Gone to Pegasus – book review

Gone to Pegasus, by Tess Redgrave

I was recommended Gone to Pegasus because of my interest in colonial women. The setting is Dunedin, New Zealand and we are in 1892, on the cusp of the historic victory that gave votes to women in 1893. Continue reading “Gone to Pegasus – book review”

Edward Jerningham Wakefield

Died 140 years ago today

Dear fellow Wellingtonians

Here is a celebration of Jerningham Wakefield, a founding colonist of Wellington. He died 140 years ago today, aged 58, penniless and alone, in an alms-house in Ashburton.  But before the drink got him, in his early twenties, he had been an extraordinary young man, a journalist, a rip roaring adventurer, the Wellington wild boy of his time. Continue reading “Edward Jerningham Wakefield”

The Smuggler’s Wife – book review

Kitty, Amber & Band of Gold, by Deborah Challinor

These books are a lot of fun. I defy anybody to read just the one. And I’ve just seen there is a fourth, published after a six year (and at least 5 book) gap. Hooray! I’m going back in. Continue reading “The Smuggler’s Wife – book review”

William Curling Young

I went to the Nelson archives to find Captain Arthur Wakefield, agent of the New Zealand Company and uncle to Jerningham (about whom I’m writing a book). There are folders of transcribed letters, mostly from Arthur to his brother William Wakefield. I passed over the stiff official missives, but there are lots of gossipy, friendly letters, all signed yours affy, as if the word “affectionately” was too formal for such brotherly love. They are intimate letters and even a hundred and seventy-seven years later feel immediate, the sentiment easy to read. Arthur has a mixed retrospective reputation but I like him and he has a seat at my table any time he wants to show up.

But I got side-tracked by another story in the archives.  Filed between Arthur’s letters were those of William Curling Young, writing home to England from colonial Nelson. William was 28.

His father was a director of the New Zealand Company Continue reading “William Curling Young”

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review

The Imaginary lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

Interesting book!
Tina Marereti is long listed for the Ockham Book awards and I so hope she wins. That’s unfair, because I haven’t read any of the others, (yet, but if you send them, I will, I will!)  But if you’ve been following my book reviews you’ll know by now that I’m a sucker for Victorian era fiction and this one’s a corker. Continue reading “The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review”

Looking forward to Waitangi Day

Questions and optimism from Glenn McConnell

Here’s a young journalist who always asks questions that get me thinking all day. Glenn McConnell writes an occasional column in the Dominion Post and I enjoy his clear writing and fresh viewpoint.   Today’s article (link below) is no exception and well worth a read in the run up to Waitangi Day. Continue reading “Looking forward to Waitangi Day”

The Wairau Affray

Or do we call it a massacre?

Sally Burton has created an intensely emotional work of art, inspired by the Wairau Affray. I find it extraordinary that an exhibition so poignant can come from that ugly rock in the river of our history. She has made sculptures of the armed conflict between the Nelson colonials and Te Rauparaha’s Ngāti Toa, frozen at the flashpoint when the bullet hits his daughter. If only she could have stopped time a minute earlier and said – No. Wait. We can talk, we can talk, we can talk.

The figures are crafted from driftwood bones collected from the Wairau River which is appropriate as 175 years ago the dispute began with these trees, this wood. Te Rauparaha said he could burn the surveyors’ huts because the wood, being on his land, belonged to him. Captain Arthur Wakefield said he had committed arson and must be arrested.

We call it the Wairau Affray now. Or the Wairau Incident. I do wonder why we are so reluctant to call it the Wairau Massacre. It ended in an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of a dozen men, so no matter who the provocateurs and who fired the first shot, I think we can own up to our history and call it a massacre.

In 1843, the ownership of Wairau Valley was disputed.

Ngāti Toa had claimed it by force from South Island iwi in the 1830s, but had not settled there.  The Wakefield brothers (Ernest Gibbon in England, William in Wellington and Arthur in Nelson) were convinced they had purchased it for the New Zealand Company settlers. They bought it from a woman, said to be the widow of a Captain Blenkinsopp. She had deeds for the plains of Wairau signed with elaborate drawings of the tattoos of Te Rauparaha, his nephew Te Rangihaeata and chiefs from Te Atiawa, who appeared to have sold the land to Blenkinsopp in exchange for a ship’s cannon. But had Blenkinsopp reached an agreement to buy the land, as stated in the deed, or had he just made an agreement to take wood and water from Wairau and tricked the chiefs into signing away the land, as Te Rauparaha later claimed? We can guess, but we don’t know.

It gets more complicated: the New Zealand Company also claim to have bought the land directly from Te Rauparaha in their 1839 agreement, and, for good luck, a third time from local iwi. A Sydney agent also claimed to have bought Blenkinsopp’s deeds (meaning Wakefield’s was a copy), but was prevented from taking ownership by local iwi, who disputed his claims.

There was already a land court in place in 1843, presided over by William Spain. This marked the beginnings of a complicated judicial procedure to establish who had said what to whom, and what was understood, and whether it was fair or whether the seller actually owned the land in the first place and had the right to sell. And at what point taking land by armed force became illegal. And what these disputes meant in the context of land sold on, to honest buyers. And whether, pre-Treaty, any of the European land purchases held any validity at all. William Spain had his work cut out and he was a slow, methodical man. He was working his way through disputes in Wellington, Wanganui and Taranaki. Wairau was a way down his list.

Meanwhile the Nelson settlers wanted their land. They had purchased their town and country acres before leaving England, in some cases before Nelson even existed. There was a huge pressure on the Company to open up farmland, and Wairau offered a great expanse of “waste land”, with no obvious, settled, Māori population. Captain Arthur Wakefield, the nice-but-dim NZ Company Agent in Nelson, sent the surveyors in.

