Brickbat for Jerningham

For his 199th birthday

Today is Jerningham Wakefield’s 199th birthday. Happy Birthday, you old thing.

Jerningham came to Wellington with the New Zealand Company in 1839, the thin edge of the colonial wedge.  For that we can throw many brickbats. And hey, it’s his birthday! So here is my favourite Jerningham brickbat: a letter to the editor from a missionary, in reaction to Jerningham’s recently published Adventure in New Zealand.

It’s a hell of a book review. Jerningham and the missionaries never did see eye to eye Continue reading “Brickbat for Jerningham”

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”

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 Naturalist – book review

The naturalist, by Thom Conroy (more fan fiction than book review!)

I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.

It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition.  He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.

They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.

I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)

But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze.  Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.

They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction.  There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere.  Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up.  I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.

Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.

The Wakefields on Waitangi Day

Colonial characters in New Zealand

I’ve became obsessed with the Wakefields while writing a novel about a fictional family of early settlers. I spent months inventing complex characters and dramas for my story.  But marching into my research and sprawling themselves along every  plot-line came the Wakefields and I can’t keep them out: generations of reckless, debauched, manipulative, egotistical, philandering creative geniuses with the complexities of an entire ecosystem. I’ve had to dump my imaginary characters and write about the Wakefields.  They’re too good to ignore.

You can’t make this shit up.

A quick dip into Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s past, (he who invented the system of colonisation that formed the original settlements of Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Nelson and Christchurch) will tell anyone that much of his formula for colonialsation originated from Newgate Prison, where he was incarcerated for the family pastime of abducting and wedding a young girl in the hope her dad would give him a leg up in politics. He didn’t, but it was touch and go.

Edward Gibbon’ son Jerningham sailed around the world in a 382 ton barque to New Zealand in 1839, back and forward across Cook Straight and up and down the West Coast, wrangling with Te Rauparaha and drinking with Te Rangihaeata, negotiating land deals with local chiefs, staying a step ahead of Hobson and the Crown,  adventuring up rivers in waka to meet war parties, whaling and trading, all the while writing brilliant and evocative journals he turned into bestselling propaganda for the colony. Pretty swashbuckling stuff for a nineteen-year-old lad. 

William Wakefield did a lot of the early colonial leg work diligently and intelligently. He put “Wellington” on the map (owed him a political favour) and kept the missionaries from inheriting the earth, which is a plus point in my books. He was probably quite a decent man when not in thrall to brother Edward Gibbon or reining in wild young Jerningham. He seriously lost his judgement when he accepted wayward bankrupt brother Daniel into New Zealand under a false name (leaving his gambling debts and the wife he had infected with an unpleasant disease) and helped establish him as Crown Solicitor.

 

What have the Wakefields ever done for us?  It’s a complex question. They are mostly forgotten as we focus on the dominant role of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, but at the time the Wakefields were potentially far more influential than Hobson. Which is why I was astonished and delighted to open the Dominion Post today to see Wakefield’s face highlighting an opinion piece on the Treaty, with his very noble quote:

“The establishment of the same rights and same obligations can only be fair between parties who have the same power in the same field.”

It’s well said and certainly resonates on Waitangi Day, though imbalance of power obviously wasn’t top of Wakefield’s mind when he abducted 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner.

The Wakefields were an extraordinary family, men with huge personal ambition and a genuine desire to improve the system for those without power, although their methods were often dubious and ambiguous. They all seemed to verge on insanity – and I haven’t even mentioned Felix or the father.    I both applaud them and strongly disapprove of them and never quite know what to think of them on any given day.

Love them or hate them, they make a hell of a story.