Volume 9

Shanghai - A Proud American at The Thames

Althea Barker

If you have read old newspapers or listened to stories of early Thames, there is one name that is often mentioned. That of Colonel Richard Davis – otherwise simply known as ‘Shanghai’. An old character, with legendary status on the Thames Goldfield.

The following article appeared in the Thames Star newspaper 8 June 1962, written by local historian Mr T W (Toss) Hammond. A previous article had appeared in the Thames Star 1951 such was the mystique surrounding this old identity.

It was about 80 years ago when I first saw Shanghai. He was seated in a wooden form in front of the Coach and Horses Hotel in Pollen Street, next to the Warwick Arms Hotel.
He was an African negro of medium height, flat nosed and one eyed. A couple of urchins passing by saluted him with, 'Hello Shanghai.'
'Do’ant call me Shanghai,' he replied. 'I am Colonel Richard Davis.'
'How did you lose your eye, Colonel?' politely asked one of the lads.
'I was eating sparrow eggs, and wouldn’t give any to my sister. She threw a fork at me, and that is how I lost my eye.' …

Shanghai always proudly boasted that he was an American citizen. Charles Curtis, the proprietor of the Pacific Hotel in Grahamstown came from the United States. On every 4th July he had the Stars and Stripes flying from the flagpole of his hotel. On that occasion he gave a free dinner of pork and beans to any American citizen who cared to accept his hospitality. Shanghai always took advantage of this invitation and arrived in Thames from his pig farm at Kopu suitably arrayed for the festive occasion. A black suit well starched white shirt, black bell-topper, rose in button hole made him a worthy representative of U.S.A. He spent a glorious day at the Pacific, and could be seen giving an exhibition of the sand dance or big shoe in front of the pub. The police generally gave him a nights lodging when he had had one or two too many. …

Another story that Toss Hammond recalled was related to him by an early Thames miner named Sandy Bruce – concerning an incident when Shanghai faced discrimination at The Thames.

He said. I remember attending a performance in the old American Theatre in Grey Street next to Butt’s Shortland Hotel. There were long wooden, backless seats, and on one Shanghai was seated. In came a burly miner.
'Get out of the road you buck nigger, and make room for a whiteman,' he thus addressed our friend.
'Do’ant you call me a nigger. I paid for my seat, just as you did and I’ll sit where I like.'
The story ended with a fight happening down opposite the Bendigo Hotel, between the miner and Shanghai.

Toss went on to recall the events as told by Bruce.

'Shanghai and the miner stripped to the waist entered the ring and the fight commenced. From 11pm till midnight, the fight went on – the miner had had enough. Sandy Brice said, Shanghai was up as usual, getting his breakfast ready next morning, but the miner did not appear for three days.'

There was another case of discrimination reported in the Thames Star 18 March 1878 that Shanghai wanted no part of! It was noted that he was an old American who was a favourite with the natives around Kopu, where he lived. At the time the County road was being built out past Totara and only native labour was allowed to be used due to tapu considerations. Overseers spotted Shanghai and said he must be discharged because he was a Pakeha.

Shanghai now indignantly informs his visitors 'Dat he don’t care a tam for getting’ the sack, but to be ‘sulted by being called a buckra (white) man, ugh!' - the last word being intended to express unutterable disgust.

Later in 1878, Shanghai appeared in the Thames Courthouse following his Fourth of July celebrations. Colonel Richard Davis asked the Bench to look over the offence, as he had been celebrating the anniversary of America – Mr Bullen stated that he was making a great row, and had to be ejected from an hotel in Shortland. Fined 20s and costs. (Thames Advertiser 6 July 1878)

The following year, Shanghai nearly drowned on his way home to Kopu. The Thames Advertiser 21 June 1879 reporting that on the 1st June he had nearly drowned in a flat bottomed skiff as he was returning home to Kopu. The boat had been blown to sea, but luckily he had been spared.

