The story of Johanna James McRae

From Florence Keene's
'Under Northland Skies'.
(with permission)
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Surely the circumstances of Johanna James McRae's birth were unique! Anchored in the Big Bra D'Or, Cape Breton, was the barque Breadalbane with its quota of 160 passengers waiting to set off on its hazardous journey to New Zealand.

Included in those 160 souls was a very worried Mrs Murdoch McKenzie, for in the midst of the pitiless pelting gale that was raging around the ship, she was about to give birth to a baby. Out of consideration of the mother-to-be, Captain John James delayed the sailing of his ship for two days. And while the Breadalbane pitched and tossed and the ropes slapped savagely against the creaking masts, the little baby girl was born. Deeply grateful for his consideration and kindness, Mr and Mrs McKenzie called their new daughter 'Johanna James McKenzie' - James after the Captain, even though she was a girl!

As the weeks and months went by the passengers of the Breadlebane experienced the rigours of heat and cold, storms and calms, and all in the cramped quarters of an over-crowded ship. The lack of fresh food and water was another trial. Johanna's mother found half a gallon of freh water, which was the quota per person, quite inadequate for her own use, and for bathing her baby and washing her clothes. And that fresh water! After some weeks a passenger complained feelingly, "I'm sure this water has been flavoured with the sailors' dirty socks!"

Added to this, much of the food, without the benefit of refrigeration, went bad. Rotting potatoes smelt so awful that the passengers were pleased to see them thrown overboard. Luckily, this difficult food situation affected Baby Johanna only indirectly, and in spite of everything, she thrived.

On 21st May, 1858, five months after leaving Nova Scotia, the Breadalbane reached Auckland, and most of the passengers joined their kinsmen and friends of earlier migrations who had settled in and around Waipu.

When her family reached Waipu, little Johanna's father's first task was to build a Maori whare with raupo for the walls and nikau for the roof to serve as their home until such time as he could build a permanent house from the timber in the bush around them.

When Johanna was old enough to sleep on a bed (built by her father) her mattress and pillow were stuffed with the kapok-like fluff from the spikes of the raupo (bullrush) [note; this is known as 'cattails' in America]. This was used by most of the Waipu settlers as it was very plentiful in the swampy areas in the vicinity.

The leader of the Waipu settlers was the Rev. Norman McLeod, a staunch Presbyterian teacher and preacher who watched over his flock with a stern eye. As a child and young adult, Johanna, like everyone else, had to observe the Sabbath rididly. All except absolutely essential work had to be done the day before.

For instance, boots were cleaned, dresses pressed, meals prepared and the men even had to shave on Saturday. Before there were tanks, sufficient fresh water to last till the following Monday had to be carried to the house on Saturdays and poured into washtubs which were the only large receptacles available.

Johanna and the other children were given their collection money on Saturday, and if any of them found the Sunday restrictions too irksome, and dared to sin by playing some harmless game, they were punished. What Johanna thought was worse was that they had to wait in suspense until Monday for their chastisement!

As a child Johanna spoke nothing but Gaelic and did not learn English until she went to school. Although in later years she had few opportunities to use it, she could still speak Gaelic to the end of her days.

While at school Johanna received a thorough grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic, spelling and recitation. Like her friends, she had to walk several miles to school, and usually barefoot. This was fine in summer, but miserable in winter. In fact, the only time that the children wore boots was on Sundays, and most of these were made from leather prepared by Johanna's father who had been trained as a tanner.

From her mother Johanna learned to grind corn and wheat, and to make bread and to cook it in a camp oven. She also learned to sew and knit socks and other garments. In later life she often spoke of the "Spinning Frolics" when Waipu women, armed with their spinning wheels and wool from the sheep's back, gathered together to to compete in some "useful fun".

Before the Waipu settlers could farm their land, the men had to fell and later burn their bush to make room for pastures. Something that always upset the young Johanna was the fate of the kiwis and wekas during the "bush burns". Unable to fly, these unfortunate nocturnal birds were flushed out of the bush, and half-blind, ran frantically but aimlessly about until they were engulfed and roasted by the flames.

In 1888 Johanna McKenzie married John McRae of Whangarei Heads. In those days weddings in Waipu usually took place in the home of the bride's parents, and the ceremony was followed by a sumptuous wedding breakfast. And so it was in the case of Johanna and John McRae. Honeymoon holidays were considered an extravagance, and double so then because the black clouds of the slump of the 1880's still hung over New Zealand.

Before their marriage John McRae had purchased a farm of 140 acres situated on the hillside above the Parua Bay Hall. On the property was a small cottage, and it was to this that the couple went after the ceremony at Waipu [some 30 km south].

Although very slight of figure, Johanna did not let this stop her tackling her new life with characteristic vigour and enthusiasm. When there were cows to be milked, she rose at the first flush of dawn to help her husband. For a number of years the couple milked their cows, fortunately very tame ones, out in the open on the side of the hill. Each morning, after feeding the calves, Johanna would hurry to the house to cook her hungry spouse a "ploughman's breakfast".

There came a day when this stout-hearted little wife was really put to the test. Among other farming activities, John McRae was also the local butcher. One week, he was struck down with influenza and had a raging temperature, too sick to leave his bed. But there was a problem. A bullock was hanging under a tree, and had to be dealt with. What was Johanna to do? She did not hesitate long, but set to work to "cut the beast down" and apportion it into joints, and then with the help of a faithfull horse delivered it to their customers. This all had to be done speedily because there were no refrigerators in the homes in those days and meat would not keep long.

Their children, Colin and Annie, were born in Parua Bay and attended Parua Bay School. Like most country children, they both helped to milk the cows before and after school. Later, Colin inherited the farm and Annie married Edmund Carrington of Purua.

Eventually, when in their 80's, Johanna and John McRae retired to Deveron St. in Whangarei, where they restricted their activities to gardening, entertaining their many relations and friends, and being good neighbours.