History and the Otaki Scholar’s Visit

Otaki College principal, Andy Fraser, Otaki Scholar 2014 Hamish Atkins and Otaki College Head Boy Hamish McMillan, listen to the korero during the powhiri at Raukawa Marae

Every year Otaki College has a visit from The Otaki Scholar, a student from Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen. How did this travelling scholarship come about and what is the link between the two schools?

The beginning of the history goes back to Aberdeen in 1749. Robert Gordon, a wealthy citizen of the city, had no family and so put all his wealth into founding a school for poor boys, Robert Gordon’s College, which is still educating the boys of Aberdeen today.

Move forward to World War 1, March 10 1917. The New Zealand Shipping Company’s merchant ship Otaki was crossing a stormy North Atlantic en route to New York. The captain, Archibald Bisset Smith, who attended Robert Gordon’s College from 1893 to 1895, was the ships master.

The Otaki, which carried only one 4.7inch gun, encountered a German raider, the fully armed Moewe. This ship was camouflaged to look like a “dirty old tramp”, and very quickly opened fire on the Otaki. A very uneven battle ensued, during which the Otaki was able to inflict considerable damage on the Moewe, at the same time receiving fatal damage to itself. The full scale battle lasted just 20 minutes. Unknown to the Otaki’s gun crew, the Moewe was carrying 442 Allied seamen, prisoners taken off Allied ships the Moewe had sunk. The Otaki’s solitary gun was silenced and the ship on fire. Captain Bisset Smith ordered his men to take to the lifeboats, but remained with his ship as it sank, less than an hour later. Her crews’ lifeboats were picked up by the Moewe. Only six members of Otaki’s crew, including the captain, died during the historic battle.

The badly holed and fire stricken Moewe eventually made its way back to its port at Kiel, arriving ten days later. The Germans lost five gunners and 10 men injured.

Captain Bisset Smith was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty”. This VC was one of just two awarded the Merchant Navy during WW1.

To commemorate the gallantry of Captain Bisset Smith and his crew, his relatives presented a Shield to Robert Gordon’s College, where he had been a pupil. This is awarded each year to the all-round, outstanding pupil. But the story doesn’t end there.

The New Zealand Shipping Company, in recognition of the heroism of the ship’s crew, added a travel scholarship to the Shield. The scholar awarded the shield and scholarship travelled on one of the NZSC’s ships to New Zealand and also enjoyed the “hospitality” of the NZ Government to tour NZ. In the earlier days, the scholar worked his way out on the company’s ship, but now days he flies out to NZ and travels around the country by bus, ferry and plane, visiting a college in all the ports the company traded. Each of the NZSC’s ships was named after these ports, hence the Otaki Scholar, named after the ship Otaki which was named after the Otaki River, not the town.

The Shield has been awarded every year since 1937, and the scholar has travelled to NZ except during the years of WWII.

Hamish Atkins was the 71st Robert Gordon’s College Otaki Scholar 2014. He visited Otaki at the end of July, the start of six weeks visiting colleges and around NZ.

Some of information of the battle with the Moewe is from The Otaki Story as provided by the Durham Association. The full report includes an extract from the diary kept by the Moewe’s Gunnery Officer, Kapitanleutnant Herman A K Jung.