It was not uncommon for Colonel Davis (Shanghai aka Shang-eye) to address the masses on political matters. In October 1892 he addressed a group on the Marriage law. When questioned why he had never married, one of the reasons was that he did not believe in the words ‘I will’. He suggested it would be better to say ‘I will try’. Thames Advertiser 15 February 1892)

Shanghai was still in town July 1897, when the Thames Star 5 July 1897 reported that although the glorious fourth fell on a Sunday, 'This did not prevent Colonel Davis from taking charge of the town in his customary genial manner. Davis set about going the length of Pollen Street chanting about American Independence.' The reporter noted, 'If ever the day arrives when Colonel Davis fails to celebrate the Fourth of July in our midst, Thames will certainly miss an old identity.'

News and memories of Shanghai even reached Sydney when his story appeared in the Sydney Bulletin and the Thames Advertiser 30 September 1898.
The article recounted that twenty years earlier Fred Whitaker of Kopu had employed Shanghai on his estate at Kopu.

‘Shanghai observed the greatest decorum throughout the year except on Independence Day, when he got hideously drunk, and wound up in police-cells. In fact Shanghai’s burst became local synonym of the Glorious Fourth. and for years Whitaker, a few days before Independence Day, would send County Chairman Brodie a cheque to pay for his servitor’s forthcoming delinquencies.'

Over the years the memories of Mr Whitaker may have somewhat faded for Colonel Richard Davis features often in the Thames Court. Principally for charges of drunkenness!

An amazing report appeared in the Thames Star 9 November 1899, concerning Colonel Davis of Hikutaia. Davis had been issued with letters of naturalisation. His comment was that he was proud of being a British subject, ‘he did not consider it a breach of loyalty to the Queen to keep up the 4th of July, as he intends to do in the future as in the past.'

The Memorial statement in the application for naturalisation stated that the Memoralist Richard Davis was 71 years of age and that he had been born at Melton, Delaware, U.S.A. That he resided at Hikutaia near Thames and had been living in New Zealand for 35 years. Making his arrival in New Zealand to be about 1864.

Part of the Memorial statement included a certificate of character, which was completed by James Finlay J.P. of Thames. It stated that he had known Richard Davis for twenty years. Findlay said …'To the best of my knowledge and belief, the said Richard Davis is a person of good repute. My knowledge of the character and status of the Memorialist is as follows: By seeing him frequently at the Thames and not knowing anything detrimental to his character.' Davis said the ‘Oath of Allegiance’ at Thames on the 9th October 1899. (1)

Davis appeared in the 1900 and 1905 Electoral Roll as a farmer; and also the 1901 Wises’ Street Directory at Hikutaia. There are other Davis names, but whether they were related is not known.

Richard Davis continued to frequent the town up until 4th July 1904. The Thames Star the following day, reporting that on this occasion the Colonel had been present at the Royal Hotel – or had he? (2).

'Yesterday was the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence. At the Royal Hotel, where several gentlemen from the United States are staying, the day was celebrated in right royal manner, and in the evening there was quite an effective display of fireworks. Of course the day would not be complete without the appearance on the scene of "Colonel" Davis, and that colored gentleman, with his tall hat and “C.B.s” became quite a conspicuous figure on the landscape!'

Although a mention was made of Davis 4th July 1904, the lack of details makes one consider whether he was in fact present. There is a strange coincidence of a Richard Davis dying in Auckland on 24 February 1904. He was aged 60 and noted to be a citizen of the United States. (Auckland Star 25 February 1904. Death certificate and burial records however have this man as being born in England.

So what happened to Colonel Davis aka Shanghai is not known - his name does not appear in following issues of the local newspaper. All this adding to the ongoing mystery surrounding this patriotic gentleman from Melton in the United States of America. (3)


  1. Richard Davis, Hikutaia [born in USA] Date: 27 September 1899 Subject: Memorial for Naturalisation (R24926097), Wellington Archives.
  2. Thames Star 5 July 1904.
  3. Spelt Milton. See Wikipedia entry

If anyone knows what happened to Colonel Richard Davis, can you please contact The Treasury.


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