Te Rauparaha brought his people across from Kapiti Island. They had protested to William Spain that the land was not given up, they threatened the New Zealand Company not to survey there. Te Rangihaeata told Wakefield if he wanted to take the land, first he would have to kill him, or make him a slave. The survey went ahead. William Spain didn’t arrive.

Te Rauparaha burned the surveyors’ huts, after first escorting the men out, unharmed, with their possessions. The huts were built from wood from his land, he said, he could burn them if he chose.  And this was where Police Magistrate Henry Thompson stepped in with a matching show of testosterone and the Victorian equivalent of: Oh, no you don’t!

Thompson issued a warrant for Te Rauparaha’s arrest on a charge of arson and he armed a party of fifty-odd settlers with outdated weaponry and headed for Wairau. Arthur Wakefield went along with him, agreeing the chiefs were bullies and needed to be taught a lesson. In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine such recklessness.

The English were not an army. Most were farmers or shop keepers, rounded up for the expedition. For most Nelson settlers at this time, immigration had been a disappointment and they were a disgruntled lot, but their complaints were with the Government and increasingly the New Zealand Company rather than Māori.

In Wairau they found the well-armed Ngāti Toa camped by a stream. Te Rauparaha offered his hand to shake – the surveyors greeted him but Thompson pushed it away.   The accounts from then on vary.  Most agree that Te Rauparaha had offered to talk things through, the volatile Te Rangihaeata had made threats, and Thompson brought out handcuffs and foolishly attempted to arrest Te Rauparaha in front of his people. The English fixed bayonets, Captain Wakefield called them forward to assist the arrest, and a shot was fired. Neither side has admitted to that first shot.

Then the volleys went back and forth and the first dead was Te Ronga, wife of Te Rangihaeata and daughter of Te Rauparaha. The English fled, the Māori chased. There was fighting on the hillside. It was an affray.

Then Wakefield, seeing men going down, called for the English to surrender. They waved a white flag. They put their hands up and submitted to being rounded up by their captors. For the English, capture in defeat meant being taken prisoner until your allies ransomed your release. Not so for the Māori. Claiming utu for the death of Te Rongo, they executed the English by tomahawk, with hacking blows to the back of the head. Twelve of them, one after the other, while Arthur Wakefield called for peace.  There are 22 Nelson settlers buried in Tuamarina in Wairau. Four Māori were killed.

That was the Wairau Massacre.

It could have tipped the whole country into war and the Pakeha would have been routed, as they had vastly inferior numbers. But somehow, the situation was temporarily diffused by talk and talk and talk, and when FitzRoy arrived as Governor a few months later, he pardoned Te Rauparaha, accepting that he was provoked and recognising the two races had cultural differences in war. FitzRoy knew he had no option. History shows the pardon was not forgiveness.

I’d like to think that, despite the systematic racism of the intervening years, we are finally coming to the understanding that viewpoints can differ but be equally valid, and we have discovered ways to deal with complex problems other than by aggression.

Sally Burton’s exhibition illustrates our painful history, but I hope comes with a message of hope for how far we have come.

Sally Burton – Pale History, at Pātaka Art + Museum, Porirua. 16 December 2018 – 24 March 2019. https://www.pataka.org.nz/
(Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal)




The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.


Mr Peacock’s Possessions – book review

Mr Peacock’s possessions, by Lydia Syson

Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions sets the characters and the scene slowly – you need to understand the background before you can follow the story. So don’t be impatient, sit quietly as the curious and impulsive Kalala introduces you to his life in the Pacific, his brother, the pastor Solomona, and their small group of god fearing men who are shipped to an island where a white man and his family are struggling to settle.

Lizzie’s story comes next, she tells of family life on an isolated island, the difficulties faced by her mother and many children as they live castaway style, and the struggles of her delicate older brother, who is a disappointment to their very physical and driven father. Lizzie is her father’s favourite and she loves him unreservedly. Until she has to confront a truth that questions all she believes of him.

The family are swindled by a ship’s captain, they suffer rats and weevils and have some small successes, but there is an undercurrent of suspense growing. There are bones on the island, pigs’ bones, says Mr Peacock, as he hastily buries them.  Kalala and the Islanders arrive, Lizzie’s brother goes missing and they all spread out over the island to search for him.

Mr Peacock is a possessive man. Lydia Syson makes his frustrations seem understandable in the rough and rugged man’s world scattered around the very edges of Victoria’s imperial petticoats. Peacock had struggled for years, as many did, slowly realising through constant failures that the dream of owning colonial land was not a promise for everyone. He owned his wife and his children and when the opportunity came to buy and island he owned that, too.  Our main story begins when he brings in his “Kanaka boys,” to work his land and gradually young Lizzie and the rest of the family begin to question her father’s possessive attitudes.

Kalala and the Islanders’ story merges with Lizzie’s and a story that has gone before them on the island, and the mystery of the missing brother hangs over them all.

The reading just gets better and better and the story becomes utterly compelling.  My advice is to set aside a good chunk of time when you get near the end, there are some things that need to be finished.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions is a terrific book for a book club read, there are lots of questions around possessiveness and ownership, success and failure, compassion. You can discuss colonial attitudes to women, race, land, the power of religion. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying Monday Island, where the Peacock’s live, is in fact Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, and now a marine reserve and a place of extraordinary biodiversity. It featured on the migration route for early Pacific voyagers and for those of us who love islands it has a fascinating history all of its own.

Head’s up for my book club – this one is my next choice.


The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

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.

%d bloggers like this: