This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.
Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend. Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds. Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.
Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation. The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.
Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today.
I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all. Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed. She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…
The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.
The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators. The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.
If The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.