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”

This Mortal Boy – book review

This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

Paddy Black killed a man. But does he deserve to hang? The question on the book cover is no hook. Our answer is instinctive. We don’t hang kids. But we did.

This is a bleak story, with not much to love here. Not the characters, who are all flawed and self-serving; some have my sympathy, but not my love. Nor the setting, which is a dingy and bleak 1950s Auckland, set around squalid squats, drinking joints and the streets of Mount Eden leading to the jail. The judgemental society of the time and place will break your heart. Continue reading “This Mortal Boy – book review”

New Zealand’s first capital

Was it Russell, Kororareka, Waitangi, Okiato?

I followed Governor William Hobson and ran around in a circle to discover New Zealand’s first capital. If you’re thinking it’s Russell, you’re wrong. Kororareka? Think again. Waitangi? Nope.

My final run during my month in the Bay of Islands was the grand loop: it’s 13.5 km, involves two ferry rides, coastal track, beaches, lush bush, some road and long stretches of board walk. And LOTS of history, including the answer to the question: where was New Zealand’s first capital? Continue reading “New Zealand’s first capital”

Whangaroa: running with ghosts

Vibrations of the Boyd Massacre

A man on a boat told me to run the Wairakau Stream to the Duke’s Nose, which sounded my type of thing. I took my friend M with me, a Spanish lady who was staying at the YHA, who is so intimidatingly spiritual she talks of her body as a separate person. She listens to her body, and does what it tells her. It told her to come with me into the forest, so off we went.

Continue reading “Whangaroa: running with ghosts”

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”

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.
(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.


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