring knife.)

1. eaglevulture-sketchThe giant eagle’s extremely long bill, with small bony flaps protecting the nostrils, is actually rather like that of some species of Old World vultures. A vulture’s elongated bill is an adaptation for sticking its head inside the messy carcasses of animals much larger than itself. Most eagles don’t need such bills, because they’re feeding on relatively small prey. But giant eagles were killing moa 15 times their size, so their feeding would have been similarly messy. Not only did they have the elongated beaks of vultures, they perhaps had the short head feathers or even bald heads of them as well.

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) have shorter, finer feathers on their head and neck (sometimes bald) and protected nostrils to prevent clogging. Photo: mhx / Flickr

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) have shorter, finer feathers on their head and neck (sometimes bald) and protected nostrils to prevent clogging. Photo: mhx / Flickr

Ornithologists who study the New Zealand eagle get defensive when you suggest it may have had a head like a vulture. For decades, Harpagornis was victim of a terrible slander: its short wings supposedly meant it was on its way to becoming flightless, and it thus must have spent most of its time on the ground scavenging moa carcasses. In fact, short wings are a characteristic of forest eagles that need to maneouver around trees, not soar for long distances. And the discovery of claw marks on moa bones show that Harpagornis was indeed killing its own prey. But it took quite some time to dislodge its reputation as a scavenger, and a vulture-like reconstruction would hardly help.

Whether the New Zealand eagle had a bare head, or indeed a fancy red crest, is ultimately something we can’t determine from the few remaining bones. Māori rock art depictions of eagles are too stylised to help. Nobody has seen one for 500 years. Perhaps one day a mummified skull with feathers will turn up, as has happened with moa. But ultimately we have to make our own estimate of what’s probable, and rexognise that all depictions of a long-extinct creature, however convincing, are mostly well-informed guesses.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.