Page 1: Biography
Balneavis, Henry Colin
Soldier, public servant
This biography, written by Garry James Clayton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Henry Colin Balneavis was born at Ghent, Belgium, probably some time between 1817 and 1819. His birthplace is not altogether surprising, since his father, Lieutenant General Henry Balneavis, a career officer, Peninsular War veteran and colonel commandant of the 65th Regiment, moved his family throughout Europe prior to settling down as governor and commandant of Malta.
As a reward for his father's service to the Crown, Henry Colin Balneavis was, on 7 July 1838, granted a commission as ensign in the 58th Regiment, without purchase. It was while serving as adjutant and officer commanding the Light Company of the 58th Regiment that Balneavis came to New Zealand in April 1845 on board the North Star. His company had been sent to reinforce New Zealand's meagre imperial garrison in its campaign against Hone Heke and Kawiti.
With the exception of Kororāreka (Russell), which was sacked before he arrived, Balneavis served in all the engagements of the northern war. At Ōhaeawai he led the assault by the 58th Regiment's No 9 Company. At Ruapekapeka he commanded the advance picket and was the first officer to realise that the pā had been abandoned. With the cessation of hostilities in the north Balneavis was for a short time posted to Wellington and then transferred to Wanganui in December 1846. Here he was again employed on active service, scouring the region for the murderers of the Gilfillan family. From Wanganui Balneavis was sent to Riverhead, north-west of Auckland, in command of a small cadre detachment of the 58th Regiment.
While at Riverhead Balneavis was noted less for his military prowess than for his intense study of Māori military engineering and his assistance to the civil power. When the 36 gun French corvette Alcmène was wrecked on 3 June 1851 at Kaipara with the loss of 12 lives Balneavis organised the dispatch and distribution of clothing, food and blankets from the barrack store to the beach for the survivors. In the same year Balneavis completed construction of a small scale model of Ruapekapeka pa that was exhibited in London at the Great Exhibition and then presented to the United Service Institution Museum.
By 1855 Balneavis was posted to Auckland where his military skills were overshadowed yet again, this time by his musical abilities. He became noted as one of the truly skilled violinists in the sprawling capital. He also became a founding member of the organising committee of the Auckland Choral Society.
Around this time Balneavis became involved with the colonial forces. In October 1856 he was appointed captain and adjutant in the Auckland Militia, and in April 1859 was appointed deputy adjutant general of militia and volunteers in New Zealand, a post he held until 1865. In April 1860 he also became lieutenant colonel in the Auckland Rifle Volunteers, and in February 1862 he became their commander, until his resignation at the end of the year.
There is some doubt as to Balneavis's capacity and efficiency in this position. To his admirers he was a genius who helped to turn raw levies into disciplined troops. To his detractors he was a bumbling administrator who spent too much time worrying over unimportant details rather than organising an effective defence force.
In 1858 Balneavis had taken up land at Maraetai, on a section granted him in recognition of his active service in the 58th Regiment. He had married Meri Makarina Hineahua on 8 February 1859 at Auckland; they were to have four daughters and one son. After his retirement from military service in 1865, he continued to be involved in the colony's affairs, becoming sheriff for the district of Auckland in March 1865, and principal returning officer for the province in 1875, filling both posts capably. He was awarded the New Zealand War Medal in 1876.
Balneavis was appointed consular agent for the government of Italy; although largely ceremonial, it was a post he filled successfully. The appointment was probably due to his linguistic skills. Balneavis was regarded as one of the most accomplished linguists in Australasia. He was fluent in English, Arabic, Maltese, French, Italian and Māori. He could also converse in Greek, German and Spanish.
Balneavis was an active Mason of the Irish Constitution, and an active parishioner of St Stephen's Anglican Chapel in Parnell; he was buried in its graveyard after his death on 26 August 1876.