By Roger Barnes
On the 29th of January 1840, HMS Herald, under the command of Captain Joseph Nias and with (the soon-to-be Lieutenant-Governor) Captain William Hobson as a passenger, sailed into the Bay of Islands. Eight days later, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in a marquee at the residence of James Busby, with Hobson sitting between Nias and Busby. Over the next few months, Nias took Major Thomas Bunbury (who was deputising for Hobson because of his illness) and a copy of the Treaty (aboard the Herald) to other places in the North Island and to the South Island for further signatures of Maori chiefs. The Herald also went to an uninhabited part of Stewart Island, and to Ruapuke Island, in Foveaux Strait, where three chiefs signed. The Herald arrived back in the Bay of Islands on the 2nd of July with 27 signatures. The signature of Nias, as a witness, is to be found on the original treaty signed at Waitangi and, I presume, also on the copy taken on the Herald, the so-called “Herald-Bunbury Treaty Sheet”. Nias is not as well known in the history of New Zealand as he should be.
Nias was accused of not having paid due deference to both Hobson and Busby, and of being unco-operative with the former. These allegations were discussed by T. D. H. Hall in his book Captain Joseph Nias and The Treaty of Waitangi — A Vindication (1938).
According to Hall, Nias’s ancestors were from the Netherlands: “In 1653 a Dutch ship was captured in a sea fight, and her crew were interned in England. Among them was one, Nias. Peace came in due course; but Nias elected to remain in England, and married there. … At the peace Nias settled in Newbury [Berkshire]. … In the third generation a Joseph Nias married a Miss Merriman, … The son of this union, also Joseph [a ship insurance broker], settled in London. He married Ann Cropper …”.
Their third son, born in London on the 2nd of April 1793, was the Joseph Nias who came to New Zealand in 1840. He had entered the navy in 1807, and served on the sloop Nautilus and the frigates Comus and Nymphen. During his last few weeks on the Nymphen (in 1815), Nias was in charge of one of her boats and was employed in rowing guard around the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, keeping away the sight-seers who had hoped to catch a glimpse of Napoleon who was being held prisoner on board. In 1818, Nias was appointed to the brig Alexander, with Lieutenant (later Sir) William Edward Parry, for an expedition to the Arctic under the command of Captain (later Sir) John Ross. In the period 1819-1823, Nias took part in at least one further expedition to the Arctic, spending two winters there, and was promoted (in December 1820) to the rank of lieutenant.
During several years of service in the Mediterranean Sea, Nias was promoted to the rank of commander, and was given his first command — the brig Alacrity. In 1838, he commissioned the frigate Herald for the East India station, which then included Australia, China, and the Western Pacific. It was from Sydney that Nias and Hobson sailed on the Herald to New Zealand. During the First Opium War (1839-42), Nias served in the operations leading to the capture of Canton. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1841. He returned to England in 1843, in which year his armorial bearings were granted.
In 1855, Nias married Caroline Isabella Laing, daughter of John Laing, of Montague Square, London. They had two sons and three daughters.
Between 1850 and 1856, Nias had several other appointments (mostly ashore), and was promoted to rear-admiral in 1857, vice-admiral in 1863, and Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1867. In that same year, he was promoted to the rank of admiral. After retirement, he lived in London, and died at his home in Montague Square in December 1879. The ODNB describes Sir Joseph Nias as “an able, resourceful, and determined officer. His promotions were secured on merit, and he was sensitive of his reputation.”
The Arms of Sir Joseph Nias, KCB
Arms: Party per pale Gules and Azure, a naval crown, and issuant therefrom a flag Or, inscribed with the word “China” in letters Sable, between four Cornish choughs Argent, beaked and membered of the First.
Crest: On a wreath of the colours, an anchor fessewise, with cable Sable, thereon a Cornish chough Proper, gorged with a collar engrailed Or.
Motto: Juvante Deo [By the help of God].
Granted by the English Kings of Arms, 26 August 1843 [Coll Arm Ms Grants 46/369].
The arms were granted to Nias two years after he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and 24 years before he was knighted. The illustration here, however, shows the knight’s helmet to which he became entitled in 1867. The anchor, the naval crown and its flag inscribed “China” have obvious reference to Sir Joseph’s career, particularly his time in that country. The Cornish chough (pronounced “chuff” or the onomatopoeic “chow”), Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, is a member of the crow family, and has in recent decades returned to nest on the sea-cliffs of Cornwall after an absence of half a century. It is not uncommon in the heraldry of that county. When blazoned Proper, it has a black body with red beak and legs. Although those on the shield have their bodies blazoned Argent, their red beaks and legs, unfortunately, would not show clearly on a coloured painting of these arms, the field of the arms being red and blue. I am unaware of any significances for Nias of these birds and of the collar of the one in the crest, but it is interesting to note that the crest bears some resemblance to that of Lord Nelson’s mentor, the first Viscount Hood (a Cornish chough Proper resting the dexter claw on the fluke of an anchor placed in bend sinister Or).
Martin Doutré, The Littlewood Treaty, Dé Danann Publishers, Coatesville, 2005.
A.C. Fox-Davies, Armorial Families, Hurst & Blackett, London, 7th edition, 1929, p.1433.
T.D.H. Hall, Captain Joseph Nias and The Treaty of Waitangi — A Vindication, Wellington, 1938.
Alan Lambourn, Major Thomas Bunbury, Heritage Press, Waikanae, 1995.
J.K. Laughton (revised by Andrew Lambert), ‘Nias, Sir Joseph (1793-1879)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com (2004).
Claudia Orange, The Story of a Treaty, 1989, reprinted 2001 by Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.
David Tomlinson, ‘The Wild Week’, Country Life, 28 June 2001 (an article about Cornish choughs).
My thanks to Peter O’Donoghue, York Herald, College of Arms, for the date of the grant, and confirmation that the beaks and legs are red.